During the Buddhist Rainy season, I was invited to go to Cambodia as part of a group to deliver some relics and see Angkor Wat. While most people don’t know much about Cambodia as a Theravāda Buddhist Country, it is actually 97% Buddhist, which ranks them as the most Theravāda Buddhist Country in the world. The trip ended up being more than 1000 times more powerful than we ever expected and it will be a memory for a long time to come.
The Airport Welcome
We didn’t need to go beyond the airport to understand that things were going to be much different because we got quite the welcome at Cambodia airport. Before reaching the immigration counter, we were greeted with flowers, and an immigration officer collected our group’s passports. Our arrival seemed to draw attention, with some officers taking personal photos of the event. Without getting our passports back, we were told to go ahead and exit the airport to meet the crowd waiting for us. There must have been 150 people waiting for our arrival. The random travelers on the plane were in for a cultural treat to see all the welcoming going on. Later, our stamped passports were given to us on the bus. It was the biggest aloha welcome I have ever had… but was it for us? (Video below).
This is where the humbling stage begins. It was not for us, but rather, it was for the Buddha relics that we brought with us. The Cambodian Pa-Auk temple asked for some relics to be donated to their shrine room and we located some and brought them. We have many magical stories about relics appearing from nowhere or that increase in number. There are so many stories of this, that we sometimes forget how special this is. A relic is a portion of the remains of a Buddha or the fully enlightened persons who have passed away. They can inspire and many believe and feel these relics have a “spiritual presence”. There was one hair relic that came with us and another relic that had another great story attached to it.
So the relics were the star of the show, not the delivery monks. It is like celebrating the arrival of the delivery man who has the ashes of your long lost relative. It is not the delivery man everyone is interested in. On the other hand, we were VIP guests and we were always part of the headline events. The goal was also to establish a connection between Sri Lanka and Cambodia and other nations. I was a little bit of the “other nations”.
Yāvajīvam-pi ce bālo paṇḍitaṁ payirupāsati,
Even if a fool attends on a wise man for his whole life long,
na so Dhammaṁ vijānāti, dabbī sūparasaṁ yathā.
he does not learn Dhamma, just as spoon learns not the taste of curry.
On the first day, (forget leaving time for travel recovery).. we went out to see the well known Angkor Wat Temple which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For me, this was the main reason to go to Cambodia, but that has been overshadowed with what I will say later! Nevertheless, it was quite amazing, and it reminded me much of Bagan. Although similar to Bagan’s temples in some respects, it was distinct in its construction, being made from large stones rather than bricks. The temple was interesting and we did a few chanting sessions there as a group. Furthermore, it is not just one Angkor Wat Temple. Similar to Bagan, there are 100’s or even 1000’s of smaller temples and monasteries. We went to a few of these other temples in a similar style and it was all quite nice to see.
After that, we came back to “the house” and then a brief visit to a monastery nearby. What about the house? We stayed at a house that was built for the monks to stay in by a woman named Mrs. Morn Vary. It is a very nice 3 story house complete with an elevator too. The first floor has the gathering room and is very well designed and filled with wood carvings. We slept in this house for 2 nights. While I was sad to leave, I did not know what else was in store for us.
Phnom Penh and Pa-Auk
After the 2nd night at the house, we left after breakfast. From there we had a long journey to Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. It was there that I started to pick up some sort of sickness. When we got off the bus for lunch, I was shivering, but I was the only one who was cold. However, I seemed to shake most of it off after a good meal and we continued to Pa-Auk Dhamma Dura. Just before arriving at the nearby village, we were greeted with a police escort to bring us the final few miles. Then, when we got off the bus, there were hundreds or maybe one thousand people who were all waiting to greet us… I mean.. the Relics. This was very amazing and much much bigger than the airport welcome. As we walked behind the relics, there was a line of people waiting to see. They would throw flower petals at our feet and also over our heads. There were also a few ancient drummers along with an ancient horn thing which might be called a “Horanewa”.. It was similar to what you would hear at major Sri Lankan Buddhist events. We walked into this gorgeous shrine room, placed the relics there and then did some chanting and went to sleep. It was quite a night, but the main event has yet to come.
