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The Buddha of Chinese deception

The Buddha of Chinese deception

buddha.jpg
buddha.jpg

Broken Buddha statues cover a Makor hole among the ruins and roof columns of Atharus Temple on Oudong Mountain.

As modern Cambodia reaches out to China for help, a legendary 13th century power

struggle played out at Oudong between imperial China and the Angkorian empire is

particularly poignant. Bou Saroeun tells the story.

Historical records say that Chinese imperial envoys - most notably Chou Ta Kuan,

whose Customs of Cambodia is the only surviving first hand written account of the

Angkorian empire at its zenith - were sent to Cambodia to study the ways of regional

rivals and their potential for "integration" into the Chinese empire.

According to Khmer legend, reports that these Chinese envoys sent back home described

Angkorian society as progressive, but hampered by habits such as the lack of the

use of proper footwear and eating utensils by the people.

Those envoys warned, however, that Angkor posed a potential danger to Chinese regional

dominance due to the strong elements of positive feng shui or Chinese geomancy embodied

by Preah Reacheatrop Mountain, the former name of today's Oudong Mountain.

According to one envoy's feng shui calculations, Preah Reacheatrop resembled a Makor,

a mythical sea monster. Through some arcane divination the envoy further determined

that a secret tunnel running from the center of the earth through the center of the

mountain was a pathway for the emergence of real, breathing Makor.

When that happened, the envoy feared, Cambodia's power and sophistication would surpass

all others and directly threaten the Middle Kingdom and its emperor.

The Chinese emperor pondered his envoys' warnings and instead of following their

advice to attack and destroy Cambodia while China maintained superior status, he

opted to forestall the threat by ensuring that the Makor never emerged from its mountain

lair.

To this end, the emperor ordered that China fund the construction of a huge Buddhist

statue on Oudong, ostensibly as a friendly overture to Khmer Buddhism. In fact, the

Buddha was designed to be built over the mouth of the mountain's tunnel in order

to block the Makor's escape route.

For modern Cambodians with a superstitious bent, the end result of this is plainly

seen: Angkor has long crumbled and Cambodia is leaning on China as a donor of much

needed aid funds.

Of the original temple only the broken walls and columns remain. China's legendary

gift - the huge Buddha statue - has likewise weathered the centuries poorly, headless

and less than half of its torso surviving the ravages of civil war and the Khmer

Rouge.

Hing Thon, a 61-year-old temple laymen who manages the site, told the Post that initial

damage by Lon Nol forces seeking to re-wrest the mountain from the control of the

Khmer Rouge in late 1973 and early 1974 was completed by the victorious Khmer Rouge

after April 17, 1975.

According to Thon, prisoners quartered at the temple during the Pol Pot regime were

ordered by their guards to smash the Buddha statues that survived the Lon Nol forces

attempts to keep the hill.

Remnants of the ravages of war that swept the site in the 70s are everywhere,

with bullet and shrapnel holes pocketing all surviving walls and structures.

In front of the broken Buddha statue a blue pastiche shelter has been erected

with a pair of smaller, more modest Buddhas.

Thon says that even though the original Buddha statue has been destroyed, its

power lingers, bestowing on believers who make offerings success in endeavors ranging

from job searches to the acquisition of visas to enter the United States.

The mountain also boasts a second formerly secret tunnel which was reputedly used

by powerful Buddhist hermits seeking refuge from persecution by French Protectorate-era

police.

Chres Yoeung, who is the guardian of the secret tunnel entrance, says that it remains

a source of power, even though it was blocked with rock by French authorities to

forestall its suspected use as a meeting place for insurrectionists.

"I see those people [dead Buddhist hermits] and their voices coming from the

tunnel sometimes," Yoeung said.

Meanwhile, a huge new stupa on the summit of Oudong is under construction and is

expected to be finished earlier next year.

The new temple, along with an April 20 government decision to protect the site and

its surroundings for its cultural heritage value, will ensure the Makor sleeps soundly

into the next century.

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