Cambodian psychotherapist Sathya Pholy works as a consultant for microfinance providers VisionFund, as a doctor for the Phnom Penh Counselling Centre and as the host of Love Talks with Dr Sathya Pholy, a weekly radio show on Love FM 97.5
In this month’s article he considers how the spirit of Christmas applies to everyone, whatever their beliefs. I was born a Buddhist, but after being taught English by an American Christian my father became interested in Christianity. In 1985, while living in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, my whole family was baptised as Christians. During my 20 years in the US, I was baptised twice more and ordained as a deacon in the New Apostolic church. Since then I have given Bible classes, taught Sunday school and preached the gospel for the Seventh Day Adventists Church.
Many early memories of my family revolve around Buddhist ceremonies, such as the Bonn Kathen, which is the annual ceremony of donations for the local pagoda. For Buddhists, donating money or gifts to the pagoda is an essential preparation for the next life.
Now, as a Christian I have learned to love Christmas, especially as it is celebrated in the US. I lived in the northeast of the States, so my dreams of a White Christmas came true every year. I usually spent more money than I should every Christmas on gifts and decoration. I chopped my own tree and decorated it with lights and ornaments. I bought lots of presents – I became Santa Claus.
By comparison, Christmas in Cambodia is a tame affair. Cambodians think of it as a celebration of Christ, so are reluctant to take a full part in the festivities. For me, Christmas is a time of fellowship and an opportunity to give to others. Human life is short and so often devoted to selfishness and parochialism. Christmas is a chance to redress the balance.
I believe every faith contains this element of selflessness. But so many never practice what they preach or what they subscribe to. God becomes like a genie in the lamp: when we are in trouble we seek its help; otherwise we are too independent and smart to follow its wisdom.
If all the rich people in the world donated a fraction of their wealth to others, it would end poverty at a stroke. I feel the same about Cambodia. If the richer members of society gave directly to the poor, they could quickly eradicate hunger and suffering.
But, in general, Cambodians invest their wealth in the pagoda, with the hope of reaching heaven in the next life, rather than contribute to alleviating the poverty in this one. So while the surrounding villages and communes sink deeper into destitution, the monks always seem to have ample cash for beautifying their pagodas.
Regardless of what religion you follow, and even if you have no religion at all, being a philanthropist is good for everybody – especially if your donations reach those most in need. One thing’s for sure – you won’t be taking your wealth with you when you go.
At the end of the day: if you are a Buddhist, be a good one; if Muslim, follow your rules; if Christian, respect the teachings of Christ; and if you have no religion, respect the wonder of existence. We can all maximise our dharma by being generous both in spirit and in reality.