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Buddhism in Cambodia

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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.

Buddhism in Cambodia (Khmer: ព្រះពុទ្ធសាសនានៅកម្ពុជា) has existed since at least the 5th century. In its earliest form it was a type of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Today, the predominant form of Buddhism in Cambodia is Theravada Buddhism. It is enshrined in the Cambodian constitution as the official religion of the country. Theravada Buddhism has been the Cambodian state religion since the 13th century (except during the Khmer Rouge period).

The history of Buddhism in Cambodia spans a number of successive kingdoms and empires. Buddhism entered Cambodia via two different streams. The earliest forms of Buddhism, along with Hindu influences, entered the Kingdom of Funan with Hindu merchants. In later history, a second stream of Buddhism entered Khmer culture during the Angkor empire when Cambodia absorbed the various Buddhist traditions of the Mon kingdoms of Dvaravati and Haripunchai.

For the first thousand years of Khmer history, Cambodia was ruled by a series of Hindu kings with an occasional Buddhist king, such as Jayavarman I of Funan, Jayavarman VII, who became a mahayanist, and Suryavarman I. A variety of Buddhist traditions co-existed peacefully throughout Cambodian lands, under the tolerant auspices of Hindu kings and the neighboring Mon-Theravada kingdoms.

About 95 per cent of Cambodians are Buddhists. Theravada Buddhism is the religion of virtually all of the ethnic Khmer, 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.

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