First Refrain from Doing Harm
I once thought boredom to be beautiful. Not that I experienced anything beauteous when bored, I just assumed the sheer mass of non-experience was, in itself, an experience. It took place in such loaded, symbolic surroundings that I considered it beautiful.
As a small child, my family (my father, mother, sisters and I, though rarely my brother) would sporadically attend services at Amaravati, a Theravada Buddhist monastery in the Thai Forest Tradition. This is one of the most austere and simple branches of Theravada, which places emphasis on the predominance of the mind over the world—that is, it sees the mind as an immutable, luminous, undying thing that receives the world the way a letterbox receives letters.
I didn’t know this as a small child. I understood only that monks in saffron and nuns in brown led the morning prayers, interminable in Pali and Khmer; that I’d get a lunch of Khmer food, served as a sort of buffet; and that, after lunch, my sisters and I would play in the ‘Rainbow Room’, a space full of soft and unthreatening things, while my mum continued chatting in the sala (in interminable Khmer) to other Cambodians and my dad, I don’t actually know. He sat there, I suppose, in near silence; a white Western man who married an immigrant and wound up wedded to a community.
As a teenager, I continued to attend temple services. I didn’t have a choice in this. My mother said we were going to temple and so we went to temple. It never struck me that I could refuse. All the while, my peers were experimenting with Wicca and swearing at their parents. It was wild, their ability to welcome these new structures into their heads. My mother wouldn’t let me paint my nails or pierce my ears; I couldn’t accessorise myself into a new person. At fourteen years old it seemed that the person I would always be had unspooled already, from a storage place she had been folded into at birth—I curled out of my own brain like a lotus unfolding in muddy water.
In my teens, I grew more aware of the service’s functions. The ‘buffet’ was actually the only food the monks and nuns—the sangha—would eat and was provided by the congregation or the resident lay community. The congregation, when I attended, was almost entirely Khmer. The sangha was overwhelmingly white. They had not chosen one another.
Outgrowing the Rainbow Room, I’d take long walks with my sisters through the monastery grounds. There was a gong, a pond, and a huge field with a glowing white stupa in the middle. We’d stroll up to it and leave the flowers we’d idly threaded into our hair in an alcove set into the stupa, where a tiny, serene Buddha meditated. The weather was eternally beatific. Amaravati remains one of the most dreamlike places I have ever been.
So I was bored, but I knew I was bored in a way my school friends never were. Maybe they’d been to see Incubus without a chaperone, but I had an entire temple of ritual at my disposal. I was different.
There was, and is, always a scramble for the lunch queue. Cambodians are intense about food in a way that they aren’t about freeing themselves from the cycle of samsara (perpetual rebirth). The sangha and the resident lay community eat first, as their vows prevent them from eating after midday, and then, the Cambodians descend.
The sangha only eat the vegetarian or vegan dishes. The first precept—one of the five moral principles that Buddhists voluntarily undertake to facilitate their escape from the cycle of samsara—is to refrain from doing harm. The sangha thus avoid anything that might have caused an animal to suffer in its making. This isn’t always easy with a congregation of South East Asians. Most Cambodian dishes involve chicken or fish. In Cambodia, monks eat whatever they are given, meat included, as long as they don’t suspect the animal was killed specifically for them; in England, the monks can be fussier.
Once, precariously balancing my plate as I tiptoed out from the kitchen, I passed a cupboard where the prayer cushions were normally kept. Wedged inside was a linen-clad member of the resident lay community. She was eating some rice, her eyes wide with panic. She had come to Amaravati for a retreat, perhaps to meditate, and now all these noisy Cambodians were running about the place arguing over the desserts and making the sala smell of meat.
I say I ‘once’ saw this woman, as if it happened a long time ago. I saw her last year. My mother doesn’t force me to go to temple anymore, but I still attend on the holy days. My sisters don’t come; my father does, but only because he has to do the driving. My mother is much more lax than she was in my youth, and we’ll often arrive late to prayers. As these are chanted in an unbroken block for half an hour, I have to sit, pay respects (touching my forehead to the ground three times), and attempt to catch the thread of where we are while my mother greets people in whispers.
At some point in my twenties, the first precept broke through the years of habitual recital and took on a desperate imperative. I wasn’t sure I had ever refrained from harming anything. I brought harm into people’s lives as a matter of course. I called the largest part of my harm-giving ‘emotional involvement’. I was like an infection against which the antibiotic of the precepts and their good intentions had proven useless. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed for decades that an antibiotic was even at work.
I stopped eating meat. My mother found this choice peculiar, and Western.
The monks and nuns fill their begging bowls from a spread of food brought by the attendees of the service or provided by the kitchens of the monastery, which itself is funded solely by donations. Monks are not permitted to handle money, and the second precept is to refrain from taking what it not given. In Theravada Buddhism, you’re awfully reliant on the kindness of others.
