Places of Interest in Cambodia

Travel Guide

History of Buddhism in Cambodia

Buddhism in Cambodia can be confirmed historically to date from at least the 5th century CE, while Buddhist chronicles are sometimes interpreted as indicating that it was originally introduced by the Mauryan Emmeror Ashoka the Great during the 3rd century BCE. Currently, Theravada Buddhism is the religion of virtually all of the ethnic Khmers, who constitute about 90% or more of the Cambodian population.

Early history

The history of Buddhism in Cambodia spans nearly two thousand years, across a number of successive kingdoms and empires. Buddhism entered Cambodia through two different streams. The earliest forms of Buddhism, along with Hindu influences, entered the Funan kingdom 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.

In 238 B.C, Emperor Asoka King sent two learned monks, the Venerable Sona Thera and Venerable Utara Thera to propagate Buddhism in Suvarnabhumi, or the region of Southeast Asia as it is called today. From that time on, Buddhism flourished throughout the Suvarnabhumi.

Archaeological and historical archives have indicated that Sanskrit language flourished in Funan in the fifth and earlier part of the sixth centuries AD. Around seventh century AD, the popular usage of Pali language in the southern region suggested the strong appearance of Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia.

In the ancient kingdom of Funan, the first state of present Cambodia, it laid claim to be the first to have embraced Buddhism in region. It's King then, Kaundinya Jayavarman (478-514 AD) was a staunched Buddhist supporter. 

He sent a mission to China under the leadership of a Buddhist monk from India named Nagasena. During the reign of the same Chinese emperor, two learned Khmer monks, Sanghapala Thera and Mantra Thera of Funan went to China in early sixth century AD to teach Buddhism and meditation in the imperial courts of China. Bhikku Sanghapala had a hand in translating an important Buddhist scripture called 'Vimutti Magga' (the Way of Freedom), which is believed to be older than the 'Visuddhi Magga' (the Way of Purity) of Buddhagosacara. The 'Vimutti Magga' is now only found in the Chinese language but many Buddhist countries have translated it into their own languages.

Later on, King Rudravarman (514-539 AD) is said to have claimed he brought a long Hair Relic of Lord Buddha for his people to worship. 

The great emperor, Yasovarman (889-900 AD) established a Saugatasrama and elaborated regulations for the guidance of this asrama or hermitage. During his reign both Buddhism and Brahmanism (vis-a-vis Visnuism and Vaisnavism) flourished in Cambodia. 

It was at the time of Jayavarman V (968-1001 AD), the successor of Rajendravarman II, that Mahayana Buddhism grew in importance. The king did this by supporting Buddhist practices which invoked the three forms of existence of the Buddha (Dharmakaya [Truth body], Sambhogakaya [Perfect Endowment body] and Nirmanakaya [Manifestation body]).

The king of Sri Lanka Pramakramabahu I sent a princess as a bride for Jayavarman VII, son of Dharnindravarman II (1150-1160 AD), who was also the crown prince. King Jayavarman VII (1181-1220 AD) was a devout Buddhist and received posthumously the title of Mahaparamasaugata. Jayavarman VII is renowned as the most prolific of all Angkor’s royal builders. His greatest monument is the massive Angkor Thom and Bayon but he also established numerous other temples, all in an apparent attempt to promote a form of Mahayana Buddhism. His records express beautifully the typical Buddhist view of life, particularly the feelings of charity and compassion towards the whole universe. 

In the 'Taprohm Inscription' his edicts were recorded in 798 temples and 102 hospitals, all of which were fully supported by King Jayavarman VII. However, after under constant influence of Sinhala Buddhism, the King's prestige began to diminish. Before long, his temporal power crumbled away and the act god-king worship was severed from public practice. By the end of Jayavarman VII 's reign, Theravada Buddhism had become the predominant religion of the people of Angkor.

The rise of Theravada Buddhism

In the second half of the twelfth century AD, Sri Lanka's fame as the fountain-head of Theravada Buddhism reached the Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia. This form of Buddhism, originally defined in Sri Lanka was strongly organized by its sangha (order of monks) and clear about what constituted Buddhist orthodoxy. This school of practice was also able to subsume Hindu and animist elements. It was rapidly becoming the dominant religion in mainland Southeast Asia.

During this period, a Cambodian prince is said to have visited Sri Lanka to study Sinhala Buddhism under the able guidance of the Mahatheras (elderly monks) there. 

Buddhism continued to flourish in Cambodia in the thirteenth century AD but was not yet a dominant school in the country. By then, however, the principal religious focus of Khmer society had altered. Varieties of Buddhism had long coexisted with the Hindu Devaraj cults but, during the 13th century, Theravada Buddhism won general allegiance. 

The concept of Devaraj, celebrated by Brahmanic officiants, would persist in Khmer society, but a godly king would now demonstrate his virtue primarily through patronage of Theravada Buddhist temples, monasteries and schools. As a consequence interest in the temple-mausoleums of former rulers declined.

Under the influence of Siam (as Thailand was then called), Theravada Buddhism became widespread all over Cambodia, as they had conquered a large part of the country. With the passage of time, Brahmanical Gods which existed during the Angkorean period were replaced by Buddha images. Gradually, Buddhism became the dominant creed in Cambodia. Today there is hardly any trace of the Brahmanical religion in the country, although the locals still practice some form of folk beliefs.

