August 8, 2006


The temples of Angkor are truly beautiful, not only in their architecture, which I cannot fully appreciate, not having been steeped in Asian traditions, but also in their power to remind us that this is humanity, this is the human conditions, things are built, things collapse, empires rise and fall, and human life goes on. Soksobai, as they say in Cambodia. Things are okay.

In the Bayon, the temple of a thousand faces, the golden towers, which has since fallen into a shadow of disuse, of its former glory, I met a nun who had devoted her life to the cause of the Buddha. She smiled from her small grotto, and gestured for me to approach her. I did. She motioned for me to sit down, and took three joss sticks out, and started to burn them. Come, she motioned, offer incense to the Buddha, come. I did. I wasn’t religious, I was just captivated by her face, an ancient face, creased with age and years of humble fanaticism, a face of gentle devotion. Put your hands together, she gestured, and wave it up and down.

Soksobai, she said. Soksobai.

I planted the joss sticks gently into the earthen pot, and thanked the Buddha (if he exists, or if he doesn’t exist, or both) and asked if I could take a picture of the nun. She smiled, and I took that to be a yes. Thank you. I put my palms together, saluting the divinity in her. Okun. I offered up the alms, a singular dollar, George Washington smiling as benevolently as the Buddha himself. Okun, came the reply, and she saluted the divinity in me.

Something magical, or something commonplace? I couldn’t decide. Was the experience transcendent, or a transaction? But these questions you brush off on the trip – think too much and you start caring too much, and you will never be able to leave. I take in my heart her smile, and life goes on. Soksobai, soksobai.

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