A little bit about Cambodian Buddhism

So far, four people have read Serendipity Road. All of them liked it, but the first chapter confused two of them. There were some things about Cambodian Buddhism they didn’t understand. It starts like this:

Wat Otres, Sihanoukville Cambodia

Once upon a time, a little girl was in heaven between lifetimes. She felt like she was about nine years old, the same age she was when she fell out of a tree and died in her previous lifetime. The last thing she remembers about living in heaven is her loving family.

Then I start using words like “Taan Sooar” (heaven) and “Taan Kandaal” (earthly life) and that’s where the confusion began.

I decided to give it another shot because I don’t want to lose readers in the first few paragraphs. I started by looking up Cambodian Buddhism online and was amazed by what I read. Some of the shorter articles were insulting, not to mention completely ignorant, and one long tome was too detailed for my liking. That made me think. Why was I looking online? Wasn’t the chapter about life and spirituality through Sopheak’s eyes? I didn’t need a Westerner’s perspective on Cambodian Buddhism. I needed hers, so I asked her.

Buddha on ceiling at Wat Otres, Sihanoukville, Cambodia

I’m glad I did, because she told me some things I didn’t know. I thought there were three worlds:

  1. Taan Kraam (hell)
  2. Taan Kandal (this world)
  3. Taan Sooar (heaven)

She told me there is a fourth:

  1. Taan Kraam
  2. Taan Kandal
  3. Taan Leu (where most of us go when we die)
  4. Taan Sooar (where only the most spiritually advanced go)

She didn’t go into detail, but I got the impression that Taan Leu was like a pleasant astral plane halfway between Taan Kandal and Taan Sooar. Most of us go there because we’re a mixture of bad and good in our previous lives. Taan Kraam is like “hell,” but it’s not really a place of punishment. When you’re in Taan Kraam, you experience the pain and suffering you inflicted on others in your previous life. I got the impression that was the best way to begin to learn compassion. How else will we learn compassion if we don’t feel the suffering of others?

I asked her what “taan” meant. She said it meant “world” but later corrected herself. Taan means “place.” There are lots of places on earth and there are lots of places on the other planes of existence, too. It depends on our karma. Just as you might live in New York and I live in Cambodia, you can live on Taan Leu and it won’t be like another person’s experience of Taan Leu.

She didn’t spell it out, but I also got the impression that she didn’t feel there was a strict dividing line between the planes of existence. I’m not sure many Cambodians do. That’s why they have rituals to help their deceased relatives make a smoother transition between lifetimes.

Goddesses in a temple in Cambodia. They remind me of the goddess I call Serendipity in my book.

I’m not sure about any of my interpretations of Sopheak’s Cambodian Buddhism, but I do know she has had some remarkable (by our Western standards) experiences. Some of them have proven to be quite accurate. Once a ghost told her I wasn’t “speaking sure” to my kids in Australia about something. He was right and I had to make up for it. Sopheak has seen things I couldn’t see on several occasions, but they all made sense in the context of the occasion. She also regularly wins the lottery after she has a vivid dream. I’ve told most of the stories in my book. Some of them you may not believe, but you weren’t there. I have to believe them.

The photos here are from trips we’ve made to various wats (pagodas or temples) in Cambodia. A couple of them I took just today, when we went to Wat Otres for Pchum Ben. Take what you read about Pchum Ben with a grain of salt. It’s not as complicated to most Cambodians as it seems. It’s basically a festival designed to honor deceased relatives and help them on their journey between lifetimes.