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Religion in Cambodia


Buddha Statue Collage

The ideas of Theravada Buddhism
Role of Buddhism in Cambodia
Animism and Shamanism
Religion in modern times: disaster and recovery


Theravada Buddhism has been the main religion in Cambodia since the 13th century. Villages and towns were organized around the local temple or Wat, with the monks often being the most respected members of the community. Theravada Buddhism had been prevalent in Cambodia during the Funan kingdom, (4-7th centuries) being replaced by Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism during the years of the Chenla and Angkor Kingdoms (7-14th centuries.) Theravada Buddhism was reintroduced from Sri Lanka during the 13th century and gradually spread throughout Cambodia, causing Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism to disappear. As it did in other Asian countries, Buddhism in Cambodia absorbed local shamanistic and spirit cults with monks often acting the role of intercessor to these indigenous spirits. These animistic practices are very prevalent at all levels of Cambodian society today, but are not seen to be in conflict with Buddhist values and practices.

The religious life of Cambodia was drastically altered and virtually destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years (1976-1979) when over 60,000 monks were killed, many Wats destroyed, and religious practices banned. While the government which replaced the Khmer Rouge promised to allow religious freedom, discouragement of religion continued during the Vietnamese occupation (ended 1989) although Buddhism began its recovery during those years. Since the opening of the country in the 1990's Buddhism has slowly regained status and practitioners, but its numbers and activities are far less than was the case prior to the Khmer Rouge takeover.

The ideas of Theravada Buddhism

Theravada (Teaching of the Elders) Buddhism is one of the three major divisions of Buddhism, the others being Mahayana (Great Vehicle) and Tantrayana (esoteric Buddhism). This form of Buddhism is the one currently prevalent in the Southeast Asian countries of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma (Myanmar) and Sri Lanka. It considers itself to be the oldest form of Buddhism and the one closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. All forms of Buddhism have key beliefs in common and the differences are in matters of practice and emphasis.

All Buddhists accept Buddha as the historical founder of the religion: Theravada emphasizes his humanity: he was a man who discovered the way to enlightenment and anyone can follow his footsteps and achieve enlightenment as well. Buddha was a teacher, a guide, one who showed the way to happiness and enlightenment. Buddha was a human who lived, discovered the middle way between pleasure and pain that leads to enlightenment, taught this path for 45 years, and then entered Nirvana (when he passed away). He is not a God, is not involved in the world any longer and thus he cannot answer prayers or petitions. Thus, Theravada stresses self reliance and obtaining enlightenment on one's own by following the way of the Buddha. Both Mahayana and Tantrayana, on the other hand, stress the supernatural quality of the Buddha and the fact that Buddha and other beings can help one on the way to enlightenment.

Buddhism is a religion which originated in India in the 6th century B.C. and rapidly spread throughout Asia. Founded by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), the religion stresses one's own responsibility for one's actions and promotes the central virtues of love, compassion, kindness, and no harm to any living creature. Buddhism grew out of dissatisfaction with the increasingly ritualistic practices of Hinduism; it also totally rejected the caste system and insisted on the equality of everyone. However, Buddhism kept certain of the key Hindu beliefs, including the belief in reincarnation, the role of Karma (one's actions) in causing reincarnation, the desire to escape from this "wheel or rebirth" and the belief that ending the cycle of life resulted in entrance to Nirvana, a vaguely described feeling of total bliss. Buddhists also believed that the world, while often a thing of joy, is also a place of suffering; the aim of Buddhism is to relieve the suffering of mankind by eliminating the cause of this suffering.

The basic ideas of Buddhism are those taught by the Buddha in his first sermon, in the Deer Park in Benares, after he himself attained "enlightenment". The legend of the Buddha states that he was a prince (Siddhartha Gautama) of a small kingdom called Sakya (now in Nepal). When he was born, a seer predicted that he would be either a great king or a great world renouncer. His father the king, wanted to prevent his son from renouncing the world and becoming a wandering holy man and thus surrounded him with luxury and kept from him knowledge of ills and evils. However, the gods took a hand and, when the prince was out riding one day, exposed him to the fours sights: a beggar, an ill man, a corpse, and a holy man. These sights shocked the young prince who realized how much suffering existed. He decided to rid the world of this suffering and one night, at the age of 29, left his palace, his wife, his son (named Rahula, which means fetters), his horse and clothes and adopted the robe of a wandering ascetic. He spent 6 years in self-mortification, starving and suffering and then realized that this was not bringing him closer to understanding the cause of suffering. So he ate and drank in moderation and sat under a tree (since called the Bodhi or tree of enlightenment) and meditated until he came to a realization, an understanding of the cause both of misery and of rebirth. This understanding is called enlightenment and it came to have two meanings: that one would not be reborn again but, upon "death" would go to Nirvana, a state of bliss; and that one would live the rest of one's life in total joy and happiness, unbothered by anything that would happen.

