Siem Reap, Cambodia
April 25, 2008
What does 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 takes me to a walled city, Angkor Thom. Approaching the South Gate, we pass through two rows of stone heads flanking the entry causeway. This is how I first meet The Faces. They are silent sentries, mute witnesses to all the touristy goings-on. I stop the tuktuk to behold them more closely.
I study their features and expressions. They are identical: lips together but upturned as if smiling, flaring nostrils, and half-open eyes. They seem to have been cast from the same mould. On one side of the causeway, The Faces overlook a moat that still holds glassy waters. On the opposite is a dried-up moat that now doubles as pasture for livestock. Again, The Faces seem to scan the pastoral scene. Careening tuktuks and camwhoring tourists are an anachronism to the rustic serenity all around: still waters and languidly grazing cattle.
All this does not escape the gaze of a grimacing gopura up ahead. A gopura is an entry tower or gateway crowned by a figure. Of course it is The Face. I cannot decide whether it is glowering at me or beckoning me. Passing under its chin, through what appears to be a gaping hole on its throat, is like going through that Narnian wardrobe. On the other side, you find yourself in an imaginary world where you expect to see things you do not expect. The tuktuk zips though the woods on bright terra cotta ground. Quite suddenly, a clearing emerges, unveiling another temple-mountain: the Bayon. Cue in hand-on-mouth reaction.
Bayon is decidedly different from Angkor Wat stylistically. It is craggier but no less majestic. Its stone-gray jagged outline pierces the sky with impunity. There is more chaos than order in this microcosm of the universe. Acropolis-like ruins surround its base, roof-less columns standing on cracked slabs of rock. The whole temple appears to be crumbling in suspended animation, as if it is a movie earthquake scene on pause.
I approach the temple tentatively, gingerly walking over sharp shards of broken rock. As I get closer, the peaks seem to form sharper images that slowly reveal . . . The Faces. The crags and crevices from a distance are actually facial features etched on the stone towers. Four faces on each tower, corresponding to the four cardinal points, and as such, you never lose their gaze. The eyes have their upper lids lowered as if squinting. I walk and their gaze follows. This is Big Brother, Khmer style. But no hidden cameras, just The (ubiquitous) Faces. There are more than 200 of them – frozen faces that have seen passing centuries of mundane daily life, historic wars, religious conversions, human abandonment, and now stupefied tourists.
It is said that The Faces were patterned after King Jayavarman VII himself, whom I call the Bayonic Man. Rulers then projected their power to godlike status and would take on a deified image (this sounds all too familiar, actually). 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 is a person who has attained a considerable measure of enlightenment and seeks to help others achieve a similar spiritual state. Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva for compassion. He sees the sufferings of all beings at all times, hence the downcast gaze and the omnipresent face. Some Angkorian experts believe that the Bayonic Man lived up to his Bodhisattva and was a compassionate and accessible king to his people. Perhaps that’s why he is 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 allow tourists to clamber up the temple-mountain. Bas-relief depicting daily Angkorian life is in stark contrast to the mythology on the walls of Angkor Wat. Countless devatas stand on guard at every turn, lending a feminine touch on the masculine rock-hard face towers. Today, a local artist on a corner is lost in his sketches as his devata-muse watches over him. And also on this day, at the summit of the temple-mountain, I come face-to-face with The Face.
It is rather disconcerting gazing at The Face that gazes back. It can be creepy in broad daylight; it must sow terror at night or sundown. But that Angkorian smile eventually softens The Face. It is a knowing smile, one that conveys the discovery of a profound secret. It beckons, it calms, it lingers in the memory.
Descending from Bayon, I look at The Faces in a different light. It is as if the Bayonic Man they represent is serenely sleeping with a smile on his face. I smile back, knowing that this is what enlightenment looks like.