Archive for the ‘buddhism’ Category

Buddhism and Spirituality

Saturday, February 9th, 2013

In this post, I will explore how Buddhism functions as a part of the Khmer people’s collective unconscious– how, despite the fact that it is not a “religion” in the traditional monotheistic sense, it is an effective, inclusive, and gentle guiding force in many Khmer people’s lives.

A monk in Phnom Penh making his daily round of collecting alms for the poor

A monk in Phnom Penh making his daily round of collecting alms for the poor

Firstly, what is Buddhism?

“To many, Buddhism goes beyond religion and is more of a philosophy or ‘way of life’. It is a philosophy because philosophy ‘means love of wisdom’ and the Buddhist path can be summed up as:

(1) to lead a moral life,
(2) to be mindful and aware of thoughts and actions, and
(3) to develop wisdom and understanding.” (Source:

These three principals are evident in Cambodian people’s daily attitudes.  Primarily, the most noticeable principle in action is the second one concerning mindfulness.  It is considered extremely rude to be rude in public in Cambodia.  Unkind words, thoughts, or outward displays of anger were simply not seen.  The only display of anger I saw throughout the whole trip was that of white tourists.  The Khmer people stay cool, calm and collected in difficult situations– whether it be traffic, changing plans, or getting in arguments. To display anger would just be completely out of the norm! Cambodians know how to keep their anger and emotions “in check”.

Leading a moral life is also evident, when considering how impoverished the country is, yet how the crime rate is so low.  For example, according to the UNODC, Cambodia only has 3.4 per 100,000 people in homicides every year, which is pretty low when compared to the rest of the world, including other impoverished countries such as Honduras (91.6/100,000), El Salvador, and Cote d’Ivoire. ((Source:

Regarding the physical presence of Buddhism, the first obvious signs will be the many orange-cloaked monks who walk about the city of Phnom Penh, as well as the several “Wats” in which the reside.

Statue of Buddha in the Royal Gardens

Statue of Buddha in the Royal Gardens

Wat in Phnom Penh

Wat in Phnom Penh


As one explores Cambodia further, however, there are many smaller signs that Buddhism is prominent.  For example, people will often wear small red bracelets around their wrists, which are a token one receives after visiting a Buddhist monastery that is supposed to give you luck and prosperity for as long as the bracelet stays on– once it falls/breaks off naturally, the person goes to a monastery again for a new one.

One consistent shared feature of houses, stores, and restaurants is that they all contain spirit houses.  These almost doll-house like structures vary in size and style, however, the average spirit house is about two by two feet, either lays on the ground of the residence or is propped up with a pole, and always has incense near the house’s door.  Sometimes, flowers, small fruit, or small statues of Buddha will be placed near there as well.

Larger spirit "house" inside of a home

Larger spirit “house” inside of a rural home

Spirit house outside of a bus station in Siem Riep
Spirit house outside of a bus station in Siem Riep

photo-19Spirit house in a Buddhist Monastery in Sianhoukeville

The purpose of the spirit house is to honor the deceased of the family.  By lighting incense or giving small gifts, the ancestors of this family will be pleased and therefore bless the living with prosperity.

With these both obvious and subtle physical signs of Buddhism in Cambodia, it is interesting to note that the topic of Buddhism is never really brought up in conversation.  While “Theravada Buddhism is the official religion in Cambodia” and it “is practiced by 95 percent of the population” (Source:, the Buddha or anything about the religion itself is not outwardly discussed nearly as much as, say, Christians are constantly discussing Christ or referring to the Bible.

To me, I find this extremely refreshing.  The Khmer people go about their life with their own spirituality– they offer to spirit houses, give alms to monks, and visit wats, among other things.  The religious imagery is prominent.  However, Cambodians focus on acting out their beliefs more so than actively talking about, discussing, and debating about their beliefs to others, who may or may not be interested.

Buddhism is prominent as a lifestyle/religion and school of thought in Cambodia, and is displayed both in Cambodia’s architecture and cultural attitude.  However, Buddhism is not a source of contention amongst its citizens in the way that Evangelical Christianity is in America, or how Sunni/Shiite Islam is in Iraq.  Cambodian Buddhism is an excellent example of how spirituality can still be cohesively and peacefully be practiced in public, even in the diverse and  ever-evolving views of 21st century humans.



Chanting and Dancing

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

Once we returned to the hotel after cooking all morning we were given an hour to freshen and up and then we had the option of visiting an orphanage that was a mile or two away from our hotel. While most of the kids on the trip were very eager to go, I took real issue with the idea that orphans would be used as a tourist attraction. It made me sick to my stomach that the kids on our trip would go to this orphanage to play with these kids for an hour, take pictures with them and then leave and move onto the next thing. I feel as though this makes a mockery of their whole situation, and their trivializes their lives which I am sure have been very hard. I have traveled to mexico and to various places in the United States to do mission work, and met children with whom I developed personal relationships and yes I have pictures and memories with them, but I was there to help, not just to take pictures and leave. Granted, everyone who went did make a donation of a few hundred baht which will be used to buy medications, and as a group we took up a separate collection to purchase new tricycles for the center, and these are good things to do, but I still did not think it was appropriate to use an orphanage as a tourist attraction. **steps off soap box**

