BUDDHISM IN CAMBODIA
About 95 per cent of Cambodians are Buddhists. Theravada Buddhism is the religion of virtually all of the ethnic Khmers, who constitute about 90 percent or more of the Cambodian population. It has been the official state religion since about the 15th century. During the Khmer Rouge era all religions were banned and monks were killed. After the Khmer Rouge was ousted monks returned and temples were rebuilt. Buddhism was made the official religion again in 1989. As of 2008 there were 4,000 gilded Buddhist temples filled with saffron-robed monks in Cambodia.
Cambodian Buddhism has no formal administrative ties with other Buddhist bodies, although Theravada monks from other countries, especially Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Sri Lanka, may participate in religious ceremonies in order to make up the requisite number of clergy. Cambodian Buddhism is organized nationally in accordance with regulations formulated in 1943 and modified in 1948. During the monarchical period, the king led the Buddhist clergy. Prince Sihanouk continued in this role even after he had abdicated and was governing as head of state. He appointed both the heads of the monastic orders and other high-ranking clergy. After the overthrow of Sihanouk in 1970, the new head of state, Lon Nol, appointed these leaders. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987
The cornerstones of Cambodian Buddhism are the Buddhist bonze and the wat. Traditionally, each village has a spiritual center–a wat–where from five to more than seventy bonzes reside. A typical wat in rural Cambodia consists of a walled enclosure containing a sanctuary, several residences for bonzes, a hall, a kitchen, quarters for nuns, and a pond. The number of monks varies according to the size of the local population. The sanctuary, which contains an altar with statues of the Buddha and, in rare cases, a religious relic, is reserved for major ceremonies and usually only for the use of bonzes. Other ceremonies, classes for monks and for laity, and meals take place in the hall. Stupas containing the ashes of extended family members are constructed near the sanctuary. Fruit trees and vegetable gardens tended by local children are also part of the local wat. The main entrance, usually only for ceremonial use, faces east; other entrances are located at other points around the wall. There are no gates. *
American scholar on Southeast Asia, Donald J. Steinberg notes the striking ratio of bonzes to the total population of Cambodia. In the late 1950s, an estimated 100,000 bonzes (including about 40,000 novices) served a population of about 5 million. This high proportion undoubtedly was caused in large part by the ease with which one could enter and leave the sangha. Becoming a bonze and leaving the sangha are matters of individual choice although, in theory, nearly all Cambodian males over sixteen serve terms as bonzes. Most young men do not intend to become fully ordained bonzes (bhikkhu), and they remain as monks for less than a year. Even a son’s temporary ordination as a bonze brings great merit to his parents, however, and is considered so important that arrangements are made at a parent’s funeral if the son has not undergone the process while the parent was living. There are two classes of bonzes at a wat–the novices (samani or nen) and the bhikkhu. Ordination is held from mid-April to mid-July, during the rainy season.
Cambodian Buddhist Monks
Buddhist monks occupy their own social class in Cambodia and have traditionally been given a great amount of respect. There is even a separate vocabulary for talking to and about them. Traditionally monks have been residents of a specific temple and monastery. Like monks elsewhere in Southeast Asia, monks in Cambodia have shaved head, wear bright orange robes, and use begging bowls. Some smoke and giggle. when the see vigilante justice.
Boys have traditionally spent a period of the lives as monks. The practice is coming back but is not as widespread as its is Thailand, Laos and Burma. Achar are the equivalent of lay priests. They preside over ceremonies and life-cycle events.
Two monastic orders constituted the clergy in Cambodia. The larger group, to which more than 90 percent of the clergy belonged, was the Mohanikay. The Thommayut order was far smaller. The Thommayut was introduced into the ruling circles of Cambodia from Thailand in 1864; it gained prestige because of its adoption by royalty and by the aristocracy, but its adherents were confined geographically to the Phnom Penh area. Among the few differences between the two orders is stricter observance by the Thommayut bonzes (monks) of the rules governing the clergy. In 1961 the Mohanikay had more than 52,000 ordained monks in some 2,700 wats, whereas the Thommayut order had 1,460 monks in just over 100 wats. In 1967 more than 2,800 Mohanikay wats and 320 Thommayut wats were in existence in Cambodia. After Phnom Penh, the largest number of Thommayut wats were found in Batdambang, Stoeng Treng, Prey Veng, Kampot, and Kampong Thum provinces. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987
Each order has its own superior and is organized into a hierarchy of eleven levels. The seven lower levels are known collectively as the thananukram; the four higher levels together are called the rajagana. The Mohanikay order has thirty-five monks in the rajagana; the Thommayut has twentyone . Each monk must serve for at least twenty years to be named to these highest levels.
