Parliament of World Religions: Celebration of Diverse Faiths or Progressive Superforce?

Nothing gives me hope for the future of humanity and our beleaguered planet like the Parliament of World Religions. Nowhere else have I seen such good will, such passion for change, and such profound willingness to listen and dialog with those who see the world differently.

The mainstream stereotype that the world’s religions are somehow fundamentally opposed to each other – and opposed to science – is something of a modern myth. What is true is that the conservative-fundamentalist pole of the religious spectrum has been making the most noise in recent decades.  This is made worse by a news media that hunts incessantly for bad news, for conflict and disagreement. The good works and progressive advocacy done by religious groups rarely makes it into our newsfeeds, and the result is that many secular Americans have a warped view of what religion is and what it can be.

And yet the stated goal of the Parliament of World Religions is thus: bringing the world’s religious traditions together to build a peaceful, just, and sustainable world. Day after day, session after session, from small meetings of a dozen attendees to enormous plenaries of thousands – the parliament has made a call to action on women’s rights, combating climate change, ending war, poverty, and income inequality, and empowering the indigenous peoples of the planet.

No doubt many readers inundated with mainstream media will find this description reminiscent of a fairy tale. After all, isn’t religion inherently dogmatic, sexist, homophobic, apocalyptic, and anti-environment? Actually, no – it is inherently none of those things. You’re thinking of fundamentalism.

Now, I don’t mean to deny for a moment the terrible damage that has been done by fundamentalist and patriarchal religion to our world. From burning witches at the stake to bans on gay marriage, from religious wars to rape of the natural world – the fundamentalists have much to answer for. It might also be argued that the progressive wing of the world’s religions have some responsibility for reigning in their fanatic brethren. It’s a fair point. But those who make this argument may still be lost in the fog of assuming all members of a particular faith are somehow the same.

Realistically, progressive believers don’t have control or influence over the fundamentalists any more than the Democratic Party has power to control or influence the Republican Party. There is tremendous segregation with most of the major belief systems in our world. While Christians fighting for LGBT rights may have some inroads to their conservative counterpoints, the fundamentalists are just as likely to consider the progressives traitors to the faith.

But times are changing. The Public Religion Research Institute has suggested that the “moral majority” of religious believers is trending increasingly toward progressive values.   In the 21st century, religion may well become one of the most powerful forces for progressive change on planet Earth.

Of course, the fundamentalists aren’t going anywhere, and will likely only get louder as they become increasingly marginalized. But the progressive element of world’s religions have an ace in the hole that the fundamentalists lack: while fundamentalist traditions tend to attack and condemn each other, progressive faiths are willing to work together. Because progressive religion is more willing to accept a plurality of faith traditions, and more eager to tolerate differences, it is much easier for Hindu and Christian, Muslim and Jew, Buddhist and Pagan and Sikh, to form alliances and take action on the terrible plight of our planet. Furthermore, these believers are motivated to do so as an ethical injunction from a higher power. Peaceful resolution to conflict, fighting poverty and hunger, caring for the environment, empowering women and indigenous peoples – these are the values of a life lived from the heart of compassion, and these are the values of the Parliament of World Religions.

There is tremendous energy here, and tremendous potential for good.

10,000 participants means there is something interesting happening all the time.

10,000 participants means there is always something interesting happening somewhere.

     Building Bridges or Taking Action?

Lest this seem like a one-sided endorsement, I want to acknowledge some of difficulties already being navigated by the Parliament. The original emphasis of the interfaith movement was on listening and dialog – building bridges and peaceful alliances with those who see the world very differently. The idea was to create a space for safe, respectful dialog where people could openly state their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, and thus learn about each other rather than cast judgments from afar.

When done properly, this practice has a world-expanding effect for everyone involved. Whole new cultures and possibilities come alive. And because nobody is proselytizing or making exclusive claims to the truth, the entire world grows richer, and individuals come to appreciate the unique beauty of their own tradition all the more.

Just one example of this mindset at the 2015 parliament was demonstrated during a panel discussion on accepting and affirming the LGBT community in the evangelical church. The panelists were all young evangelical Christians, all gay or bisexual, and all deeply committed both to their church, and to the fight for LGBT rights. As these brave young men have worked with churches around the country struggling to reform, they have found that the only way a congregation comes through such a process without dividing is when emphasis is placed on actual human-to-human contact and listening. Everybody has to have their say – even the ones whose hearts are full of anger and fear. Only when everyone has a voice can everyone be listened to, and only when everyone is listened to do bridges begin to form from one heart to another. And indeed, the LGBT community is gaining ground, slowly but surely, as the evangelical church evolves.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that there will always be churches and religious believers that will not evolve – they will remain stubbornly stuck in their rigid dogmas, anti-gay, anti-women, anti-environment, anti-interfaith. Other than tough love, I’m not sure what’s to be done about that situation.   We can extend olive branches, we can listen, we can hold them in our hearts with compassion, and all the while stay true to our principles of what we know to be right. We continue to do the difficult work of building bridges, knowing that some individuals and groups will never cross.

