Theravada Buddhism, which is the oldest surviving Buddhist school of thought, is Cambodia’s official religion. Also known as “the Teaching of the Eldest”, the religion was founded in India and is practiced by 95% of the population in Cambodia. About 2% of the Cambodians practice Islam and Christianity respectively, whereas the rest of the population practices Animism and Hinduism.
Buddhism was introduced into Cambodia through two different streams, firstly from Hindu merchants in the Funan kingdom (the earliest forms of Buddhism with Hindu influences) and secondly through Khmer culture during the Angkor empire when the kingdoms of Dvaravati and Haripunchai were absorbed into Cambodia. As such, the history of Buddhism stretches across nearly two thousand years!
It is interesting to note that Cambodia was ruled by mostly Hindu Kings in the early years of the Khmer Empire, with the occasional Buddhist King. This meant that the official religion then was Hinduism, alongside Buddhism, and Angkor Wat is the largest Hindu temple in the world.
When the Angkor Empire was established, the primary religion became that of Mahayana Buddhism, which is a collection of teachings with doctrines that are able to coexist simultaneously. This is a more liberal form of Buddhism as opposed to Theravada, which is the orthodox traditional form of Buddhism from the early schools.
Theravada Buddhism became the official religion in the 13th century, when Prince Tamalinda (a senior monk) came back after studying at the Mahavihara Monastery in Sri Lanka and rejected the innovative Mahayana Buddhist practices. Mahayana Buddhists believe in achieving ultimate enlightenment (known as nirvana) by liberating others. Theravada Buddhists, on the other hand, strive toward nirvana through self-enlightenment and libration.
Though Christianity was introduced into Cambodia in 1660, the Roman Catholic missionaries did not manage to successfully convert the staunch Buddhist population. Islam, on the other hand, was the religion of the Muslim minority groups in Cambodia, especially the Cham.
In 1975, religion was suppressed by the Khmer Rouge when it took control of Cambodia. Buddhism was almost destroyed in Cambodia, as nearly every temple or religious place was ruined. Monks and religious intellectuals were also executed. Those who survived were driven into exile. The number of monks dwindled from nearly 80,000 to only 3,000 in 1980 when the Buddhist restoration took place. Although Theravada Buddhist was recognized as the state religion again, Buddhist practices were still suppressed up till 1988 when many restrictions were removed.
Buddhist monks were revered in Cambodian life, and were often called upon to say prayers of blessing. Before the civil war led by the Khmer Rouge, it was customary for young men over the age of 16 to be ordained as monks (known as bonzes) at least once in their lives, as a rite of passage into adulthood, not unlike the practices in Thailand.
Today, Buddhism continues to play an important role in the life of most Cambodians. There are now around 50,000 monks and novices. Each village has its Buddhist temple (also known as wat) with residences and a hall for eating and classes. Buddhist ceremonies are also evident in Cambodians’ daily lives such as births, weddings and funerals. At the heart of a Buddhist life is earning merit. As such, it is very common to see Buddhists in Cambodia giving the gifts of money and food to monks.
Although most Cambodians subscribe to a major religion, they also believe in animism and/or ancestral worship. In the corners of pagodas, one can often find small guardian spirit shrines. There are also sorcerers in the villagers that one can call on to appease spirits.
Similar to many communities, it is not difficult to see the many ways in which Cambodians turn to religion for their social and emotional needs.
Posted by Wei Tsu Leong and Clara Tang