So I didn’t go. I instead took a nap at the hotel, payed about three dollars to use the hotel internet for thirty minutes and changed into a long dress and shirt for the temple visit that we would be doing later. There were about eight of us who did not go to the orphanage, but everyone else just wanted time to get a massage (VERY cheap to do in Thailand, and massage places are EVERYWHERE) or take a nap. After an hour at the orphanage the eight of us who had stayed behind boarded a big tour bus and picked up the kids who went to the orphanage and proceeded to drive about 15km outside of the city up a huge mountain to wat Phra That Doi Suthep or the Temple on the Mountain. To enter the temple everyone had to wear modest clothing that did not expose shoulders or anything above the knee. When the bus dropped us off we had to climb 308 very steep steps up the mountain to reach the temple.

The legend of how the temple came to be as copy and pasted from Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge:

“According to legend, a monk named Sumanathera from Sukhothaihad a dream; in this dream god told him to go to Pang Cha and look for a relic. Sumanathera ventured to Pang Cha and is said to have found a bone, which many claim was Buddah’s shoulder bone. The relic displayed magical powers; it glowed, it was able to vanish, it could move itself and replicate itself. Sumanathera took the relic to King Dharmmaria who ruled the Sukhothai.

The eager Dharmmaraja made offerings and hosted a ceremony when Sumanathera arrived. However the relic displayed no abnormal characteristics, and the king, doubtful of the relic’s authenticity, told Sumanathera to keep it.

However, King Nu Naone of the  Lanna Kingdom heard of the relic and offered the monk to take it to him instead. In 1368 with Dharmmaraja’s permission, Sumanathera took the relic to what is now Lamphun, in northern Thailand. The relic apparently split in two, one piece was the same size, the other was smaller than the original. The smaller piece of the relic was enshrined at a temple in Suandok. The other piece was placed by the King on the back of a white elephant which was released in the jungle. The elephant is said to have climbed up Doi Suthep, at the time called Doi Aoy Chang (Sugar Elephant Mountain), trumpeted three times before dying at the site. It was interpreted as a sign and King Nu Naone ordered the construction of a temple at the site.”

Gold statue near the steps going up to the temple

The 308 steps up to the temple

White Elephant shrine

View of the valley from atop the mountain

Sacred building that only the monks can enter

Prayer shrine

Monk going up to pay tribute

Chinese style dragon. This temple was buddhist, but in Thailand their religion has been influenced by India and by China so the architecture of their religious spaces borrows heavily from those two cultures.

Indian deity Ganesha

Inside the temple

While inside this room you were not allowed to stand. Within the temple you could not wear shoes.

Monks chanting during their daily prayer ritual

Chanting monks. When a monk decides to dedicate himself to a life of religious observance he is no longer permitted to handle money or touch women.

This is a jackfruit tree. There is one outside of every temple because the internal bark of this tree is orange, and it is from this bark that the monks get the dye that they use to color their robes.

Entrance to the temple grounds

inside the temple

Whose mom is this I wonder

We spent over an hour at the temple before putting our shoes back on to climb back down the 308 steps to the busses. We were then taken to a thai dance dinner show.

Ladies sitting outside of the restaurant

This restaurant specialized in northern thai food, which is traditionally eaten while sitting on the floor, but we were totally able to cheat because there was a pit under the table for our feet. BUt we did have to take our shoes off before entering the restaurant

Northern thai food, served family style

Northern Thailand dancing

Thai drumming/dancing

My first and only cocktail in Thailand- a grasshopper. Mint and coconut, YUM.

Anneka, Lindsay, Me and Danielle enjoying our veg northern thai food.

After dinner we were driven back to the hotel and left with an evening to do as we wished. Lindsay was exhausted and went to bed, but Anneka, Danielle and I went back out to the night markets in Chiang Mai in search of some great bargains. We all ended up buying a bunch of postcards, because at 10 baht a piece (roughly 30 cents) they were a STEAL, because in Sydney you can rarely buy one for under a $2.00 and it costs another $1.50 to send it. Danielle proved herself to be quite a bargain shark. She wanted to purcahse a scarf and the stall owner’s original asking price was 450 baht but Danielle told her that she refused to pay any more than 200. They went back and forth haggling over price until the owner finally said that 220 was her final offer. For that price I decided I would buy one and I walked away with a gorgeous purple silk scarf for around seven dollars. Shortly after we walked away the stall owner chased after us and told Danielle that she would sell it to her for 200, and I gave the lady the dirtiest look I could muster for swindling me out of 20 baht. I guess I must have inherited my mothers ability for steely eyed soul piercing stares because when Danielle came away from the stall she did so with her 200 baht scarf in hand and a 20 baht refund for me from the stall owner who had apparently said “you friend hates me, here is her money back.”

After we had shopped for an hour or two we headed back to the hotel and turned in for a pleasant sleep, our last night in Chiang Mai.