A Nun of Cambodia: Keeping Buddhism Alive at Angkor Wat

nun, mother and childWho has gone past being a someone, a this or a that,

That one is free from fear and is blissful.

                                                                                            The Buddha

When we visited the great temple site of Angkor Wat in Cambodia several years ago this beautiful nun was offering incense sticks to worshippers.  Nuns keep all the Buddhist holy sites at temples fresh and instruct foreigners how to make offerings with incense.  We happened to arrive on the day the country was celebrating freedom from Pol Pot and many Cambodians were making offerings and seeking religious ceremonies for family members they lost in the genocide.  The nuns have taken over these responsibilities because almost all the monks were wiped out in the mass murders.

We were greatly surprised by the warmth and natural cheerfulness of the Cambodian people and were happy to join in the celebrations on this day.  Capturing the photo of this generous nun and the mother and child behind her was a highlight of my experience.

For more photos and inspirational words go to www.thefemalebuddha.com

and www.luminousbuddha.com

Open Engagement: Relationship and Empathy

Spirituality is the movement from our prison of self-blame and self-preoccupation to an inclusive and open engagement with life.
-Sharon Salzberg

This week I’ve been under a deadline to write an academic paper for a conference I attend every year in Bangkok sponsored by the International Association of Buddhist Universities.  I have struggled to write again as a scholar after enjoying the free flow of sharing as a blogger, personally and upfront.

I’ve fallen behind in my blog schedule and just realized that a few fragments from the paper I’ve been laboring on addresses Sharon’s invitation into a more open engagement with life.  Here are some excerpts on relationship and empathy, topics addressed in my paper: Slang, Freud and Buddhist Psychology: Clarifying the Term “Ego” in Popular, Psychodynamic and Spiritual Contexts.  Quite a mouthful.


The Buddhist concept of interdependence informs our understanding of relationship and the natural reciprocity inherent in all of life.  While a psychodynamic perspective understands the autonomous development of the individual as a necessity, Buddhism points to the danger of the extremes of self-sufficiency creating a false sense of “I.” This “I” or ego manipulates and misperceives self and other.

Suffering in relationships stem from the extremes of independence and dependence.  One is marked by the painful experience of isolation and the other is an immature fusion where our demands on others do not reflect our chronological age.  Learning to walk the interdependent path begins with the practice of attending to the present moment, seeing through the impermanence of past wounds and trusting the guidance of our teachers to mirror our yearning for compassion and liberation from suffering.

The Bodhisattva Vow, to liberate others before oneself counters the tendency of the individual to attend to oneself and not the other.  From the Buddhist point of view we are all narcissistically wounded in clinging to the “I” and it’s delusional views and habits. Waking up requires the development of clear seeing and the reversal of painful self-centric patterns in relationship.


Compassion is Buddhism is related to empathy as it is based in entering the experience of the other.  The Latin root of the word refers to having deep feelings (passion) with (com) another.  Compassion implies a further response of an action to bring relief to the passion (suffering) of the other.  In this case passion is understood as the impossible desire to escape “what is.”

A compassionate response can pierce the ego-encasement that an individual has built to protect him or herself from pain.  Compassion acknowledges and accepts loss and other feelings imagined as too big to bear.  Compassion understands the ultimate boundarylessness of experience and the natural exchange continuously occurring between all beings.

In the Buddhist view any wall created to protect the self from others is the creation of ego or a false sense of self.  At the same time Buddhism does not deny the uniqueness or the different experiences of each human being.  The task to hold both a relative and an absolute understanding of self and “no-self” is embraced on the path of liberation. Holding this paradox we open to embracing other and “no-other” as well.

If this were a blog I’d add it’s kind of like having your cake and eating it too!

The Lady Buddha: beyond all construct

In Vietnam she’s the Lady Buddha. In Taiwan temples, she’s often the central deity.  These firsthand discoveries inspired further research on Guanyin and the title of my upcoming book, The Female Buddha: Discovering the Heart of Liberation and Love.

When I share these simple experiences from traveling overseas, my friends are delighted to hear the news of a fully empowered image of the awakened feminine.  It’s time we receive this celebrated transmission from cultures seeped in the Buddhist tradition.

Why?  For the same reason young girls need positive images of female doctors, construction workers and world leaders.  And why boys need positive images of male nurses, househusbands and ballet masters.  So they believe they can.

We need to know we can. We can embrace the aspiration of freedom from suffering, the aspiration of the clear seeing and the aspiration of an open heart.  We need to see it can happen in this body, in this lifetime.

Advertisers understand the not-so-subtle psychological message of a gender image.  They overwhelmingly conform to the use of stereotyped social constructs to sell goods and maintain profit margins.  The basic tenets of Buddhism ask us to see through all mental constructs to the nature of our mind…that which is without prejudice or construct…Mind that is like the clear blue sky.

Opening to diverse possibilities is like immersing yourself in a foreign country.  We gain a broader perspective of what is possible in our lives and our communities. Ways of being are challenged and minds are blown open.  Experiencing a female Buddha is a Zen koan.  What does she mean in my life?

When looking for Quan Am (Guanyin) in Cholon, the Chinese district of Ho Chi Minh, we asked strangers for directions.  Those who spoke some English would excitedly punctuate their words, “Oh, you mean the female Buddha?” or “The lady Buddha? She’s that way.”  She has entered the common vernacular of the people.

Later we would meet both men and women who shared tremendous enthusiasm for their personal deity, Quan Am.  In the pouring rain during our four days in Hue, I tried to capture a decent shot of her several hundred foot tall figure overlooking the hills of the city.  Unsuccessful, I could only marvel at the distant image blessing her community with equanimity.

The Bodhisattva’s symbolic resurgence in these large statues sprinkled across Vietnam follows years of devastating loss and death in a country torn by war.  The faith of many unshaken, her image represents the perennial flowering of Buddha Nature, the truth of our basic goodness beyond all constructs.