THE NEW BRANG CHHANG STORY

Lovable is not a word one would use to describe Chhang … and he was well aware of that. At one time, before the sores started, his looks were a little more tolerable but he never did gain weight in his lifetime, and having AIDS was something he could not hide from others.

Too weak to play, he sat or lay on the floor and watched the activities of the other children, but became irritable should anyone attempt to include him in on the fun. He was content to be invisible unless something didn’t go his way… then everyone knew about it. At times his demands went unnoticed however and he would eventually lie down on the floor and pretend the world did not exist. 

He did have his good moments, usually after a meal, when he would come over to my table. I was not always sure if it was to be with me, or so that he could clean my plate of the leftover scraps of meat or fish heads I had not consumed.

He wasn’t much for cuddling and he didn’t like being tickled… most times he would just curl up in my arms and fall asleep. He was one of my toughest critics, and although he seldom said a word, I could feel him watching me in my work and play with the other children. He seemed to be looking into my soul, questioning my motives, and evaluating my sincerity. For that reason, whenever he returned from a Doctor’s appointment and presented me with an ear of boiled sweet corn or another special treat that he himself had chosen to give to me, I was greatly humbled.

On the 16th of January 2005, he refused to get out of bed for breakfast and so we let him sleep in… but later that morning, when I went to check on him, he was very weak. I decided to start an IV but had difficulty finding a good vein. He offered little resistance as I poked around in his frail little arm with the needle. For Chhang that was unusual and, when after several attempts, I looked up, I realized his body was beginning to shut down.

There was fear on his face as I took hold of his hand. He looked straight into my eyes, following my every move. If I were to let go of his hand, he became restless, and so I continued to hold it while staring back into the ever-widening pupils of his big dark eyes. His breathing became shallow and his body relaxed, but his eyes never stopped watching me.

Several of the children came around, as did the other residents, they all knew what was happening… we have been through it so many times before.

With candle and incense lit, we sat there quietly waiting for what none of us wanted but all of us knew would come… and it did… but unlike any death, I had ever witnessed before, Chhang took a firm grip of my hand, and with his other arm, he reached up to wrap around my neck, like he had done so many times before when he wanted me to carry him. “Wayne!” he shouted, loud enough for all to hear.  

I literally saw his Spirit coming up and out of those big dark eyes and felt him, like a cool breeze on a midsummer’s night, passing through me. His lifeless arms then fell back to the bed while his eyes gently closed behind his departing Spirit.

I have always assumed that just before death when the eyes have fully dilated and the respirations have ceased…. There was no more recognition by the dying person of things going on around him… at least not of worldly things. Therefore to have Chhang reach out his arms for me and call my name, long after I assumed his Spirit had departed, was a bit startling. What could it mean?

I suppose there are many possible explanations for what happened that day… but I have now come to believe that Life is Eternal Energy and that what I saw and felt that day was, without any doubt in my mind, Chhang being released from the form that held him.

SIR PEEPAWS

I remember well that first morning I laid eyes on Peepaws. My first thought was to have one of the boys kill it and throw it into the incinerator. Ordinarily, I would agree with my Buddhist brothers and not harm any living thing but there are exceptions to every rule and I felt, in this case, it was warranted. Peepaws had to be one of the ugliest creatures I have ever seen.

Living on the back of a Buddhist Wat, I have gotten used to seeing strange animals from time to time. Most Wat’s are sanctuaries for unwanted animals and sometimes people… and since we eat quite well at the Wat Opot Project, whatever is dropped off at the Wat, usually ends up at our place during mealtimes. There are always litters of scrawny kittens wondering over… because of mean dogs, large rats, and over-affectionate children however, few make it to maturity. Once there was a piglet that was born with only three feet. The owner evidently thought it would not live for long and so he dropped it off at the Wat, rather than destroying it and perhaps suffering consequences. Somehow the pig found his way over to our place every day and ate a good share of our garbage. It gained considerable weight and then one day, just before a major Holiday, someone claiming to be the pig’s owner came to pick him up. I think I know the ending to that story but at least the pig’s life was not in vain. I could see no value in preserving the life of Peepaws however because while eating dog meat is not uncommon in Cambodia, only the best dogs are selected for that honor and there wasn’t enough meat on Peepaws to make starting a fire worthwhile.