Buddhist monks do not take perpetual vows to remain monks, although, in fact, some become monks permanently. Traditionally, they became monks early in life. It is possible to become a novice at as young an age as seven, but in practice thirteen is the earliest age for novices. A bhikkhu must be at least twenty. The monk’s life is regulated by Buddhist law, and life in the wat adheres to a rigid routine. A bhikkhu follows 227 rules of monastic discipline as well as the 10 basic precepts. These include the five precepts that all Buddhists should follow. The five precepts for monastic asceticism prohibit eating after noon, participating in any entertainment (singing, dancing, and watching movies or television), using any personal adornments, sleeping on a luxurious bed, and handling money. In addition, a monk also is expected to be celibate. Furthermore, monks supposedly avoid all involvement in political affairs. They are not eligible to vote or to hold any political office, and they may not witness a legal document or give testimony in court. Since the person of a monk is considered sacred, he is considered to be outside the normal civil laws and public duties that affect lay people. Some of these practices have changed in the modern period, however, and in the 1980s Buddhist monks have been active even in the PRK government.
Buddhist monks traditionally were called upon to perform a number of functions in Cambodian life. They participated in all formal village festivals, ceremonies, marriages, and funerals. They also might have participated in ceremonies to name infants and in other minor ceremonies or rites of passage. Monks did not lead the ceremonies, however, because that role was given to the achar, or master of ceremonies; the monk’s major function was to say prayers of blessing. They were often healers and, in traditional Khmer culture, they were the practitioners whose role was closest to that of modern psychiatrists. They might also have been skilled in astrology. The monk traditionally occupied a unique position in the transmission of Khmer culture and values. By his way of life, he provided a living model of the most meritorious behavior a Buddhist could follow. He also provided the laity with many opportunities for gaining merit. For centuries monks were the only literate people residing in rural communities; they acted as teachers to temple servants, to novices, and to newly ordained monks. Until the 1970s, most literate Cambodian males gained literacy solely through the instruction of the sangha.
Women are not ordained, but older women, especially widows, can become nuns. They live in wat and play an important role in the everyday life of the temple. Nuns shave their heads and eyebrows and generally follow the same precepts as monks. They may prepare the altars and do some of the housekeeping chores.
Eight Buddhist Mutrea (Gestures and Positions) in Cambodia
The plethora of different stances, gestures and positions that Buddha is depicted in, are a confusing cornucopia. To facilitate understanding, here is a brief outline of the eight most common depictions. Whilst providing a historical perspective on the artistic interpretation, Buddhist iconography is full of meaning and gives insights onto Buddhism and the life of the historical Buddha: Siddharata Gautama. The statuary acts as a focus of veneration, but also a reminder of the journey taken by Buddha towards enlightenment. The seemingly simple details of the sculptor convey meaning and each position of the hand and body tell a story all of their own.
