Inside The Chinese Shrine
Every morning I go to a Chinese shrine on Street #1 in Battambang, Cambodia. The shrine is not on the tourist map and I've never seen anyone else inside it, save for the shrine attendant and once, three small boys. I discovered the shrine a week ago, walking along Street #1, walking along the banks of the Sangker River. Harvested rice fields had been burned the night before and the morning sky was thick with smoke, the sun a dull orange globe when it rose above the market and lit the banks of the river. Through the haze I saw the shrine beckoning me. I crossed the street and entered.
The shrine attendant, a short man who had the innocent look of a school child but who I later learned has three children of his own, showed me exactly what to do, which was to offer precise numbers of incense sticks to six shrines and the entrance gate. Twenty-eight sticks in all. When I offered incense to the main shrine the attendant hit a drum and a gong many times. A clamor filled the room and the moment of offering became very real. I couldn't wait to return the next day.
I don't know anything about this shrine, really, and the attendant and I can only exchange a few words in English or Khmer. All I know is what my eyes have told me, and from the feelings I get offering incense. Each time I've offered it has become clearer what each shrine is - a station for the ancestors. This is the most obvious or cliche notion we have about a Chinese shrine, yet the phenomena is real. Without anticipating it, each time I offer I sense my father and mother. Through participation, these shrines have become a place to acknowledge and intangibly meet my departed parents, and other long-dead relatives. After visiting them I feel stronger.
. . .
I went back to the Chinese shrine this morning. As usual, the shrine attendant was mopping the floor. I don't know his name. I took off my sandals and walked across the wet tile, my footprints evaporating as I left them, the mop bucket parked with sudsy water by the front gate. The neatly bundled twenty-eight sticks of incense lay waiting by the donation box, each bound with a rubber band. I dropped a dollar in the box and picked up an offering bundle. I held the incense above a burning candle and lit each stick. I walked back to the entrance shrine and faced the street. The Sangker river was out there, due east, barely moving and green as a frog pond. The incense wafted toward the river. More rice fields were burned last night and the smoke from the rice fires was almost as think as the incense plumes. The sunrise muted and diffuse. I felt gratitude for the view I was seeing now as if for the first time.
I was thinking about the Chinese shrine when I went for my afternoon walk. It would be locked now, as I walked through what remained of this morning's market. The morning vendors had all gone home, most of them anyway, and the street I walked on was clear of pallets, stools, trays and overhead umbrellas. All that remained were fish scales, furiously scrubbed away this morning and covering the asphalt, translucent and now being ground into the hot tar by motorcycle tires and my own footprints. Later I walked through the pagoda I visit each morning, Wat Pippitharam, and came across another small bonfire, smoldering on the fuel of fallen leaves, rotten newspapers and limp plastic bags. No one was tending it and the smoke smelled delicious; pungent and wafting the remains of various species of tree leaves skyward. The fish scales and bonfire smoke alone were enough to make me glad I'd taken this walk. Even the smell of the sewer coming from the storm gates at traffic intersections was welcome and alive.
. . .
My trip to the shrine this morning was the same as the other days, in other words, different. As Kierkegaard taught, by limiting ourselves we become more creative. I wouldn't soon tire of the precise limitation of twenty-six sticks of incense. Or of six shrines. Or of the conversation I have with the shine attendant each day, which consists of Hello, How are you? and See you tomorrow.
This is one of a series of essays under the overall title, Cambodia 2015. - Bill Scheffel
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