The old years’ worn wooden Buddha did not come to me first and, when I die, Sok Keang will have it—but more about that later.
The village, at the outer edge of Phnom Penh, was like hundreds of others in that ravaged country of Cambodia in 1992—a collection of small, impoverished houses. Actually, they were shacks, with newspapers patching the holes in the walls and roof. This house perched nervously on stilts over a large ravine; a rickety bridge stretched from the front porch to the road.
Unbeknownst to me, the interior was magical. The abode—one room with an attached shed used for cooking and a hole in the floor over the ravine for a toilet—was bare of furniture except for a slatted wooden bed, adorned only with a grimy yellow throw pillow. A few old family photographs hung precariously on the wall, along with a dilapidated teak wood spirit house—a place of honor where nature gods and the souls of departed ancestors are invited to rest.
Underneath the wooden bed was a small cigar box. Inside of it was an odd assortment of bits and pieces—some worthless paper money from the Lon Nol regime, a small curved knife, a tiger’s tooth, a few tattered photos, and a pair of broken glasses. I remembered learning that the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot first came after people who spoke French or wore glasses, because they were presumed to be intellectuals. There were also two tiny Buddha pendants—one made from aged carved ivory, the other made of time-worn wood. “These are my most-best things,” our hostess told my colleague, Bea, and me. “The Buddha will keep you safe from Pol Pot’s bullets, malaria, and tigers while you’re out in the provinces. They are yours.” She pressed the ivory Buddha firmly into my hand before turning to Bea and handing her the Buddha made of wood.
As we left, I clasped our hostess’s hand in mine, hoping to touch her strength, marveling at the fact that someone so poor could give so freely. There was a round of cheek-kissing, aw kuhns(thanks), and head bows before Bea and I made our way out and over the rickety footbridge to the street.
As I returned to the city, watching the sky above Phnom Penh turn smoky topaz, I fingered the tiny Buddha that I’d put in my pocket, tracing the etched outline of the seated figure. Her most-best things; that’s what she had said. How could I accept her “best things”—perhaps her only treasures? It was a dilemma. To her, we were Western dignitaries, people of importance, part of a UN mission to restore Cambodia to peace and prosperity. Moreover, we were guests in her home; not accepting her gifts would have meant dishonor, loss of pride. While there is joy in giving something precious, there is also an obligation to receive it as an important gift.
I was moved deeply. The gift took on an unusual meaning for me…as if I had received something primordial and essentially Khmer.
Six months later: “The weird S-hook they use for a clasp here must have opened, and the necklace fell off,” I told Bea when she arrived back at our office in Skon. Instinctively, I put my hand up to caress the missing tiny totem. “The entire village is searching for it. I’m sure they think that I’m a madwoman, but my Buddha is not to be found.”
Bea scuffled off to her room and returned with the wooden Buddha she had received early in the mission.
“It’s more important to you than it is to me,” she said matter-of-factly, with her hand outstretched.
“No, you’ll be unprotected from Pol Pot’s bullets, malaria, and tigers,” I protested―half-joking, but the momma bear in me thought how horrific it would be if something terrible happened to her. “Take it. I unfriended g-d a long time ago.” she said, averting her eyes from mine.
As I felt the smooth, old wood between my fingers, I knew that this Buddha had found its way to me. In that moment, I was cloaked in Cambodia’s strength and optimism; I was transported back to the house in the village when I first arrived in country, and to the woman who had given us her best things.
I have worn my wooden Buddha for thirty years. It’s time for it to go home. It is the giving season. I texted Sok Keang, one of my Khmer g-ddaughters, and told her that I am bequeathing her the Buddha in my will. Cambodia and Sok Keang will need that strength and optimism again.