In Cambodia, there are eight gestures of Buddha – “Mutrea” means the gesture of Buddha: 1) The Vitkak Mutrea Buddha: Sitting cross-legged with one hand lain atop the other with palms facing upwards. “Vitkak” means contemplating or concentrating. This is a classical depiction of the Buddha during meditation and is one of the more familiar stances. This depiction relays the path of the Buddha, as he strove to understand and eventually alleviate, the suffering of all living things. +
2) The Marvirak Chey Mutrea Buddha: Sitting cross-legged with the right hand turned palm inwards and the fingers pointing to the earth, the left palm resting on the thigh. This is also known as “calling the earth to witness.” This comes from the story of Buddha, as he sat underneath the Boddhi tree. As it neared dawn Mara came in the form of temptation and demons to disturb the Buddha. In retaliation the Buddha touched the earth and invoked its power thus dispelling the evil forces. +
3) The Thormachak Mutrea Buddha: Sitting cross-legged and making the forefingers of right palm into a circle, and the left hand sometimes copies the right or is put on the thigh. “Thormachak” means to pray like a wheel. The symbol of the wheel is a classic Buddhist imagery and can be seen as representing the wheel of life and the eternal cycle of Samsara – the repetition of death and rebirth to which all humans are victims to. +
4) The Akpheay Mutrea Buddha: Either standing up, or sitting cross-legged with a raised right palm – as if stopping someone in front – the left hand points down parallel to the body. “Akpheay” means fearlessness. Buddha is seen as praying to help the world’s animals. In this stance it is a reminder of an important tenet of Buddhism- to not harm sentient creatures. +
5) The Vorak Mutrea Buddha: Putting down both the right and left hands at his side with both palms facing the front, he sometimes sits cross-legged or stands up. This depiction is to ensure those who pray to the Buddha also receive his protection. In this sense it can be seen as a blessing stance. +
6) The Batra Tean Mutrea Buddha: Standing clasping his Bat (Buddhist’s alms bowl). Historically Buddha collected alms and this is still a crucial part of the contemporary Sangha (monastic community) – even today they can be seen on the street collecting offerings of food from the faithful. When the Buddha eventually died, he is reputed to have turned his alms bowl upside down. Even to this day an upturned bowl in many Buddhist countries can signify death. +
7) The Sakyanak Mutrea Buddha: Reclining, the Buddha sleeps by turning his body to right side and left leg put over right one. This shows his entrance to nirvana; the point at which he left his physical body. Ironically this stance is often seen as the most serene. Usually this refers to the moment when Buddha died and left the cycle of Samsara. The idea of death being as natural as sleep is one that is conveyed. It also shows his fearlessness due to the compassionate and benevolent smile that is normally associated with this gesture. +
8) The Brak Neak Mutrea Buddha: “Neak” means dragon and “Brak” means to cover something. This relates to a story of when there was a heavy storm and a dragon, more often translated as a Naga, came to shelter him. Thus the Buddha is depicted as sitting cross-legged underneath a multiple-headed, hooded serpent that is coiled beneath him and thus protects him. +
While the statues themselves cannot speak, the body language is positively verbose. From the tiniest detail comes a story or parable that aims to help humanity on the path to enlightenment. With such a diverse amount of Buddhist schools and followers, there is an equally large amount of differing representations. The important role religion plays within the kingdom is obvious. Within each pagoda, there are depiction of Buddha. Thus it is important to be able to tell the differing gestures apart, to try to comprehend the diversity of the religion. It is across the void of time that the artisans, who created these pieces, speak about this journey and the hope that all humans can actively bring about the cessation of suffering. +
Wat (Temple) Etiquette
People are supposed to take off their shoes before entering a temple and leave umbrellas outside. They are also expected to be neatly dressed. Hats should be removed. Short sleeve shirts, short pants, short skirts and pants for women are generally regarded as inappropriate attire but are often grudgingly tolerated from foreigners. Some places require visitors to take off their shoes (and sometimes their socks) when entering the temple grounds. Others only require that they be removed when entering a temple building, shrine or pagoda. Some people wash their feet before entering a temple.
Always walk clockwise around Buddhist monuments, thus keeping the religious landmarks to your right (this is more important in Tibet and Himalayan areas than it is in Southeast Asia) Don’t walk in front of praying people. Don’t take photos during prayers or meditation sessions. Don’t use a flash. As a rule don’t take photos unless you are sure it is okay.
Buddha images are sacred objects and one should not pose in front of them or point their feet at them. When sitting down many local people employ the “mermaid pose” to keep both feet pointed towards the rear. Photographing Buddha images is considered disrespectful, but again, is tolerated from foreign tourists.
