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.