So what are the difficulties I alluded to? This year the parliament convened in Salt Lake City after a 6 year break, and what appeared to my eyes to be a marked shift in emphasis. While the 2009 Parliament in Melbourne Australia did not shy away from issues of climate change, war, and gender equality, the main purpose was dialog, listening and bridge building among diverse faiths. At that parliament we were addressed by the Dalai Lama, who admonished us for too much talk and too little action. The organizers of the event, it seems, took that to heart, and in 2015 the call to action went through the roof. As a progressive, I was thrilled and moved to tears on more than one occasion.   For the first time in a long time, I saw that humanity’s future could be bright.

But it can be hard to take decisive action and build bridges at the same time. On the morning of the first day, I was walking with my father to the convention center and we were joined by a young Mormon republican. My father cracked a light-hearted joke that she would be the only republican at the conference, and she quickly moved away from us. My heart goes out to that young woman – she was showing up to have the conversation, and felt alienated before she even walked in the door.

I have no doubt that similar scenarios played out a thousand times over the course of the convention. When the Parliament leadership takes the position that climate change is real and deadly and we must act on it immediately, it is great for motivating the progressive base – and instantly alienating to those attendees who have been taught that climate change is a liberal hoax. My fear is that those people will slip quietly out the back door – the opportunity for dialog is lost, and with it, the bridge collapses and the tent grows smaller.

This is one small example, but it is not hard to imagine the plethora of issues where an assumption of uniform shared values could begin to drive away diverse (if difficult) perspectives. The Parliament risks becoming less pluralistic and less inclusive the more it takes a firm progressive stance. It becomes not the Parliament of World Religions so much as the Parliament of Progressive Religions. Given the critical state of our planet, that might well be a worthwhile trade.

But even in making this move, we must be mindful that we do not give up too much – that we still hold firm to the principle of listening to the other side. That even in our call to action, we allow our world and our hearts to expand as we listen deeply to challenging perspectives that we have trouble understanding. Heart-centered action is crucial – the world needs it now like never before. But action without listening is folly. The more we act, the more  deeply we must listen.

Tibet Monks from Daramsala creating a compassion mandala one grain of sand at a time.

Tibetan Buddhist Monks crafting a mandala of compassion, a few grains of sand at a time…

     A Bigger World

Ideology and politics aside, I am filled to the brim with gratitude for the experience. It is not hyperbole when I claim that these kinds of dialogs between diverse cultures and faiths expand the world – it is a joyful, existential reality. Perhaps because the stories and ideas and beliefs range from the aesthetic and cultural to cosmic and philosophical, the whole of reality seems to open just a bit, to breathe in the cool invigorating air of possibility.

But even moreso, it is the experience of being among a massive throng of people who do not see their differences in belief as an excuse for divisiveness and hatred. To see so many humans sharing and listening, learning and growing, and agreeing that above all, we must care for each other and for the earth – this is our species at its best. None of us are perfect – we are all evolving, and there is great work yet to be done. But here, at the Parliament, I see just how bright the future might be.

The Parliament of World Religions convenes again in just two years, somewhere on planet Earth. May it continue to grow.

Questions?  Concerns?  Disagreements?  I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

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I hope to see women ordained in the Catholic Church in the next ten years.

What Do Elephants Have To Do With Massage?

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About three years ago I decided to go for my PhD in somatic depth psychology. I’d spent the last two years establishing a healthy massage therapy practice in LA, and although I found the bodywork meaningful, I wanted to go deeper. Some folks scratch their heads upon learning that I’ve no intention of becoming a licensed psychologist.   But the whole premise of somatics – mind-body psychology – is that mind and body are intricately interwoven. They affect each other, and express each other, in myriad ways; a degree in somatics is as much about healing the body as healing the mind. Though it might strike some as wacky, this is a premise with firm scientific support. Every muscle, organ, and system of the body is in dialogue with the brain, and psychological factors of emotional and social well-being (and even belief itself!) have been shown to carry significant impact on health outcomes.

It is unfortunately part of the legacy of Western civilization to enshrine the abstract rational mind and denigrate the body as though it were only a machine or a slave. No wonder our bodies complain with aches and pains, and worse! Bodies are in reality vital, sensitive, living things. What’s more, it is through our bodies that we know the world directly, rather than abstractly, and know ourselves, in the moment, as we actually are – through movement, gut reactions, emotions (deeply rooted in the body!), touch, and all the sensual pleasures of being alive.

Our embodiment, and our need for nurturing contact, body-to-body, with others, is so deeply rooted in our being, that children who do not receive touch in early infancy are far more likely to develop severe physical and psychological problems. After three years of study, the vital connection between psyche and body is so clear and obvious to me that I no longer feel much need to defend it against naysayers. And while I’ve doubtless lost a few clients who find this perspective a bit threatening, I’ve found many others who are hungry for it.

