Below are selections of writing about Cambodia I made during my five trips there, taken between January 2005 and November 2007. I had the good fortune and indeed privilege to spend over four-hundred days in Cambodia, a country I fell immediately in love with and yet, simultaneously, was anxious to flee - my first visit was only seven days, a trip I cut short from a planned eleven.
When I returned to the U.S., one day, a few months later, I read a New York Times article a friend had sent me about the killing fields and other legacies of the Khmer Rouge era. When I got to the fifth paragraph I was suddenly struck with an overwhelming certainty (or "instruction") that I had to return to Cambodia. That moment began in earnest an odyssey that transformed my life as much or more than any other time, place or person ever had before (save Chögyam Trungpa, though it was he who I most of all felt there).
I use "privilege" in a two-fold sense. Since the time of Herodotus, travel to foreign lands has been an intellectual and aesthetic privilege, a life-expanding pleasure combined with the freedom gained by leaving, always temporarily, one's routine. The other sense is political; those of us of middle-class backgrounds living in industrialized or first-world countries are able to travel because of the wealth of our status, a kind of privilege that is often ignored and has come, at least in part, through legacies of colonialism and exploitation. In short, though economically rather low on the middle-class spectrum, I can afford to travel to Cambodia whereas the average Cambodian could never even afford the cost of a passport (ironically more expensive in Cambodia than the U.S.).
In my two-faceted privilege I aspired to be a "conduit," to perhaps brings something of benefit back from Cambodia to people here and to bring something of benefit to Cambodians. The former is, hopefully, best represented by these writings and my documentary film, Cambodia: Lord Mukpo's Dream Time. As for Cambodia, I was on the verge of founding a school there, The Western Mountain Center of Art & Meditation, the model for which were classes I held in my room for young men who worked in the guest house I stayed in.
This effort was cut short when I learned in late 2007 that my mother had cancer. I returned to the U.S. and became her primary care giver during the remaining five months of her life. Since her death, I have assisted my father in his own transition, Alzheimer's disease, and I continue to remain with him here in the U.S., my plans to return to Cambodia not abandoned but on hold. - Bill Scheffel, January 2010.
In the globalized and environmentally threatened world of 2010, Cambodia maintains a fragile existence; still recovering from the Khmer Rouge era, “developing” and vulnerable to global forces that threaten to overwhelm it, it is still an agrarian and Buddhist society, a "democracy" mostly in name where the privileged few operate with often lawless impunity, grabbing land or evicting people from neighborhoods they've lived in for decades. Like the majority of the world’s citizens, nearly everyone I have come to know there earns between one and two dollars a day.
We have entered the new era of environmental crisis. As the paradigms of consumerism begins to collapse – even as its momentum increases – the striving for affluence can hardly be seen as a model for "development" or the future. I saw the future in Cambodia, all around me - in the earthy presence of “poor” Cambodian (who, though they work hard, usually seven days a week, never seem to “rush”). Our collective future, if we are to have one, must begin with an increase in simplicity. A rebalancing between first and third worlds. The poverty of Cambodia is dire and our excesses abominable. The potential for mutual instruction and exchange is huge.
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My first sight of Cambodia came from the window of a Russian Y-9, a prop-jet from Bangkok. Through the round window I saw Cambodia and felt a kind of urgency that said, “Look, I’m seeing this for the first time!” We landed in Phnom Penh and the city immediately began to haunt me with a strange significance, as personal and intimate as a departed parent appearing in a dream. As I lay awake that night, in the buzz of intermittent mosquitoes, roosters crowing at light bulbs, and the clatter of my room fan, I felt I had been here before, that Cambodia had shaped me, that I was returning, somehow, to my own history. I thought of the people I’d met during the day. Singularly curious and open-faced, not afraid to look me in the eye. I couldn’t wait to see them again…
