I parked my cruiser just beside a few single-story monk’s houses, which were huddled under the lonesome, low hill, Phnom Bok. The monks in their saffron garbs crowded all around me, because they have never seen such a bike and they began to wonder about it: how much was it; how much gas does it take; what is the engine capacity and how fast does it go; where am I from; how old am I; and do I have a wife and how many children…
All sorts of questions and from all directions were falling down on my head in a Pidgin English so much so that I could barely return the answers.
Perhaps, you would think, a Buddhist monk walks slowly, with dignity and a down swept head. He contemplates divine matters and doesn’t care about passing mundane trifling. Oh yes, he does, but somewhere else, not in Cambodia.
A Cambodian monk is a child of a pure family where there is not even one bowl of dry rice to feed him, where a small paddy field must appease nine hungry throats, which is impossible. Somebody has to give up and sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the others. So he enjoys the monastic life where he can learn a little and where there is a little food to fill his empty stomach.
A Cambodian monk knows almost nothing about Buddha and Buddhism, except for a few legends which were compiled through the millenniums. He wakes up each day at four and awakes the others with the thunder of a giant wooden drum coated with cow or buffalo leather. He prays a bit and has breakfast. Then he walks around a village or a city with a beggarly bowl and collects money because he has no idea that a monk is inhibited to touch money.
He goes back to the temple, gives over the money to his senior monk so they can buy some food.
Later he eats once more at noon which will be the last time and he learns to read and memorize rhymes from old books written in forgotten language Pali or Sanskrit.
But there is something more under Phnom Bok that local monks have to care about. Each morning with the sunrise they climb on the steep hill, up the six hundred thirty-five concrete steps, and there they pray for a happy world, just beside the ancient temple of the artist of destruction, god Shiva.
And that’s how Buddhism is mixed with Hinduism without a problem, because everything, the entire world, and all Universe is Buddha.
I looked up to the hill, against the blinding sun, so I couldn’t see what was waiting for me and then started to climb up the steps to reach the top. My legs, used every day to sit behind the computer, on the bike or in a pub with a glass of chilled beer, managed it with no problems in the beginning. Pushed by curiousness, a thirst to see the ancient Shiva’s temple and pay respect to the Destroyer, I lifted my ambitious knees and shifted my body towards the demanded destination.
My marching rate dropped down considerably, after the first hundred stairs. The late sun burned infernally, to remind me that every god has two faces, which create Unity. The first one is welcoming, shining, gracious and an ever-loving face. This is the face we pray to and look up to with a hope.
And, of course, the other one, derisive, malicious, dark and threatening that we don’t want to know about, except to assert that it doesn’t exist. In another way, we separate it from God and declare that it belongs to something that we have actually created by ourselves, the devil. That’s why we love and invoke a god, and we refuse and hate a devil, and refuse to acknowledge that a Harmony wouldn’t be a Harmony without him.
The Old Testament says that God created a human in the perfect image of him. He created him in three steps and the last one was a separation of a woman from a man, the creation of duality. Contrary to the man, who always lied about the shadow of a palm tree, the woman was gifted with lust, inquisitiveness and a desire to know. That’s why she didn’t hesitate, and, thanks to God, tasted the fruit from a forbidden tree of knowledge. Thus the woman created the world in which we live and suffer and grow back up to the heaven, which we have had to leave, unable to realize that the Life is Unity of antithesis.
Two hundred devil’s stairs later, cursing the world and myself I had climbed up slowly and with much exertion. I lifted my stiff knees with more and more struggle, refusing to give up in front of that damned hill.
The stairs, broken by the blistering sun and monsoon rains were arrogantly and derisively raised up somewhere beyond. I began to doubt about the sense of my suffering. Who knows what will be up there, another half broken ruin, a pile of glowing rocks. Is it worthy of my effort?
But, the woman, the Virgo inside of me, longed for knowledge, so I, pushed along by the good old lust, forced my feeble and tired muscles to lift my leaden knees. The live sun was burning my brain and with it all my thoughts, which was good, otherwise I may have turned about and defeated ingloriously, gone back downstairs.
Only the last sip of water was left in the bottom of my bottle when I was in the middle of the climb. The sweat was pouring through every pore of my white skin and I cursed the very moment when I decided to dress in a sleeveless t-shirt. My shoulders and arms had been slowly turning red and I surely knew that the night would be hard and dreamless. I started to understand why monks climb up before sunrise, not in the afternoon and I suddenly saw their surprised faces, when they realized what the target of my expedition was.
Remains of war
Finally, I arrived at the last step, and the last several, but desperately long meters to the edge of the hill. Then I saw something really unexpected, half overgrown by the bush and grass, was a rusting anti-aircraft cannon jutting out, hidden under the low trees.
A silent witness of the last of many merciless wars. The deadly instrument of the defeated Red Khmers, or else destroyed Lon Nol troops, or even, perhaps, victorious Vietnamese army, bringing peace and the rule of Hun Sen under the careful supervision of his communist neighbor.
I turned my back to the still menacing outstanding barrel. I turned my back away from death and saw a pagoda, one hundred years old, and right behind it the three towers of the venerable Shiva’s temple. I wiped off a hot sweat from my forehead, eyes, and glasses and approached the life. A cannon and a temple, death, and life. Something old must die to free a space, so something new can be born. It is always a recurrent rhythm. This was the unsuspected objective of my journey.
The three stone towers of the temple constructed in the time of the king Yasovarman I., have been raised to the clear sky, decorated by crumbled statues of Devatas, deities, and guards. Behind them, the next three smaller towers, and on their tops grew up the three blooming young trees. The new, growing on the base of the old.
The old had slowly fallen into the remains of stone lingams. Only a few people still pay respect and make a sacrifice to them. All around there were fragments of once mighty lions whose triumphant roar became silent a long time ago. The new has been growing and striking roots into the remains of the old, then welling up to provide a genial shadow for tired pilgrims and a shelter to the birds. Death gives life and life procreates death. Or vice versa.
But there was something more, the original target of my journey. The small hillock, stuck out from the top of the hill, a few meters aside, whereon lays a giant lingam, the greatest one remaining in Cambodia. The symbol of the Father and the Destroyer of life, to which worshippers from all the country gave pilgrimage. They come to pay respect and pour water over him; the woman grantor of life, because they knew that no father can create a life without a mother.
The lingam was lying on the ground, broken up and only through his grandiosity still reminded us of faded greatness and glory of the fallen empire, which ruled Southeastern Asia, one thousand years ago. I wished to sacrifice water for him but there was not even a drop left in my bottle. So I just stood silently, watched as he was lightened by the last rays of the sun, and I prayed to him to forgive me and help me to forgive.
I went slowly and carefully down the stairs and counted all of them. The result of which was six hundred and thirty-five. If you add these numbers you will get five. The five-pointed pentagram, a symbol of Venus, mother goddess. The very first woman full of lust and love. The female protector Eset, collecting the relics of the slashed body of Osiris in all corners of the country, who wanted to raise the Father from the dead and give back Life. Finally, I have understood that the lust is not a sin, but a gift.