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Saturday, June 24, 2006


Photographing the market people

A few months back I walked through Psar Leuh, the upper market in Kompong Chhnang with my camera. I very quickly picked up the vibe that these people were shy and most did not want to be photographed. I concentrated on photographing unusual produce. But I was surprised. In Thailand I had never encountered this. Most Thais love to be photographed. Obviously, this is one way in which Cambodian people differ from Thais.

Since I have been doing my own cooking I make a daily visit to the market to buy my vegetables. The stallholders are getting to know me. They love to say 'hello' to the barung. I found an explanation for this in a Lonely Planet guide to another southeast Asian country. When we see a fish tank we often have an urge to tap on the glass and get the fish to notice us. We want to have an engagement with an exotic creature. To the people in Kompong Chhnang I am as exotic as that fish. They want to say 'hello' just to have that engagement.

So now, these people know me much better. We talk. They may speak almost no English and I as little Khmer but somehow we communicate. We become friends. We laugh and joke together. This week I returned with my camera and, yes some are still shy. Some allowed me to photograph them but with the shyness that you can see here. Others simply said 'no'. Still others enjoyed being photographed. I took quite a few photographs that morning of people and market produce. You should find them in the usual places by following the links on the sidebar.

Saturday, June 17, 2006


Loss, loneliness, emptiness, meaninglessness

A friend in Australia sent me a copy of an email conversation he'd been having with a philosopher friend of his. He asked the philosopher about issues that afflict some older men—issues of loss, loneliness, emptiness and meaninglessness.

The philosopher responded by sending a lengthy quote (not included here) from Zen teacher, Bodhidharma. I share below my thoughts on such issues.

One of the problems I see with philosophy is that philosophy relies on language and language is inadequate to give the answers philosophy seeks.

Bodhidarma speaks some sense but much of it is hidden in riddles. You may like riddles, but me, I prefer someone who gives it to me straight. That's why I like the Buddha. He says: 'There is dukkha.' and 'Dukkha is a condition of existence.'

Loss = dukkha. Loneliness = dukkha. Emptiness = dukkha. Meaninglessness = dukkha. Welcome to existence.

The Buddha goes on to say that to eliminate dukkha one must follow the noble eight-fold path. The noble eight-fold path leads, supposedly, to enlightenment. But what is enlightenment?

Buddhadasa says that rather than one big permanent enlightenment there are enlightened times that come and go. I can relate to this. So until the big one actually arrives, I'll be content with the little ones that come and go.

In the meantime, I accept (sometimes with a little impatience) that dukkha is part of my existence.

Footnote: The word 'dukkha' is explained in my previous blog 'Buddhism & marriage'.

Saturday, June 10, 2006


Buddhism & marriage

A friend in Bangkok emailed me recently and said that her mother had encouraged her to remain single because of a Buddhist belief that marriage causes suffering. My friend asked my opinion, which I now share with my blog readers.

I think the Buddha was quite clear about the cause of suffering. To me that is the essence of Buddhism. After his enlightenment the first sermon given by the Buddha was on the four noble truths.

The first noble truth states the existence of dukkha—usually translated into English either as suffering or unsatisfactoriness. I'm not sure if there is a more appropriate Thai word but neither English word is quite accurate. Perhaps dukkha relates to both suffering and the general unsatisfactoriness of life. Dukkha is a condition of existence whether one is married or single.

The second noble truth states that the cause of dukkha is attachment to one's desires.

When I was young I used to think that money was the root of all evil. Then I discovered the teachings of the Buddha and learned that money is neither good nor bad. It is the attachment to money that leads us to evil and other forms of dukkha.

Likewise, marriage is neither good nor evil. However, I have to wonder how many marriages there are that are free from attachment.

To my mind, what most people perceive as love is actually attachment. When we make statements like 'I can't live without you', we are expressing our attachment to that person.