Then, last October, I made the decision to complete my PhD fieldwork by researching human-elephant communication in Cambodia.

Mind-body psychology was a big enough leap, but elephants? What do elephants have to do with mind-body psychology? What do elephants have to do with massage?

Lets see if I can connect the dots…

Me and Ruby

Me and Ruby

 Honoring the Body

The unconscious tendency toward denigration of the body in Western thought goes hand in hand with a deeply entrenched Judeo-Christian mythology of human “dominion over nature” (Genesis 1:26). We may not think about this consciously, but it weaves through our culture, so that even secular individuals are largely trained to view the natural world this way from a very young age. It is a popular tendency to think of science and religion as being somewhat opposed, but this is one area where the underlying myth – the myth of dominion – runs straight from one into the other. Scientific tradition attempts to be above and apart from the phenomena it studies. Deeply engrained in early scientific investigations of animals was a profound assumption of animals’ inherent inferiority. That assumption, in itself not verifiable at the time, has skewed the results of animal research ever since.

In this system, animals (much like the body) are seen as aspects of a natural world that is fundamentally beneath us – whether we conceive of animals as mindless biological mechanisms, or slaves that exist solely for our benefit. As we dishonor our bodies, so do we dishonor the animal world. That the body is a source of wisdom, knowledge, vitality, pleasure, and meaning is lost in this perspective. Likewise, that animals are wise, intelligent, sensitive, emotional, and lead meaningful (if imperfect) lives for their own sake – suffice to say there has been very little room for that perspective prior to the 21st century.

Now to be clear and fair, I don’t mean to imply that all Christians and all scientists are anti-body and pro-dominion over nature. There are many scientists actively (if cautiously) challenging these ancient assumptions, and many Christians who interpret Genesis as a call to stewardship of the environment, not exploitative dominion. My purpose here is not to draw political lines in the sand regarding our present situation, but rather to investigate the deep, historical roots of our unconscious assumptions.

By way of contrast, Vine Deloria writes of the Sioux – one of the first peoples of North America – and their relationship with the animal world. According to the Sioux, humans were not above nature, but a part of it. Animals were seen as experts in their own sphere of life, and were understood as teachers and companions, rather than objects to be acquired and consumed. The Soiux ate animals (as animals eat animals), but with a spirit of gratitude and humility, rather than a presumption of privilege and superiority. They regarded all animal species as “peoples” who lived and understood the world in their own unique way.

Elephants around the world “check-in” with each other by placing their sensitive trunks in each others mouths – a combination of gesture, touch, and chemical communication

Navigating how to understand and honor the indigenous notion of animals as “people” is a vast topic worthy of much discussion – and something I’m not going to attempt to address in this essay. Instead I’m going to focus on elephants. Because I believe by our own standards of scientific observation, we now have enough data to conclude that elephants are indeed a nonhuman people.

That elephants have complex emotional and social lives has been well documented for decades. They form intricate social systems and have been known to adopt orphans (an action that flies in the face of theories that animals are merely machines programmed to replicate their own genes). Also well documented is their recognition of death – they mourn lost loved ones, and visit the bones of dead elephants with reverence and ceremony. They have a sense of self, recognizing their own images when presented with a mirror, and they have shown themselves to be tool-users and complex problem solvers. Like humans, they suffer devastating psychological effects from trauma, and have shown clear symptoms of PTSD. Their memories are prodigious and they are as fallible to negative emotions as humans – some elephants have taken revenge on their abusers decades after the fact. They are also complex communicators, using a combination of trumpets, squeals, rumbles, gestures, touch, and infrasonic (low-frequency) vibrational communication that can  take place over vast distances.

Matriarch Ning Wan leads the herd in an afternoon mud wallow...

Matriarch Ning Wan leads the herd in an afternoon mud wallow…

Pushing against the ancient unconscious bias that animals can’t be people is a mountain of data that elephants have far more in common with us than we ever imagined. And yet as is always the case with scientific breakthroughs, the culture lags far behind. In this instance, there may be more resistance than usual – we are deeply invested, emotionally and financially, in believing ourselves to be the only intelligent form of life on earth. That’s a very hard belief to surrender, evidence or no.

So just as the body, a font of wisdom and vitality, has been relegated to unconscious dominion and slavery, so too have elephants, a wise people in their own right, remained our slaves to this day. Some have challenged me – “if elephants are so intelligent, why are they allowing us to abuse and enslave them?” But such arguments don’t hold up when applied to humans either. The basic intelligence of the human organism has never been an inoculation against slavery – as decades of human slavery attest. Consider instead: a very small number of humans develop certain technologies; a larger number of humans learn how to use those technologies; the humans who were not privy to this development are then easy victims for technological “might-makes-right.” I am using technology in the broadest sense, understanding that written language is a technology – something to keep in mind when faced with the fact that the majority of Cambodian humans remain illiterate to this day. All Cambodians belong to the human species – some are born into environments where they learn to use certain technologies (such as written language), others are not. This is not a reflection on human intelligence, but on privilege and power – and ethics.