This has bothered me for years. To reach nirvana and be freed from the cycle of rebirth, you must adhere to the second precept strictly. But for those living in the world, this is nigh on impossible. Theravada Buddhism sometimes feels like nirvana for the few, not the many. The more I think about this, the more annoyed I become.
In Mahayana Buddhism, it is possible for those on the cusp of enlightenment to become bodhisattvas—a person who has achieved perfect knowledge—before they reach enlightenment, turning on the wheel of rebirth in order to provide a spoke for others. Compassion scaffolds Mahayana in a way that it doesn’t Theravada.
“It has the fat Buddhas,” my mother helpfully explains.
Mahayana Buddhism is the dominant Buddhist school in (among other places) China, Korea and Tibet. Theravada, the older and more conservative branch, is the dominant school in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Sri Lanka. Approximately 95% of Cambodians living in Cambodia identify as Theravada Buddhist. When I was a teenager, my peers asked me about the fat Buddhas in the same way they asked me whether Cambodia was ‘like China’—as if China was a small, homogenous country that another country could be ‘like’.
They didn’t mean harm, but the cultures of East Asia have a far more pervasive grip on the imaginations of the British than those of South East Asia, particularly former French Indochina. South East Asians are elided; their identities flattened out, Orientalised. As I’m mixed race, I’m also fair-skinned, and anyone picking up on my non-Western ethnicity often assumes that I am part-Chinese. Men who say they have a thing about Asian girls—and mean East Asian girls—will shove me into that egregious erotic pantheon. I brandish my identity like a flag, otherwise people miss it, and I’ll tell you what: white people hate it when you go on about how not white you are. This may give you some idea as to why I feel discomfited by my attraction to Mahayana. I feel I am betraying ‘my people’. Worse still, in the act of betrayal, I am forced to admit that I—a tired, solipsistic introvert—have a people.
I identified as ‘no religion’ on the 2011 census and it has bothered me ever since. I don’t live with an absence of religion. I can’t remember what point I was trying to make, although I do recall that my mother, who was sat next to me, visibly flinched.
I describe myself as ‘culturally religious’. This means that, because my mother, adrift in a foreign land, found comfort in the familiarity of the sangha and the temple, and because fragmented aspects of Theravada Buddhism had formed such an important part of her life growing up, I learned the prayers and kept up with the holidays as it allowed her to feel that her culture—wrenched from her by a genocide—was still alive in her own home. If the second precept requires that we refrain from taking what is not given, perhaps we also have a duty to gratefully accept what is given to us. In my case, the gift is the idea of a country.
My right hip is substantially more ‘closed’ than my left. My left hip is open. If I lift my left foot and snuggle the heel into the hollow of my right-hand hip, my left knee flops out and hits the floor. But my right hip resists. If I swap sides and guide my right foot into the left hip hollow, my right knee hovers several inches off the ground while in that knee, there’s a faint pinching. These positions are known as half lotuses in yoga. One side of my lotus has crushed petals, as it were. I cannot dismiss it as unfortunate lop-sidedness. The difference is profound enough to be traced to physical habit.
In Buddhist temples, unless you are old or so used to Western seating your legs simply give out, you sit on the floor. I sit, have always sat, with both of my knees pointing to the left. My left hip learned to stay open, my right: to remain closed. I used to try and sit cross-legged. This would have evened out my lotus. But my mother repeatedly asked me to rearrange my legs. From what I understood, it wasn’t very nice to have my crotch pointed directly towards the sangha leading the prayers, and the Buddha.
The lotus is a holy flower. The body is not.
The third precept is to refrain from sexual misconduct. Naturally, as in any country where the patriarchy operates in full force, i.e. all of them, this is used as a way to control women. My grandfather, who was left on the steps of a temple and brought up by monks (meaning that, until he was a young man, his name was the Khmer words for Big Nose, as they couldn’t see the point in giving him a proper one), was ferocious in his guardianship of my mother’s virtue. She, in turn, was unfashionably rigorous with mine. Nevertheless, it comes as a surprise to no one that I have very loose interpretations of 'refrain' and 'misconduct'. I can’t cope with this precept otherwise.
I am the most religious member of my family, in the sense that I spend the most time thinking about religion. Ritual attracts me as much as spirituality, and I find the ways they overlap and split asunder fascinating. I am very drawn to lapsed Catholics, specifically, as a result.
If I meet anyone who was brought up religious, I will ask them if they ever believed, and at what point they stopped believing. As I am usually asking this of former monotheists, I ask: when did they stop composing letters to God in their head? When did they stop asking for intervention, knowing that they may as well have addressed their requests to the potholes in the pavement?
For most of them, the answer is that they never really believed, but didn’t recognise that lack of belief as a lack until they were older and further away from the habit of ritual. My housemate says he spent his youth waiting for the belief to hit him, aware from the start that ritual was just the map to the garden of faith. A beautiful man with red hair, who I was trying to seduce through the medium of intense and depressing religious discussion, told me that he had prayed as a boy because he thought that he ought to, and never considered himself in communication. But ritual can become a nervous tick. ‘I suppose I still think about it sometimes,’ he said, ‘when I have a problem that I can't solve or I really want someone to look after me.’
