Castes and Karma in Cambodia

Karma is that thing in Buddhism where if a person does something good in this life, the good things will come back to them in the next. If a person is born rich, they built up good Karma in the last life; if they’re born poor, they weren’t so good. Or so I was told by a tuk-tuk driver friend (we’ll call him Tuk). He said this as he waved his hand dismissively, “I am not Buddhist, because I have no time to worry about the next life. Only this one.”

I relayed this conversation to an upper-middle class friend (we can call him Up), who quickly corrected me. This is not Buddhism, he said. “Real” Buddhism is actually about Karma in this life, and if people better understood that, Cambodia would be a much stronger country. For example, according to “real” Buddhism, if a man does good deeds his whole life and grows old and sick, the community will take care of him due to his good Karma. Karma can be “earned” throughout one’s own life, Buddha teaches, by (1) working, (2) saving, (3) spending, and (4) giving. If the old man does not do those four things throughout his life, no one will take care of him.

Tuk does everything Up says people are supposed to do, but no one is taking care of him. He works all day and sleeps in his tuk-tuk at night. He saves up what little he has and sends it to his family. He spends what little he has on meals and parking. As is common in the tuk-tuk driver community, he often gives and lends money to his struggling friends. He says he is not Buddhist, but still, he gives to the monks on their morning rounds. Sometimes he goes out drinking or gets a nice haircut. When he does, he says, “Sure, maybe I cannot afford this, but how can I not live my life?” Still, Tuk thinks he was a bad person in his last life so he has (mostly) given up on Buddhism and focuses on this life, while he thinks a person like Up already paid his dues a long time ago.*

Up thinks that he has accomplished good Karma in this life (not the last), and the evidence shows it: he has an easy-going job, a nice house, educated children, and a full food pantry. But because Tuk is hungry, Up says he is a bad Buddhist. This is how Up and some others** in the educated (and Buddhist) elite think about the lower class. If the poor would only follow Buddha’s four steps, they would no longer be sleeping in their tuk-tuks. They would have nice houses and the government would not sell their land to a company. They could grow rice in the countryside and have cows and chickens and be perfectly self-sufficient. They could save enough money to send all eight of their children to school on an annual salary of $200 per year…and I’m embellishing.

Let me tell you about Ninta, a beggar woman I once met. I can’t tell you Ninta’s whole life story, but I gathered enough to understand that Ninta had a hard life. Her family has never had money. When she was growing up they mostly ate rice, with some meat or vegetables sometimes, but mostly rice. She was always hungry, and her growth was stunted. She is short and her brain did not develop properly. If she would have gone to school, she would not have done well.

That’s the first problem. Further, even if she had a full belly and the energy to want to go to school, she wouldn’t have been able to afford bribing the teachers enough to supplement their scant government salaries.

Then, even if she had been able to afford school, she wouldn’t have learned much. Her school would have lacked trained teachers and adequate resources.

Ninta never went to school. When her father was occupied in the rice field and her mother was busy selling vegetables at the market, she walked around and begged. Sometimes people would give her money and she would buy noodles. As Ninta got older, she started talking to boys. Soon she got pregnant. Her parents couldn’t afford to feed another mouth. Now she’s 17 and begging on the street with a baby in her arms.

The problem is not that Ninta isn’t working. The problem is that Ninta never had the opportunity. The problem is that Ninta was born into a world that did not welcome her, maybe because of Karma, maybe not. The problem is the lack of an available education, health care, food assistance programs, family planning. Problems too big for Ninta to fix for herself.

I don’t know if Up has the wrong understanding of Buddhism, but does make less practical sense than Tuk’s. Up was born to parents with business connections; Tuk and Ninta were born to famers. No matter how much Karma Tuk and Ninta earned, their lives would still be a struggle. They’d still be too tired and hungry to worry about the bigger picture of this life or even the next; the next meal is already enough worry.

PS: I still don’t really understand all of the differences in Buddhist understandings and how they impact society, but I look forward to keep learning more. I’m hoping to make a full post on Buddhism sometime soon.

*I just want to note that this mindset is very convenient for the more fortunate people in power, but that discussion is for another day.

**I don’t mean to generalize. I realize that many upper-middle class people appreciate the plight of the poor. I also do not mean to indicate that I fully understand the plight of the poor, because I definitely, definitely do not.