Volunteer Nikki and Ning Wan

Furthermore, the ability to use technologies through cultural transmission is only one form of intelligence. Knowing how to effectively navigate a complex ecosystem and manage hundreds of social relationships is another kind. We can pat ourselves on the back for our unique technological accomplishments, but it can equally be argued that our modern lives are riddled with problems and suffering because we no longer know how to navigate our world effectively – why else the dramatic increase of anxiety, depression, mental illness and chronic illness in humans over the last century? Elephants share our complex emotional lives and are equally vulnerable to trauma – but they don’t seem to need anti-depressants. That is, as long as they are left to their own devices.

Attempts to understand elephant language are only just beginning. It is a challenging enterprise, for while they clearly have a complex system of communication with each other, we cannot assume that it has much in common with our human systems of abstract syntax. How then do we bridge the gap?

To answer this question, we have to look at what we have in common with elephants – though perhaps it is an aspect of ourselves that we have long denied.

Despite her history of abuse, Milot is sweet soul,   and easy to approach.

Despite her history of abuse, Milot is sweet soul, and easy to approach.

Embodied Communication

One thing that we share in common with the elephants: we are embodied creatures with bodies forged for the unique conditions of this particular planet. As we become more willing and open toward the deep reality and wisdom of our bodies – as we get back in touch with the sensual body-consciousness that existed on earth before civilization began – we may in fact come to touch a kind of ancient preverbal intelligence that elephants and humans share.

In a culture where mind and body are split, the disembodied conscious ego reigns supreme, attempting to dominate the unconscious body (and perhaps, the unconscious deeper self). From its perceived position of power, the ego, whose constant instinct is toward control, eagerly denies and suppresses this “other intelligence” that resides below. This encultured process of repressing body awareness is alarmingly similar to how we have justified the exploitation and rape of the natural world.

So we come full circle – the struggle to honor the body, and the struggle to honor the natural world, are deeply intertwined. We have become alienated from elephants in much the same way that we remain alienated from our own human bodies.  Healing the one wound may indeed begin with healing the other.

me and Ning Wan

My final encounter with Ning Wan.

At the end of my time at the elephant sanctuary, I stood before Ning Wan, the elephant with whom I had found the deepest connection, and had a final conversation.

I had a different reaction to each of the elephants at the sanctuary – some inspired fear, others seemed dissociated, or simply indifferent to my presence. I had moments of connection with many of them. But my interactions with Ning Wan were on another level entirely. When she approached, I felt honored. She radiated a deep sense of peace, but also authority; like a priestess of a kind. Of all the elephants at the Sanctuary, only Ning Wan had never been used for commercial purposes. I believe I was able to connect most deeply with her because she was psychologically and emotionally the healthiest elephant on the grounds.

There was one seeming point of contention between us, and that was my digital video camera. As a fieldworker, I was somewhat voracious in wanting to “capture” everything that happened at the Sanctuary. It was during my second encounter with Ning Wan that I first got the very strong impression that she didn’t care for the camera at all. She had approached me just after emerging from her river bath – she came right to me and stopped, even as the other elephants were moving past. I was honored, a little frightened by her interest in me. I was also filming. I wonder, when I analyze that footage, if I will be able to pinpoint any particular moment when the camera became an object of her disdain. It is a stretch to imagine Ning Wan somehow understood the camera and its function – thought she’s certainly seen hundreds of cameras in her day, and observed how humans use them. Rather, I think she noticed that my attention was divided between directly encountering her, and focusing on the camera. In that moment, quite pragmatically, my attention was split between the actual embodied relationship, and my relationship to her abstract image (and everything it might signify in the human world back home). If her elephant intuition told her there was something duplicitous in the divided psyche of the human that stood before her, I can’t entirely say she was wrong.

From that moment on, I was intensely aware of Ning Wan’s reaction to my camera, and began to take greater lengths to keep it off my person when she was nearby. On a subsequent visit, she approached me while my camera was some distance off, and after our interaction, she went right towards it, and after sniffing around my bag, she knocked the camera tripod over with her trunk (fortunately it was undamaged). Of course, I can’t prove that she knocked my camera over on purpose. But frankly, I have a hard time accepting otherwise.

Are you here to connect with me, she seemed to be asking, or are you only here to serve your own human purposes?

Ning Wan relishing the cool mud on a hot day...

Ning Wan relishing the cool mud on a hot day…

Fortunately, my relationship with Ning Wan was not confined to the camera dynamic. I was able to attempt many “conversations” with her, each time humbly trying to understand what was working and what wasn’t. My rational mind would spin stories about what something might mean.  But by that stage I understood that the rational ego could not take the lead on this (thought it certainly might help organize the data after the fact). Somatic, embodied communication – sometimes referred to as “attunement” in psychological literature – is more often framed as an implicit process, engaging the global, holistic thinking of the right brain, rather than the more linear syntax of the left. What this means is that just like a human mother and infant, our bodies were communicating meaningfully with each other regardless of the language centers of our brains.

