John C. Brown reports on the building of a ship temple - and how it has opened
questions about the place of mysticism in Buddhism; and of people's thirst to follow
anyone preaching peace and prosperity.
ONE thousand years ago a boat sank in the Tonle Bassac River near today's Royal Palace.
Late last century it emerged from the river bank near the site of its sinking and
served as a temple and special meeting ground for monks until it was destroyed by
the Khmer Rouge.
This is a story Khmer residents of a village on the north-eastern bank of the Tonle
Sap tell. Accounts of what happened from other sources differ, but all agree that
during the Sihanouk regime a wooden ship was used for worship in that village and
that a boat symbolizes one of the mysteries of the Buddhist religion.
Today, concrete reconstruction of that boat is nearing completion. It is a one of
a kind temple in Cambodia - a ship temple surrounded by an "eight direction
wall" (with eight small temples) - and combines two symbolic Buddhist elements.
However its construction raises questions of what symbols and what kinds of beliefs
constitute Khmer Buddhism, and whether spending large amounts of money for temple
reconstruction is consistent with the reconstruction of Cambodia and its search for
Lim Vannee, 35, of Phnom Penh, is the temple's initiator - or rather, he says, it's
the spirit that possessed him in December 1994. Married and the father of four, Lim
says he was possessed while attending a Kathin on Phnom Kulen in Siem Reap. Upon
his return to Phnom Penh the spirit led him to the site of the destroyed boat temple
and instructed him to re-build it.
Villagers there told him that after the Khmer Rouge period, they had dug a small
pond, from which red water began seeping. They interpreted this as blood from the
boat's passengers and an indication of the importance of the site.
Lim however believes that the boat capsized in shallow water 100,000 years ago. "Yuu
nah!" (long time ago) he says. In 1925, he says, a wooden boat temple was built
to commemorate it. That's the temple that he's replacing.
Lim lives in a small wooden house covered by a thick palm leaf roof along an alley
near the road to Takhmao. Half of Lim's house is completely devoted to a complex
Buddhist alter, with multi-colored lights and dozens of statues. Pictures of Indian
Gods and of King Sihanouk, along with the King's wife and mother, cover the wall.
Lim's wife says that the altar takes up a lot of space in a house already too small
"but I follow my husband's ideas, and we tolerate the small problems the altar
Though Lim was never a monk he is clearly a serious devotee of religion; his photo
albums are filled exclusively with photos of religious festivals that he has attended
or organized. A series of pictures show festivals held at the construction site.
Women in white robes are dancing across a field, waving their hands over their heads.
"They are in a trance", Lim says.
Making ends meet is difficult Lim says, but here "his" spirit helps. Lim
says that the money he collects for the temple is kept separate from living expenses.
As president of the association supporting the temple's reconstruction he has collected
and spent $28,000 so far. People support the temple because they trust him, he says.
Living expenses for his family, in contrast, come from his earnings as a fortune
His wife, Jun Sothea, explains that people come to her husband for help with their
problems. She says that unlike other fortune tellers, he does not enter a trance
but remains calm and speaks quietly in his own voice while possessed. He also does
not use a physical object (a dried human fetus for example) as other fortune tellers
do to keep the spirit. Trances and speaking in voices are not the Buddhist way, she
Chhorn Iem, Undersecretary of State (in charge of the Buddhist Institute), Ministry
of Cults and Religious Affairs, says that these mystic elements in Lim's practice
of Buddhism are rooted in Brahmanism and in very old religious traditions - the early
animism that predated the arrival of the Hindu religion in Cambodia.
"But they are not Buddhism," he adds.
"There is no place in Buddhism for malignant or good spirits that intervene
in human affairs. Buddhism teaches that if we are good we receive good (merit) if
we do evil, we receive evil. Buddhist teaching is completely inconsistent with the
idea of predicting the future, predicting the future means that our destiny is out
of our hands. These people try to make Buddhism mystic. These kinds of beliefs do
not promote Buddhism, they lead away from Buddhism," Chhron Iem says.
But Lim says that his association's main interest is Buddhism and its preservation.
"We are building this eight direction temple, and the ship temple to wish the
Angkor land and its people all happiness and prosperity and to put an end to the
war. In Cambodia we would like to have Buddhism to continue for a long time... We
would like to wish that all people are able to pass the three fields and the four
holes and to achieve happiness, a good life, and prosperity."
Though Lim calls his boat a temple, Chhorn says that "no boat can be a temple...
there are no boat temples in Buddhism."