Tarantula. A leap from the roasted grasshoppers I ate in Bangkok - bypassing the cockroaches - to a palm-sized arachnid. I buy it on the way to the banks of the Mekong/Tonle Sap (it is these rivers that have arrested me), on that most lovely named of streets, Sisowath Quay. I buy the tarantula from a heap of others. An eight-year old girl sells it to me. I kneel down and she allows me into her world of barter without flinching. Takes 700 real. Puts it in a bag. The Tonle Sap is bordered by Sisowath Quay, the Mekong meets it further down, beyond the city center. Here the rivers spread and the sky opens. Clouds heaped into the distance, violet, a trace of pink, ominous grays. It rained minutes ago and will again. I eat two legs - mostly the taste of salt and chile powder. Brittle. I bite half the thorax off; a mealiness, I feel hesitant. Mild nausea. Anything animal we don't know hints of chicken and I notice that here. Across the river tall coconut trees are silhouetted like unusual mushrooms or minarets. I've stared at this water throughout the last eleven days. Often in the morning, before coffee, with the soft stillness of 6:30 a.m. Even more painful than seeing the garbage dump and the people living there was the sight of water infected by sewage. Whole parts of town, shanty buildings erected besides such waterways, are forced to create such waterways. The water black, opaque as engine oil. A stench. The water is a negative mirror. An injury. Something that shouldn't be. A sinister shadow of our choices. A heartbreak (it does empty into the rivers before me). Such a complex current, mesmerizing elegance under the softening sky, losing it's color as the sun sets. I eat two more legs, the increase of salt and spice welcome after the second bite of the thorax, more ample in my mouth than I expected. Tough. The back of the head is semi-hollow, sweeter. Finally the eyes, the jaws, remnants of the legs from the bottom of the bag. I feel stable and confident. It was near here that I saw an Indian, a sadhu it seemed, two mornings in a row. Hair tied back, matted, in orange robe, dignified, to himself, untroubled, he leaned against a flagpole as I am now, expelled stale air, yoga-wise, from each nostril. Stared at the Mekong in the distance. His eyes like the captain of a ship, responsible to himself. He assumed a full lotus and took up his overt spiritual practice while everyone else went on about him. He inspired me. The tarantula would taste much different unsalted and uncooked. I know village people in Cambodia today rely on insects for a significant portion of their diet. During the Khmer Rouge era and its starvation, many people, especially the city people, were reduced to eating insects raw, secretly. I will miss the sight of these rivers, and look now so that memory records them indelibly. There are surprisingly few commercial craft on the water, none of the stream of barges loaded with stuff you see in Bangkok, just a couple of tourist boats and tiny fishing boats, powered by ancient engines, trolling with nets the size of a bedsheet. You can sit along the river on the granite topped stone embankment that runs for many blocks. Beside it, a wide sidewalk, then grass, then Sisowath Quay. It draws the population to it, and people of all economic persuasions are gathered here, always.
Today I stood on Phnom Penh's highest point of land. With views. "The Rubbish," Charlie called it, as we approached on his motorbike, "People live here, you know." Empty garbage trucks passed us coming down the rain-soaked glop of muddy road that gradually became the garbage itself, a tremendous ever growing mound that one could see the beginning but not the end of. Tarp houses built on top of it with families inside. Everything wet and the palate of man-made debris ash-dusted with flies at it. A handful of sparrows dipping about. "The birds are scared," Charlie explained, the people will catch and eat them." We stood there while maybe two-hundred men, women and children worked, industriously. They glanced at us infrequently, furtively in some cases, but mostly with polite discretion or with indifference. There was dull breeze and the air was quiet, mechanized sounds, except for the trucks, far away. All the labor was manual, done either with bare hands or feeble tools, a stick or flimsy hoe. I stood, propped up by impressions contradictory and irreducible. "Cover your mouth and nose," Charlie said, "you will get sick." But many of the people worked without a handkerchief? Though never without a hat or scarf. Their clothes indistinguishable from the garbage and their own dwellings, everything filth and a stench in the air that was more biting with my nose covered. The task of each worker was to probe about, sort through, collect materials for recycling and earn their next meal. This was their home, cooking occurred, water was brought from somewhere. Several young woman passed in front of me, with lovely complexions and dark eyes, beautiful. They could have been among blooming frangipani. Some flirted and teased the boys around them. Older women dark, severe, scarf-wrapped with concentrated intent working this rice field of abandoned matter, the emptied out garbage cans of 1.3 million people, plus everything torn-down, swept from the street or recently dead. The rain making it into soup. "How do you end up here?" Charlie repeated my question. "In Cambodia we pay for our own medical care. If you, or a close relative, is sick or injured you sell everything. That could be one way." Every person there had a story. I wanted to know them. I wanted to know even one of them.