In both Thailand and Cambodia I often hear people say 'I miss you'. I don't know if this means quite the same here as it does in English. If it does, then what people are saying is, 'I am unhappy/sad/disappointed when you are not with me.' This sounds like dukkha to me and if that is what is really happening for people, it comes from their attachment to the other person.

Buddhism also teaches that nothing is as it appears. We all create our own illusions that we believe to be real. When we 'fall in love', invariably what we have fallen in love with is an illusion. If, for example, we love someone for their beauty, that beauty may be created by makeup, undergarments, a hairdresser or something else that is artificial. Perhaps the beauty is natural, but it is still subject to the conditions of existence, ie, it is impermanent. Will we still love that person when the beauty fades?

It is not uncommon for people to try to find out what their intended partner is looking for in a partner and then try to be that person. Perhaps most people do this to some degree. In doing so, they are creating an illusion. Can they, or would they want to, keep this illusion up for the rest of their lives? Or perhaps they maintain it until the wedding ceremony is over and then revert to their true selves.

The point is that what we become attached to is rarely the reality of that person. Later we realize this and feel disappointed. Sometimes we feel we have been cheated. But we had a part in creating the illusion. And what we are experiencing is dukkha. It has come from our attachment. Perhaps we try to get them to change or try to get out of the relationship. But we need to ask ourselves are we once again motivated by our attachments. If so, we will be in for more dukkha.

This sounds very negative and seems to suggest that marriage can only lead to dukkha. However, as I said, the single person is also subject to dukkha. One cannot avoid it simply by staying single. To be dukkha-free, one must be free of attachment no matter one's marital state.

The Theravada tradition teaches monks many techniques to free themselves from attachment to women. The reasoning is, I gather, that lust is one of the great hindrances to achieving enlightenment. Therefore monks are taught that when they are lusting over a particular woman they should imagine her, for example, as a rotting corpse.

I personally have little time for these techniques. We are biologically programmed to be attracted to the opposite sex. That is what keeps the human race alive. I don't know if the monks who I teach are also taught these techniques. If they are, the techniques don't work for them. Most of these guys are monks out of poverty. Yes, they value the teachings, but most of them long for the day when they will finish their study, can disrobe, get a job and be free to take a wife.

For the lifetime monk whose goal is enlightenment the Buddha has created the Sangha to support them in their goal. They can work on achieving their enlightenment without the distractions created by sexual relationships. However, I question if this enlightenment is real. I suspect it is also an illusion. Baba Ram Das (not a Buddhist) has said in his writings that whenever he feels he is starting to get there—that perhaps he has finally reached enlightenment—he puts himself into a relationship and that brings him back to reality. How real is one's enlightenment if one can only hold onto it within an environment of withdrawal from society?

I think it is worthwhile to consider just what marriage is. I wonder if there was a time when human beings did not marry. If that was the case, there must have been a lot of kids running wild without fathers. Mothers must have had a hard time finding food and keeping their kids under control at the same time. As society became more socialized, I suspect the leaders of societies created marriage as a solution to this problem. The problem was easier to cope with when it was shared. In some cultures marriage was seen as so important to be given the label 'holy'.

Marriage and relationships have evolved over the centuries as life has evolved. It is now possible for people to have sexual relationships without bringing children into the world. The need to marry is not really relevant to people who make this decision. Of course many still choose to do so but I wonder if this is not simply because centuries of enculturation is hard to give up. Perhaps they are attached to the idea of marriage.

Both your culture and mine have had strong taboos against premarital and extramarital sex. In my lifetime, I have seen some evolution in these attitudes particularly in Western society. Except with the most devout Christians, I believe that premarital sex is pretty much fully accepted in the West, so long as it is between consenting adults. People no longer need to marry to have sex. They are free to do as they please, so long as they take the necessary precautions and both partners agree.

I believe that in a society where premarital sex is forbidden, the desire to marry is stronger. When I was a young man, it was common for couples to marry in their early 20s. The next generation probably waited ten years longer than that. I don't know if they are bringing any more wisdom to their decisions.

