Siem Reap, Cambodia
April 25, 2008
What could enlightenment look like?
Pop culture would have us believe that enlightenment looked like the gaunt, hammy seriousness of Keanu Reeves in Little Buddha. But for the ancient Khmer, it was the face of Jayavarman VII, still revered in Cambodia as the greatest Khmer king.
From Angkor Wat, a short tuktuk ride took me to a walled city, Angkor Thom. Approaching the South Gate, we passed through two rows of stone heads flanking the entry causeway. This was how I first met The Faces, the silent sentries, mute witnesses to all the touristy goings-on. I stopped the tuktuk to behold them more closely.
I studied their features and expressions. They were identical: lips together but upturned as if smiling, flaring nostrils, and half-open eyes. They seemed to have been cast from the same mould. On one side of the causeway, The Faces were overlooking a moat of glassy water. On the opposite was a dried-up moat that doubled as pasture for livestock. Again, The Faces seemed to scan the pastoral scene. Careening tuktuks and camwhoring tourists were an anachronism to the rustic serenity all around: still waters and languidly grazing cattle.
All this did not escape the gaze of a grimacing gopura, a gateway crowned by a human face. Of course it was The Face. I could not decide whether it was glowering at me or beckoning me. Passing under its chin, through what appeared to be a gaping hole on its throat, was like going through that Narnian wardrobe. On the other side, I found myself in an imaginary world where I expected to see things I did not expect. The tuktuk zipped through the woods on bright terra cotta ground. Quite suddenly, a clearing emerged, unveiling another temple-mountain: the Bayon. Cue in hand-on-mouth reaction.
Bayon was decidedly different from Angkor Wat stylistically – craggier but no less majestic. Its stone-gray jagged outline pierced the sky with impunity. There was more chaos than order in this microcosm of the universe. Acropolis-like ruins surrounded its base, roof-less columns standing on cracked slabs of rock. The whole temple appeared to be crumbling in suspended animation, as if it was a movie earthquake scene on pause.
I approached the temple tentatively, gingerly walking over sharp shards of broken rock. As I got closer, the peaks formed sharper images slowly revealing . . . The Faces. The crags and crevices from a distance were actually facial features etched on the stone towers. Four faces on each tower, corresponding to the four cardinal points, and as such, one could never lose their gaze. The eyes had their upper lids lowered as if squinting. I walked and their gaze followed. This was Big Brother, Khmer style, but there were no hidden cameras, just The (ubiquitous) Faces. There were more than 200 of them – frozen faces that had seen passing centuries of mundane daily life, historic wars, religious conversions, human abandonment, and now stupefied tourists.
It was said that The Faces were patterned after King Jayavarman VII himself, whom I called the Bayonic Man. Rulers then projected their power to godlike status and would take on a deified image as their modern counterparts still did, apparently. Also, contrary to previous Khmer kings who were Hindu, the Bayonic Man was a Mahayana Buddhist. Thus, he chose the visage of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara as his representative image for the ages.
A Bodhisattva was a person who had attained a considerable measure of enlightenment and sought to help others achieve a similar spiritual state. Avalokiteshvara as the Bodhisattva for compassion could see the sufferings of all beings at all times, hence the downcast gaze and the omnipresent face. Some Angkorian experts believed that the Bayonic Man lived up to his Bodhisattva and was a compassionate and accessible king to his people. Perhaps that was why he was hailed as the greatest Khmer king, not only for having an edifice complex, i.e. building dozens of monuments during his reign. However, his successors converted back to Hinduism and they summarily decapitated his Buddha images.
Stone chambers and steep stony steps allowed tourists to clamber up the temple-mountain. Bas-relief depicting daily Angkorian life was in stark contrast to the mythology on the walls of Angkor Wat. Countless devata images stood on guard at every turn, lending a feminine touch on the masculine rock-hard face towers. I chanced on a local artist on a corner lost in his sketches as his devata-muse watched over him. And also on this day, at the summit of the temple-mountain, I came face-to-face with The Face.
It was rather disconcerting gazing at The Face that gazed back. It could be creepy in broad daylight; it would have sown terror at night or sundown. But that Angkorian smile eventually softened The Face. It was a knowing smile, one that conveyed the discovery of a profound secret. It beckoned, it calmed, it lingered in the memory.
Descending from Bayon, I looked at The Faces in a different light. It was as if the Bayonic Man they represented was serenely sleeping with a smile on his face. I smiled back knowing that this was what enlightenment looked like.