The fourth precept is to refrain from false speech. I sometimes regard ritual as false speech, and it troubles me. The ritual should be providing me with a foundation. Instead it lulls me, as it lulled me for years, until I feel the press of the individual words on my chest and panic. With prayers in Pali and Khmer, and my first, and really only, language being English, it is unsurprising that I considered Buddhism as a sort of Cambodian party. But when I surfaced and broke through my own complacency, I saw thousands of hours of hypocrisy clumped at my feet. Sometimes I feel more Buddhist than I feel Cambodian, and that’s when I feel the most disgust for what I am, for what I became while I wasn’t checking up on myself.
Pchum Ben is a Cambodian-specific celebration. For fifteen days, the gates of Hell are open and the dead walk the earth. My friend Anne once asked me how a belief in a hell, with gates, full of ancestors, tallied with the idea of reincarnation and the cycle of samsara. I sent her the Wikipedia page for Pchum Ben, which explains that it occurs ‘without much explanation’. This is what happens when you let religion loose on people—they dick around.
In Cambodia, the living make offerings of food to the dead. The sangha are very keen this is done via the conduit of monks’ digestive systems as their eating the food will generate karmic merit, which benefits everyone. The community prefer more dynamic action, such as throwing rice into fields, presumably hoping they will lamp a ghost.
At Amaravati, the sangha lead the congregation in the burning of names. We write the names of our dead on pieces of paper, which are burned in silver cups. There is a small collection for donations to the temple. There are specific prayers. I find the ceremony hauntingly sad. I don’t know all the names of my dead. There are too many.
The Pchum Ben ceremonies appeal to me conceptually because I like Halloween. I call October ‘the spooky month’ as if I am not a grown-up woman who pays taxes and worries about her fertility window. The idea of a culturally specific festival of hungry ghosts ought to be right up my pumpkin patch.
In reality, Pchum Ben unfailingly renders me sad and anxious. This is partly because a celebration for the dead around a community of immigrants from a country that destroyed and devoured itself—killing a third of its population in the process—is intrinsically, overpoweringly sad. But it is also because I fear that my ancestors, stumbling through the gates of hell in search of rice, would be disappointed by what they saw in me.
The fifth precept is to refrain from intoxicating substances, which lead to carelessness. Generally speaking, Cambodians don’t drink much. If there is a community lunch, most people will drink water or Coca-Cola. My mother’s insistence on having a glass of wine or a beer doesn’t stem from a flouting of faith, but is consistent with her upbringing; as a daughter of a rich, post-colonial bourgeoisie family, certain French habits were observed and lauded. Drinking alcohol socially was one of them. My Buddhist family even celebrated Christmas, although my mother had no idea who Jesus Christ was until she arrived in England. She thought Christmas was a sort of French party with presents and considered it extremely civilised.
Of course I drink, and of course I make a fool of myself. It is important to remember that the precepts do not function like the Ten Commandments. You are not under any obligation to follow them and you are no less a Buddhist if you don’t. It is simply nearly impossible to free yourself of the cycle of reincarnation and reach nirvana without using them as guidance. If you decide not to adhere to the precepts, you are answerable to no one but yourself. I have always liked that about Buddhism.
But give people rules and they will find ways to punish transgression. I do it to myself if no one else is around to do it to me. The first time I took magic mushrooms, I saw the faces of my ancestors in the corners of the room. They were shaking their heads. They were so, so angry with me.
This profoundly unpleasant and frightening encounter has since become an amusing anecdote. The context being that I was brought up so strictly, so Cambodian-ly, that of course I would hallucinate ancestral disapproval rather than a carpet of snakes or eyeballs in lightbulbs. Hilarious. Someone should put it in a Buzzfeed article about #GrowingUpAsian.
My experience of it, though, felt like I was receiving the hot heart of a truth I’d been taught but hadn’t examined until pushed to my limits. My ancestors were there because the wheel of samsara was still turning. I was in terror because the wheel of samsara was still turning. I was going to suffer and cause suffering for countless lifetimes because the wheel of samsara was still turning.
It is harmful to be alive. I don’t know what I believe in, exactly, but I do believe in that. And I believe in my self and my body and my identities as much as the back catalogue of harms I’ve caused—because I couldn’t learn to recognise the latter without the former. And this paragraph has taken me half an hour to write because I want to end this essay on a pithy but (ultimately) uplifting line about what having identities outside the secular norm of Western society can teach a person. But I am not a teacher. All I can offer is the statement that it is harmful to be alive. Life is a terrible intoxicant. Long may we be drunk on it, at our worst—which is also our only—until the wheel stops and we fly free.
Photograph by Amaravati Buddhist Monastery