On Lim's apparent success, Chhorn explains: "Since 1979 we have met many of
these mystics who have won the support of groups of people. In the beginning they
have an explosion of popularity, and as long as they follow the ideas of the people,
they keep the support. But most of them [mystics] begin to follow their own ideas
[like buying villas], and their supporters fall away. But if this man is not greedy,
he will be successful."
What are the roots of this phenomenon? Chhorn explains: "It is a reflection
of our people's intense aspiration for peace and prosperity. But they don't know
how to get them. Generation to generation the people are plunged into despair. What
they don't understand is that it is by their own efforts that they can get peace."
Youk Phean, also from the Ministry of Cults and Religious Affairs, says that the
eight-direction wall is also not Buddhist. The compound in which the boat is built
is surrounded by eight small temples, eight points - north, north-east, east, etc.
This wall is a symbol from Hinduism, not Buddhism, Youk said.
Lim disagrees. He says that the eight direction wall was a symbol of Brahmanism which
was replaced by Theravddha Buddhism during the Angkor period. This symbol was incorporated,
like many other symbols from that religion into Khmer Buddhism.
In addition, Youk thinks that the boat's meaning may be best connected to a Khmer
fable about a young boy who offered his boat to carry a very poor couple across the
Tonle Bassac river to visit the other side. There they picked up some wood shavings
from the temple being constructed, and following the advice of the builder, they
stored the shavings in a jar for three days before using them to build their fire.
When they opened the jar they found it filled with gold. Investigators later could
not find the boy, the old couple nor the temple builder.
Lim in contrast talks of a boat that carries the neaq mien bon (those who have merit)
across three deserts and four precipices - the former, metaphors for war, famine,
and disease - to Thevoda (something like heaven).
Dr. William Collins, an American anthropologist at the Center for Advanced Research,
says that in Theravada Buddhism the idea of a vehicle or a boat is very important.
If the beliefs of the religion are seen as the sails and rigging of a boat, and the
Buddha as the pilot, the passengers of such a boat are the Sangha (Buddhist monks).
Since Theravada Buddhists (men at least) can enter, leave and re-enter the monkhood
at will, everyone is on his own journey (highlighting the importance of autonomy
in this religion). They decide "when they get on when the get off and what their
itinerary is. They are, Collins says, "in a Buddhist saying 'Lights unto themselves'."
Youk was the first person that Lim approached in December 1994 with completed reconstruction
blueprints for permission to begin work. Chhorn says that his Ministry gives permission
for the construction of temples. "If they want to build a temple, they must
consider the needs of the local population, distance to the pagoda, the capacity
of the local people to support and feed monks."
Youk declined to support the request, because he was not confident that enough money
could be raised. But Lim says that he persisted and eight months later had the support
of Van Moulyvann. The two Prime Ministers gave the necessary approvals and donations.
Construction of the eight direction wall began in July 1995, and for the boat temple
in January 1996. By the end of May it should be finished.
Khmer in the village where the boat is being built declined to describe the meaning
of the boat. "The boat's story is a very important one in the Khmer religion",
one farmer said, "Because I don't know it clearly, I don't want to tell it.
If you can describe it you understand the mystery of Khmer Buddhism".
Aside from the question of whether true Buddhism is being followed there is the question
of the priorities of Cambodia's reconstruction. Chhorn Iem says: "The Cambodian
people are building and re-building temples out of their wish for peace, prosperity
and happiness. If you give them the choice to build a hospital, or a temple, they
will build a temple. If you ask them to support both, they will give more money to
the temple. But Cambodia needs more medicine, not incense. Building temples will
not achieve peace, our own efforts are most important."
At the temple site, six men work everyday on reconstruction. At night they sleep
on site, and share daily expenses for their food - about 1,000 riel each. Narin,
25, from S' ang in Kandal knows nothing about the ship's religious meaning or about
its origin. His friend Nuang, 42, knows only that the concrete ship is a little larger
than the original and agrees with Narin: "We never saw anything like this."
For them the job is the thing. "This is a good job, 5,000 riel a day, and the
work is normal, not difficult. Our boss does not blame us. If he sees something wrong
he explains the problem," Narin says.
And Chhorn says that at the center of Buddhism is a great tolerance for other belief
systems. Though he can make distinctions between symbols and belief systems that
are Buddhist and those that are not, others have the right to follow their own ideas.
"They can build temples like this, it is up to them." And about the priorities
of Cambodia's reconstruction: "The people will go their own way, but building
temples will not help them to find peace."