The Jinakalamali gives an account of the cultural connection between Cambodia and Sri Lanka in the fifteenth century. It states that 1,967 years after the Mahaparanibbana of Lord Buddha, eight monks headed by Mahananasiddhi from Cambodia with 25 monks from Nabbispura in Thailand came to Sri Lanka to receive the Upasampada (higher ordination) from Sinhalese Mahatheras. 

Buddhism continued to flourish in Cambodia in the sixteenth century AD under King Ang Chan (1516-1566 AD), who was related to King Dhammaraja. A devout Buddhist, he built pagodas in his capital and many Buddhist shrines in different parts of Cambodia. 

As measure to popularize Buddhism, King Satha (1576-1594 AD), son and successor of Barom Reachea, restored the great third floor of Angkor Wat. While Angkor Wat - built by King Suriyavarman II (113-1150 AD) - was originally erected as dedication to the Brahmanical God, Visnu, by this time however, it had become a revered Buddhist shrine. 

While Thailand's interference into Cambodia's politics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries helped hamper its progress as a nation, policies and decisions made by the respective Thai kings contributed significantly to the development of Buddhism in Cambodia.

Modern era

Cambodia was recognized as a "protectorate" of France in 1867. Over the course of the next forty years, the territory of modern Cambodia was integrated as a colony into French Indo-China through a series of "protective" agreements with the Vietnamese, and treaty concessions from Thailand. Periodic convulsions of violence, led by Buddhist holy men, would periodically break out against the French.

During the era of French rule, significant advances were made in the education of Cambodian monks, both in specifically Buddhist topics and more general studies. In Phnom Penh, a Pali high school for monks was created in 1914, and later converted into a college. This four-year diploma granting program for monks included not only education in the Pali language and Buddhist canon, but also basic education in modern, secular topics. Beginning in 1933, elementary Pali schools were established to provide new monks with a shorter introduction to Pali. These schools eventually developed into broader monastic schools, where all monks were given basic education in the dhamma-vinaya. In 1961, a Buddhist university, the Buddhist University of Phra Sihanu-Raja began instruction.

Primary education of Cambodian children continued to take place at temple schools. Monks were also encouraged to become involved in community development projects.

Khmer Rouge Era

In 1975 when the communist Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, they tried to completely destroy Buddhism and very nearly succeeded. By the time of the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, nearly every monk and religious intellectual had been either murdered or driven into exile, and nearly every temple and Buddhist temple and library had been destroyed.

The Khmer Rouge policies towards Buddhism- which included the forcible disrobing of monks, the destruction of monasteries, and, ultimately, the execution of uncooperative monks effectively destroyed Cambodia's Buddhist institutions. Monks who did not flee and avoided execution lived among the laity, sometimes secretly performing Buddhist rituals for the sick or afflicted.

Estimates vary regarding the number of monks in Cambodia prior to the ascension of the Khmer Rouge, ranging between 65,000 and 80,000.[17] By the time of the Buddhist restoration in the early 1980's, the number of Cambodian monks worldwide was estimated to be less than 3,000.[18] The patriarchs of both Cambodian nikayas perished sometime during the period 1975-78, though the cause of their deaths is not known.[19]

Due to their association with the Thai monarchy, monks of the Thommayut order may have been particularly targeted for persecution.

Post-Khmer Rouge Era

Today Buddhism is struggling to re-establish itself although the lack of Buddhist scholars and leaders and the continuing political instability makes the task difficult.

Following the defeat of the Khmer Rouge by forces of the Vietnamese government, Buddhism initially remained officially suppressed withing Cambodia.Following challenges to the legitimacy of the Vietnamese-backed People's Republic of Kampuchea, policies towards Buddhism began to liberalize starting in the summer of 1979. A group of monks who had been exiled and re-ordained in Vietnam during the Khmer Rouge period were sent to Cambodia, and in 1981 one of their number, Venerable Tep Vong, was elected the first sangharaja of a new unified Cambodia sangha, officially abolishing the division between the Thommayut order and the Mohanikay. The ordination of new monks was sponsored by the government as a public show of piety and lifted restrictions on ordination.

Following the withdrawal of the Vietnamese military, the newly-renamed Cambodian People's Party sought to align itself with the Buddhist sangha, declaring Buddhism to be Cambodia's 'state religion' in a 1991 policy statement. In 1991, King Sihanouk returned from exile and appointed a new sangharaja for each of the Thommayut and Mohanikay orders, effectively marking the end of the unified system created under Vietnamese rule in 1981.

Currently, administrative matter under Buddhism is handled by the Ministry of Religion and Cult Affair. There is also a dedicated Buddhist institute specializing in research of Buddhist scriptures. In Cambodia’s constitution, Buddhism is conferred state religion as stated in article 43:

"Khmer citizens of either sex shall have the right to freedom of belief. Freedom of religious belief and worship shall be guaranteed by state on the condition of such freedom does not affect other religious belief or violate public order and security. Buddhism shall be the State Religion".

Government support “Buddhikaseksa” or monk’s education is enshrined in Article 68 of the constitution, vis-à-vis: "The state shall provide primary and secondary education to all citizens in public school. The state shall disseminate and develop the Pali school and the Buddhist Institute".

1) By Bhikkhu Sophan Seng (Votaeno) 
2) Wikipedia: Buddhism in Cambodia

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