Praying is done by prostrating oneself or bowing with hands clasped to the forehead from a standing or seated position in front of an image of Buddha. Prayers are often made after tossing a coin or banknote into an offering box and leaving an offering of flowers or fruits or something else. Many people visit different altars, leaving some burning incense and praying at each one. Other bow at the altar and sprinkle water, a symbol of life. Others still, bend down and kowtow before shrines. In big temples money can be left in a donation boxes near the entrance. If there is no donation box. You can leave the money on the floor.
Monks should be greeted with Southeast-Asian-style bows. When talking to a monk try to make sure your head lower than his. This can be achieved by bowing slightly or sitting down. If a monk is sitting down you to should also be sitting down. Women should not touch a monk or give objects directly to him (instead place the object on a table or some other surface near the monk). On buses and trains, people customarily give up their seat to monks.
Wat Preah Keo Morakot (Silver Pagoda) is located in the southern portion of the Royal Palace complex in Phnom Penh. The pagoda was formerly known as Wat Uborsoth Rotannaram because it is where the King worshiped, prayed and practiced every Buddhist Silas Day. In the additional, the royal family and officials also held Buddhist ceremonies there. The Khmer Rouge reportedly didn’t destroy the Silver Pagoda because they wanted visiting foreign dignitaries to think they were interested in preserving Khmer culture.
Built in 1892 and restored in the 1960s, it is named for the 5,000 silver tiles that cover the pagoda’s floor. Among the temples other features are a live-size golden Buddha encrusted with more than 9,000 diamonds, about 100 or so other golden Buddhas, and an Italian marble staircase.
This pagoda has no monks. However, His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk lived there for one year when he entered the monkhood on July 31, 1947. Because the pagoda has no monks, visitors usually refer to it as Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot. When the King celebrates Buddhist ceremonies, monks from other pagoda such as Wat Unaloam and Wat Botumvattey are invited to attend the ceremonies. Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot was built between 1892 and 1902, during the region of King Norodom, but at that time it was constructed of wood and brick. Its design is base on Cambodian architectural style. Then Banhchos Khan Seima ceremony was held on Feb 5, 1903.
There are 1,650 art objects housed in this temple. Most of them are Buddha figures. They are made of gold, silver, bronze and other valuable materials. Some are decorated with diamonds. They are gifts from the King, the royal family, dignitaries and other people who worship at Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot, where they pray for peace and prosperity, for happiness and for the preservation of Cambodian cultural heritage for the next generation. In front of the throne, site a Buddha statue made of gold, weighing 90 kilograms (about 200 pounds) and decorated with 2,086 diamonds. The biggest diamond is on the crown. It is 25 millimeters. This statue was commissioned in 1904 by King Sisowath, following the suggestion of King Norodom. King Norodom said, after his body was cremated the gold casket should be melted to make Buddha statue representing Preah Srei Araymetrey. This Buddha statue is named Preah Chin Raingsei Rachik Norodom.
Objects of particular interest in the Preah Vihear Keo Morakot include: The Preah Keo Morakot, the Emerald Buddha, which sits atop throne in the center of the temple. There is a small glass cabinet that contains what Buddhists believe are ashes of the Buddha. The ashes were brought from Sri Lanka in 1956 by Samdech Head Monk Lvea Em, who stayed in Wat Langka in Phnom Penh. In a nearby cabinet sits a gold Buddha figure offered by Queen Kosamak Nearyrath, mother of King Norodom Shihanouk, in 1969. This Buddha figure is protected by naga. It represents when Buddha stayed at the Muchalonti Pond. Objects in other cabinets are the keepsakes and decorated objects for royal and Buddhist ceremonies. The temple is surrounded by lofty gallery. On the wall of the gallery, there are traditional paintings of the entire Ream Ke epic. These paintings were done by 40 Cambodian artists between 1903 and 104 under the direction of Oknha Tep Nimit. The Ream Ke painting is 642 meters long and 3meters high. It starts from the south of the eastern gallery and winds its way around the gallery. This means that visitors must walk in a circle to see the entire story.
