01-02-2013 - Traces, n. 2



CLAIRE LY, former Buddhist intellectual and survivor of the Pol Pot regime’s forced-labor camps, tells the story of her conversion to Catholicism through the God who burst into the silence of her imprisonment, and the encounter with the humanity of Jesus. “Faith is not a blind leap or an idea. It is a path.”

By Alessandra Stoppa

“Look at me. I was good. You have to applaud me.” In the evening, in the dimly lit dormitory, she speaks only to Him, her enemy. She has even given Him a name, “the God of the Westerners.” He doesn’t exist; He is only a mental object on which to concentrate. As a serious Buddhist intellectual, she chose Him as the outlet for her rage and anguish, so as not to die from the pain, nor betray the coherence of the middle way that leads to nirvana. “In Buddhism, you cannot have negative feelings. And He was the only one to whom I could relate what I was living.” She is a prisoner of the violence of a killing field, the forced-labor camps created by the Pol Pot regime in order to achieve Communist utopia.
It is 1977, and Claire Ly has been in the camp for two years. On April 17, 1975, she saw the revolutionary guerrillas of the Khmer Rouge shoot her father, her husband, her two brothers, and her father-in-law. They left her no time to mourn them–she had to begin her march toward the countryside, holding her 3-year-old son by the hand, her daughter still in her womb, a pistol pointed at her head. With her are thousands of other middle-class women, used to life in the city and now forced to work in the marshy camps. They are awakened at 4:00 am and made to stand single-file so that they cannot talk to each other. They spend all day bent over the rice and water, and the evening at political re-education courses. If they answer a question incorrectly, they are struck on the back of the neck. Many fall ill, but not Claire. So she challenges that imaginary God: “See? I am a strong woman; I was an intellectual, and now here I am, a peasant. I am Buddhist, and so I will wait–until I hear You applaud.”
What did He do? “He never applauded me!” she says, breaking into a child-like laugh, 45 years later. “But in that silence, I knew that He was there.”

A necessary space.  Today, Claire teaches at the Institute of Science and Theology in Marseilles and has lived in France since 1980, having survived four years of the regime and imprisonment that wiped out 2,000,000 Cambodians. Four years of summary murders and mass graves and, for her, of dialogues with a God who was the perfect scapegoat, “because Marxism was born in the West, and because I needed something very big on which to vent. They were taking away my identity.” She was torn from her loves, stripped of what she had been, even in appearance–uniform, shaved head–forced to nurse other people’s children because they were “children of the regime,” and forbidden to pronounce the names of her own, but to call them only “son” and “daughter.” But in that act of madness, which worked to annihilate every human trait, she did not cease to have a need: “I felt like yelling, ‘I exist!’” In that vortex of indoctrination and death, she presumed to exist. She could not accept the logic that justified what was happening: karma, which holds that evil is the expiation of guilt from past lives. “It was impossible that those whom I loved had been killed for their sins.”
Thus, she took it up with the “God of the Westerners.” “For two years, I insulted Him, without being concerned about His existence. But this created a space between Him and me.” A “necessary” space, she says, “so different from the divinity that absorbs everything.” She talks about what began there as a great mystery of love. “It’s like this. In love, you give thanks always for being loved, and you let the other have the power to wound you. I started to let God hurt me, to not answer me. Without my knowing it, all of a sudden we were both free.” But only in time would she understand what that relationship and that freedom were.
Before all hell broke loose, Claire lived in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. “After having taught Philosophy, I became head of the department at the Ministry of Education.” She is a delicate woman. She went through the most ferocious ugliness, but she does not carry it with her, because it didn’t belong to her. “The ideology abused Theravada Buddhism at its roots, and massacred the spiritual teachers.” It molded the executioners and the victims within the same people, the same blood, the same religion. Its land was soulless. After the fall of the regime, she decided to leave immediately with her two children–and with an “intimate peace,” which had accompanied her through it all. “But I hadn’t yet understood that it wasn’t mine.”

