Jessica Magnin

“It is only when the mind is free from the old that it meets everything anew, and in that there is joy.” Krishnamurti

Everything has its place in time and in space and rules are no exception. Rules and codes of conduct keep us from falling into a state of anarchy, of total chaos. But then again, aren’t rules fabricated from the mind and perhaps rooted in fear? As much as we need rules and guidelines to live an orderly life, we might question, within reason, their potential of limiting our connection and heartfelt experience with others.

Here, in sleepy Luang Prabang a list of rules is publically displayed and posted around town. These rules are meant to be taken seriously and by all means, respected. With over 350 novices and monks living between the confines of the old town, one naturally abides by these guidelines but then, I suppose that depends upon the interpreter.

The second gong rings at 5h30 signalling the commencement of saibat, the giving of alms. In the faint darkness of the early morning, a thread of burnt orange robed novices, monks and abbots form what appears to be an endless stream of barefooted bodies with metal urns dangling from a woven strap resting on their bare shoulder.

I arrive at my habitual place, bow before my two elder Lao friends, take seat on a bamboo woven stool no more than 20 centimetres from the earth, place my flip flops neatly behind me, and tuck my sin, traditional Lao skirt, under my knees assuring that my legs are fully covered. A white “pha bien,’’or scarf, drapes over my left shoulder as I secure my hair neatly into a bun.

Behind me, the thick wall of Wat Sene separates me from 20 or so novices and monks making their final adjustments to their robes before stepping outside the confines of their monastery.  A wicker basket of freshly steamed “khao niow”, sticky rice, sits on my lap and I raise it to my forehead, bow in silence and bless these offerings with goodness and love. My dear Lao friends sit next to me. We exchange only a knowing smile of the eyes, nothing more. We allow the stillness of the early morning to bathe the present moment with sacredness.

The procession begins with a monastery’s dog or two guiding the way. Bare feet and bare heads gracefully pass at just arms reach, briefly pausing before me as I place a blessed clump of sticky rice into their urn careful not to make any physical contact, not even with their urn. One’s gaze should be soft, turned downward in humbleness and respect. These are the unspoken rules of conduct while offering.

Day after day, 94 in total, trip after trip, totally 6, rainy season or not, 3 to be exact, I am here with the same presence, the same intention and the same ritual of respect. But over time, things do shift and this is what is promised even by the teachings of Buddha himself. With habit and the passing of days, things do change, even the borders of set guidelines and rules.

The change began with the reception of an occasional yet discrete meet of the eyes, a faint humble smile, a whispered ‘’sabaidee’’ or “hello’’, a ‘’kop jai lai2”, a wrapped cookie, and even a brim-to-brim smile. Here, at this precise moment, beyond the rules of conduct, beyond what we call jit, or the mind, jai, the heart meets that of another and all differences, prejudices, conflicts, insecurities, superiority and even imposed rules drop, exposing one single thing, the art of being human and limitless potential of the heart.

“To be free of all authority, of your own and that of another, is to die to everything of yesterday, so that your mind is always fresh, always young, innocent, full of vigour and passion. It is only in that state that one learns and observes. And for this, a great deal of awareness is required, actual awareness of what is going on inside yourself, without correcting it or telling it what it should or should not be, because the moment you correct it you have established another authority, a censor.” Krishnamurti

Rules are necessary but they can harden us. We know this yet their implementation keeps us in tact. The mind is full of ideas about right and wrong, good and bad and packaged solutions to keep things from oscillating too far. Because the mind gravitates toward set boundaries, we create more. It is our mind’s way of making sense of the unpredictability of life and keeping chaos and fear at bay. Yet, our hearts yearn for more sacred moments of expression and connection and the humbleness of being human. Incapable of truly experiencing this humanness, the mind, limited in its limitlessness can only just begin to conceptualise what this softness might look like, feel like and be like. So within the confinements of suggested guidelines and rules of conduct, remember your heart. It is within the walls of the heart that love can be felt and expressed beyond measure.

The beaten path

Beaten pathBreakfast at 6h30am and on a tuk tuk by 8h00, we headed north off the beaten path (actually this was the beaten path!!!!!) 30 km north to Sambor Prei Kuk, a cluster of pre-Angkorian ruins/temples that were heavily bombed by B52s during the civil war of the mid 70’s. There is truth in what one says ” it is the journey that counts, the destination is less inviting”. The journey to Sambor was an adventure. Again, being the ONLY tourist in sight  added and subtracted to and from the adventure. Deep into the countryside away from civilization as we know it, we were surrounded by stretches of rice fields speckled with a few wooden huts, groups of Khmer ankle deep planting rice, fishing in swampy muddy waters where random lotus flowers bloomed from beneath. Absent of any noise, trash or chaos life in the country seemed peaceful… where the time stood still.

The burnt orange stained dirt road to Sambor was heavily damaged with potholes larger and deeper than one could imagine. We passed through 2 villages of a dozen wooden shacks before arriving at the entrance in the middle of nothing  but a free standing shed with a rusty sign  ”tourist office” 3USD a person. Again, we were the ONLY tourists (slow season they said) and therefore greeted by a dozen local children each with a bundle of Kramas or scarfs in hand, all had exactly the same print and all selling them for the same price. How does one choose? We preferred their company and conversation in Khmer, French and English (they learn quickly picking up a phrase or two here and there from tourists when they do pass by. They even have the capitals of each country down to a T.)

The thickness of the forest made it difficult to find the ruins without the help of a guide who had worked extensively at the Angkor Conservation Centre (same as the Frenchman François Bizot whose life was spared by Douch during the Pol Pot regime). Although his English was still in the ”learning phase” we got the essential.100’s of small temples scattered through the forest yet only 3 are available for visiting as the remainder was damaged by heavy monsoon rains and bombardment by the Americans leaving crater like marks in the ground and remnants of brick and sand stone.The temples were dedicated to  Shiva, Bhrama and Vishnu, Shiva being the most venerated. HAving studied a bit of Sanskrit, we all enjoyed finding Garuda, Nandi, Naga, Vishnu, Hanuman, Rama, Sita, Teo (simba), Govinda and learned that the lions  (teo) used as gargoyles in front of the temple doors were only found on the east, north and south side- never the west as those that have died are buried with their heads pointing west and therefore absent of the control of the lion or mind/body.

Girl in grassA heavy rainstorm broke out keeping us from carrying onwards so we sought cover inside Shiva’s temple. The rain dropped from the sky falling like heavy beads flooding the grounds within minutes. And then, as fast as the storm had come, it quickly disappeared leaving a freshness in the air and pockets of blue sky. We regained our tuk tuk, had already said ”lia hao-y” to the groupies and the guide and expected to take off. The tuk tuk spit and puffed inching its way forward. With a good hour ahead of bumpy muddy roads and little life, Noa and I gave each other one of those looks. Thanks to Vishnu for preservation,Lakshimi for luck, Bhrama for creation and Philippe for restoration we were on our way careless and happy all the way home.

We arrived in Kompong Thom covered in mud, our hair (Noa’s and mine cause Philippe’s is just a wee bit short) matted and tangled from the rain and the wind,  thorns adorned our baggy pants poking the skin but we didn’t care. We just wanted to make our friendly bus Capitol, the local local bus to Siem Reap and were so grateful when we did!. We were a sight and lucky that they let us board the bus.

Off to wondrous Siem Reap housing Angkor Wat, others worth gold and most of all  our all time favorite BAYON which ironically symbolizes “between heaven and earth, Entre ciel & terre!!!!!”

Lia hao-y and be grateful for everything!!!