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Cambodian Buddhism

by Bruce Sharp

The dominant religion in Cambodia is Buddhism. Buddhism originated in India, sometime between 6 and 4 B.C. There are two main forms of Buddhism. The older of these forms, Theravada Buddhism, is practiced extensively in Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Sri Lanka. Theravada ("tradition of the elders") Buddhism is also sometimes referred to as Hinayana ("little vehicle") Buddhism.

Buddha statue The second form, Mahayana ("great vehicle") Buddhism, is the dominant form in Tibet, China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Jayavarman VII, often regarded as Cambodia's greatest king, was a Mahayana Buddhist; after about 1300, however, Theravada Buddhism became the more widely practiced form inside the Khmer empire.

Buddhism is largely as system of ethics aimed at acheiving enlightenment. Theravada Buddhism places little or no emphasis on deities; even The Buddha himself did not claim to be divine. The goal of Buddhism is nirvana, a state of blissful release from worldly concerns.

Essentially, Buddhism is a set of methods aimed at achieving enlightenment. Cambodian Buddhism stresses a belief in reincarnation, and one's position in life is believed to derive from actions in one's past life. Respect for Cambodian royalty is largely rooted in this belief; the King's high station in life was the believed to be the result of good deeds in previous lives.

Buddhism stresses the importance of proper behavior, broadly summarized in The Eightfold Path:

  1. Right View
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

Buddhism's most important moral guidelines are the Five Precepts:

  1. I undertake to observe the precept regarding abstention from killing
  2. I undertake to observe the precept regarding abstention from taking anything not given
  3. I undertake to observe the precept regarding abstention from indulging in unlawful sexual relations
  4. I undertake to observe the precept regarding abstention from speaking lies
  5. I undertake to observe the precept regarding abstention from taking intoxicating drinks

Some commentators have argued that Buddhism includes a strain of fatalism, and that this fatalism contributed to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime. This argument is extremely misleading; no one blithely accepts murder and repression. Despite the importance of Buddhism in Cambodian society in general, it is convincingly suggest that Buddhism had any role in Cambodia's genocide. The Khmer Rouge are generally described as "athiest," but the term "irreligious" would be more accurate: the Khmer Rouge were openly hostile to religion. Monks were defrocked, temples were demolished, and religion was for all practical purposes abolished.

Many Cambodians believe that the regime of the Khmer Rouge was prophesized in an ancient Buddhist text, the put tumniay. "According to these predictions," anthropologist Judy Ledgerwood writes, "a time of war and destruction will include the rise to power to tmil (enemies of the religion). The kingdom will come to be ruled by uneducated, hooligans and drunkards. People will confuse right from wrong. Children will disobey their parents and students their teachers."

The underlying theme of the put tumniay -- that of a complete reversal of the social order -- closely parallels the experiences of the populace during the Pol Pot time.

Ultimately, however, the duration of this chaos proved to be brief, a fact that was once again consonant with the predictions in the put tumniay.

Indeed, the strength of Buddhism is readily apparent when contrasted with the communist ideology that sought to replace it. The Khmer Rouge regime collapsed in less than four years. Buddhism, meanwhile, continues to flourish after more two millenia.



Chandler, David: The Land and People of Cambodia, Harper Collins, 1991.

Colliers Encyclopedia: Buddha and Buddhism, Crowell Collier and MacMillan, 1967.

Ledgerwood, Judy: "Democratic Kampuchea: Hierarchy/Egalitarianism and Pol Pot,", viewed 4/17/2007.

Parrinder, Geoffrey: A Dictionary of Non-Christian Religions, Westminster Press, 1973.

Venerable Manith Pov and Venerable Pheatarak Sok: Buddhism: A Graduated Course, Cambodian Buddhist Assocation, 2007.

Yang Sam: Khmer Buddhism and Politics 1954-1984, Khmer Studies Institute, Newington, CT.

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