Oh Those Cambodians…

Where Elephants Weep

Via Danny Fisher, I read about the rock opera that was forced off the air in Cambodia due to complaints from monks. Apparently, they were offended by the character of a bad monk who disrobed, slept with a woman and then was later seen again in robes. There was some other coverage of this story at Precious Metal, Mongkol and also at Shambhala Sun, where Rod Meade Sperry in particular caught my attention with the following lines:

This stands in stark contrast to how we Westerners mostly deal with cultural portrayals of Buddhism. Whether it’s a rapper co-opting a chant for his song, or a major motion picture taking incredible liberties with Buddhist ideas or imagery, or just the mountains of semi-Dharmic knick-knacks that are popping everywhere, we — for the most part — just shrug our shoulders and say, “Meh.”

It seems like a very simple story. Cambodian monks are basically narrow-minded angry Asian Buddhists who get offended every time they see Buddhism wrapped up in something they don’t recognize. If only they were as open-minded as us Western Buddhists. Those rock opera producers certainly had no idea what they were doing when they put the character of a nasty monk into their plot. Or did they?

Few journalists care enough to report in depth about Cambodia (except you Nicholas Kristof!), so here’s what I’ve got to say on the subject.

So what is this crazy rock opera? It’s called Where Elephants Weep and it was put together by Amrita Performing Arts and Cambodian Living Arts, organizations devoted to the preservation of Cambodian cultural arts and even endorsed by the King of Cambodia. There’s nothing subversive to them at all. You can read more about the rock opera at the International Herald Tribune, Mongkol and NPR.

But what about the character of the bad monk? Well, the plot for Where Elephants Weep is very transparently a modern adaptation of a Khmer classic, the story of Tum Teav. It’s Cambodia’s Romeo and Juliet… where Romeo is a monk. (You can download a translation of the whole story with great commentary.) They teach this story in elementary school.

I was never fond of this story because I didn’t particularly like Tum (Romeo), but in retrospect I reckon it’s meant to be that way. In both the traditional story and the opera, a title character leaves the monkhood and sleeps with his beloved. There are some interesting plot twists, but in the end both characters die. To the point: the character at the center of this controversy was very deliberately put in the plot because he’s rooted in a traditional Khmer narrative.

So I was surprised when the monks demanded the show be withdrawn and the producers submit an apology. Certainly they have all read Tum Teav and are aware that it’s taught in school. It was, however, probably an influential elite who are at the center of this bruhaha.

Now, the AFP article was slightly misleading, which likely lead other readers to draw certain conclusions that might have been avoided had they read the RFI piece. The letter at the center of this controversy was written by the “leader of the Cambodian Buddhist Sangha,” and I can only think of one particular Khmer monk who would call himself that, but I digress… The point is that this letter doesn’t represent the general opinions of the Cambodian monastic community. We should no sooner assume the opinions of the Khmer Sangha align with those of a single monk, than we should assume that American Christians agree with the views of Jerry Falwell.

So what would get this monk so angry? Keep in mind that less than a month ago, Cambodia’s seventeenth monastic conference convened, where hundreds of monks had to discuss the dark sheep in the flock. With plenty of news reports and rumors of felonious monks, I imagine this particular Sangha leader might have been a bit overdefensive about TV portrayals of ill-behaved monks. It was probably the last thing he wanted to think about.

He should start a blog.

17 Replies to “Oh Those Cambodians…”

  1. when you write that the story could seem to be that “Cambodian monks are basically narrow-minded angry Asian Buddhists who get offended every time they see Buddhism wrapped up in something they don’t recognize. If only they were as open-minded as us Western Buddhists.” …i’m not sure if you think that’s what i’m suggesting, but (just to be clear) it’s not.

    i’m not saying there’s one way to think of these things that’s better than the other. though (all the politics of this particular case aside) i would have to say, while i’m all for “open-mindedness,” i think the Buddhist community might be better off if fewer of us had such a “whatever” attitude about co-optation.

    thanks for your always-insightful writing, Arunlikhati.