Peepaws got his name because “Pee” is the Khmer word for two and “Paws” is what most dogs have four of. I was not sure if Peepaws was born defective or had gotten his deformity from some unfortunate accident that should have taken his life… either way I felt the kindest thing for someone to do would be to put him out of his misery.

I don’t know how many breeds went into his pedigree but I am sure that a good part of Beatle went into his ears, which were three sizes too big for his Chihuahua size body. His front paws were in fairly good shape, most likely a result of having to drag the lifeless rump and deformed back paws around all day. Peepaws could run and bark impressively and I guess that does qualify him as a dog but certainly not one a man would want to call his best friend, especially not me. I needed a real dog, one that would make me look good when guests came around and could keep the cows from coming in and eating my garden, which anyone living in a third world country would understand because the farm animals act as the community’s garbage collectors and they decide what is garbage and what is not.

It wasn’t long before Peepaws realized which table had the most leftovers and just as I knew would happen, he chooses my table to sit under and my feet to lie next to. He even seemed to read my mind and tried pleasing me by chasing some of the cows out of my garden. One day he snuck up behind one of the larger ones and started barking loudly. The unsuspecting cow took off on a run with Peepaws in close pursuit and had he not tried cutting the cow off by running in front of it, he might have actually succeeded in chasing it off of the property. The cow, however, when seeing the little dog running on only two feet with its rump bouncing up and down and its back legs and tail swinging haphazardly in the air, stopped in its tracks and if I didn’t know better, I would say it started mooing with laughter. Embarrassed and humiliated, Peepaws gave up the chase and never again ran after the cows.

The children were more accepting of the little mutt than I was and didn’t seem to mind the fact that he was deformed. They often included him in their play and didn’t mind if he would snuggle in close to their feet at night while they slept. On one hot muggy night, the children made their bed outside on the sidewalk where it is cooler and as usual, Peepaws crawled in by their feet. It was around midnight when he started barking. He ran out from under the covers and continued barking for awhile… then there was silence and a short time later he quietly slipped back into his place by their feet. In the morning they found him there… two fang marks in his rump, from a poisonous snake, explained the cause of his lifelessness.

Greater Love hath no dog than to lay down his life for a child and for his Act of heroism we granted him the status of Knighthood in the Kingdom of Dogs. The children buried Sir Peepaws that same day in a grave befitting of the title he had earned.

THE END

After sharing this story with friends, I was informed that the Buddhist parable about Asanga was very similar to the one about Sir Peepaws and I have included it for your enjoyment.

A Buddhist Parable
(From The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

by Sogyal Rinpoche)

Asanga was one of the most famous Indian Buddhist saints and lived in the fourth century. He went to the mountains to do a solitary retreat, concentrating all his meditation practice on the Buddha Maitreya, in the fervent hope that he would be blessed with a vision of this Buddha and receive teachings from him.

For six years Asanga meditated in extreme hardship but did not even have one auspicious dream. He was disheartened and thought he would never succeed with his aspiration to meet the Buddha Maitreya, and so he abandoned his retreat and left his hermitage. He had not gone far down the road when he saw a man rubbing an enormous iron bar with a strip of silk.

Asanga went up to him and asked him what he was doing. “I haven’t got a needle,” the man replied, “So I’m going to make one out of this iron bar.” Asanga stared at him, astounded; even if the man were able to manage it in a hundred years, he thought, what would be the point?

He said to himself: “Look at the trouble people give themselves over things that are totally absurd. You are doing something really valuable, spiritual practice and you’re not nearly so dedicated.” He turned around and went back to his retreat.

Another three years went by, still without the slightest sign from the Buddha Maitreya. “Now I know for certain,” he thought “I’m never going to succeed.” So he left again and soon came to a bend in the road where there was a huge rock, so tall it seemed to touch the sky.

At the foot of the rock was a man busily rubbing it with a feather soaked in water. “What are you doing?” Asanga asked.

“This rock is so big it’s stopping the sun from shining on my house, so I’m trying to get rid of it.” Asanga was amazed at the man’s indefatigable energy and ashamed at his own lack of dedication. He returned to his retreat.

