The Secret Doctrine of the Khmers
I leave the thorny jungle and mount a frail bamboo ladder. The few wooden steps lead to a large grass-roofed hut. The latter is built on timber piles some six feet from the ground--a mode of domestic architecture which prevails throughout the interior villages of Cambodia. In the regions where a feeble effort to cultivate the land is made with the help of the River Mekong, both dwelling and dwellers would be overwhelmed by the great annual floods were it not for this elevated style of living. And in the large forest tracts it is equally efficacious against fierce tigers, which do not hesitate to claw their way into the lightly built huts.
This little clearing amidst thick trees and undergrowth was made by monks who have lately returned--after hundreds of years' absence--to settle near the shadow of the Wat, the great temple of Angkor. They have put up a tiny village and today, after waiting for the oppressive heat of the afternoon to abate, I enter as their guest.
The bonzes squat smilingly around the floor, their eyes narrow slits, their Mongoloid cheekbones set high, their slim short bodies wrapped tightly in cheerful yellow cloth. Some hold fans in their small hands, while others bend their shaven heads over palm-leaf books. Copper spittoons are placed here and there for their relief, because the moist hot climate creates asthmatic tendencies. A wild-looking man approaches me and mutters something unintelligible. Long ago he gave himself the title of "King of Angkor" and now everyone calls him by the name in good-humoured derision. His mind is half-unhinged, poor fellow, and he illustrates in its wreckage the serious dangers in incorrectly practised yoga.
On the ground outside, a boy heaps together a pile of dead branches and sets them alight. Another servant fills two round vessels at a pool close by, ties one to each end of a flexible pole which rests across his shoulders, and then bears them to the hut. The first boy pours some of the water into a black iron bowl and rests it over the fire. Before long he appears among us with tea. It is a fragrantly scented milkless infusion which we sip from tiny bowls. The life of these men is primitive indeed, for they have hardly any possessions. They are the historic descendants of the Khmers who had built Angkor, but my repeated questions reveal that they now keep but a pitiful remnant of their old culture. It consists of a few scraps of tradition mingled with an imperfect knowledge of the Hinayana form of Buddhism which was brought to the country from Ceylon not long before the Cambodian empire approached its final fall. The oldest of the bonzes tells me some more of their curious lore.
"Our traditions say that three races have mixed their blood in Kambaja [Cambodia]. The first dwellers were unlettered savages, whose tribes still live in parts where no white man's foot has trod. They are guarded by poisoned darts stuck all over the ground, let alone by the huge tigers, rhinoceros, and wild elephants which fill their forests. Our primitive religion survives among them in the form of ruined temples which are cherished as mascots. This religion, together with a government, was given us by the great sage ruler Svayambuva, who came across the western sea. He established the worship of BRA, the Supreme Being. The other races who settled here were the Indian and Chinese. Brahmin priests became powerful and taught our kings to add the worship of the gods Shiva and Vishnu and to make Sanskrit a second court language. Such was their power that even today, after our country has been purely Buddhist for many hundreds of years, their direct descendants conduct all important ceremonials for our king according to Hindu rituals. You have seen in the royal palace in Phnom Penh a sword made of dark steel inlaid with gold. It is guarded day and night by these Brahmins. We believe that if the slightest rust appears on the blade, disaster will come to the Khmer people. That sword belonged to our great king Jayavarman, who built the grand temple of Angkor, spread the limits of our empire far and wide, yet kept his mind in control like a sage. He knew the secrets of both Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, which dwelled in friendship side by side in our country. Indeed, the Mahayana was spread among us even before it reached China."
The afternoon passes. The magic of the evening sun begins to work. A stream of reddening light pierces the grotesquely tiny windows and plays upon the uneven floor. It reveals the teeth of the smiling monks, some glittering but most betel-stained. We adjourn to a larger structure for the evening rites. While joss sticks burn freely before the gilded image of their faith and long litanies are softly chanted, I leave the assembly and settle down in the great Temple of Angkor to savour its sanctified darkness.