The odyssey we human beings in the “developed world” have embarked upon is almost too darkly insane to contemplate. - Gretel Erlich, The Future of Ice
Luxury is experiencing reality - Chögyam Trungpa
Boulder, 2006. I'm back in my trailer and central heating is a pleasure in March snow, though the walls barely insulate. When the furnace shuts off cold drafts press in at once. The place is silent. Except for bird calls. Except for today, as snowmelt drips and sparrows and nuthatch sing. The galvanized pipe that feeds the kitchen sink, circa 1972, is now so rusted shut it takes half a minute to fill a water glass and I'm forced to wash dishes in the bathroom sink. I've bought the piping, soldering torch and the valves to repair it, though I know I probably shouldn't. Both I and the world's water supply would be better off with this seeming inconvenience, one that is really a disguised luxury. I walk slowly down the hall, so as not to spill food debris on the carpet. I wash the dishes slowly, so I don't crack them against the porcelain. The bathroom is a pleasant and intimate grotto, with muted orange walls and the head of a bull, hand carved in Mexico (circa 1993) hanging above me. Sometimes I'm aware of every drip of water. This is like washing dishes in a creek. Even the kitchen sink's miniscule current of water, when I choose to use it, cleans with stunning effectiveness; the difference between a plate rinsed and unrinsed, or between my hands, covered with orange pulp or garlic skins and then washed clean, is enormous. The luxury of water is not a golf course or hydro-electric dam but simply its taste in our mouth and feeling on our skin.
My desire to buy things, even own things, has collapsed to such a degree I can feel it in my body. There is little urge, twitch or anxiety. Nothing in my stomach saying, You need it. Of course, I sent my typewriter in for repair. I'm willing to spend $120 to clean and oil it and recover the carriage in fresh rubber so the keys have a soft landing. I had my shirts dry-cleaned and there is a good bottle of Italian Sangiovese on sale for $9.99. Of course there are beautiful things to buy and I appreciate them but the urge to buy is intermittent, and the thought of what I would do with, say, a new couch, just doesn't go anywhere. Three months in Cambodia inoculated me. Tutored me. Awakened me. Pressed in upon me the truth of materialism, as we practice it, is a horrendous endgame that doesn't deserve to be fed. It is an old truth, one I've known since I was a teenager - since I was a child! - but these glimmering of release from its hold are close to an ecstasy and I long to go further.
In Cambodia, many people have no future. Thank God someone doesn't. Clearly the world is not so simple that one would trade everything we have for what they do. But I began to want to say to them: you have so much more than you realize, and we have so much less than we think. It was Cambodia who dismantled my opinions, made me sell my automobile, called me back for a second visit and gave me more courage.
February, 2007. Asking to be led and then finding myself led, through visions (made of such things as dreams, feelings in my body, my subtle body, my heart, intuitions, I Ching throws and automatic writing; but most of all intuitive explosions in my heart, a feeling of my spiritual lineage and teacher being present there, sometimes the very sight of them – all of these intangible things, that cannot be easily put into words, together they comprise my most tangible experience).
I seem to know my life only in three months or six-month segments, an approximate measurement of my conviction in these visions and how they endure, asking for my commitment, inspiring me. A segment ends through a sudden, unexpected and completely unpremeditated new vision. A complete surprise. It is uncanny, almost diabolical. Quit your job. Sell your call. Travel to Cambodia. Return again to live there.
On one level these instructions are the stuff of anyone’s life (of my life before). But revealed and acted upon, the conventional line they make is uneven, jagged, finally not the geography of a line but of a circle: inclusive and mysterious and intercepting itself in a way a line never could.
Now I face the same window that I did yesterday, but also six, seven and eight months ago. The third-floor window of a guest house in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It is room #209. Sitting on this bed, facing this window. As in any city, the skyline outside is a graphic, functioning confusion, sketches of time and its chaotic, unjust and often violent histories and incoherent building codes. This window, the floor tiles, the walls, the contents of my two suitcases, all are companions who I know rather well. In the limitation of this six-dollar a night room I am not overwhelmed by stuff. It is a place that somehow invited me to it. Reciprocally, it is a place where I extend daily supplications to the invisible world.
During meditation practice suchness returns, sometimes gradually, sometimes like a pan dropped to the floor. Someone leaves the room and I discover the one of me who remains is a more intimate friend, without critique, a far better person, transparent. Sometimes there is not even that one and the mind of the Imperial Drala is present and available to dissolve into. I read the text and if I inhabit the words each one is its own suchness - with new rooms, new paint, exotic plants - announcing something important if my voice will be its tongue. All the effort is to make myself the merest, barest, least noisy receptacle - a landing-platform, host, practitioner, human being. At least it becomes clear – every time – that my life and the curiosities and pleasures of it, its challenges, dramas and opportunities, everything that is worthwhile has come from Him, born when I first saw Him, first read His words, arriving anew whenever I think of Him… and my greatest day-to-day anxiety is that I will forget to think about Him as intensely and intimately as I sometimes have. I fear that dullness a great deal, even as I have found myself swayed by it.
