An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission

CAMBODIA: Buddhist thought for the New Year

January 14, 2011

As we enter the fifteenth day of the New Year 2011, I would like begin this first article of the year for the Asian Human Rights Commission, with the words of Lord Gautama Buddha (563 B.C.-483 B.C.): “Everything changes, nothing remains without change”.

Change is a constant. We can expect change in our lives and in our environment. Some changes will make us smile while others we wish never happened. But change there will be. Facing this inevitability, it behooves us to seek how to influence the change that we would like to see, because “yes, we can.” Doing nothing increases the likelihood that we will not like the change that affects us.

“A New Soul”

We, humans, are creatures of habit, of reproductive thinking, of self-piloted, fossilized responses; and yet some wonder why they don’t get different results. We are reminded, “When you do what you’ve always done, you will get what you’ve always got.”

Yet, as many of us like to think of the New Year as new beginnings, an opportunity for a fresh new start, so English writer Gilbert K. Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote, with a new year “we should have a new soul.”

Is a new soul possible if we continue patterned thoughts while the world changes?

“What we think, we become”

Buddha teaches, “We are what we think”; “What we think, we become”; “The mind is everything.”

If indeed “We are formed and molded by our thoughts,” as Buddha says, then what becomes of individuals who engage endlessly in negative thoughts of others, gossiping, and throwing venomous words? What kind of a hostile, angry world are they making?

Buddha refers to those activities as “evil of the tongue,” and counsels their avoidance. Buddhists know it but there’s the usual disconnect between rhetoric and action.

Buddha teaches: “If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.” Buddha reminds, what good will all the holy words you read and speak do, “if you do not act upon them?”

Contemporary Cambodians’ struggle against oppression, in pursuit of universally recognized individual rights and freedom, may be explained through Buddha’s precept, “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think.”

Our thoughts and behaviors are conditioned by what we learn and by what is expected of us in a society that promotes class, status, rank, role relationships, backed by a culture of asymmetric leader-follower, superior-inferior, master-servant, patron-client practices. Khmer teaching, to “korup, kaowd, klach, smoh trawng” — respect, admire, fear, be loyal — has been inculcated in the Cambodian persona for centuries.

In a perfect world, society’s teaching, our cultural heritage can actually improve society. But our world is imperfect. It’s easy to see, if we are objective analysts, how the culture and the teaching have reinforced the status quo of asymmetry in Cambodia and have promoted the Leviathan’s oppression.

Thus, followers follow their particular leader — rather than a set of rules, high principles, and good thinking — even if the leader leads them toward the abyss; and those recognized as belonging to society’s lower social, political, economic strata are expected to respect, admire, fear, and be loyal to those personalities in positions above them.

Creativity, criticality, innovation threaten the status quo; deviators are nonconformists; those who deviate from the “party line” are challengers, who eventually are denounced as traitors.

Thus, it is easier and safer to conform.

Thoughts that make the world

Buddha says, “All that we are, arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.”

Recall Pol Pot. He believed there was “no gain in keeping, no loss in eliminating” those with “incorrect thinking” — “incorrect” because it did not conform to his. His solution was “tbaung chawb” — a hoe blade to strike at the neck of “incorrect” individuals.

And Buddha teaches, “In a controversy, the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for truth, and we have begun striving for ourselves.” Buddha tells us, “I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act; but I believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act.”

In other words, one’s fate follows one’s inaction.

It’s not unusual to hear from time to time some individuals assert, not unreasonably, that one person cannot bring about change; millions are needed. I question if such assertion is meant to excuse them for their inaction.

A Khmer saying goes: “Samboeurm tae peark, trokieark slab s’dok,” or “Awesome are the words, (but) the hip joints lie dead”.

“Work of a Single Man”

Recall Robert F. Kennedy, mortally shot by Sirhan Sirhan at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in June 1968. He made famous a quotation of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw’s: “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why’? I dream of things that never were and say, ‘Why not’?”

Kennedy declared in a speech: “Some believe there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills. Yet many of the world’s great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and the thirty-two-year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal.”

The young monk was German professor of theology Martin Luther (1483-1546). At age 34, Luther who led the Protestant Revolt, argued that people could have a direct relationship with God. He nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of a Catholic church in Wittenberg; he translated the Bible from Latin so that non-Latin-speaking people the world over can read the words of God. The Revolt unleashed the Thirty Years War between the Protestant and Catholic leagues.

The young general was Ghengis Khan (1162-1227), who started to unite nomadic tribes at a young age, and when he was 44, founded the Mongol Empire, that spread and covered 22 percent of the Earth’s total land area, stretching from Central Asia to Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East.