My observation is that Asian society is moving in a similar direction. Thailand is a little further down this track than Cambodia.

Both of our cultures promote the idea of 'until death us do part'. I can't see that this concept is really Buddhist. Another of the conditions of existence is impermanence. So why should marriage be expected to last forever?

I believe this concept was introduced for practical reasons. When practised it ensures that children are raised in a permanent family environment. Of course this belief is not practised so widely in the West anymore. Perhaps it has become less of an issue with prosperity. The average one-parent family in Australia is probably more wealthy than the average two-parent family in Thailand and certainly more so than most two parent families in Cambodia.

Another issue with marriage is that of fidelity. It seems that in both Western and Asian cultures society encourages fidelity but how many actually practise it? In the West, perhaps infidelity often leads to divorce. In Asian cultures it seems the woman usually turns a blind eye. I don't know if there is an answer to this but I would observe that this is simply another example of desire and attachment leading to dukkha.

To marry or not marry? Each individual must decide. However, avoiding marriage to avoid suffering is a misunderstanding. The challenge is to live life without attachment. This is probably equally difficult whether one is married or not.

Saturday, June 03, 2006


Education is crucial

Recently I had my first bout of diarrhoea since coming to stay in Cambodia. Considering the standard of hygiene in this country, I think I did well to stay healthy for two months. Of course I am careful. And I will be more careful now by doing more of my own cooking.

What I found interesting was the attitude of my Cambodian friends. Each one said to me, 'I think you should take some medicine.' It seems to be the prevailing collective wisdom that when you are sick you must take medicine. The idea of the body healing itself did not seem to be a part of their repertoire of health care. Considering that they are generally much closer to nature than we in the West, I wondered where the attitude had come from.

Generally, Cambodian people are very poorly educated. Universal free education still does not exist in Cambodia. If a parent needs a child to look after cattle, perhaps that will take precedence over sending them to school. There is also a daily levy made on each student by the teacher in public schools. Teachers being government employees are very poorly paid and find it necessary to charge each child a fee to attend class. Children are often seen in the streets selling goods of some sort in order to get the money to attend school the next day. No money, no school.

My observation of my students—and they are ones who value education—is that their general knowledge is quite poor. I doubt that there are many books in their homes. So far I have not visited any public schools here but I have my doubts about the standard of libraries if they exist at all. Will report on that after the opportunity presents itself.

When families here find themselves gaining a small amount of affluence, the first thing they buy is a TV set. And I believe that is where they are getting most of their education.

The ads here are much the same as we have. An ad might show someone sneezing or coughing. Next scene they take some medicine. And before the ad has ended, there they are again, happy and healthy. The same happens with a stomach upset.

In Western countries we have the benefit of consumer information that enables us to balance the education from the advertisers with facts. We know we have other choices. But of course most of us are literate. The information is available and we have the ability to read it.

Not so here in Cambodia. The illiteracy rate (in Khmer language) for males over 15 is around 40%. For females it is around 80%. Even if the information was readily available the average Cambodian would have trouble reading it. And so they are educated by the advertisers.

I like to think I am a small part of the solution. I have come to realize that teaching English is only a part of what I can offer my students. In fact English is simply a medium that I can use to help them acquire a broader general knowledge. We can learn English from a text book and learn subjects the publishers feel make the learning interesting. Or we can prepare our own materials and study, for example, water purification.

But I am only one person. I have a total of around fifty students. How much impact can that make? I'm sure it makes a difference to those fifty people but it is a drop in the ocean.

My dream is that I might inspire others to do something similar. Every year there must be thousands of Australian teachers who retire. If even 100 of them came and spent two months in Cambodia teaching English, that's 5,000 people who are directly affected. Of course these people will spread their knowledge and many more will be indirectly affected.

Cambodia is not the easiest place to live. I'm sure it's not everyone's cup of tea. But for volunteers who are prepared to put up with a little hardship I'm sure they will have a rewarding time that will give them many fond memories.

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