The ancient epic Ream Ke along the gallery shows a unique scene not copied completely from Indian Ramayana. Because some plots of Cambodian Ream Ke are so mysterious, visitors mush look at the painting carefully. Visitors who are familiar with Indian Ramayana will understand the Cambodian Reap Ke easily, even thought the two versions are different. Some themes are also depicted by La Khon Khaol or depicted in Sbek Thom and other sculpted figures. Astrologers also use the story to tell fortunes. Weather, structural damage and destruction by visitors over the years have caused the paintings to deteriorate. In 1985, the Cambodian government was cooperating with the government of Poland to restore, protect and maintain the paintings. The venture lasted only five years, however, because the budget was terminated. Today the Cambodian government is looking for way to conserve, restore and maintain this cultural heritage.
Monks from Phnom Penh and other provinces once studied the Pali language in classes that were held along the gallery before the Pali School was opened in Phnom Penh on Dec 16, 1930. In front of Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot, are two stupas and a statue under the roof. The south stupas hold the cremains of King Ang Doung, the great-great grandfather of King Sihanouk. The north stupas hold the remains of King Norodom, the great grandfather of King Shihanouk. Both stupas were dedicated on March 13, 1980. The statue of King Norodom riding a horse was erected in 1875. It was the keepsake of the French King Napoleon III. It was kept in front of Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot in 1892, but at that time there was no roof. During King Sihanouk’s crusade to win independence from France, he prayed in front of the statue. After Cambodia won its dependence on Nov 11, 1953, King Sihanouk had the roof built in honor of King Norodom.
South of Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot beside Thamma Hall, a place for praying, and the stupa of King Sihanouk’s father, King Norodom Soramrith, which was built in 1960, visitor find: Keung Prah BatKeung Preah Bat houses the footprints of the four Buddhas who have already reached enlightenment. Those Buddhas are Kok Santhor, Neak Komonor, Kasabor and Damonakodom. In additional to the four Buddha, Preah Srei Araynetrey, whom Buddhist believe has not yet been born. They believe that he will come 5,000 years after the fourth Buddha reaches Nirvana. Buddhists believe that Preah Srei Araymetrey will come and help the people. Phnom Khan Malineati Borapat Kailasha Phnom Khan Malineati Borapat Kailasha or Phnom Mondul is the manmade hill that represents Phnom Kailasha, where the Buddha left his footprints on the stone. On the Phnom Mondul, there is a statue of the Buddha and 108 blessings of life before the Buddha reaches enlightenment.
Kunthabopha Stupa was built in 1960 as the resting place for the ashes of Princess Norodom Kunthaboph, the daughter of King Norodom Sihanouk. She was four years old when she died of dengue fever. The stupa’s design is base on the ancient Banteay Srei temple in Siem Reap. West of Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot is a bell hall. The bell is used in the various ceremonies and to mark the opening and closing of the Silver Pagoda. In the past, the bell was also used to call the monks who studied Pali in the palace. To the north, is a building that houses. Tipitaka, the fundamental scriptural canon of Buddhism. They include: Sutta Pitaka
The Sutta Pitaka, a collection of discourses, is primarily composed of dialogues between the Buddha and other people. It consists of five groups of texts: Digha Nikaya (Collection of long discourses), Mijjhima Nikaya (collection of medium discourses), Samyutta Nikaya (collection of grouped discourses), Anguttara Nikaya (collection of discourses on numbered topics), and Khuddaka Nikaya (collection of miscellaneous texts). In the fifth group, the Jatakas, comprising stories of former lives of the Buddha, and the Dhammapada (religious sentences), a summary of the Buddha’s teachings on mental discipline and morality, are especially popular. The Vinaya Pitaka, the code of monastic discipline, consists of more than 225 rules governing the conducts of Buddhist monks and nuns. Each is accompanied by a story explaining the original reason for the rule. The rule are arranged according to the seriousness of the offense resulting from their violation. Abhidharma Patika
The Abhidharma Patika contains philosophical, psychological, and doctrinal discussions and classifications. It consists of seven separate works. They include detailed classifications of psychological phenomena, metaphysical analysis, and a thesaurus of technical vocabulary. The Building also houses a Shiva’s mount Nandi. This figure was found buried in Koh Thom district in Kandal province in 1983. It is estimated to be 80 percent silver and 20 percent bronze, copper, lead, iron and zinc.
