On Tuesday, we were woken early in the morning to the sound of drumbeats and clanging bells. It was Visaka Bochea, the day that Buddhists commemorate the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha. A little while later, as we sat outside, began the deep, sonorous chanting of the monks from Wat Langka, the temple that lies across the narrow street from our hotel. The colorful banners that the monks had hung the day before swayed in the wind as the drums and bells continued to sing all day long. I took a peek inside the gate and saw the doors and windows of the temple wide open, and the sanctuary room was filled to capacity with the faithful. All day they were there, praying, listening to the monks. Come nightfall, the whole city is adorned in colorful, mismatched lights such as only Cambodians can make pretty. You can feel the celebration in the air, and you can see it in the crowds of people that gathered in the "parks" that create divisions in the road and the way they dance and blast their music on sub-par stereos. Quality doesn't matter, though; it's all about camaraderie.
That night, we headed to the rooftop of the FCC (Foreign Correspondent's Club) for dinner. We were treated with the most breathtaking views of the Tonle Sap River right in front of us and the Mekong River in the distance. The moon was full, and it reflected as bright as the sun would on the calm water below. In the distance, clouds clashed and produced the orange glow of lightening streaks. It was the most amazing phenomenon; the sky was clear above our heads and we couldn't hear any thunder, but you could see the jagged bolts as if through a screen far away. It was mesmerizing.
Lauren and I ventured over to Wat Ounalom, where the head of Cambodia's Buddhist brotherhood lives. It was midday, and we were pretty much the only ones there. We crept up the stairs to the main temple, and inside we found an ornate shrine covered in religious relics and flowers. There was another surprise in the temple hall; if you look closely, you can see a young monk fast asleep on a mat in front of the shrine:
We tiptoed to the exit in order not to wake him; he just looked so peaceful. Outside, we came across an older nun. She beckoned to us with her toothless smile and produced two thick red strings of yarn. One after the other she tied the red cloths around our wrists, smiling and babbling on in Khmer. The bracelets are supposed to provide protection and strength. Last year, a Buddhist nun tied these red bracelets around our wrists at Angkor Wat, but mine has since stretched out, so I don't wear it for fear of it falling off. But now my right wrist stands adorned with a new, tighter bracelet, thicker than the last, but its purpose is the same.
We walked to the sanctuary on the ground floor where we found a few older men conversing with a monk of the temple. When the monk saw us enter, he too stood up and presented us with the red bracelet which he tied around our wrists right next to the one from the nun. To receive twice the blessings of the monks, and not five minutes between them! I hope this means we will be blessed with extra protection and extra strength. The second bracelet is a little thinner than the first, but this helps me to tell them apart. I suppose it doesn't matter which is which, but for some reason I feel that I should be able to identify them. They feel very special, perhaps because of the seemingly spontaneous way in which they were presented to us.
I was quietly taking a picture of a some incense sticks in a quiet courtyard of stupas and a small temple when a booming voice called out (more like grunted) and possibly caused me to jump ten feet in the air. I turned around to see the owner of the noise, an elderly man, standing on the steps of the little temple and waving his arms at me. I thought he was complaining that I shouldn't be taking pictures in such a sacred place, so I hastened to throw my camera back in my bag. But he kept motioning, and in very broken English indicated that if I wanted to, I could enter the temple. I cautiously walked up the steps (I could easily have been misinterpreting him) and he proceeded to open the door that had been locked. He pulled the door aside to reveal a tiny room with a Buddha shrine in the center. The man motioned me in, so I ducked my head at the narrow doorway and stepped inside. The man followed behind and sat on a mat on the ground, indicating I should do the same. Still a bit unsure of what was going on, I crouched down. A moment later, I heard Lauren being hustled into the same space by a young woman who was smiling and chattering in Khmer (it seems to be a trend here...). We both looked at each other confused, though intrigued. The man lit two incense sticks and handed them to us, whence we held them in front of the golden Buddha so that the smoke may carry our prayers to him. Then the old man took a bundle of incense sticks and dipped them in a goblet of water, and proceeded to spray us while chanting. I have no idea what he said. He kept chanting and chanting, flinging water droplets on us as we sat silent, transfixed. Then he took each of our right hands, palm side up, and said a prayer over them. The only part of the prayer that I caught was the end, when he chanted, long and drawn out, "sok sobbay", which I only know as a greeting and a return greeting: "How are you? I'm fine, thank you." Then he splashed water on our upturned palms and indicated that we should rub it all over our faces. The water was refreshingly cool and smelled of incense. I felt as if I'd been baptized, but I think it's more of a general blessing ritual.
We walked out of Wat Ounalom dumbfounded. We were blessed twice by monks and their protective red bracelets, then we were blessed a third time by the man in the little temple. I've never had that ceremony performed on me before. I wish I knew what it all meant, what the man was chanting, but I suppose the mystery is part of the intrigue. This is a culture and religion so much different than the the two in which I was brought up. I'm drawn to its beauty, its complexities and simplicities, its shining colors, and its foreignness. I want to immerse myself in it and make it a part of my life just as Judaism and Christianity are. I'm thankful for this ability to incorporate so many different factions of my life that I love and make them one. Where others see a contrast, I create a melting pot. Buddhism is playing a greater and greater role in my life, and I welcome it with open arms. I sit in the meditation room of Wat Langka and stare at the paintings on the wall that tell the story of Buddha, I stare at the shining gold Buddha at the front of the room and the shimmering gold curtain that shelters him. Somehow being in this temple makes me reflect on how all my religions play a role for me. I can hardly believe each day that, at 5 o'clock, I am meditating in a beautiful Buddhist temple in the heart of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, this mysterious, enchanting, and wonderful country that is so foreign and yet so comfortable at the same time. It is then that I realize that this is my greatest blessing.