TL;DR: A bunch of Christian missionaries are destroying Cambodian culture in exchange for building orphanages and schools, and a guy made a film about it. It’s full of vague statements and misinformation about Buddhism.
It’s not really news that Christian missionaries use very creative means to get the native population of an area to adopt Christianity. Catholic priest Diego de Landa Calderón for example grew furious about the fact that the people of the Yucatán region continued worshipping their old gods along with the new Christian god he had only just forcibly thrust up their asses.
Now what would a sane, wise and compassionate person do in this situation? Perhaps accept the fact that whatever belief system you hold as a Catholic priest, there are other belief systems that were there before you arrived. And your own system might not be the right one for everyone, even if your holy book says so and even though your religion instructs you to spread it. A wise one would perhaps acknowledge that there is value in these people’s culture and beauty in the way they adapt their own religion to fit the new Christian god right into their own pantheon.
What did Landa do instead? He systematically wiped out their entire written history of the people he conquered and destroyed every last trace of their culture and religion, robbing all future generations of their identity and annoying historians to this day. Bravo! A good Catholic if there ever was one.
Not much better today
That was 500 years ago, but not all members of the Christian faith seem to have wisened up in the meantime. A mindset similar to that of Landa, even though not as angry, is still alive and well, exemplified by the documentary A Drop of Water by Gus Cantavero.
The film starts out with a great loud chime of ignorance already, blaming Buddhism for the social problems and corruption in Cambodia and claiming that Buddhism is a religion that “teaches people to accept their karma and be content with whatever happens.” This already demonstrates a crass misunderstanding of the mechanics of kamma.
The next illogical statement is that due to a history of corruption, Cambodia will always require outside help from NGOs to see more justice. But as anticorruption advances in even more corrupt countries such as Liberia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Ghana have shown, progress can’t be made with outside influence alone, internal pressure must be there as well, and someone has to keep that pressure up. Other countries like Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa have not fared quite as well despite being majority Christian (sometimes almost completely Christian), so where is your magical corruption-reducing Christ there?
I know there’s neither causation nor correlation here, but the film’s authors use the same broad inaccurate statements and arguments based on false correlation, so I’m free to do the same.
The missionaries don’t appear to grok how Cambodian culture works, yet at the same time purport to solve cultural problems they don’t understand.
I don’t claim to understand Cambodia, but I’m vaguely aware of Southeast Asia’s mindset, which is radically different from the “productivity” that these missionaries want to bring. In some of the countries in the area, the old way just works, there is no need for a change, people are genuinely happy with what they have.
The documentary first talks about how Cambodian culture was passive to begin with, then blames Buddhism for not introducing more activity. Yet all of this only vaguely has to do with Buddhism. You can use Buddhism as a tool to be happy with what you have, but nothing prevents you from improving yourself or your situation. Even the Dhammapada instructs you to aspire to more. At least in Switzerland the opposite is true of the Christians doctrine. Christian church newspapers encourage readers to stay passive and to be happy with what their god has given them, not to aspire to more and to just be thankful. So who’s actively spreading passivity here?
It is not Buddhist corruption and Buddhist politics that are going on in Cambodia. It is not the Majjhima Nikaya that gives detailed instruction on how to cement a bad government. Yet a bad government they have, so that needs to be solved.
The examples given in the film also don’t gel much with Buddhism. The alcoholic mother who beats her child is a bad mother and a bad Buddhist at the same time. Would she be serious about her Buddhism, she wouldn’t be drinking, she wouldn’t be spanking. The kid who grew up as a criminal after that shitty childhood got a place to practice the piano and to make drawings at the missionary church, but he is now also afraid of going to hell and is spreading the same ideas among young children. Great job, missionaries. What other Western ideas did you implant? Do we really need to turn every country into the USA?
The same kid, now an adult, explains some choice bits about kamma that show that even he as former Buddhist hasn’t quite grasped the concept. He talks only about past actions (he says “past lives”) influencing current outcomes. But nothing is said about current actions influencing future outcomes. I don’t have an inuitive right knowledge of kammic networks, otherwise I would be very enlightened indeed. But the conclusion they arrive at in this movie, which is that kamma is always the result of past actions and thus new actions are pointless and passivity is just as good, is simply wrong. It’s also stupid, no matter what you think about kamma.
One of the missionaries then explains that Jesus is cool because you don’t need to sacrifice to him and thus have more money. Well, you don’t need to sacrifice to your ancestors either, even as a die-hard Buddhist. The superstitious bullwank and ancestor worship that is practiced in the documentary is superstitious bullwank. You should attack that on its own. The Buddha firmly, loudly rejected superstition.
The Pali canon tells you your face that you really, really suck as a Buddhist if you follow those superstitions, if you trust these kinds of ceremonies, if you believe in lucky charms. You are a stain! The dregs of a lay follower! Just a stupid outcast!
So who is to blame here? Bad monks. Just because you’re a Buddhist monk doen’t mean you fart wisdom all hours of the day. If the Buddhist monks of Cambodia have not managed to get rid of these superstitions, that is a big problem. And you could solve this problem by fixing the monks. You don’t have to replace their institutions with Christian ones, who perpetuate just as many superstitions as the bad Buddhists do. The afterlife? Judgment day? Walking on water? Efficacity of prayer? Transubstantiation of the body of Christ? Come on! Feeding these notions is just as bad as feeding the ghosts of your ancestors.
Just because you don’t understand a concept in someone else’s culture doesn’t mean you have the right to replace that culture with your own. Megan Smith, an American woman who has worked with UNICEF on disabled rights, for example, came to Cambodia with the mindset of a disabled person from the USA. At first she was quick to blame Buddhism for the fact that Cambodians think differently about disabilities than Americans. There is also the obligatory misunderstanding of kamma. But she has the guts to admit that while the Cambodian approach “feels alien to [her]”, she came to learn that some of her notions were misguided.
I’m not saying Cambodians should accept their shitty wheelchair situation, but I’m applauding Megan for realizing that not everything has to be the same as in Uh-merricah, fuck yeah. Approaching foreign culture takes acceptance and insight, not eradication.
That’d be something the missionaries from the documentary could do as well. They could run secular schools, for example, where there is no religious indoctrination. But would they still be motivated to help if they weren’t allowed to also spread their religious ideas? That’s for them to answer. If they are, this would at least be genuine. If they aren’t, then this is more about cultural imperialism and religious zealotry than about helping.
Bhikkhu Bodhi puts it well when he criticizes aid given not out of your own generosity, but to force a cultural or policy change. That’s those guys in a nutshell. Instead of wiping out a culture in one fell swoop like Landa did, these missionaries do it one person at a time.
Help them anyway
If you’re now thinking “but Psy-Q, you grumpy cunt, how can we help those poor people in Cambodia without ass-raping their culture?” you can try Buddhist Global Relief (BGR). They are active in Southeast Asia and backed by the venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, he has a reputation to lose and wouldn’t be founding an organization like this if it weren’t 100% legit. BGR help people of different religious affiliations, with no strings attached. And they offer transparency about their organization, its programs are independently certified.
The charities portrayed in the documentary don’t seem to offer any transparency at all and they aren’t rated by any charity rating institute. I’m not surprised. An independent outside evaluation might also have some very unpleasant things to say about all the proselytizing, so let’s better not go there.