  2. What you wrote sounds unfair to Rod. Your commentary:

    It seems like a very simple story. Cambodian monks are basically narrow-minded angry Asian Buddhists who get offended every time they see Buddhism wrapped up in something they don’t recognize. If only they were as open-minded as us Western Buddhists.

    doesn’t at all reflect what he was getting at here:

    This stands in stark contrast to how we Westerners mostly deal with cultural portrayals of Buddhism. Whether it’s a rapper co-opting a chant for his song, or a major motion picture taking incredible liberties with Buddhist ideas or imagery, or just the mountains of semi-Dharmic knick-knacks that are popping everywhere, we — for the most part — just shrug our shoulders and say, ‘Meh.’

    where Rod is pretty transparently saying that western Buddhists are lacking in their willingness to challenge the commercialization and mis-use of Buddhism and its imagery. I’m guilty of this myself, I think. My local supermarket had a bulk snack called “Smiling Buddha Mix” and although I thought about writing to register a protest I never got around to doing so. You can bet that a “Suffering Christ” trail mix would never have been put on sale, and that if it had it would have been pulled instantly.

  3. Good point Bodhipaksa, I don’t think Buddhists are playing the whiny-victim game enough. With more of a willingness to act like other constantly aggrieved religionists, they could easily become as unlikable as the Christian and Muslim fanatics who are ready for war every time a product doesn’t seem to bow sufficiently to their sensibilities. Maybe they can even start burning flags and shooting people when someone says something unkind about Buddhism or when a Buddha shows up in a cartoon. Now that’s a goal worth shooting for.

  4. So we shouldn’t make a fuss when we see offensive material crap (I mean consumer luxury goods that everyone must have) appropriating Buddhist teachings and thereby rendering it harmless for our secular capitalist society? Well, Buddhism, like any religion, should be non-threatening and inoffensive to the status quo after all. It’s better that we Buddhists be nice, be quiet, and keep SMILING. And don’t forget the checkbook!

  5. So if Buddhists whine more, they’d be more revolutionary? I don’t see the connection.

    I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, it’s great to me that nobody has to worry about being burned (in effigy or in person) because they made a product that could cause a Buddhist to pitch a fit. And you know how much I think it actually hurts Buddhists when the image is appropriated? Not even a little bit.

    Do you see any irony in sarcastically saying Buddhists should play nice and not offend people in defense of being offended?

  6. Oh, and I clicked on your page, imagine my surprise. Yeah, some tacky bar uses the Buddha image and that’s an affront, but being a professional killer is totally in line with dharma teachings. Sorry I doubted you, holmes.

  7. Dave,

    It may not physically “hurt” Buddhists because someone made a tacky green Buddha piggy bank for $14.99, but you better believe that there are people out there who do think that that very same tacky discount item is something that Buddhists put on their altars, pray to, and believe will help them in all situations. No, it doesn’t hurt Buddhism, it has survived much worse than “Buddha Bar”, but if Buddhists don’t complain about Buddha-image underwear, then there is the belief that yes, Buddhists like this stuff, encourage it, buy it, and even use it as part of their religious practice. Commodifying religion IS a way of neutralizing it and general dumbing-down in general. I don’t for a minute believe that there is no such motive involved.

    And Dave (it’s “homes” not Holmes, Sherlock), you needn’t worry about my being a “professional killer” since I am just a blinkered Angry Asian Buddhist after all, and my Buddhism is just a conglomeration of cultural baggage and superstition! I won’t send any wrathful deities towards your precious stuff!

  8. So people believe shirts with Hotei on them are a ritual item? Sorry, not buyin it. People are dumb but not that dumb.

    Anyway, in the US I think Buddhism is actually probably the minority religion that gets the least amount of shit in America. It’s also the most freuqnetly commodified. I’d say it’s a fair trade.

    Uh, no, there’s a pretty definite L in there. When you live with as many mexicans as I have, you’ll catch stuff like that.

    I do love reactionaries of any stripe though. Yeah, Eastern superstition and provincialism is way better than Western superstition and provincialism. My arrogant Western mindset just makes me incapable of appreciating how much more sense it makes to pray to Kuan Yin for a son than believe in the tooth fairy. My (Asian) wife thinks both are a little silly. But yeah, thank god the troops can mention Bodhi Day in Iraq, it only took killing and exiling a tenth of the population to acheive that. Gee, yellow people can be murderous killers too, who’da thunk? Sorry my arrogant western mind can’t get around that, i was too busy shopping for a Buddha piggy bank. Cos I just roll that way.