And this brings me to the question at hand – the reason a massage therapist would be interested – perhaps uniquely qualified – to study human-elephant communication: the primacy of touch. Touch is the primal arena of connection and boundary between organisms. In mammals in particular, relationships are mediated, and strengthened, through physical contact. It isn’t only human babies that suffer from lack of contact – all infant mammals suffer when deprived of touch.

Ning Wan and Pearl check in with each other during their morning bath.

Ning Wan and Pearl check in with each other during their morning bath.

Touch is (if you’ll forgive the pun) something of an elephant in the room in our modern western culture. It’s hard to imagine a healthy family without healthy touch. equally important – whatever your sexual mores – touch is the basis of most sexuality and intimacy. And as such, many of us are terrified of touch. We have to ban it in schools and in traditional psychotherapy, because it can mean so much, and yet so many of us don’t know how to handle (or understand) what it means. And yet even the most touch-averse individuals recognize the value of a firm handshake between partners, a gentle hand on the back in solidarity during troubled times, the relief of being embraced and held by a trusted, safe, and beloved other.

Elephants may not share our abstract language brain centers (to be fair, they also have brain structures that humans lack), but they do share our capacity, and our need, for touch. Every time I touched an elephant at the sanctuary, I used my years of experience as a bodyworker to sense into her response. It was messy, inexact work – it had to be. But with every moment of contact, I learned a little bit more.

DSC_5603And every time I touched an elephant with intentional sensitivity – letting her know, body-to-body, that I felt and respected her reactions – the relationship grew a little bit stronger.

Healing the Traumatized Soul

The final piece of my answer to the question, “what do elephants have to do with massage therapy?” is simply this: the elephants of our world, just as much as the humans, are in need of healing. There was not an elephant at the sanctuary that had not been ripped away from its family as an infant, and most of them had been subjected to slavery and other abuses over the long decades of their lives. Imagine: an alien race takes a two year old human away from her family, barring her from any opportunity to learn the language or social conventions of her own people, and “communicating” with her solely for the purpose of dominating her spirit – physically beating her when she does not obey. Imagine coming across this human in late middle age, and trying to have a conversation with her – what would she understand? What would she need? How would you seek to touch her humanity, to comfort her soul?

The African elephants, while not used as slaves, are being slaughtered en masse by poachers to feed the illegal ivory trade, still alive and well in China and the USA. Elephants who witness their families being murdered are psychologically scarred, and as adults are prone to rage and violence. As the elders are murdered, elephant society begins to break down.  We have done this to them, and they need our help.

The aim of massage therapy – as a healing art – is to touch the wounded soul by touching the wounded body. This is so even when we are “only” releasing the tension from muscles gone rigid from navigating this strange modern existence our bodies have been plunged into. The loss of reverence and connection to the wisdom of the body, and our loss of reverence and connection to the elephants, are two expressions of the same wound. The need to touch the wounded, to offer comfort and care to the forgotten and disenfranchised, in ourselves, and in the natural world, is an archetypal call to heal what is broken.

As we touch and hold the forgotten, the rejected, and abused, we take another small step toward wholeness; toward a world dominated not by power, but by love.

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Ruins of Cambodia: From Angkor Wat to the Killing Fields

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      How do I reconcile the breathtaking beauty of Angkor with the sprawling mass graves of the Khmer Rouge? Perhaps the greatest complex of spiritual architecture in the world, contrasted against horrific, too-recent genocide. This tension of opposites tears my heart –

I was already in ethically complex territory.   I had conducted a fundraiser for this trip, to do pediatric massage with HIV/AIDS orphans in Vietnam, and the donations had poured in; The trip was fully funded! Now here I was in Southeast Asia well in advance of the volunteer program, leaving Vietnam on a bus to Cambodia. Of course all the donor money had gones towards covering the program costs, and I was traveling on my own dime.  Nevertheless it begged the question – was I doing the right thing?

First, I argued to my stringent inner critic, travel in Cambodia is dirt cheap once you get there. If you want to spend 1st world prices, there are many Cambodians who will gladly oblige. But for those who understand the economic state of the country, it’s little effort to find private air-conditioned rooms with wi-fi for under $12 a night. Meals, transportation, entertainment & commodities – the American dollar goes far in the Kingdom of Cambodia. Truth be told, once you’re in the region, the cost of shoestring travel in Cambodia is well below the cost of living in Los Angeles.  It would have been more expensive to spend these days back home.

Second, and more important, I believe that travel is an end in itself. I once went to an Ani DiFranco concert in which she sang this about the USA:

          Myopia is strong here, and the mind control deep.