The young woman was Jeanne d’Arc — Joan of Arc (1412-1431) — a French peasant girl who claimed divine guidance for her to liberate her homeland from English domination late in the Hundred Years War. While veteran commanders were dismissive of her, she rallied France’s flagging troops against the English and lifted the Orleans siege in only 9 days in 1429, when she was only 17, and had Charles VII crowned King of France. She was later captured, put on trial by an ecclesiastical court, found guilty, and was burned at the stake for heresy in Rouen, France, in 1431, at age 19.

And we have read about the young Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus, who claimed he said he had first gone to sea when he was 10, who docked in England when he was 25, landed at the Americas when he was 41. We also studied the influential American forefather Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the United States Declaration of Independence, at age 32, and promoter of the ideals of republicanism in the U.S.

Of course, it took many people to help Luther in the Protestant Reformation; many to help Ghengis Khan build and spread the Mongol Empire; many to fight alongside Joan of Arc. Columbus didn’t sail alone; nor did Jefferson work on the Declaration, alone.

As Kennedy said, “many of the world’s great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man.”

New Year, New Thoughts?

The often-quoted words of India’s pre-eminent Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) say, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

He also says, “As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world . . . as in being able to remake ourselves.”

For years, I have devoted my columns to discussing how we can “remake ourselves” before we can remake anything else. This holiday season, as I wandered through a store, I stumbled on a piece of wood carved with a Chinese saying: If you want product in a year, grow grain; in 10 years, grow trees; in 100 years, grow people.

If Cambodians want to maintain their nation’s survival, they should be busy with growing people – starting with growing themselves. Learning and unlearning does not yield instant results, and I have no illusion that I will see this change in my lifetime, but my children’s children will. The time to learn and unlearn should have started years ago. Still, it’s better late than never. This New Year is a good time start. And we should begin with Confucius’ (551 B.C.-479 B.C.) teaching: “Do not do to others that which we do not want them to do to us.”

A “yes can do” attitude makes our tasks easier. It uplifts our spirit, assures that we are less likely to fail. A “no can do” attitude makes a simple task difficult, like a dark cloud hovering over us, and assures us we will not succeed.

There’s a true story worth retelling. It’s about Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), who migrated to America with his parents from Scotland in 1848 and resettled in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny region. At age 13, he began his life’s first job as a bobbin boy, changing spools of thread 12 hours a day, six days a week, in a local cotton factory. He earned $1.20 per week.

Five years later, at 18, young Andrew took a job at the Pennsylvania Railroad. He learned about the railroad industry and about business in general.

When he was in his late 30s, Carnegie founded the Carnegie Steel Company. The company grew and became the world’s largest steel manufacturer in the 1890s — when he was 55. Carnegie, the refugee boy, became a businessman, an industrialist, and later, the world’s richest man, a classic rags to riches story.

Between the ages 66 and 84, when he died, Carnegie donated most of his money to build libraries, schools, universities in the United States, England, and other countries. He famously said something that inspired me: “You cannot push anyone up a ladder unless he is willing to climb it himself.”

You Choose

Like the saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” you can choose to maintain your habitual reproductive thinking and reproductive behavior with predictable results, or you can choose productive, critical (which probes to understand, compares to determine options, and selects which is the best) and creative (which generates something new from nothing) thinking and behavior, to reach your vision of the future you want.

Not unlike people in other cultures who have their own myths, Cambodians have theirs. Some wish for the mythical Preah Bat Thoam-moek to emerge to lead them to a better future, and to protect and provide them with safety.

Yet, there are many leaders all around us, in families, at work places, in schools, in non-governmental institutions and groups. As I have written before, there are Cambodian theorists, catalysts, improvisers, and stabilizers, of Linda V. Berens’s model; Cambodian peacemakers, organizers, revolutionaries, and steamrollers, of Katharine Giacalone’s model; and you can read “Primal Leadership” (2002) and identify Cambodian visionaries, coaches, affiliates, democrats, pacesetters, and commanders, of Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee’s model; amongst others.

There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of leaders — we learned we don’t have to have a charismatic leader like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., to fight oppression.

But there is this huge lack of willingness to humble ourselves to reach out to Cambodians for a common goal of liberation, conforming to the Khmers’ “A vieach york mok thveu kang; A trang york mok thveu kamm; A sam ro-nham york mok thveu oss dot” — “Curved wood makes wheel; straight wood makes spoke; twisted-crooked wood makes firewood.”

And there is a shortage of understanding that productive and creative thoughts will have a positive impact on our collective future.

To end this article, a Buddhist proverb is in order: “When the student is ready, the master appears.”

Happy New Year 2011!


The views shared in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the AHRC, and the AHRC takes no responsibility for them.

About the Author: 
Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States. He can be contacted at


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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

Document ID :AHRC-ETC-002-2011
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 14-01-2011