Saturday, June 23, 2007

Postcard from Phnom Penh

The big news from Cambodia is that the national and international judges on the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia have finally agreed on internal rules (available here), enabling the prosecutions to move forward at long last. After meeting with ECCC officials on Wednesday, I went yesterday to the Choeung Ek killing fields, just outside Phnom Penh. The simple memorial, which holds 8,985 skulls of Cambodians murdered by the Khmer Rouge, is overwhelming; it defies description and language. Sophary, a young Cambodian law graduate who has accompanied me to the site, tells me that on her first visit to the memorial, the tears simply rolled down her face; she could not control them. Set in a lush and verdant field with butterflies flitting past, it is hard on this Cambodian summer day to imagine the evil acts perpetrated at Choeung Ek. More importantly, it is impossible to conceive of an appropriate response to this senseless violence; the tourists snapping pictures of the bones seem no less equipped to address the killings than our sacred international criminal law. On Sophary's second visit to the memorial, she brought a group of Buddhist nuns, who stood in a circle and recited chants for the souls of the dead. To me, this simple act represents a crucial element lacking in a purely legal response to the violence: an element of locally grounded and rehabilitative spirituality. Will the ECCC be able to speak so eloquently and thoughtfully to Cambodia and her ghosts?


Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

With all due respect, I wonder if the Buddhist nuns were chanting "for the souls of the dead" if only because in Buddhism one of the key doctrines is anatta (or anatman) or no-soul/self; certainly no soul in the sense understood by most Christians and probably most Hindu notions of a soul are ruled out as well.

In any case, I doubt it is the mandate, officially or unofficially, for the ECCC to "speak so eloquently and thoughtfully to Cambodia and her ghosts." To think otherwise is to burden the ECCC with unrealistic expectations that can only lead to disappointment if not cynicism about the role of such institutions. The same holds true of course for international criminal courts and tribunals elsewhere, hence the role of truth commissions and other mechanisms and fora for restorative justice. Those interested in transcending a legal response to justice should do so, but this should only supplement or complement a legal response, not replace it.

Lakshmi Bai said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lakshmi Bai said...

Thanks very much for your response, Patrick. While I do not hold myself out to be an expert on Buddhism, my Cambodian colleagues assure me that Theravada Buddhism, at least as practiced in Cambodia, most certainly does include the concept of the soul. One example provided was that of "feeding the hungry ghosts", leaving food for those who died of starvation so that their souls would not go hungry. Perhaps the concept of no-soul/self that you proffer comes instead from Mahayana Buddhism?

While your point is well taken that this may be beyond the ECCC's mandate, I still think it's up for debate whether a legal response is the most appropriate for all societies and all cultures -- especially given the great expenditure, and the impact those funds could have if spent on development in Cambodia. I think the question ultimately should be answered by the people the process aims to serve, and I can't say that I'm sure what form of accountability Cambodians would prefer (see my article at 24 Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 137 (2000) for further thoughts on this point). In any case, yours is a welcome contribution to an important debate.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

I'm sorry, but there is not, even in Theravada Buddhism, a belief in the notion of self and/or soul. The anatta doctrine is common to ALL schools/traditions of Buddhism. Hungry ghosts are one kind of state of being after death, and it is considered a transient state, before proceeding on to rebirth. I can send you a bibliography of Buddhism with titles from all the various traditions and schools and none of them teach that we either have a soul or that souls survive us after death. I've been studying Buddhism for well over thirty years (and currently teach a course in comparative world religions) so I do have some background/expertise on the subject. If some Cambodian Buddhists believe in souls, which I doubt, they've perhaps allowed beliefs or ideas from indigenous or other cultures and traditions to mesh with a Buddhihst worldview (or there's a linguistic concession to non-Buddhist interlocutors, or a mistaken translation, etc.). Still, it is basic Buddhist doctrine, i.e. and e.g., one of the three "marks of existence," that there are "no souls" in the Buddhist worldview. I can't emphasize enough how this is fundamental to Buddhism, indeed, it's what helps distinguish Buddhism from orthodox Indic darshanas and accounts for the famous debate with the Nyaya philosophical school. As Arvind Sharma writes in The Philosophy of Religion: A Buddhist Perspective (1995), "Buddhism does not accept...belief in a soul."

And following Peter Harvey's discussion, even the Personalist tradition that once existed in Buddhism did not subscribe to anything like what we would typically mean by a "self" or soul.