Three more years passed, and still, he had not even had a single good dream. He decided, once and for all, that it was hopeless, and he left his retreat for good. The day wore on, and in the afternoon he came across a dog lying by the side of the road. It had only its front legs, and the whole of the lower part of its body was rotting and covered with maggots.

Despite its pitiful condition, the dog was snapping at passersby, and pathetically trying to bite them by dragging itself along the ground with its two good legs.

Asanga was overwhelmed with a vivid and unbearable feeling of compassion. He cut a piece of flesh off his own body and gave it to the dog to eat. Then he bent down to take off the maggots that were consuming the dog’s body. But he suddenly thought he might hurt them if he tried to pull them out with his fingers, and realized that the only way to remove them would be on his tongue. Asanga knelt on the ground and looking at the horrible festering, writhing mass, closed his eyes. He leaned closer and put out his tongue….

The next thing he knew his tongue was touching the ground. He opened his eyes and looked up. The dog was gone; there in its place was the Buddha Maitreya, ringed by a shimmering aura of light.

“At last,” said Asanga, “why did you never appear to me before?”

Maitreya spoke softly: “It is not true that I have never appeared to you before. I was with you all the time, but your negative karma and obscurations prevented you from seeing me. Your twelve years of practice dissolved them slightly so that you were at last able to see the dog.

Then, thanks to your genuine and heartfelt compassion, all those obscurations were completely swept away, and you can see me before you with your very own eyes. If you don’t believe that this is what happened, put me on your shoulder and try and see if anyone else can see me.”

Asanga put Maitreya on his right shoulder and went to the marketplace, where he began to ask everyone: “What have I got on my shoulder?”

“Nothing,” most people said and hurried on. Only one old woman, whose karma had been slightly purified, answered: “You’ve got the rotting corpse of an old dog on your shoulder, that’s all.”

Asanga, at last, understood the boundless power of compassion that had purified and transformed his karma, and so made him a vessel fit to receive the vision and instruction of Maitreya.

Then the Buddha Maitreya, whose name means “loving-kindness,” took Asanga to a heavenly realm, and there gave him many sublime teachings that are among the most important in the whole of Buddhism.

Wow! In comparing the two stories I would have to conclude that I have a long ways to go in my search for Enlightenment. I wonder what would happen if we all understood, as Asanga and Peepaws did, the boundless power of Compassion?

Wayne Dale Matthysse

ORBS

When digital cameras first came out I bought one hoping to take better pictures. It was well worth the expense and I was very pleased with the results but for some reason, at dusk, we would get these Orbs in our pictures like the one below.

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This was the first picture I took, with my new camera, that had an Orb in it. I was shocked to see it and I will tell you why. The year previous to the taking of this picture, a young boy died. I was holding his hand at the time he took his last breath, and with it, he called out my name as he reached up for me to hold him. A light shot out from his big brown eyes and like a cool breeze, it went through me as I fell into the bed. For that reason, the sphere of light in the picture above had a great deal of significance, for it is directly above the eyes of the deceased.

We had many other Orbs appear over time:

Like this one in my hand as I walked to the crematorium…

Or this one, that we called the Lonely Sentinel, outside the room where I slept.

But this picture of a moving orb above the photo of the eyes of the boy who died is perhaps the most dramatic of them all.

For awhile we took pictures almost every night and tried to understand these strange visitors, however, one afternoon, just before dark, there was a brief rain shower which, unfortunately, ended the grand display of digital orb photos. Some would suggest that it proves after all, that most of them were only dust in the wind, as many people had told us.  

I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I was a little bit disappointed because of it. I was beginning to like the little things coincidentally showing up at just the right time for my pictures. They seemed to know just where I wanted them to be.

Oh… I never really believed they were Spirits, not most of them anyway. I still have my suspicions about some of them, and I guess in my heart I really would like them to be Spirits. It would be so comforting to know that they were there and I suppose, to know that I would also be joining them someday, would help take away some of my personal uncertainties about Life after death.