While I don’t really know exactly what she’s talking about, spending some time in a third world country certainly opens the mind to a broader reality of what it means to be human. Different language, different culture, fundamentally different quality of life – suddenly the petty concerns of the affluent westerner (like which character just died a shocking brutal death on Game of Thrones) take on an almost comical quality. I’ve written recently of my personal distinction between tourism and traveling, the former amounting to superficial entertainment, the latter suggesting a deeper engagement with the reality of an “other” culture or ecosystem.

Traveling is an end in itself because travel is essentially a process of education and growth. We encounter what is different and difficult, and in the process gain insight into ourselves and the familiar places and cultures we come from. The deeper human condition stands out in greater relief, and our values are re-evaluated. If America still presumes to lead the free world, it is vital for Americans to seek a deeper understanding of that world, and the ethical injunction it places upon us. My prescription for a better planet: the wealthy need to vacation less, and travel more.

Cambodia challenges on many levels. What are we to make of a culture where people live in tin shacks but communicate and track popular trends on their 3-year-old-model smartphones? Their bedrooms may contain multiple family members sleeping together on a crowded floor, but they have a flatscreen TV on proud display in their livingroom/storefront. The intersections between tribal life, modern poverty, and global economy are bizarre, confounding the mind and making it difficult to draw conclusions, much less suss out values. Regardless, the people of Cambodia are scrambling to catch up, positioning themselves to receive maximum tourist dollars, recent genocide or no. I have never felt so surrounded by repressed, unacknowledged trauma as I did in Cambodia – yet the tourist industry is booming.

Why did I come here?

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Ruins of Angkor

 

I came to Cambodia for the Temples of Angkor. I had been hearing talk of Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world, since studying abroad in Singapore in 2003. But as Angkor Wat finally appeared on my horizon, I learned that it was only the largest of an astounding temple complex (the largest complex of temples in the world), that covers a region the size of Manhattan.

The Kingdom of Angkor flourished from roughly the 9th to the 15th century CE. No only stone ruins remain of what was once a magnificent civilization. Over the course of its history, Angkor was unique in its fusion of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism – two spiritual traditions which have meant a great deal to me. The fusion of expansive pantheism with the mindful compassion of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition is an extraordinary, early example of interfaith spirituality.

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Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the biggest structure, but not the greatest. Sprawling temples adorned in gorgeous eastern iconography literally litter the landscape. Wandering through some of the ruins, one finds the most extraordinary sculptures lying in piles of rubble – such sculptures are so plentiful that there is no point in trying to restore all of them, and the rubble takes on a beauty of its own. Among the most striking sites is Ta Prohm, an enormous monastery slowly being eaten by the jungle. In Ta Prohm, archeology meets echopsychology, as the natural world slowly invades and invites the architecture of mankind back into its earthy womb.

Ta Prahm

Ta Prohm

I neither mince words nor court superlatives when I say that the temples of Angkor are among the most extraordinary sights on this planet. As far as I can tell, the only reason they are not listed among the “seven wonders of the world” is that these ruins were not uncovered and made available to the general global community until the final years of the 20th century, long after such lists had already been settled.

Angkor Wat itself is impressive, but so crawling with tourists that a sensitive soul may have trouble fully appreciating its majesty. On my third day in the complex, I made a second visit to Angkor Wat just before sunrise, and managed to bribe a guard to let me into the inner, upper sanctum for $5 (it’s amazing how far $5 goes in Cambodia!) – there I meditated alone, at a site of historical spiritual pilgrimage to rival Mecca and the Pyramids of Giza. It was a once in a life time opportunity and an uncharacteristically thrilling meditation. Nevertheless, I kept an eye on the clock and quickly took my leave before the throngs of tourists arrived.

Tourists choke the temples...

Tourists choke the temples…

Much of my three days exploring the temples was organized around avoiding the crowds. I came to love best the most obscure temples that lay off the beaten path. A short distance from its giant cousin, Ta Keo is described by Lonely Planet as “not cutting it” after seeing Angkor Wat – but I heartily disagree! Ta Keo sports a steep climb to the small high sanctum, which opens to the four cardinal directions. I had just purchased a tiny statue of Brahma, the oft-ignored creator-god of the Hindu Pantheon, whose four faces look out across the four cardinal directions. This motif ties into the four-directional cosmology of many indigenous peoples, as well as the psychological “quaternary” that so fascinated depth psychologist Carl Jung, who used intricate mandalas to map the human Psyche. Ta Keo embodied these ideas in stone and open sky.

 

Ta Keo

Ta Keo

Preah Palilay

Preah Palilay

Another secret treasure is Preah Palilay, a small, almost Celtic temple in the Mahayana tradition, rising out of the forest apace from the paved roads. Miles to the East. I had to argue my driver into taking me to Phom Bok – a hill temple off the beaten path. He insisted there was nothing there, but after an arduous climb, I came upon a tranquil set of ruins dedicated to the Hindu Trinity, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (creator, destroyer, and preserver), along with two libraries and an enormous Shiva Lingam tragically shattered by the Khmer Rouge, all sitting silent on a high hill overlooking the rice paddies of the region. I loved it because I was alone – a perfect spot for unmolested meditation as a tropical monsoon broke across the complex, hammering ruins and tourists alike with rain.

