Archive for the ‘religion’ 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.



Al-Qahira Al-Qadeema

Friday, August 27th, 2010

Old Cairo.  This part of the city goes back almost 2,ooo years and is a very holy area.  Here my group saw a synagogue, a few churches, and a mosque. All of them played a significant role in their religion’s history and they were all very beautiful.

Here are some examples:

~Ben Ezra,  a synagogue, was built where baby Moses was supposedly found.

~The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (Abu Serga) is claimed to be the location where the Holy Family had lived during their flight to Egypt.

~The Mosque of Amr ibn al-As was the first Mosque in Egypt and point from which Islam was spread all throughout Africa began.

It’s so hard to imagine the layers of history and humanity that lived and worshiped in buildings that I just walked into with little knowledge of their significance. We would pile in, look around, take pictures if it was allowed (often it wasn’t), sit down, and then complain of the heat. This is one reason why I do not like being a tourist. It is deeply unsatisfying and seems shallow. I can marvel at carvings, ask questions, and touch things that have been around for ages, but never really experience the place for what it is. But of course, if given the chance, I will be that tourist, gleaning whatever snippets of a place that means/meant so much to people that I may never meet.

Fortunately, in the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As I was able to have a conversation about the mosque and Islam with a fellow AUC student who was a Muslim from Yemen. Our conversation started when I picked up a copy of the Qur’an in an attempt to read it. He walked over to me and told me what it was (though I already knew).  “Okay, thanks!”, I said, then continued looking through the pages. When I was done, I looked towards the ceiling and noticed that there was something written in cursive Arabic on the lamps. I walked over to him and asked him what it said. He didn’t know, explaining that it was too small and in an old Arabic script. After that I began talking with him about other features of the mosque and its history.  The Mosque of Amr ibn al-As once had a university and was also a place where the military was kept. Indeed, this was a not just a religious center, but also a military and political center set up by Amr ibn al-As (the founder of the mosque) as he set forth to spread Islam throughout Africa. I was told that he would conquer cities and give the residents the option to convert to Islam. If they didn’t then the only penalty they faced was a tax. They were treated respectfully regardless of their religion. When I asked if many people converted, he replied that they did since they could see the benefits and solidity of Islam and the benefits of its government. Since I have not studied Islamic history, I cannot attest to the validity of his statements. Conquerors write history, but people that feel threatened by an opposing ideology also spread their own rumors (e.g. some Christians). If anyone knows more about the spread of Islam, please feel free to share it with me.

To continue, I also asked him why women have to enter through a different door than the men. He replied that it is a matter of organization. The men pray in the front, the children file in behind the men, and the women are behind the children. By having the women enter the other door, it makes this process easier.  (The segregation of the sexes is not limited to Islam. For example, in Ben Ezra, the women used to have to sit on the upper level. I would have liked to go up there, but it was not allowed.) When I asked him why men did not have to cover up as much as the women, he just shrugged apologetically and said that he didn’t know. He was apologetic because at this time I was wearing a green hooded robe and it was obvious that all of us girls were roasting. However it wasn’t too bad, I was just excited to be in a mosque and see what it was like. Plus, I really did not have much to complain about; he was fasting for Ramadan and had not been able to drink anything all day despite the terrible heat.  We kept talking until it was time to leave the mosque and head back to the dorms. The rest of the day was pretty relaxed and I got to wander the neighborhoods more.

There is so much more I could write and want to write, but alas, that will have to wait for another time.

Ma’a salama

P.S. I’d like to give a shout out now to all the Muslims reading this who are fasting right now, I admire your devotion and I hope your experience is spiritually fulfilling.


Robed and Smiling in the Mosque of Amr ibn al'As