Their faces are shaped by serenity. Their bright orange cloth serves as an unmistakable symbol. There’s a wonder and mysteriousness about these guys (and gals I came to find out).
Even just the sight of an old Buddhist monk in Cambodia revealed the impact of their presence accompanying that lightness in their step. They emit something real, deep, and grounded–yet seem almost other-worldly.
Though this romantic notion does inevitably wither when getting to know them (turns out they are just human beings), a more substantial realization moves in to fill the void. This is to actually experience the joy and calm they radiate. And seeing their humanness, one can then see how that grounded presence of theirs can be realized by you and I.
The monks of Cambodia are an exclamation point of Eastern ways. Only their life isn’t an exclamation point at all, but more of a manner of calm ellipses…
The introduction occurred as I was visiting the temple city, Anchor Thom. I had read in my travel guide that there was a present-day monastery on the north end. The travel guide does not lie. Here is what I approached:
Above and behind the water-blessing steps rested a roofed platform which housed the monastery. I wanted a closer look. A small set of stairs along the right side rose to the platform level. I ascended these half-dozen steps to the floor of dirtied wood under a roof allowing little sunlight. I removed my shoes and entered to see female monks (known as bikkhuni) sitting on the floor to my right. They didn’t wear the orange, but did have shorn scalps.
Past them, I explored the low-lit, creaky-floored structure. I saw sacks of flour, spare reed mats, some cookware. One wouldn’t think much of this place ordinarily, but the people and activity within created a heavy calm.
On the other side (to my left as I entered), a middle-aged male monk sat cross legged on the floor. Before him was a prayer rug for others to join him. Others were there. He prayed with them; he blessed them.
Then I sat before him. From what I watched, and from what he aided me in conducting, an offering meant laying money (maybe a dollar or two) on an orange plate he extended out. As we both held the plate, he recited a prayer and then pulled it slowly back and set it down. He also held several red threads which he blessed and tied around people’s wrists. I wished for one and received one.
Then my experience was kicked up a notch.
The young monk on the steps was still offering his spiritual showers. As I rose from the mat, a local standing nearby asked if I wanted in on the water routine. I thought yes…and then no. (I didn’t want to get soaked in the middle of the day. I didn’t have a towel. Plus I felt content with my experience thus far.) But then one more thought, “Why the heck not, Brandon?! Stop making towel excuses.”
Now more than just my shoes had to come off. Shirtless and sockless, I walked down, sat on the lower steps, and waited…
I had a bit of trepidation knowing the water would be freezing going down my back. But there I was, joined by the company of another local man who was currently undergoing the drenching.
Soon enough, the cold poured down my back accompanied by the ramblings of a Khmer incantation on this otherwise pleasant, sunny day. The splashing of the bowl being dipped into the bucket and the water being slapped against the tile beneath us were earthy-sounding constants. As it was happening, I was supposed to focus and pray—though it was tempting to cross my arms, curl up, shiver, and try and resist the cold. What I benefited from was just letting myself be cold and soak in the prayers and sounds and sensations.
Soon it finished. And I was soaked.
All was calm as the drips continued down my face. I stood up to go, and immediately my right foot slipped out from beneath me, sending a jolt of fear up my spine. (And putting me right back in the moment.) Regaining my footing, I guess I was testing the young monk’s good luck incantation skills. Or maybe that was just the bad luck leaving me.
I had to walk a bit to dry off. I spent it in the warm sun, but I also went back atop the platform where the young monk was enjoying a pause, seated to the right of steps near where the women had been. I approached and sat in front of him; he knew a bit of English. It wasn’t the deepest conversation in the world, but it was him and I sharing some time together. I found out that this is his life: doing these blessings and hanging out here. He’s eighteen and likes Coke; he was sipping on one as we spoke.
I can’t remember what ended the chat, but I hopped back on my bike and went about the rest of my day to visit temples.
During this trip, I ran into several more monks:
I spoke with some whose English was good—always younger ones. I got a kick out of those who had cell phones.
On my last day visiting Cambodia’s temples, I returned to the monastery. I wanted to see this precious place another time. There was the eighteen-year-old monk, again doing his daily dousings on the steps. This time I didn’t hesitate. I took part in another, this time making myself at home under the roof of their platform and sitting for 15 minutes to meditate.
I rose and joined my Coke-sipping friend one last time. As the elder monk was gone, the young monk was now sitting in the main spot. I sat before him and gave another dollar donation to the monastery. Despite learning the routine just days prior, my reflex was to simply toss him the dollar, dismissing what I considered to be a minimal deed. But he wasn’t going to let that happen. Out came the plate. We held it, he prayed, and he took the money.
Then I had an insight into the character of this place. And though I don’t think he understood much of what I said, he listened calmly as I let it flow out of me aloud.
“Nothing here gets ignored,” I said. “I gave a measly buck. But you gave thanks. Here, the beauty of the seemingly ordinary is seen, and time is taken to respect that beauty.”
I understood the simple and clear beauty to my offering: one person being so moved as to give of their life, their livelihood, to another. Then I noticed the beauty in the other simple things about: the trees and ground outside. There was a fearlessness about and within me—not an urge to slay a dragon, but simply a lack of fear. No worries, no anxiety, no awkwardness.
I continued aloud, “Who has time or room for fear when gratitude and contentment are brought to such a level? There’s nothing to fear when you feel nothing is lacking.”
Moments later I slowly rose and continued my last day biking among the ruins.
This experience wasn’t “out-of-this-world.” It was quite the opposite.