Phnom Bok

Phnom Bok

local Buddhist children offered me shelter from the monsoon in their modern stupa...

local Buddhist children offered me shelter from the monsoon in their modern stupa…

The descendents of the Angkor empire still live here, growing rice in fields around the temple. In one back-road trip by bicycle, I passed through a village that was alarmingly littered with trash. I wondered if through the process of colonization by the west, these people have completely lost touch with the needs of their land, throwing piles of plastic and metal upon it as though those materials would biodegrade as quickly as coconut shells. The dissociation is disturbing.

But the dissociation of modern Angkor is disturbing in more ways than one. These temples represent one of the greatest ancient spiritual sites on Earth – and modern Cambodia would turn it into Disneyland, thirsty for tourist dollars. These incredible sacred sites are choked with tourists who have no respect for sacred space – they are much more concerned with posing for pictures in front of the ruins. A place where people might find their deeper selves and touch their deeper truths has been transformed instead into a Hollywood-style spectacle. Opportunistic clerics encourage tourists to kneel, bow three times with incense, and leave money at a plethora of temple shrines under the auspices of courting “good luck” – and given their economy, who can blame them? Nevertheless, it is capitalism blaspheming as spirituality – deeply disturbing to one who comes to this sacred place as a spiritual pilgrim.

Meanwhile, just a few miles south in the bustling tourist hub of Siem Reap, the notion of sacred space seems nonexistent. I couldn’t go for a walk at night without being offered drugs or prostitutes a dozen times. It seemed like every taxi-driver was also a drug dealer, and my hotel manager offered to “bring me girls” before I had even seen the room.   The one time I allowed myself to get roped into a “massage” ($3 for thirty minutes) I literally found myself fighting to get the poor girl to stop molesting me. When I tipped her $2 anyway, her eyes lit up with surprise and gratitude – that a man would actually give her such a big tip without sexual services! It was heartbreaking. I bowed to her, honoring the Tradition of Thai massage in which I  trained, and walked out into the night fighting back my tears.

It still fills me with rage, just thinking about it – the way these women are disrespected.

Siem Reap

Siem Reap

On my third and final day in the ruins of Angkor, I made pilgrimage to the shrines: kneeling, praying, and meditating at one site after another. Some of the priests and nuns were genuine, others opportunistic – but I knelt and prayed and mediated and made my donations regardless. Each time, I was given a prayer bracelet, until by the end of the day my wrist was covered. The tourists might think me crazy, but I would give these temples their due – I would honor them for what they are.

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I needed to experience the ancient history first, before turning to face the modern atrocity. On my way back to Vietnam, I stopped to see the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh. It was only one of many genocidal sites where the Khmer Rouge brutally slaughtered their victims. Because they didn’t want to waste bullets, most who died at the Killing Fields perished by blunt trauma, puncture wounds, blades, or other creative means. Men and women, babies killed by having their brains dashed against a tree, in an ideological “purification of the populace”. The Khmer Rouge didn’t just kill those it suspected of dissent – it killed their families.

How did this happen?

That is a question worthy of a lifetime of study. I’ll tell what little I know.   From 1975-1979, communist radical Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge in a radical cleansing and restructuring of Cambodia. Pol Pot was born in Cambodia but educated in Europe. Upon return, he “liberated” the capital of Phnom Penh and forced the entire population into slave labor under the rhetoric of building a better country. Anyone who opposed the new regime, and anyone who was suspected of opposing it, including peaceful Buddhist orders of monks and nuns – were confined, interrogated, and slaughtered.

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I wept at the Killing Fields, walking among mass graves, distributing my prayer bracelets from Angkor amongst thousands of similar colorful offerings. At the site in Phnom Penh, there is a beautiful memorial stupa which houses the skulls and bones of some of the victims who have been exhumed. How could this happen? What force could compel human beings to put ideology before the value of human life? What can we do, I asked myself over and over again – How do we fix this?

I was haunted for days – I’m still haunted now. My first glimmer of an answer emerged when I arrived in Vietnam, and finally began my volunteer work with AIDS orphans.  What a gift and reflief it was, to be of service!

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Memorial Stupa at the Killing Fields

Memorial Stupa

Memorial Stupa

The sorrow of the Cambodian genocide hit me much deeper at Tuol Sleng, a school turned detention center for the Khmer Rouge. Now a genocidal museum, Tuol Sleng displays the spare rooms where captives were kept and tortured before being sent to die. In other rooms are pictures – walls upon walls of photographs – of the thousands of men and women who were arrested and condemned to death. I don’t know if it was the third wall of pictures of or the fifth, but suddenly the sorrow struck me fully. I had seen their bones at the killing fields, but here I could see their faces.