Role of Buddhism in Cambodian Life
Nearly every village and town used to have a wat , with a temple monastery, and dormitory for monks. It was the center of village life and often had a school or supported a school. The government supported the wat schools.
Most of the major Cambodian annual festivals are connected with Buddhist observances. The chol chnam (New Year Festival) takes place in mid-April; it was one of the few festivals allowed under the Khmer Rouge regime. The phchun ben, celebrated in September or in October, is a memorial day for deceased ancestors and for close friends. Meak bochea, in January or February, commemorates the last sermon of the Buddha. Vissakh bochea, in April or in May, is the triple anniversary of the birth, death, and enlightenment of the Buddha. The chol vossa takes place in June or in July; it marks the beginning of a penitential season during which the monks must remain within the temple compounds. The kathen marks the end of this season; celebrated in September, it features offerings, especially of robes, to the monks. The kathen was still celebrated in the PRK in the late 1980s. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]
Cambodian Buddhism exists side-by-side with, and to some extent intermingles with, pre-Buddhist animism and Brahman practices. Most Cambodians, whether or not they profess to be Buddhists (or Muslims), believe in a rich supernatural world. When ill, or at other times of crisis, or to seek supernatural help, Cambodians may enlist the aid of a practitioner who is believed to be able to propitiate or obtain help from various spirits. Local spirits are believed to inhabit a variety of objects, and shrines to them may be found in houses, in Buddhist temples, along roads, and in forests. *
Buddhism is still strong among the various Cambodian refugee groups throughout the world, although some younger monks, faced with the distractions of a foreign culture, have chosen to leave the clergy and have become laicized. In the United States in 1984, there were twelve Cambodian wats with about twenty-one monks. In the 1980s, a Cambodian Buddhist wat was constructed near Washington, D.C., financed by a massive outpouring of donations from Cambodian Buddhists throughout North America. This wat is one of the few outside Southeast Asia that has the consecrated boundary within which ordinations may be performed. *
Cambodians are fond of pork, buffalo meat, frogs, mussels, and crabs, and they like their food fresh. Even though the majority of them are Buddhists, Buddhist prohibitions have never kept Cambodians from eating meat; it just kept them killing the animals. Sometimes offerings of entire roasted pig are made at Chinese temples. Historically, the Khmer were Buddhists, who ate fish and crustaceans but not many land animals. Most Khmer Buddhist teachers and traditions were exterminated and eradicated by the Khmer Rouge dictatorship of 1975-1979, however, and after decades of poverty, hunger, and ignorance, there may no longer be any cultural obstacle to eating any kind of meat.
Buddha’s Relics Attract a Million Devotees
In December 2002, Ouk Navouth of Associated Press wrote: “King Norodom Sihanouk yesterday led nearly one million people in a procession to relocate relics of the Buddha in what is believed to be Cambodia’s biggest religious ceremony in decades. A sea of devotees and yellow-robed Buddhist monks joined the king in a vast, colourful convoy bringing the relics— said to be ashes, bones and teeth of the Buddha— from Phnom Penh to Oudong town, 45 kilometers to the north. Oudong was Cambodia’s capital between the 17th and 19th centuries. [Source: Ouk Navouth, Associated Press, December 20, 2002]
The remains, kept in a gold-painted urn locked in a glass box, were carried on a truck decorated in the form of the legendary bird Garuda. They will be placed in a grand hilltop stupa. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians from different provinces had camped near the hill the night before the procession. Monks chanted blessings and worshippers carried incense and lotus flowers.”I’m getting old, but I can die with complete satisfaction from attending this ceremony,” said 65-year-old Som Soma, a former schoolteacher.
Police estimated nearly a million of Cambodia’s 11 million people joined the procession. Chhorn Maly, 64, a Phnom Penh resident, was up at 2am to ensure she was at the head of the procession. “I did not want to miss it. This is the last time we’ll see the remains of Buddha here,” she said, standing by a mini-van packed with relatives. “Nothing is more important than putting your faith in Buddha,” she said.