From the wisdom of Buddha
An enquiry into the path taken by a Cambodian woman
"In the midst of absolute evil the God of the West has become present for me. Closed in suffering, I could not make room for others. Until He made me aware that I was still a part of humanity."
Claire Ly has a sweet smile and the friendliness typical of the east. She also has an open and steady gaze, revealing a strong and deep spirit. A force that comes from a fracture, a trial, a loss. A fracture lived in the flesh and in the spirit. A personal history and the history of a people.
Cambodia, 1975-1979. Claire Ly, like millions of her fellow citizens, suffers the deadly madness of the Khmer Rouge regime, which will wipe out from her country two million of its seven million inhabitants. The memories of those dark times resurface: "They wanted to build a "pure" society, eliminating all obstacles starting with people able to think, in particular intellectuals. Right from the beginning they shot all the teachers and the students up to the third year of university, all department heads and people of note, considered the imperialists". Personal memories return as well: "My father, my husband and my two brothers ... They were all shot."
She, however, survived. But with her three year old son and the daughter in her womb, she was deported to a forced labour camp, forced to "purify herself" through work in the rice fields and indoctrination courses.
At the time Claire is a young Buddhist woman. Professor of philosophy, in charge of the department of the Ministry of Education’s section for the translation of textbooks from the French, she finds herself from one day to the next to be an "enemy." Because she was an intellectual, because this was bourgeois. So she had to be re-educated. She must divest herself of everything, even her more refined and cultured Khmer language.
She then takes refuge in silence. A silence filled with anger, with frustration and indignation that she cannot share with anyone. Because there is no one to confide inor trust. And then from that silence a cry of rage and rebellion escapes. Against someone bigger and more powerful, against someone who at that time Claire called the God of the West.
"Because for me - she says - at that time the West was guilty. For this reason even their God was for me the ideal culprit. Buddhism says that if you cannot maintain peace of mind you should create an object on which to project all the negative feelings. A sort of scapegoat. So I built my mental object, against which to direct my feelings of anger and revolt. I spent my time every day insulting him. Also because - she says with a hint of irony - I certainly could not get set about insulting the Khmer Rouge!"
After two years in the company of this "mental object" Claire begins to experience this as something familiar. "It has become like an indispensable stick – she remembers - like a cripple who finds a branch to lean on, I could no longer do without that God to keep walking. This has prevented me from falling into real insanity."
By this time he is her traveling companion in the long thwarting of evil. But another rift is needed for it to become something more. The fracture that is inherent in the experience of emigration, in that new path that she is forced to take in another land, France, which receives her, but also makes her feel different and alien, proposing pathways to integration which, nonetheless risk disintegrating her. It is here that she finds the strength and the accompaniment which will lead her from the wisdom of Buddha to what Claire calls "the madness of the love of Jesus Christ."
Since 1980 Claire Ly lives in the south of France, where she rebuilt her life as a teacher, writer and public lecturer, together with her children. Here she received baptism, but she also lived the plight of the exile. Without ever renouncing to build bridges between Eastern and Western culture, between her Buddhist origins and the Catholic faith. "This dialogue beginning from lived experience - she explains - allows me to proclaim Jesus Christ with greater strength."
And it is also what she recounts in her third book La Mangrovia. Una donna, due anime (Pimedit, 2012), a novel, inspired by the personal experience of the author. "Even this book is born from a fracture and a great suffering - she writes - that which I experienced during the four months I spent in Cambodia in 2009, where I attended some sessions of the Tribunal for the Khmer Rouge. A court built on a fundamental misunderstanding. Because the law is not enough, the spiritual dimension is also needed, to allow the victims to sublimate all their sufferings. I was helped by my Christian faith, but Buddhists too should follow this course. Today it is increasingly difficult to tell who are the victims and who the torturers; some are in power, others are integrated into society, others are still in the Church. Even though they have blood on their hands. There is a denial of that period, no one wants to talk about it. Yet it continues to touch us too closely. How do we ensure that people can talk about it and talk about themselves? It is not only a duty to remember, it is also a work of healing the wounds of the soul and helping the process of truth, reconciliation and reconstruction of the country.
In the book, Claire Ly tells the story of two women who are in some way her two cores. In the background, there is the Cambodia of today, pulled by a past of tragedy - the dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge in the late seventies – with which it is hard to come to terms with and a future which is still to be built. But there are also the relations between East and West, and in particular the increasingly current challenges of migration, with all that this implies in terms of integration or of "adoption". And then there is the issue of mixed marriages, a privileged and delicate "place" of encounters between cultures and identities, occurring through the concrete life of the ordinary people.
A book that gets inside the depths of the soul, to bring out a universal message: the need and the beauty of a dialogue between religions and cultures, but also the requirement of meeting and accompanying the other, respecting each other's differences and specificities, in a process of mutual growth. A book that also speaks of hope and the need for a reconciled world, for a more human society and human liberationfrom all forms of modern slavery.
Claire explains why she wrote this book, which comes after two others were dedicated to her experiences in the labour camps ( Tornata dall’inferno ) and her first trip to her country after her exile ( Ritorno in Cambogia ). "I wanted to distance myself even from my memory itself, to try to imagine possible paths of dialogue."
Such as those travelled by the two protagonists of the book, Ravi and Soraya, two friends and survivors of the Khmer Rouge, who have taken two different spiritual paths. Ravi has remained true to her Buddhist belief, while Soraya has converted to Catholicism. And like the disciples of Emmaus, their journey openly becomes a dialogue. A story in which it is easy to read Claire’s personal history.
"The book - explains the author - takes its name from a plant, the mangrove, which grows in the border area between fresh water and salt water, and that needs both. Precisely for this reason in Cambodian imaginary the mangrove is a mystical place of protection and of purification. I think it's an image that also speaks to us of the meeting and the intersection of cultures in terms of hope. A meeting that is the matrix of a new generation of people, where cultures and religions learn to know each other in the truth and mutually enrich each other. Remembering that Jesus is always waiting for us in Galilee, the crossroads of nations. "
St. Peter’s Square
Aug. 22, 2019
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