Last Friday, I sat down to have lunch at Boddhi Tree, a little cafe across from the former torture center of Tuol Sleng. My friend Neary and I were seated outside at a table shaded by palm trees. Neary sat across from me, and the discreet gray walls of Tuol Sleng rose from behind her. If it were not for the postcard stands, and moto men who were ready to shuttle people to and from the museum, the building could be mistaken for any old school. Thirty years ago men were having their hands dipped in acid and fingers cut off. I sat sipping an iced lime tea in a wicker chair with a breeze fanning me as I munched on green leaves and mangos. How quickly history can be erased it seems, or rather ignored.
Neary began to tell me a story that has stayed with me, haunting me during the night. There is a recent story of a family from the province, a quite unfortunate story. The daughter who was about sixteen or seventeen complained to her parents that her head hurt. Her parents decided that they would take her to the doctor—a good thing. But then her brother, her stupid brother, said to them, ‘Why are you taking her to the doctor? There is a very good healer who cures many illnesses like the one Sister has.’ The parents agreed, and the next day, they took her to this healer. The man told the parents that they must leave their daughter with him. They said, ‘OK.’ The parents then went back home. A few days later, the parents went to visit their daughter, which is also good. When they saw her, she had clumps of hair missing, and in place of hair, she now had burn marks from lit incense sticks that were pushed into her scalp. The daughter said to her parents when she saw them, ‘Mother, Father, I am very scared. Please, take me home.’ The parents pitied their daughter, but the healer said to the parents, ‘She must suffer to get better. You must leave her with me.’ The stupid parents believed the healer and left their daughter with this man. They believed so much in the power of healers, in Buddha, that they left their daughter even though she was very much in pain. The brother said to the parents, ‘Don’t worry, Sister will be fine in a few days. The healer is very good.’ The following week, the parents went to see the daughter again. The parents saw with their own eyes what this man was doing to their daughter. He fed her dog piss and shit. He made her eat it, and when she vomited, he beat her. Her parents saw this, and still, still they left. The parents began to worry about their daughter’s condition. A few days later, they decided they would bring her home and take her to a doctor. As they were leaving to get their daughter, a neighbor asked, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘To get our daughter,’ they replied. ‘Your daughter is dead,’ the neighbor told them. The parents cried and cried. The man apparently raped the daughter and made her do all kinds of sexual things until she died. She was basically tortured to death by a ‘healer.’
Neary’s face was serious; mine was stunned. Stunned at the gray building that was used for torture thirty-some-years ago rising from behind her. Stunned that today, the same kind of torture practiced during a time of genocide still persists. How easy it is to believe in fate, in Buddha. How easy it is to ignore the principles of rationality. Here, especially in the provinces, believing in Buddha and fate completely is the guiding principle in people’s lives. But then again, these people who fully place their lives in the hands of a higher being, have grown up with the cultural belief that one’s fate is beyond one’s control. Having been raised with Western beliefs, I refuse to replace matters of science with religion, at least not completely.
There are two parts to every human being: the physical body and the mind. I believe in the physical maintenance of one’s body. Oftentimes, this requires the examination of one’s physical organs etc. I also believe in taking care of one’s mind, and for many, this happens through spirituality and religion. I believe that one’s body can be healed, but if one’s spirit is not taken care of, the body cannot fully heal. Likewise, I think that one’s spiritual well being can be cared for, but if one’s physical health is neglected, one also remains unwell. It is somewhat easy and idealistic for me to make these suggestions.
I am troubled by my assertions because even though, I am strong in my beliefs, I don’t think I can impose these beliefs on other people. But, what if the parents in Neary’s story had been forced to bring their daughter to the doctor? Their daughter would probably still be alive. How can you tell someone what to believe in or not to believe in? Can you impose your beliefs on someone else? Can you only do so when it begins to harm the well being of another person? I’m not sure. This is a question that I’ve long struggled to answer.
My mother is a great believer in fate and Buddha. And, I’m not a disbeliever, but like my father, I believe in my own capabilities, especially that of my mind. I believe that human beings are able to think for a reason, and therefore, it would be foolish to ignore this ability. I cannot tell my mother that she cannot rely on Buddha for all matters. I cannot tell her that I think her belief in Buddha is oftentimes misleading. Doing so, I would essentially be telling her that what gives her life meaning doesn’t exist.
True Buddhism doesn’t involve the idolatry embraced by many practicing Buddhists today. It doesn’t involve burning paper money for the gods or offering them shots of Hennessey and cigarettes. It doesn’t require one to go to the temple, bearing gifts for monks to receive a sprinkling of holy water on one’s head. Buddhism, at its root, requires one to find peace and happiness with oneself and the world by engaging one’s mind. Material things have no value. We, as human beings, are inherently materialistic, and so, materialism infiltrates every aspect of our lives, even our faith. That was a bit of an offshoot from my original point, but I think that according to Buddhist principles, the parents in Neary’s story would have taken their daughter to a doctor to give her the physical healing she needed. Neary’s story is not an isolated case. What is the resolution? I don’t know.