I hold to the modern attitude, which has proved so significant in science, that the era of mystery-mongering is past, that knowledge which is not verifiable cannot be received with certitude, and that overmuch profession of the possession of secrets opens the door of imposture and charlatanry. He who is unable to offer adequate evidence has no right to the public ear. I have generally followed this line of conduct in all my writing, even though it has compelled me in the past to leave undescribed that which I consider the most valuable of personal encounters and to record the minor mystics as though they were the highest sages. If therefore I now reluctantly break my own rule, it is for two reasons: that it would be a pity to withhold information which many might appreciate, and that political enmity has put my informant's head in danger. Let it suffice to say that somewhere in Southeast Asia I met a man who wears the High Lama's robe, who disclaims any special knowledge at first, but who breaks his reticence in the end. A part of what he tells me about Angkor is worth reconstructing here, but the statements are his, not mine.
"You are the first white man to prostrate himself before me for many years. I am deeply moved. . . . The key which unlocks understanding of Angkor's mystery needs to be turned thrice. There is first a secret tradition which has combined and united Hinduism, the religion of many Gods, and Buddhism, the religion without a God. There is next an unbroken line of sages who held and taught this doctrine as being the real and final truth about life. There is thirdly a connection between Angkor and, on one side, South India, on the other side, Tibet. In all three lands there was a time when both faiths even dwelled outwardly together in complete harmony, with interchangeable rites, symbols, and dogmas. The tradition itself was limited by the mental incapacity of the masses to the circle of a few sages and their immediate disciples. Vedanta and Mahayana are corruptions of this pure doctrine, but of all known systems they come closest to it.
"Its chief tenet was the demonstration to ripe seekers of the existence of a single universal Life-Principle which sages named the `First' or the `Origin'. In itself it has no shape, cannot be divided into parts, and is quite impersonal--like a man's mind when in a state of deep sleep. Yet it is the root of every shaped thing, creature, person, and substance which has appeared in the universe. Even mind has come out of it. There is no room or necessity for a personal God in the Khmer secret doctrine, but the popular religion accepted diverse gods as limited beings who were themselves as dependent on the First as the weakest man. Apart from these gods, the sages gave the people symbols suitable for worship. These symbols had to represent the First as faithfully as possible. They were three in number. The sun was chosen because everybody could easily understand that it created, sustained, and destroyed the life of this planet. From the tiny cell to the great star, everything is in a state of constant growth or decay thanks to the sun's power. Even substances like stone, wood, and metal come into existence through the working of the sun force. The sages knew also, however, that even the human mind gets its vitality from the same force, causing it to reincarnate again and again upon the earth. The people of Angkor worshipped Light as a very god, and the rite of sun-worship was carried on in vast stone-paved courts which were open to the sky and faced the temples.
"The second symbol was the male organ of sex. It appeared as a cone-like tower on some temples and as a tapering single column set up in the centre of the building. To Western eyes it is a strange and unsuitable symbol. But the people were plainly taught to look upon it as a picture of the Source of Life. Orientals in general and primitive people everywhere feel less shame about natural organs and functions than Westerners. Anyway the temples of Angkor never linked this symbol with the worship of lust. Its existence never degraded them. The Khmer people were so pure-minded that Sulayman, an Arab merchant who wrote an account of a voyage in which he ventured as far as China in the year 851, wrote of his visit to Cambodia: `All fermented liquors and every kind of debauchery were forbidden there. In the cities and throughout the empire one would not be able to find a single person addicted to debauchery!'
