An article in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality outlines a study on "Folk Conceptions of Virtue Among Cambodian Buddhists and Christians: A Hermeneutic Analysis." Of the many immigrant peoples who have come to the United States in recent years, Cambodian American culture is a significantly understudied one--and there is much to be learned, as these folks display distinctive psychological and emotional needs. Many are familiar with death, tragedy and genocide as most first generation Cambodian Americans were resettled in the United States in the early 1980s when one million or more people died as a result of brutal Khmer Rouge rule. Now some of them find sanctuary, a safe haven in these United States, and I commend the writers of this article for bringing the scientific tools of psychology to bear on that great task noted by St. Francis of Assisi, "better to understand than be understood."
The researchers used a small sample size including 12 Cambodian-American Buddhist immigrants and 12 Christian immigrants. Lest you think these numbers are very small, let me point out that scores of hours were spent administering surveys, interviewing, learning about the small community from which the participants were drawn, combining quantitative/empirical with qualitative data, and in the end viewing everything through the hermeneutical and linguistic philosophy of Paul Ricouer--an approach that employs analysis in the service of advanced empathy and understanding. It is good to see psychology in the realm of intellectual discovery that America contributor Father Francis Clooney is doing over at Harvard. Some of the findings give us a better understanding of the Cambodian-American culture, both Buddhist and American:
Responses to the conscientiousness-based virtues were then explored. When asked about accepting one's portion in life, Cambodian American Buddhists believe one has a duty to accept the pain and suffering in this life, whereas members of the two Christian groups conceptualize acceptance in terms of their calling or as personal choice. As AT, a 75-year-old Buddhist woman, said: "It's Buddhist teaching. I accept my experiences." Their acceptance appears dutiful and passive but also communal. In this regard, the translator said of CL, a 77-year-old woman, that "she knows she is part of something larger."
When participants were asked about forgiveness, the Cambodians stressed their relationship with family and community and the importance of forgiving totally and forgiving everyone, whereas the Euro-American Christians stressed the importance of their individual relationship with God and the interference with spiritual growth that occurs when one is not forgiving. Cambodian American Christians also recognize the benefits of forgiveness to the family, but their forgiveness appears to be oriented toward an individual. One Cambodian American Buddhist participant mentioned revenge. PP, a 48-yer-old woman, said that "sometimes you don't want to forgive, but you have to, because according to the religion we don't want to have to get revenge."
When asked whether they value social justice, Cambodian American Buddhists believe that social justice comes from the government, is a good thing, and is not their responsibility, whereas Cambodian American Christians talked of their own responsibility to be just. It is noteworthy that all Cambodian American Buddhist participants received public welfare, and several, at some point during the interview, interpreted this as evidence of their ancestors having gained merit for them in earlier lives. When asked for a comment or example of social justice, however, only RR, a 55-year-old Buddhist woman, related her own experience of receiving welfare with the concept of social justice.
Psychology of Religion and Spirituality is the official journal of Division 36 Psychology of Religion of the American Psychological Association. (I have been a member of this Division for many years and am also a Fellow of the American Psychological Association.) There are over 50 divisions in the APA specializing in areas such as testing, psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, teaching, private practice, neuropsychology, and many others. The editor of the journal is Dr. Ralph Piedmont of Loyola University of Baltimore. They are sponsoring an upcoming conference on psychology and spirituality--one which promises to introduce ground-breaking work in the field. For further correspondence on this particular article, you may write to Kaye V. Cook of Gordon College: [email protected].
William Van Ornum