OVER HIS NAKED right shoulder, an enormous gold Buddha. Sol Mang waves me over like he is hailing a cab, but can’t find it in him to make the proper emphatic New York gesture. He waves the way you’d expect a Cambodian rice farmer turned Khmer Rouge slave turned monk turned New Yorker to wave.
The uncertain movement of a man whose life was shaped by cruel uncertainties. He wants me to meditate with him in this Bronx room transformed into a Cambodian Buddhist temple on Marion Avenue. I grew up a few blocks from here, but I have never been further from home in my life.
Sitting with the old monk, the salsa music drifting in from the street, I have the feeling of being precisely nowhere. His silence seems to reach beyond place and time, and for a moment so does mine. The first times I entered the temple I could not escape the feeling of being stranded in a foreign country. I couldn’t speak the language. No one approached me. People looked through me. The monk was too busy to notice me. I felt invisible.
When Sol Mang noticed me, the whole community noticed me. He brought me to life with a look. His smile, when we finish, floats softly, in the dark gray light. “Why did you become a monk?” I ask. Toun Yau, a burly man with a thin mustache, arrives with three cups tea to translate.
- “The Khmer Rouge killed almost all the monks in Cambodia. Before the Khmer Rouge, there were 50,000 monks. The Khmer Rouge left only 3,000 alive. I didn’t want to see Buddhism die out in my country, so I became a monk.”
A phoenix monk, I think, from a phoenix country. I am struck by the way his bony face cracks open with joy whenever Cambodians approach him with food, gossip, questions they want answered. How could that joy have survived what he survived? His entire family, except for a daughter, and maybe one other relative, shot, starved, beaten to death by the Khmer Rouge? How can one not be touched by what touches him?
- “What are your feelings towards the Khmer Rouge after all these years?”
“I pity them. I am not angry at them. They were uneducated. Only uneducated people would do what they did.”
I don’t ask him to clarify, but it is clear he means morally uneducated, illiterate in terms of compassion. He sips his tea. Toun Yau says something that makes him laugh.
“A monk,” he once said, “is at home anywhere.”
I look beyond Marion Avenue, towards Fordham Road, where as a boy I bought books in a store whose name I can no longer remember. Where is home?