Some people think that it is silly for a grown man to be going around looking for Spirits. I had one response that said, “ALL orbs are nothing more than a digital camera’s perception of natural things like dust or hair on the lens.” Another said, “they are a result of the flash and shutter being out of sync in the dark.” One response was even more conclusive: “NO Ghost, NO Spirits, and NO GOD! We are all just dust in the wind and nothing more.” They all agreed on what the orbs are not but seemed to have some disagreement on what they actually are.

I may seem stupid and naive to most people, especially to those like the ones above… but to tell you the truth, I rather feel sorry for them. The feeling that I am at times surrounded by those who have crossed over to the other side is something that gives me a great deal of Peace and Comfort… and, if I thought as they do, that there are no mysteries in life and that when it is over, it is finished… I don’t think I would enjoy life nearly as much as I do now.

I do believe in a Spiritual World and while the Orbs may not be anything more than just dust in the wind, I will go on searching for Spirits… perhaps until the day that I join them. So… if you happen to be around for my funeral, take along your digital camera, and just maybe it will pick up a large orb, floating blithely away into space… that is of course if it isn’t raining.

BABY MAI

Every once in a while you come across someone special and you know from that very first meeting that this one is going to steal your heart.

Baby Mai came to us in January of 2007. Her mother is HIV Positive but could not get transportation to the doctor when the time came for Mai to be born and so she had the baby at home. She was not aware that by doing so the baby ran the risk of getting HIV as well. She tried caring for the child but, because she also has both of her aging parents to care for, she found it difficult to keep the baby and so she brought Mai to us.

It didn’t take long for Baby Mai to win her way into the hearts of everyone here and despite her being HIV Positive she developed rapidly into a sweet young girl, throwing her kisses to everyone as they passed by.

 It has been well over a year since we have had anyone really sick here and so when Baby Mai developed diarrhea on a Friday morning I was not really concerned. She was getting in some new teeth and I assumed that was all it was. By Sunday morning, however, she was beginning to get dehydrated and so we forced fluids throughout the day. Monday was a holiday and the clinic was closed but she appeared to be responding to the treatment. We sent her into the hospital early Tuesday morning and the Doctors decided to keep her there for observation and IV therapy.

Sina, her foster mother, called us on Saturday afternoon, just before our family service in the Temple, saying Baby Mai had died and could we come and pick up her body. I sent the car immediately and we dolefully dedicated the service in her memory… but when Mr. Sary arrived at the hospital, he found that Mai was still alive, though very sick. Her stomach and extremities were swollen and because there is no medical staff at the hospital during the weekends, the mother feared the baby would die during the night and she would be all alone in the small sterile room that the hospital provided for her. Sina and Baby Mai were exhausted and needed the support of their community and so I told Mr. Sary to bring them home.

We massaged her stomach and got her internal systems moving again. By Monday, she was looking better and, for the first time in several days, ate some solid food without vomiting. That evening she was getting back to her old self again and blew me a kiss as I went to bed… for that reason, I was surprised when Sirain called me early the next morning. “Sir… Baby Mai, dying” came the all too familiar words from out of the past.
I jumped up and rushed to the Children’s Center where I found Sina dressing Mai in her new blue dress. Sina said Mai had awakened after a fairly good night’s sleep and asked for her necklace to be put on… then she just closed her eyes and became non-responsive.
I examined Mai but could not hear any congestion in her lungs. Her skin looked even better than the night before and there were no signs of dehydration, no fever, and the heart sounds were normal, yet it was obvious she was leaving us. I called her name and she moved slightly as if to acknowledge me and then she daintily raised her small hand to her mouth and yawned, opening her eyes for just a moment as if to say, “Oh my… this is taking a bit longer then I had expected.” A few minutes later, she died peacefully in Sina’s arms.
People have questioned the wisdom in my decision to take Mai out of the hospital… from a Western perspective I can understand their reasoning but then we are not in a Western environment here and often the decisions I must make are not easy ones. If longevity were the primary purpose of living then Mai’s life was a failure and perhaps I am guilty of not doing enough to prolong her life. However if the reason for our being is to obtain total absence of all craving and suffering, then I think we can be assured she has found her Nirvana.

NORN CHANBOREMAI

January 22, 2008

INTO THE ARMS OF STRANGERS

Those eyes gave her away on the very first day I met her… I have seen that look before, so many times in the past, and although it has been a while, I knew then and there that she would not be with us for very long.

