Temples in Cambodia and works-based religion

There was something I noticed during my trip to Cambodia (in the Phnom Penh area) last September. The whole country is really poor. There aren’t any “nice” neighborhoods or suburbs anywhere. The paint on buildings, even months old, looks beat up because of its low quality.

Bad neighborhood in Cambodia
Bad neighborhood in Cambodia
How normal Cambodians live
How normal Cambodians live. There are no glass windows (but they use iron bars like a prison to keep people out) and sleeping on a concrete floor is the norm. This room was recently painted, but there are already obvious imperfections.

Yet, their religious buildings easily rival, if not exceed ours, in beauty and architecture. Further, there are a lot of them!

You would expect the Cambodian people to be extremely pious, with the words of Buddha always leaving their lips. However, the opposite is the case. They never talk about religion and they have little concern over what it teaches.

In Europe, you can see tons of churches and not a lot of devout people, those churches are really old and reflect the attitudes of people from another time. This is not the case in Cambodia. Most of these temples were built after the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and from what I read, are paid by many Cambodian-Americans that don’t even live there.

Further, the paint on these temples is the only nice paint you will see in the whole country. They are not built cheaply.

What gives?

I don’t think the Cambodian people are worse or more hypocritical than other people. Rather, they are people doing what people have done for all of history.

People have always thought they can buy their way into heaven. While well-to-do Cambodians in America try to buy enough Karma to achieve nirvana in the afterlife by building temples in a country they no longer live in, the Medicis did the same in Italy building many beautiful cathedrals. And Roman nobles did the same building temples, bathhouses and aqueducts. And the Egyptian pharaohs did the same building the pyramids.

Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.

While westerners have a “cute” version of karma, thinking there is a metaphysical scale out there that weighs all the good and bad they have done; the real version of karma doesn’t have that pretty outside. In real karma, you are supposedly born rich or poor due to the good or bad works of a previous life.

Karma shakedown
A karma shakedown in progress. Monks go business to business, and if want to be blessed and do well, you have to pay them homage and…well, pay them actually.

If you are poor, you deserve it. You were wicked in a previous life. If you are rich, you deserve it. You were virtuous in a previous life. There is no reason to help the poor, because after all, they are getting what they clearly deserve.

So, if the rich can buy their way to nirvana by building temples and the poor can’t do anything so they get to be reincarnated as poor people again, that’s not unfair in anyway.

Why? In their previous life, they were wicked, and in the life before that they were wicked too, and etc. How on Earth is a wicked person ever supposed to accrue enough righteousness to actually move upwards remains unsaid. Karma is less of an ethical system and more of a philosophical system that explains social hierarchy. This is something that westerners don’t understand, because they aren’t real Buddhists.

Lastly, an interesting thing about Cambodia is that its people are good, old-fashioned idolaters. They are not the new kind like we are, who worship consumerism, self-image and other non-literal idols.

Grandma's household idols
Grandma-in-law’s household idols. Everything in Cambodia is made in China too.

They are even worse than old-school Roman Catholics. They not only do they pray towards Buddhist statues, that interestingly enough have Chinese and not Khmer words on them because they are mass produced in China, they offer sacrifice to the statues. They’re not killing any animals, though. Instead, they offer bottles of Pepsi and money to the statue, that after it is there for a few days the priest drinks or sticks in his pocket.

Thanks be to God, the Gospel is making in-roads there. All the world will bow the knee and every tongue confess that Christ is Lord. My wife and I continue to pray for our family there and we appreciate your prayers too!