The way to rid oneself of suffering that the Buddha came to understand and to preach was called the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. These are the basic core beliefs of Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths are:
1) The world is full of suffering
2) This suffering is caused by desire
3) There is a cure for this suffering
4) The cure is to get rid of desire

The Noble Eightfold Path is the way to get rid of desire, which is seen as the cause of all misery AND the cause of rebirth. The Indian term Karma, which literally means actions, was redefined by Buddha to imply that it is the desires behind one's actions that cause the accumulation of karma, which in turn causes rebirth. Thus any action which is accidental or which is done with no selfish desire of any kind does not cause rebirth. The key to escaping from the cycle of rebirth, as well as to achieving happiness on earth, is the elimination of desire. Following the eightfold path is the easiest and best way to achieve this aim. The path consists of three sections: ethical conduct, mental development and wisdom. Under ethical conduct one practices right speech, right action and right livelihood; under mental development one practices right effort, mindfulness, and concentration; and under wisdom, one practices right view and right intention.

The various sects which developed had different ideas about what constituted these eight virtues and how to practice them. For example, what is right speech? Is it permissible to tell a lie to save people's lives? Under right action, for example, one must take a vow of non-harm of other creatures. Does this mean that one should starve to death rather than eat meat? Does it mean one should never kill in self-defense? Each of the above 8 virtues raised many questions about its implementation and these were answered differently by different Buddhists.

The center of Buddhist life is the monastery. Buddha felt that it is difficult to avoid desire and preference while leading the life of a householder; giving up the things of the world and living in a monastery with one's simple wants met would make it easier to follow the above eightfold path. Thus, monks and nuns have always been at the center of Buddhism and the monastic way of life is practiced in all Buddhist countries. Gradually a set of rules, called the Vinaya rules, governing monastic life was created. Each monk or nun takes 3 great vows: poverty, chastity, non-harm to others and agrees to abide by ten precepts: to abstain from harming living beings, taking things not freely given, sexual misconduct, false speech, intoxicating drinks and drugs causing heedlessness, taking untimely meals, dancing, singing, music, the use of flowers, perfumes and personal adornment, the use of high seats, and the use of gold and silver. In Theravada countries, it is the custom for each young boy to spend a certain amount of time, ranging from one week to several months, in a monastery. In his initiation, he repeated the Buddha's life by renouncing things of this world, shaving his head and donning the robes of a monk. This served to inculcate Buddhist values in these young boys and ensure tight relations between the monks and the community.

For the first 300 years or so after Buddha's death, his teachings were passed on orally and were memorized by the monks and nuns. Eventually they were written down into a series of sutras know as the Tripitaka or Three Baskets. These contained the ethical, practical and metaphysical teachings of the Buddha as well as the rules for monastic living. All Buddhists consider these scriptures to be the word of the Buddha and thus sacred. Theravada Buddhists accept only this collection of Sutras as valid. Both Mahayana and Tantrayana Buddhists have additional writings which they consider to also be the teachings of Buddha.

For a detailed discussion of Theravada Buddhism and excerpts from the scriptures (Sutras) please click here

Role of Buddhism in Cambodia

Not only was the Wat the religious center of the village, but it was also the main educational, cultural and social center. Often, monks were the most educated members of a village and most Cambodians received their education in a temple school. Each young boy would enter the monastery for a short period of time; this initiation into the monastery was a source of pride for the boy and his family and served to spread the values of Buddhism throughout society. In the cities as well, temples were centers of learning and scholarship as well as serving as social assistance centers for needy members of society. In addition to schools, the temples operated orphanages, hospitals, nursing homes, soup kitchens, and hostels for travelers.

Buddhist monks performed a number of functions in Cambodian society. In addition to their roles as teachers and social welfare workers, monks carried out a variety of rituals and ceremonies for the people. They officiated at funerals, weddings, and births as well as local festivals and holidays and provided blessings for crops and livestock as well as mental and physical health care for the people. Monks were often skilled in astrology and the management of local spirits; they provided a model of meritorious behavior for the laity and a means of gaining merit in the laity's search for a better rebirth.

