In my opinion, the materials, published in your newspaper about disagreement between
top monks on their attitude to HIV/AIDS education and treatment (Post, June 9) and
about the head monk at the Prey Veng pagoda highlight only the particulars of a global
matter-the problem of modernization of Buddhism.
The Cambodian Sangha is facing an eternal question: it is seeking to find the golden
middle between the unchangeable tradition and transformation, as both of these factors
provide its unconditional authority in society. The situation is complicated by the
so-called negative experience of the Khmer Sangha in previous years.
Let's turn back to history. After obtaining independence in 1953, Buddhism being
an official religion and adopted by the constitution was an important part of the
It was actively used, when formulating the program of the development of the country,
"The Khmer Buddhist socialism". The Sangha was cooperating with the government
in traditional fields-education, public health, social cultural sphere, but the Sangha
wasn't taking part in political activities.
The role of the Sangha in the political life of the country was defined not by direct
participation in carrying out certain secular political programs, but by its capability
to legitimize it and thus to create a favorable political climate around those programs
for their successful implementation by the authorities. It acted as a stabilizing
element in society both on macro- and micro- levels.
According to traditional views of Khmer society, the monk, leading a so-called Buddhist
way of life, gives Khmer peasants the opportunity to "earn religious merit",
to fulfil his religious duty and it gives a feeling of calm, certainty, and harmony
After the coup d'etat of March 18, 1970, and the establishment of the military regime
of Lon Nol, the "forced" drawing of the Sangha into political life began.
It became that very social institute that was used by rival political parties for
the accomplishment of their secular goals. Part of the Sangha began to cooperate
with the army, and supported the slogan of "religious war" put forward
by Lon Nol.
The politicization of the monks led to a split in the Sangha, the reduction of its
prestige in society and its incapacity to play a traditional stabilizing role.
This led to unexpected consequences: the degradation of the moral level among the
members of the Sangha, a decline in the authority and prestige of monks in the eyes
of the people, and degradation of discipline in the Sangha.
Khmer agrarian society was far from ready to accept all the forms of modernization
of Buddhism. The Sangha ceased to be an institute that provided stability and continuity.
It created a favorable psychological climate for the establishment of the Pol Pot
regime, who rejected all spiritual values.
Under the regime of Pol Pot the Sangha was abolished, monasteries were closed and
cults were strictly forbidden.
After the Peoples Republic of Kampuchea was formed in 1979 Buddhism was restored,
though there were certain restrictions on the Sangha's activities. Age restrictions
on ordination in the Sangha were introduced, the activity of the cult was under strict
control of the state. The clergy were used for propaganda purposes.
Since 1993, with the restoration of the monarchy, new opportunities are opening up
to resume the Sangha's traditional role of ethical mentor.
Life is putting new challenges before the Sangha, especially connected with the spread
of AIDS. The Sangha has to react in this or that way.
The Venerable Tep Vong thinks that strengthening of the Sangha's position in society
can be achieved by following traditions and thus barring involvement of monks in
The Venerable Samdech Sangha-reach Bour Kry doesn't exclude the possibility of monks'
involvement in new spheres of secular activities, especially in fighting AIDS.
Each of them is willing to find an answer to the main question - how to preserve
the prevailing role of the Sangha in Khmer society.
However, Buddhism in its turn also has to undergo further reformation and reinterpretation
in accordance with the realities of new times if it wants to hear its echo in the
minds and souls of coming generations.
- Professor Nadezhda Bektimirova, Moscow State University, Russia