"The third symbol is also thought of in the West as connected with evil, but the adepts of Angkor held a different view. They gave the previous symbol because hardly a man escapes seeing the miracle of sex, whereby a tiny seed slowly grows into a fully matured human being composed of different parts, thus teaching the possibility of the First becoming the Many. They also gave the serpent as an emblem of worship for three reasons. In the course of a single lifetime its skin periodically dies and is thrown off, permitting new skin to appear each time. The constant transformations, reincarnations, and reappearances of the First as Nature are thus represented. And when a snake lies in its hole, it usually coils itself into the shape of a circle. It is not possible to mark where and when a circle begins. In this point the reptile indicates the infinity and eternity of the First. Lastly, there is a strange mesmeric influence in the glittering eyes of the snake which is found in no other animal. During the operation of the mysteries, which have now been lost to the Western world, the adept initiated the seeker into the elementary stage by a mesmeric process which enables him to get a glimpse of his origin. Therefore, the carvings of every temple in Angkor showed the serpent, while on the lake Pra Reach Dak nearby there is an islet on which a small shrine stands entirely encircled by two great stone snakes.
"The line of sages which had penetrated into the secret of the First and gave these symbolic religions to the masses has shifted its headquarters from epoch to epoch. From the sixth to the thirteenth centuries it flourished in Angkor, but for seven hundred years before that period it flourished in South India. Reminders of this earlier centre exist in plenty in the architectural forms and sculptural details. Even the Sanskrit used by the Brahmin priests in Cambodia is of Pallava (South Indian) origin. But the wheel of karma turned, the Cambodian empire declined and disappeared with a rapidity which outran the fall of the Romans. The rulers were dazzled by wealth and conquest and failed to heed the advice of the sages. The latter withdrew and migrated to Tibet.
"You ask me if they are the same adepts as those spoken of by H.P. Blavatsky. When she was a girl and fled from her husband, she accidentally met a group of Russian Buddhist Kalmucks who were proceeding by a roundabout route on pilgrimage to the Dalai Lama of Tibet. She joined the caravan as a means of escape from her husband. One of them was an adept. He took care of her and protected her and brought her to Lhasa. She was initiated in due course into the secret tradition. She visited other parts of Tibet and also India. Before the existence of the Angkor ruins was known in the West, she was sent there to continue her studies and to receive a certain contact by meditation in the temples. H.P.B. went but experienced great difficulty in travelling through the uncleared jungle; however, she bravely suffered all discomforts. Later, she was introduced to a co-disciple, who eventually became a High Lama and a personal advisor to the Dalai Lama. He was the son of a Mongolian prince, but for public purposes took the name of `The Thunderbolt'--that is,`Dorje.' On account of his personal knowledge of and interest in Russia, he gradually altered it to `Dorjeff.' Before their guru died, he instructed Blavatsky to give a most elementary part of the secret tradition to the Western people, while he instructed Dorjeff to follow her further career with watchful interest. Dorjeff gave her certain advice; she went to America and founded the Theosophical Society. Her guru had forbidden her to give out his name. Moreover, she knew much more of the teachings than she revealed. But she was always fearful of saying too much, so she constantly created what she called `blinds' and wrapped her truthful secrets in imaginary clothes. I may say no more. However, the poor woman was unjustly maligned by her enemies. Her sole desire was to help humanity. They could never understand her peculiar character nor her Oriental methods. Her society did an enormous service to white people by opening their eyes to Eastern truths. But its real mission is over; hence its present weak condition. A new instrument will take up the work in 1939 and give a higher revelation to the world, which is now better prepared. But the beginning of this work will be as quiet and unnoticed as the planting of a seed. It is 108 years since H.P.B.'s birth. There are 108 steps on the path to Nirvana. Amongst all the yogis of the Himalaya, 108 is regarded as the most sacred number. It is also kabbalistically connected with the year 1939 in a most important way. Therefore, this year will witness the departure of the adepts from Tibet. Their location was always a secret; even most of the High Lamas never knew it. Tibet has lost its value for them; its isolation had begun to disappear rapidly and its rulers no longer respond faithfully to them. They leave Tibet seven hundred years after their arrival."
-- Notebooks Category 15: The Orient > Chapter 4: Ceylon, Angkor Wat, Burma, Java > # 7
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