Suffering will sit patiently on a shelf, watching you many years while you turn down the flames behind your eyes and loosen the pulling momentum of building up walls to defend against it. It will smile as you forget, like temples lost into the jungle, that it is there. Vines of complacency ensnaring and camouflaging it from your memory. Suffering will smile as your muscles of spirit and faith atrophy into a happy life filled with joy. You feel no need for armor against suffering anymore. Instead, your defenses now lie in objects and numbers. Money, career, possessions, and the joy that contentment delivers to your doorstep and whispers into your dreams.
Suffering, having watched this patiently from a shelf, has not left you. It has simply sat patiently on and gathered dust in the corner. Dust easily shaken off one night when it climbs down and sneaks into your bedroom and begins to whisper incessantly “hello.” Having met the devil many times in your youth you recognize the accent. You hear the word and know its meaning. You have no defense. You have no way out- wisdom being exchanged for knowledge over the course of the last decade. You must simply lie there every night and listen to your family breathe in and out while suffering stands in the doorway whispering “hello.”
If Thailand is a land of controlled chaos, Cambodia is simply chaos. Rules and law only exist when someone feels like enforcing them. Nothing has a set price. Everything is negotiable. If there is traffic in your way, for an extra dollar your tuk-tuk driver will drive on the sidewalk. If you know how to speak a few words of Khmer and don’t act like a tourist, your restaurant bill is 50% cheaper. It is these compromises that make Cambodia a place of great joy and great sorrow. This is the existence of Cambodia and the Khmer people. There is no middle ground. There is no middle class. There is no middle management. All existence resides in the polarity of nothing and everything.
A drive down Russian Federation Boulevard will show you sights of first world capitalism at its finest. Next to the Porsche dealership is the Rolls Royce shop, which shares space with the Ferrari/Maserati dealership across from diamond and italian fashion shops. Yet not more than three blocks away lies Wat Vongkut Borey- where I met a woman and her 3 children that lived in an abandoned mausoleum. They lived on the garbage that the slums threw out- and came out as I approached my first day there to take a pictures and make merit through feeding fish, prayer, and donations.
There was no sadness or despair in their eyes, and no remorse as the woman pushed her young daughter towards me to hold out her hands and beg for money. She pointed to her three children, they boys laughing at the fish that were swarming around the bits of ramen and her daughter looking at me scared and curious as to my being there. Her gesture was meant to show that the money was for them, and it would be used for their needs and not hers.
This is the heart of Cambodia. That everything done in the world by the family is directed towards making a better life for the next generation. That spiritually, life led in the path of Buddha will bring for a better life next time. Time will settle the pain of genocide that occurred only one generation ago. That in the heart of darkness lies hope, and peace in the prospect of less suffering for your children and a better state of life in the next.
My travels in Phnom Penh would take me through these extremes. I would find myself in the inner sanctum of Wat Ounalam to receive blessings from the most sacred of deities.
I would wander through abandoned Wats- their restoration projects failed because funds ran out or they were seen as cursed as digging brought up more and more bones of monks who were killed and buried in shallow mass graves next to the shrines and pagodas they worshiped in.
Some closer into the city were abandoned because they exist in dangerous parts of town people with money or light skin do not want to think about or visit. They have been taken over by dangerous addicts, happy to have a quiet place of reprieve from the heat and judgement of other people while they escape.
I would also see moments of awe-inspiring beauty. Where, after suffering the heat and long journey I would reach the top of Traop Mountain- built by ancient worshipers of the same god that is still prayed to today.
Throughout my 5 days in Phnom Penh I would also meet people of wonderful inspiration. Abbots, Monks, and novices who were searching for enlightenment from the divine. Who would breathe in smoke to mix with parts of their soul and exhale mantras into gifts of Sai Sin, to help balance my unbalanced soul and offer me protection, peace, and wisdom on my journey.
I begun to understand that the search for the divine through human eyes is looking for a prism in a dark room. It is impossible to know the correct direction to follow by any of your senses. The only guide is the compass that is the human soul. When you catch a tiny glimpse of the divine- a small flicker of light bent and refracted through the dark chasmatic void that we set between it and ourselves- the dark emptiness that lives filled with secular greedy goals brings. When you catch this, more often than not the light reflects a portion of your own image, which leads man to see god as his own face. Buddhist monks get around this by taking no stock in their own image. Shaving their heads and eyebrows, owning nothing, and shedding all sense of self to remove as much of this glare as possible.
They worship not the divine, but the man who touched the divine and was able to see fully the prism. Who became light that would shine through and allow others to see. To acknowledge the cyclical spectrum that life is, and your so very very small part of it. It is a quest with an impossible goal. Full enlightenment will never be achieved. But through meditation will come understanding.
The understanding of lessons forgotten. Lessons you put in ink on your back surrounded by unbalanced trigrams burning in fire- lest you forget their importance. That suffering brings wisdom, and that wisdom will bring suffering. That you must not fear suffering, for that will only imbalance its place in your life. That fearing and forgetting will give it more room in your mind than it deserves when it speaks. You must acknowledge suffering and the wisdom of the spiritual that can contain and deflect its power. You must see it, sitting patiently on a shelf- quietly waiting, and you must keep it dust free. To ignore suffering through distractions: chemicals, emotional placation, or inflation of the idea of self makes suffering strong when it decides to stir. To confirm its place in your life leaves you immune to the emotional rot of its poisonous whispers. If you accept suffering, you can accept when it comes into your life says hello and introduces a new whispered word into its vocabulary: “grief.”