“We’ve accepted white supremacist, classist, colonial, patriarchal versions of mental health and wellness, without realizing it is these systems that have made us unwell.” – Dr. Rosales Meza
I found a post by Dr. Rosales Meza on Instagram with the above statement recently, plus her other posts, that made me ponder about Khmer healing rituals and how we can utilize ancestral knowledge in the community today. Personally, I feel the Khmer diaspora has strayed away from Khmer healing rituals and during a time where Western modes of healing is prominent on social media, I feel it is important we preserve and continue to practice Khmer healing rituals in our everyday lives to not only heal, but also connect with our ancestral knowledge, community, and our identity as Khmer.
I grew up around various Khmer ways of healing - anything from cupping or coining one’s body, to boiling blended mixtures of herbs to drink, to steaming with herbs as postpartum treatment (as Khmers believe the body becomes cold after birth and so, rituals were created to bring heat to the body), and other rituals that I didn’t quite understand as a child. I thought about all of this and how important it was to my family.
One important aspect of healing for my family and other Khmers is through religion - Buddhism. The temple is our spiritual center and for Buddhist Khmers, they can use the temple space to do a bon or get blessed by monks. To take it further, one can get blessed via the srouch thuk ritual which involves a monk chanting while pouring water over the person. This act of cleansing, I find, is good for the body, mind, and soul. The water “washes” away any lingering negativity, evil, uneasy feelings, or pain and bring about good, nourishment, and positivity. But it’s also up to the person to use the blessing as a sort of catalyst to progress and start anew.
Another Buddhist ritual is becoming a novice monk. It’s an avenue that has helped people to change their life around and become a better version of themselves. I don’t know if there’s a set number of days one can stay a novice monk, but in America, a full weekend may suffice for some who may have obligations throughout the week. With the American lifestyle, it’s difficult to commit to a ritual that could take days or weeks.
Gardening is also therapeutic (horticultural therapy is a thing!). It’s no wonder that older Khmers enjoy growing plants, vegetables, and herbs in their backyards or local gardens. My parents have always loved planting and growing things from sunflowers to red chili peppers. I view this as a probable connection to the life of farming in many Khmer families before the war caused disruption and displacement. It is there way of connecting to their life before and using it to heal in their life today.
Kru (from Sanskrit guru) are important in Khmer culture as well. Both men and women can be a kru and there are various forms of kru – some may only deal with traditional medicinal remedies, some may only deal with spirits and exorcisms, or some may only work as fortune tellers. My family used to see a kru once in a while for various things and if need be, the kru would give us items to further help us before the end of the visit. There are some Buddhist monks who have similar abilities to a kru and visiting both is possible based on one’s needs.
More elaborate rituals may need to be done if someone is in great danger.
There are definitely more rituals out there than the ones I mentioned. Due to lack of documentation and knowledge being lost over time as well as dominance in Western approaches, healing rituals are slowly becoming forgotten or abandoned in the Khmer diaspora. As for ones we do know and still practice, they can definitely be utilized alongside modern medicine/healing. The MAYE Center in Long Beach is a great example of a holistic, culturally sensitive approach to self-healing for the Khmer community. I’d love to see more MAYE centers in Khmer communities across the country.
The Western approach to healing the body, mind, and soul isn’t a one-fits-all solution and it forces us into a (isolated) box that often does not recognize nor understand our lived experiences and cultural background. I feel it is imperative for us diasporic Khmer folks to seek, practice, and uphold traditional modes of healing like the ones mentioned above. They can be used as supplemental healing or your first route towards healing. It is also a great way to connect with Khmer culture, knowledge, and the Khmer community - and I do believe it takes a community to heal!
I’m hoping to do more thorough research and find articles/books that discusses more about this topic!
Questions to ask oneself…:
How can ancestral healing rituals help me heal?
In what ways can I implement ancestral knowledge into my healing?
What can I do to help myself and my community heal that doesn’t prioritize Western modes of healing/therapy as the ONLY valid option?