Most of the major Cambodian festivals are associated with Buddhism. The New Year celebration (Chol Chnam) takes place in the middle of April (depending upon the lunar calendar). Also in April or May is Vissakh Bochea, which celebrates the time of the birth, enlightenment, and Nirvana of the Buddha, all of which occurred on the same date, in different years, of course. This was one of the few festivals allowed under the Khmer Rouge regime. The most important time in the Buddhist year is the Chol Vossa, which takes place in June or July and which lasts for about 3 months. This is the time when monks retreat to the monasteries during the rainy season. Traditionally it was a time of meditation, rest and reflection. This season is ended in September with the Kathen ceremony in which lay people make offerings to the monks, especially of new robes. A memorial day for departed ancestors takes place in September or October and is called Phchun Ben. The last sermon of the Buddha is commemorated in January or February.

Animism and Shamanism

As was mentioned above, Buddhism in Cambodia intermingles with the pre-Buddhist animistic and shamanistic traditions. Most Cambodians, in addition to calling themselves Buddhist, worshipping in the local temples, observing Buddhist holidays, etc, also believe in the existence of many different kinds of spirits. These spirits must be placated to avoid harm and can be appealed to for assistance. Spirit shrines are found in people's homes, in Buddhist temples, along roadsides and in forests and fields. Kinds of spirits include ghosts, demons who are the spirits of those who died violent or unnatural or early deaths, evil female spirits, tutelary spirits, ancestral spirits, house guardians, and animal guardians. Respect must be shown to these spirits who can cause trouble of various kinds, ranging from mischief to life threatening actions. The best way to show respect to the spirits is donations of food and these can be found in all spirit shrines. The local guardian spirits are consulted to find out what the new year will bring, tutelary spirits are asked for protection from enemies, ancestral spirits are asked to bring good fortune on their descendants, animal spirits are asked to protect livestock, etc.

A variety of specialists exist to help deal with this spirit world. While these spirits are separate from Buddhism, their shrines are often found in Buddhist temples and many monks double as spirit practitioners. Monks also officiate at a variety of ceremonies to ask aid or to prevent mischief from these spirits. In addition, specialists such as shamans (Kru), ritualists (Achar), sorceresses (Thmup) and mediums (Rup Arak) are to be found in many towns. The Kru prepares charms and amulets to protect the wearer from harm and can cure illnesses or find lost objects. The Achar is a ritual specialist who officiates at spirit worship rituals connected with life-cycle ceremonies such as births, naming, coming of age rituals, weddings, funerals, etc. Sorceresses cause illness and must be petitioned or driven out to effect a cure. The mediums become possessed by spirits and thus communicate with the spirit world. In addition to these specialists, fortune tellers or astrologists are important and are consulted about all important decisions such as going on a trip, building a house, or beginning school; they determine lucky and unlucky days for various events.

Religion in modern times: disaster and recovery

The American saturation bombing of Cambodia beginning in 1970 followed by the civil war and the Khmer Rouge regime from 1976-1979, resulted in the virtual destruction of religion in Cambodia. It is estimated that of more than 65,000 monks and nuns living in 1969, less than 3000 survived the civil war and genocide of the 1970's. Estimates of the death toll during the Khmer Rouge Regime are that about 1.7 million people (of a 1975 population of 7 million) were killed or died of starvation. Buddhism was a special target of the Khmer Rouge; in addition to killing the monks and nuns, most of the 3, 369 temples in existence in 1970 were destroyed, as were Christian churches and Islamic mosques. Monastery buildings which were not destroyed were used for storage, prisons, or torture chambers. By 1979, Buddhism in Cambodia was virtually destroyed.

When the Vietnamese communists drove out the Khmer Rouge in early 1979, Buddhist temples began to be revived. The first 7 Cambodian monks were re-ordained by a delegation of monks brought from Vietnam, but rebuilding was not a priority of the government and many restrictions, including the ban on men under 55 from becoming monks, remained in effect until the Vietnamese left in 1989. Since 1989, the number of monks and novices has risen to over 50,000; this revival has been led by the villagers who are rebuilding their temples, ordaining their sons, and reclaiming their Buddhist way of life.

However difficulties exist in educating the new monks as the monastic libraries were destroyed and the older monks killed thus disrupting the flow of teachings; consequently, the opening of religious schools has been slow in a country in which all education was virtually destroyed and has to be rebuilt. As Cambodia struggles to rebuild its society and economy, the rebirth of Buddhism is an important factor in its success.

For an excellent site on the Khmer rouge years, and interviews with survivors, please click here