Smiling Buddhas

We left Phnom Penh late last week and rode a bus up to Siem Reap, a small resort town in the northwest section of Cambodia. We’ll decamp here for nearly a week and after spending two days here now, I’m glad about that. I was happy to leave the pollution and the street-level chaos of Phnom Penh behind and trade that in for the relative peace and tranquility of Siem Reap.

Siem Reap is a tourist destination because it backs up against Angkor Wat, a sprawling complex of Hindu and Buddhist temples that date back nearly 1,000 years. Sujata writes at length about our visit to Anghor Wat, so I won’t go into too much detail here, except to say a few things about the last temple we visited, Angkor Bayon, a Budddhist temple that sits in the exact center of the larger Angkor Thom complex. Here are a few photos from Angkor Bayon:

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As opposed to the stately and somewhat formal structure of the Angkor Wat temple, Angkor Bayon feels like a kind of first-century Buddhist fun house. I climbed steep and slippery steps that Buddhist monks and practitioners had been climbing on and off for the past 900 years. The people who designed these temples had much smaller feet than we do so the steps are very narrow. I had to walk up with my feet at a 45 degree angle to the rise of the steps. Our guide, San Pork, said that’s because they didn’t eat KFC and McDonalds, to which I replied, “Oh that just makes your waist bigger, not your feet.”

The distinguishing feature of Angkor Bayon is the smiling Buddha faces that are carved into the stone–there are 54 towers with four faces on each tower and that makes for 216 different smiling Buddhas.  If you look closely you notice that some of the Buddha’s eyes are closed while others are open. Those with the closed eyes are still meditating and seeking enlightenment and those with the open eyes have found enlightenment. The Buddha faces are very close to the pathways and as you walk through the complex you get the distinct sensation of multiple Buddha faces staring down at you in loving wonder. I sought out places to stand where I could see multiple faces:

The architects of Bayon clearly wanted practitioners to feel a close proximity to the Buddhas. As I was walking around I was thinking that if they were just a bit higher and therefore more remote from my sight, the whole experience would have been different. I loved the intimacy and the closeness of the place, and as I walked through the temple complex I felt a true sense of peace and protection.

This is the fifth UNESCO World Heritage site that we have visited on our trip and, for me, it was the most moving.

One final note: In “The Figure in the Carpet,” a short story Henry James published in 1896, a literary critic finds himself perplexed (even obsessed) by a famous writer’s latest novel. Try as he might, he can’t seem to crack the code or the meaning of the novel. He gains an audience  with the novelist who reveals that the secret to the ambiguity of the novel is like the figure in a complex Persian carpet. The critic spends the better part of the rest of his life searching for the meaning in the novel, the elusive ‘figure in the carpet,’ but never gains the understanding that he seeks.

It’s nearly six weeks into our adventure and, at least for the time being, I’m thinking of travel as a kind of search for figures in a complex carpet of experience.

It’s not that I spend every waking moment, like James’ narrator, trying to interpret and find meaning in the experiences we are gathering. That, in and of itself is a slippery slope into self-absorption. Much of the time, I’m simply letting the experiences wash over me–staring out the window on a long bus ride and watching the countryside slide by, moving through an outdoor market and taking in the colors, sounds and smells, walking over dusty paths and feeling the dust gather in my shoes, sipping a beer at the end of a long day of sightseeing or waking in the middle of the night and needing a moment to remember where in the world we are. I value these unmediated moments where I just let the experience wash over me, free of interpretation.

Other times, though, I’m thinking it through and examining the ‘figure in the carpet,’ or asking myself hard questions about the history and contexts of the place we are visiting as well as what it means for me–a white, privileged tourist–to be in these spaces. That was certainly the case when we visited the killing fields last week, and it also happened as we roamed around the Angkor Wat temples.

2 thoughts on “Smiling Buddhas

  1. Nice metaphor, Eric. We were just at Angkor Bayon too, and found the stair climbing a bit treacherous in the rain. Our tuk-tuk almost fell over too. Still wonderful to be there.

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