These were people.

I found myself standing alone in the central courtyard of Tuol Sleng, wondering why I was the only one who couldn’t stop crying. There have been a few times in my life when I have truly and deeply understood what is important in life, and this was one of them.

This is what matters: that people should be free to live and love, to live their own lives unmolested by ideology, oppression, and violence. What matters is that this atrocity that ariose in Cambodia not 4 decades ago must never happen again.

It is an uncomfortable truth that Pol Pot’s ideology was a Western import – a consequence of colonialism. I studied the works of Karl Marx in depth as part of my coursework at UC Berkeley, and I cannot imagine a greater twisting of Marxist ideals than what the Khmer Rouge did “for the people” in Cambodia. Nevertheless, it was education and ideology from the ‘’advanced’ western civilization that decimated this land. If the Cambodian people had been left to their own devices and development, rather than being colonized by a western culture that insists on its own superiority, it is hard to imagine this atrocity occurring. What happened in Cambodia is part of our Western shadow – the great mistake we have made in believing our intellectual rationalism to be superior to all other forms of human being.

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I spent a bit of time in the south, around the beach and island communities of Sihanoukville, before returning to Vietnam. Idyllic at first glance, this region is a haven for international criminals and has a strong mafia present beneath the idealistic white sand beaches that draw ever larger crowds of tourists.

I know quite a bit about trauma from my doctoral studies in depth psychology. I know how trauma can fester like poison when it isn’t worked through and released. The trauma in Cambodia is unimaginable, and the white-washed gloss of attractive tourist destinations only makes it worse.   Shadows are shoved out of sight in an understandable bid for tourist dollars – meanwhile, one of the largest child prostitution markets on earth blossoms in the dark.

In sunny Sihanoukville, I got entangled with a pair of local expats – a former American and a young French existentialist – who tried to convince me of the fundamental darkness of human nature, the meaninglessness of life. They offered me stories (and one disturbing photo) of bodies washed up on the pristine white sand beaches. The Frenchman (who was appropriately obsessed with the barbaric Game of Thrones series) insisted that religion was the cause of all the evil in the world, and that Hitler had been a “Proper Christian” – perhaps he hadn’t been to Tuol Sleng to see the faces of the dead – and he had no answer for the difficult truth that the Khmer Rouge was a secular organization that murdered people for having spiritual beliefs.

The difficult truth, I insisted to this Frenchman, is that the scapegoating of religion only makes things worse, cultivating more resentment and misunderstanding rather than doing the hard work of healing. It is not (and has never been) religion in itself that harms and oppresses, but rather ideology – any ideology, secular or spiritual, that is devoid of heart. Wherever ideas, religious or “rational”, become more important than people – be it the Spanish Inquisition, Nazi Holocaust, or the Khmer Rouge – it is the desecration of the human heart that is the ruin of humanity.

This is the lesson Cambodia whispers, under its breezy gloss of exotic vacation packages. Cambodia offers one of humanity’s greatest spiritual treasures, which we squander in the name of tourism, and one of our greatest human tragedies, which we too-often would rather ignore. Depth psychology has long suggested that it is the repressed, unconscious aspects of being that haunt drive our lives. James Hillman in particular has suggested that it is the unheard voices of the dead that must be listened to, if we are to survive and thrive as a species and a planet. But most of us cannot bear the pain and sorrow and mystery of the past – the weight of history – so we entertain ourselves into a stupor instead,  We feed on the barbarism of media products like Game of Thrones, which reminds us of the darkness for an hour, but also slyly suggests that it isn’t really real, that it’s only entertainment. That we don’t have to do anything about it.

If we would find the courage to face the darkness, to listen to the voices of the dead – we might find those voices are trying to tell us what we need to know, to overcome our troubled past, to build a better world.

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            A month back in the United States, re-adjusting to the requirements of marketing and first world capitalism, I go to Trader Joe’s wearing my $3 “I [heart] Cambodia” T-shirt. I wear it not because I love Cambodia the way I love New York or Los Angeles, but because I recognize that even more than our tourist dollars, Cambodia desperately needs and deserves our love.

A fat man with an eye patch notices my shirt in the vegetable isle. He approaches me and begins to talk about being stationed in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. When the conversation turns to genocide, he shakes his head and says, “Human begins are just horrible, aren’t they? Just horrible!”

I look him squarely in his one good eye and calmly reply:

“We have a lot of work to do.”

It is too easy to fall into cynicism – that the world is broken and there is nothing to be done.   I say that is defeatist at best, and lazy at worst. This is a choice, that every day each of us is asked to make. If you choose to believe there is nothing to be done, you will do nothing.

In fact, there is everything to be done. That is why we are here, now, alive in this time. The challenges now facing each of us, as individuals and a species, are immense. But I say, look around you:

There is a great work to be done, to heal this world.

We are doing it.

 

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Here are 4 minutes of edited footage from my three days at the Temples of Angkor: