The National animal of Cambodia, the Kou Prey (‘wild ox’) has just been demoted from the rank of species. It turns out, say the scientists who presumably know what they’re talking about, that the Kouprey never existed, but was instead a hybrid species between two other kinds of animals, a Bantend and a normal water buffalo. Like the mule, it’s unlikely such an animal could have reproduced and become a viable species of its own.
I have yet to hear complaints that this demotion is a hateful Vietnamese or Thai plot to extinguish Cambodian National Pride (though I’m waiting). But it might be a useful opportunity to point out the power that mythical beasts have on otherwise rational people.
Like the recent brouhaha over the status of flying rocks in our solar system (are they planets? are they asteroids? Should they be named after ancient Greek gods or given numbers?), the Kouprey highlights the way in which the world we encounter is different from the world in which we live, and that it is up to us to decide how to interact with the latter, by reforming the ways in which we apprehend it.
Khmer nationalists commonly fear that Cambodia will cease to exist, and their concerns have a real foundation in fact. This despite the stridency of the tone they employ, the often vicious racism which permeates their logic, and the conspiracy theories which drive their movements.
I offer this only as a suggestion; I love Cambodia, but am neither Khmer not a citizen of Cambodia, and as such have no right to determine its future. However, I would humbly suggest that one thing concerned Cambodians might consider is attempting to specify more exactly what it is they fear:
- As proponents of change, these concerned Cambodians obvious do not want things to stay the same.
- So what kind of change do they want?
- Are they only worried about the loss of the Cambodian state’s sovreignty? Right now, PM Hun Sen, frequent target of rhetorical attacks, especially from overseas Khmers, is the center of the Cambodian state. Clearly, the critics don’t want to preserve this state.
- Are they also worried about the economic inequality inside the country?
- Is territorial integrity the answer to either of these problems?
I would like to suggest that although they have real effects, both the Cambodian state and the Kouprey are mythical beasts. As long as we believe in their existence, they will continue to hunt for them, wail over their disappearance, and devote energies to them that could better be placed into actually building the kind of world we want to live in. This new world could have any number of characteristics – including simply an identical Cambodian state with a different Prime Minister, though that would be a bit of an anticlimax. But a search for a mythical beast can never bring satisfaction.
Buddhist stories about the Buddha tell the tale of Kisagotami. Kisagotami was a woman whose child had died. Mad with grief, she carried her baby’s corpse to the Buddha, hoping he would be able to cure her child. The Buddha instructed her to fetch a measure of mustard seed from a house where no one had ever died.
That kind of mustard seed is, like the Kouprey and the State, a mythical beast; no such house existed, since all beings die. Kisagotami went form house to house looking for this seed, but found nothing. She finally realized that she had been wasting her time, in grief, attempting to find something that never existed. She soon achieved enlightenment.
We may not be able to achieve enlightenment. At any rate, I seriously doubt my own ability to do so. But we can learn from such parables that running after beasts we have never seen, can’t touch and cannot even define, leads only to madness and frustration.