Phnom Penh, 2007. I’m living in room #209 now - one floor closer to the street, to the noise, to the earth. During Chinese New Year most stay home, celebrate, eat, play cards, watch TV. The markets are closed. The streets are at once far freer of traffic and more nakedly filthy. There is no choice but to see the filth as beautiful, to incline in the direction one-taste. To inhale the smell of garbage deeply. To realize again how quickly it accumulates and how many earn a living from it - sweeping it, collecting it, sorting through is, recycling it, hauling it and sleeping near it or even on top of it. It is everywhere, appearing and disappearing like sunlight itself, leaving behind its residue of grease, grime or filth. Is this waste – found in every city from Berne to Bangkok - not the signpost of the setting sun, the darkening age, the diminishment of vitality and the thinning of the ozone layer, a thermometer of the emerging heat?
13-Oct:2007 – Chaing Kai Shek Airport, Taipei
5:54 AM. Grey plastic seat across from duty-free shop. Chivas Regal. Samsonite. Intoxication of travel occurs as simplification and nothing to rely on increases. Cambodia only hours of flight time away. How slowly the synthesis occurs. Moving-walkway gears clatter, muted. A radio plays without purpose. Parked yellow janitorial cart with assortment of spray bottles and broom stranded or idle as things operate through endless intersecting human symphonies playing electrified tools in a numbness of taking-it-for-granted back-lit by beginninglessness.
18-Oct:2007 – Lucky II Guest House, Phnom Penh
Four experience-stages in less than a day…
One: Tuk tuk ride from the airport - the unrealness of familiarity - the dust of Phnom Penh immediately in my eyes - the colonialist posture of the seat, the people along side us, inches away, strangers, but so much less than elsewhere I’m tempted to touch them - people, numberless in endless identical commerce proliferations - the uncanny slowness of the traffic - the dense bedlam of it as we near Phsa Orussey, our machine in traffic snarl nearly crushed the ankle of a driver beside us - the emphatic immediacy of being here, and yesterday absent, traceless - not even an echo.
Two: Dinner in a corner restaurant. One other customer. A family running it, the grandmother with her left arm in a homemade cast of boards lashed with torn apart shirts. I answer the young waitress in Khmer who predictably finds this astonishing and hilarious and I interrogate her with questions that bring more laughter. I’m parked in the corner of the place whose walls haven’t been scrubbed in years if ever and stare into the amphitheater of a contemporary Phnom Penh lit by headlights of passing motorcycles like bonfires in a caravansary apocalypse in which no one is wearing a wristwatch, much less looking at it. The television plays a poignant countryside scene, the family enthralled with concentration, silent, everyone on their elbows. No feeling of a past to rely upon or a future to venture into, no safety net, not even the word survival is adequate to conjure the vitality here, a well-oiled chaos running on bare light bulbs and charcoal fired cooking pots - where else can one find such a nowness?
Three: I dream of David Rome. He looks and talks and acts as he did thirty years ago and I walk alongside him, comforted by his unassuming, soft-spoken alertness. I begin to explain that I feel Lord Mukpo’s presence everywhere and often, and if I speak of this to someone else I can nearly break into tears - as I begin to do, right in front of David, confirming the very claim I am making. Our conversation goes on at length but I have forgotten everything else. I wake into a thick, moody, defeated desultory 5:50 a.m. and then it hits me, “What the hell am I doing here?” My life feels less than meaningful, my inspiration as thin as the plastic bathroom door. I know this feeling well and the I Ching snaps me out without apology, “The bed is split at the edge, those who persevere are destroyed.” In my time of greatest doubt it is not my place to doubt what I have allowed myself to be directed to, but only to approach it. Like a barber chair that has suddenly swiveled me forward again.
Photograph by Choun Dara
Four: One earth, many countries, one humanity. To live by vow or desire? To live, like the local motorcycles, without a rear-view mirror. From the guest house to the market a stream of those I recognize or even know. Great warmth and then I run out of words to keep the conversation going. Inside the arboretum of Phsa Orussey people glide past or stop to purchase a mango with the autochthonic elegance of branches in wind. It is as a warrior-artist that I must set aside anxiety and take in this corner of the solar system and what it has to offer in mutual sacrifice that stretches back in an unbroken chain of ancestors to the Buddha whose molecules were so warmed by compassion they can be felt even today and are among us.