I suppose it did have an effect on how I related to her. I wanted so much to be wrong, at least for Chay’s sake, but when she asked to return to the hospital after a month’s stay with us, I knew she would not be coming back.

For two weeks I had watched as she slowly released, the only thing she had left in this life to live for. At first, it was difficult for her, because Chay had known only her skirts as the boundaries of his world and only his Mother’s loving arms for protection and comfort… from a world that had already taken his Father. She was determined however to make sure he would be taken good care of and so she pushed him… into the arms of strangers.

She would never let him out of her sight, but day by day withdrew more and more into the shadows of his world…watching with Motherly pride, yet with tears in her eyes, as he won over the hearts of others, and showered them with the hugs and kisses once meant for her alone.

She left his life quietly… with no word of farewell, requesting to be taken to the hospital while he played in his new world.

I wasn’t planning to tell him of his mother’s passing until he grew a little older… but our children have no secrets from each other and before I knew it, his head was shaven and he had changed from a rambunctious little child to an attentive young man dressed in white.

Chay seems to have accepted his Mothers passing without question, or perhaps… like so many of our children, still feels his Mother’s presence, somewhere in the Shadows of his Existence. 

Wayne Dale Matthysse
21 January 2009

THE WELL KNOWN STRANGER

This story was written several years ago when death was a common occurrence at Wat Opot.

He comes and goes as he pleases and works behind the scenes. Most times we are not even aware of his presence until he is ready to steal another from us. The children may become restless or the dogs bark more than usual in the night… but we choose to ignore these things… for to acknowledge them, is to acknowledge him. Some say he comes for the Souls of three, which of course is superstition, but then more oft than not, that is the way it goes. He came last week and took one by surprise. I think he is still here, I can feel his presence and at times he appears briefly in the corner of my eyes, but when I turn to look he is not there.

Two have taken a turn for the worse and tonight the children are wild. I brace myself for another sleepless night and wonder which one it will be, or maybe both. It is not always obvious and those you think will be taken sometimes get left behind and I wonder if it is just the roll of the dice or is there something to their number being up. 

I don’t think he is a bad guy, just someone doing his job. At times I am even grateful to him for taking some out of their misery… and mine. Not that I want or like to see people die but when they are in the last stages of life they can become rather messy and well… gross would be a better word. Not everyone can die like in the soap operas with clean sheets and satin pillows.                          

Sakon has been dying for the past six months; she’s 38 and has two wonderful kids who have been her primary caregivers all this time. She has large draining abscesses on both of her buttocks, a broken leg bone from a fall a month or so ago, diarrhea, vomiting, and high fevers. Something keeps her going but I am not sure what it is… guess her number isn’t up or perhaps she never learned to play dice. She screams with pain if you touch her and shouts at the kids if they don’t. They often just sit and cry because they don’t know what else to do. Pesei went to get his grandmother yesterday because his mother told him to and because… well he is just so very tired. She hadn’t been here for over 3 months. She stayed in the room all of 20 minutes and then had to go outside. She left early this morning but not before having bitter words with Sakon. Guess they never did have much of a relationship. She said not to bother her for the funeral but to send the kids back home when it was over because she needed them to care for her. Some would call her cruel but she is really only trying to survive. Life can be difficult for old people in a country where there is no Welfare or Social Security and the only source of income is in planting and harvesting rice for the rich, who own the land. 

Chea is the other one waiting to be called, a man of 37 who once had it all but lost it on a gamble when he bought a girl for pleasure and got the losing draw. It took his wife three years ago and now it’s taking him… but slowly and painfully. He suffered a stroke before he came and lost the use of his left side, but he did not lose his dignity. A few weeks back he had another stroke, which left him helpless and incontinent, yet he still wants to get out every day and he tries, he tries so very hard to be dignified… but it’s difficult to do when your sitting in a smelly diaper, saliva dribbling from your mouth. 

I wish for death for nobody but would not be telling the truth if I didn’t add that I long to have a good night sleep and I know that will not come until the children laugh and sing again… and the dogs are silent in the night… and the stranger we know so well, leaves us alone for a time.