  9. Oh I wish I’d logged on earlier today.

    Rod and Bodhipaksa: Yes, I was totally unfair to Rod’s quote, read into what I wanted and used it as an excuse to vent a history of internalized resentment. Sorry! Bodhipaksa, you very rightly rephrased what Rod was saying, but I prefer this form better: “Western Buddhists don’t care enough to challenge the commercialization and mis-use of Buddhism and its imagery.” (BS2?)

    Yuinen: Thanks for standing up for respect of Buddhist imagery, but I don’t want you roped in with my mistreatment of Rod’s words, as noted above.

    Dave: I hear you. We Angry Asian Buddhists care too much. We need to stop caring that the mainstream media emasculates our men, depicts our daughters and sisters as sex objects, and commodifies the religion of our ancestors. Yes, we have overreacted. For heaven’s sake, we went so far as to blog about it! We must have neither morals nor ethics! Is there no limit to this outrage?

    Indeed, we should all cultivate enough equanimity so that, as the saying goes, our minds are like waters so still that they don’t even ripple at the drop of a pebble. Or in the words of Lord Buddha:

  10. I really love how everyone has tried to turn this into a racial issue, because it really is the enlightened holy east verses the materialistic west with all the attendent baggage. And when there are bad racialized depictions of Asians in film, it is exactly the same as the Buddha trail mix at a health store. And the latter should have your blood boiling.

    Incidentally, I’ve been to China and Buddhism gets comodified there too. Ends up on all kinds of tacky packages and people have cheesy Buddhist good luck charms with probably about as much actual knowledge of Buddhism as the average round eye. Man, I can’t believe those anti-Asian, disrespectful Chinese!

  11. Oh what have I missed by being on vacation?

    Arunlikhati, this amuses me to no end:
    “We need to stop caring that the mainstream media emasculates our men, depicts our daughters and sisters as sex objects, and commodifies the religion of our ancestors. Yes, we have overreacted. For heaven’s sake, we went so far as to blog about it! We must have neither morals nor ethics! Is there no limit to this outrage?”

    What also amuses me is the sentiment that “I’ve been to Asia, and Asians are idiots, too, therefore everyone’s a racist, everyone disrespects the dharma, so get over it!” While I could wax on, at length, about the many many holes in that line of reasoning, I’ll simple repeat the question my mom asked me when I was a teenager: “If all of your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” Look, who cares if the Chinese are commodifying Buddhism. That doesn’t make it alright. And it doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t care.

  12. Fine yes. Buddhists should just become like western Muslims and constantly bully ‘respect’ from everyone because it’s reasonable to live in a constant state of indignation. Sorry I interrupted your little circle jerk here.

  13. “Fine yes. Buddhists should just become like western Muslims and constantly bully ‘respect’ from everyone because it’s reasonable to live in a constant state of indignation.”

    Whoa whoa whoa. Where in my comment did you get the idea that I think Buddhists should life in a constant state of indignation? For the record, I don’t think that people should necessarily do any one particular thing. But I also firmly believe that the opposite response — doing nothing in the face of commodification, co-optation, and out-and-out disrespect of the Dharma — doesn’t necessarily do Buddhists or Buddhism any favors. Somewhere between righteous indignation and “let’s let people walk all over us because we’re Buddhists and Buddhists are supposed to be above all this shit” is the truth, I suspect. And simply dismissing this conversation does absolutely nothing to further intelligent, worthwhile conversations about real-world issues that effect people and get them all riled up.

    How can anyone possibly expect to change the world without talking about how we’re going to change it?

    “Sorry I interrupted your little circle jerk here.”

    I am all for intelligent, worthwhile conversation. But, frankly, sir, to insult those of us who wish to have intelligent and worthwhile conversations by implying that all we’re doing is masturbating each other is belittling and, I hope, beneath you.

    I do hope that you are able to find some peace in your life, an end to your suffering. But I’ll have to abstain from having conversations with you.

    In gassho

Comments are closed.