The next day was somewhat of a blur. My sickness was in full throttle with a strong fever and chills and I probably ended up sleeping for most of the day and night. I was feeling better the next day which was the big climax of the trip. On this day, we would officially give the relics to the monastery’s shrine room. What happened was beyond what I thought was ever possible. It was bigger than anything I have ever experienced. I think there could have been 20,000+ people visiting during the procession to the main pagoda shrine room. After some introductory ceremonial preliminaries and speeches (which took a couple of hours), we were ushered outside. They told me to climb aboard the nāga boat, and so I did. The nāga boat was built on top of a car that you would commonly see in parades. As it moved (very slowly) through the crowd, again the crowd was throwing flower petals at the relics and us as well. Because there were so many people, it was like it was raining flower petals. It was amazing. Then I took a look backwards and I could see a sea of people walking behind us. It was a truly amazing experience.
Words and even videos cannot describe what this was like to be on the leading nāga boat with the Buddha relics. There were maybe 5,000 in front of us, and maybe 20,000 behind us, while causing a shower of flower petals to rain on us. The video does not show all of this, but it is the best one so far. This was not even 1/1000 of what we ever imagined when we were invited. And it is difficult to even measure. And this is the power of the Buddha. Merit that is immeasurable. Below is a video showing the arrival of the relics to the shrine room.
Tour of Pa-Auk Cambodia
On the last day, we took a small tour of the Pa-Auk monastery. It is quite large and we had a buggy drive us around. The grounds are large and feel a little bit like the Maha Cetiya in Sri Lanka, but it is also a meditation center. There is quite a lot going on at the monastery compound, but since it is so big, I think everything can still work. It was a special time for the monastery, so I don’t want to judge the noise based on that. Perhaps others can report on how well the place does for meditation for the long term. I am planning on adding Cambodia to my “Where to Ordain Post”. Currently, there are no religious visas given out by the government, but they think that business class visas can be given to monks.
Reflections on Cambodia
Before leaving Mrs. Morn Vary’s house I asked if I could say a few words upon our goodbye. The few minutes I spoke were translated and it was something like this.
Few people know about Theravāda Buddhism in the USA, and for those who know about Theravāda Buddhism, Cambodia is always left out. People might know about Sri Lanka because of Bhikkhu Bodhi. People might know about Myanmar because of its strong meditation and scriptural basis that remains today. People might know about Thailand and Laos because of Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Mun which straddled the two countries known as Ee-san. In total, there are five countries with Theravāda Buddhism as the national religion. Since I have been to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos, this trip completes the full picture for me. When you are putting a jigsaw puzzle together, with 200, 300, or 500 pieces, the most satisfying part is when you place that last single piece together to complete the picture. I felt that learning about the final and unknown country of Cambodia to be equally as satisfying as placing the last puzzle piece in the center of the picture.
The trip to Cambodia was more than 1000 times more powerful than we have ever expected. However, this due to the power of Buddha’s merit and pāramī. It has given me a lasting impression to the point where I know that subsequent trips would be anticlimactic. Nevertheless there is still much to see and experience in Cambodia.
In Cambodia’s heart, under monsoon skies,
To Angkor Wat we went, a wondrous prize.
A land steeped in Buddha’s gentle ways,
Where Theravāda faith brightly sways.
At the airport, a sea of smiles wide,
For relics revered, not us, they eyed.
In Pa-Auk’s embrace, our journey’s peak,
Sacred relics speak, their blessings seek.
Through Angkor’s stones, our chants arise,
Echoing wisdom, under Asian skies.
In the house and monastery, we found our rest,
A journey profound, among the blessed.
Sailing the nāga boat, through the petals of rain,
A spectacle of faith, will rarely be the same.
In Phnom Penh’s arms, our path unwinds,
Leaving imprints of peace, in hearts and minds.