Two reasons. She took the road of the refugees toward Thailand and, from there, she emigrated to France in 1980. One of the first things that she came across, in her new studies, was an encyclical by John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia. “I read it and, as a philosopher, I wanted to verify its coherence. So I went to a priest who had helped me when I first arrived, and I asked him for a copy of the Gospel. I started to read it.” The figure of Jesus fascinated her immediately. “That man suffered, He cried. He was like me. He knew my experience. Buddha is a man, but so perfect that there’s nothing human about him.” However, Jesus remained only a teacher, and she a woman who listened to Him. “It was spending time with Him, with His humanity, that brought me to believe.” One day, while at Mass, she clearly heard Christ say to her, “I’ve been walking with you for awhile, but you haven’t wanted to recognize Me.” “That’s when I realized that that peace had been conceded to me by an Other. And I decided to follow Him.” She was baptized on April 24, 1983, at age 37.
Claire says that Christianity attracted her for two reasons. “It is a God who enters into my life.” And then, Christianity preserves freedom. “My human greatness is my free and reasonable response to Christ’s call. I am also free not to do the will of God. As He is not to do mine…” she smiles. She is moved when she talks about the paradox of this relationship. It is a “breech” that didn’t break her. And a “reasonable” choice to accept madness, “because the Resurrection is madness. But without it, my faith is vain. It is madness that makes me use all of my heart and my mind.”
One thing aids her certainty: “My wound.” Think of all that she has lived, of the images from the movie The Killing Fields, which she has on her computer. “I was wounded by love.” She is not talking about what you think. “My faith is a wounded certainty. It’s not healed, complete. No. It opens all of my being to God, who goes before me always and whom I do not possess.” She is amused by the fact that in French, as in English, one says, “I have faith.” “It’s not a good that we possess!” she laughs. Then she is serious again. “It is the stone rolled away from my tomb,” a love that came to scrutinize her in her rage–“my real prison”–and to upset Buddhist coherence, “because it allows me to love myself as I am–so imperfect, so broken–deep down. And it makes me love the world as it is, not as I would like it to be.”
She even found the words for that cry that she had, that presumption of existing while everything was denied. “The self is not an illusion. I truly exist. I am not a particle of the metaphysical everything; I am unique, carved forever into the heart of my God. And because of this, I am whole, and irreducible to what I do.” Think back to the identity that was torn from her. It was not time or international tribunals that gave it back to her. “Every day, I exist fully only when I am in relation with God. My identity is in becoming.”

It’s not an idea. She returned to Cambodia for the first time in 2003. “I want to give reasons for the hope that lives in me, in that culture sculpted by Buddhism”–just as she was sculpted by it. “Conversion was a total break for me, but not a blind leap. It is a path: from the humanity of Christ to His divinity. As a Buddhist, I believed in the mystery of the Incarnation with all of my reason, even if it’s not an ordinary act of thought, a reasoning.” Evil–“the real kind,” she clarifies–is something that nullifies every intellectual discourse. “And the answer, faith, is not an idea; it is experiencing a force of life in me that is not mine.” She always talks about faith as a journey. “It’s not a torrential downpour that lasts a few hours. It’s a thin stream of water that penetrates the crevasses of my desert. A fullness, even within a void.” In Buddhism, happiness is a jet of water: hands try to grasp it, but it slips between the fingers and, falling to the ground, becomes mud. “It’s true,” says Claire. “It can’t be grasped. But in Christianity, the water never ceases to flow. And the adventure is not closing your hands, but keeping them open. We follow Jesus, who opened the way, and is our Companion in the struggle of life, because the path never ends. And a burning heart takes it up again and again. It can’t help but take it up again, always.”



under Pol Pot
1953. Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot (May 19, 1925–April 15, 1998), founds the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party. Pol Pot had recently returned to his country after studies in France, where he showed an interest in Marxist ideals and joined the Communist Party.  

1954. Cambodian independence from France is proclaimed. The royal dynasty of Norodom Sihanouk installs itself in government and outlaws the Revolutionary Party. The future dictator takes refuge in the jungle for 12 years, during which he gives rise to the Khmer Rouge guerrillas

1970. The U.S. considers Sihanouk to be a supporter of the Viet Cong and backs Lon Nol, head of royal security, as his replacement. Sihanouk allies himself with his former enemy Pol Pot at the head of the Khmer Rouge and involves the Viet Cong. When the U.S. withdraws its troops from Vietnam, Pol Pot equips an army of Cambodian adolescents and peasants to fight for his ascendancy.

1975. On April, he marches on Phnom Penh, taking definitive control of Cambodia. On May 13, 1976, he establishes Democratic Kampuchea. In order to fulfill the Communist ideal and carry out a radical agrarian reform, he deports the populations of urban centers to rural work camps and collectivizes private property. The years of the dictatorship are marked by torture, massacres, summary executions, and the elimination of all political opposition. The victims number around 2,000,000. Meanwhile, enmity toward Vietnam turns into conflict.

1979. In January, Pol Pot is deposed by the Vietnamese, who had officially invaded Cambodia several months earlier.