|01-02-2013 - Traces, n. 2
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.