Manoa 16.1 (2004) 55-59
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Night. Seventh day of the rainless half of the month. The moon, a quarter moon between the window's bars. It shines tonight with greater intensity than on previous nights.
How I love it, this gradual moonrise! How I love the moon as it grows, gets rounder, and shines brighter! The others perhaps wait only for its fullness to begin loving it.
I have been watching you for half an hour. It's been so long. You had gotten much bigger and I hadn't realized it. Tonight, I will fill my eyes with you...
O moon! Celestial remedy! You are freshness, tied to the sweet, light breath of the wind. You are a balm on my heart. You are the smile, the duration of a long moment of forgetfulness...You are so beautiful, moon, so pure, with such a clear glow! One might say you are a gold leaf some artist has applied to the sky's ceiling! And in spite of the miasmas of our world, in spite of the impurities hurled at you by men's greed, you still shine with the same strength, beautiful, untouched, equal to yourself. You have conquered all that is sullied! You are the shadow protecting us! You are what sustains the world and are the shelter of all creatures.
You have only one fault, moon: you are too far away from me.
Lately, I've heard prayers being recited around seven at night. The voice is powerful; it almost makes my eardrums shake. It is, in all certainty, several voices. I hear them distinctly, as if they are chanting their stanzas on the other side of the wall. I see myself as a little boy at the pagoda. Each night, I would pray in order to honor Buddha and the community of monks, to receive happiness, prosperity, grace, and peace. I see myself sitting and bowing, my legs tucked to the side, next to several little boys my own age, whom I've since lost track of. Nearby are a half dozen bonzes, symbols of the peace of the soul, of purity, of true renunciation of personal interest; two or three candles and several incense sticks are slowly burning amid thick spirals of smoke. I prostrate from time to time, hands joined in prayer, before the smile and the serenity of the Master. [End Page 55]
Smoke of candles and incense. Like the smoke shooting up from the crematoriums' chimneys. It rises to the sky and disintegrates little by little in the breeze. To quote a Western movie hero alone with nature: "This is the time when the living go to sleep, freed of all torment..." Touching prayers! Where do they come from? I'm digging deep into my memory. I'm trying to visualize the buildings around me: one kilometer to the east, Wat Ounalom, and a little more to the south, Wat Sarawan, the two monasteries placed far enough apart for the voices from one not to overlap with the voices from the other; at the west, Wat Kah, hidden by two hospitals and a small group of villas; finally, at the north, after Wat Phnom and I don't know how many kilometers, Wat Srah Chak.
I asked a guard. He told me it was only the prisoners praying. "Each evening," he added, "before going to sleep, they must pray in their small cells. All of them have to do it, whether they know how to pray or not, whether they are believers or not, whether they are Khmers, Chams, or Chinese." He added, "You're lucky they haven't sent you over there. Just look at them!You can find all kinds there: gamblers, outlaws, crooks, even the political kind."
I'm frightened. I lie down with my back on the mat. I'm suddenly aware of the force of these chants, of the power they have to flow inside you and seize your soul. I think about all those people. I don't know anything about...