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Buddhism in a Cambodian context

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Bayon represents the beautiful evidence of resurgent Cambodian Buddhism.

Most of librarians and book sellers had one day or the other to answer the following question: “is there a good book to understand Buddhism?” Following the conversion to Buddhism of many outstanding show business personalities, Buddhism has to be understood by a growing number of people. The book seller has a huge choice which includes Borges or Walpola Rahula. These treatises are supposed to lead the reader into the realm of “the four noble truths of the Buddha”, “the doctrine of the non being”, meditation and other basic Buddhist credo.

The title of David Snellgrove’s book “Religion as history, religion as myth” is an excellent antidote against this kind of timeless approach.

To stand close to reality, we could talk about interaction between the historical and mythical dimensions to such a point that they are often undividable.

The existence of basic principles the various forms of Buddhism have in common one thing -- the very fact that there is not one form of Buddhism -- but several -- is another thing and is not less true.

Each form of Buddhism was born in a peculiar society and to understand Khmer Buddhism implies to take into consideration the specific links between religious practices and a civilization translated into a number of societies within history.

Without hesitation, syncretism is the key word and to be convinced of it, one has to enter any Cambodian pagoda to contemplate the co-existing symbols of doctrines of which the adepts would have probably killed each other had they had the opportunity to do.

Besides the statues of the Buddha, one can find in almost all the pagodas Hindu statues and symbols putting thus on the same level doctrines which were often at war and tried purely and simply to eliminate each other.

The explanation is not simple. A religious practice is a historical product much more than the literal translation into reality of an unchanging dogma.

The Western world has partly experienced this with the introduction of pagan elements within Christianity such as to revere the dead or the bonfire lit to celebrate the summer solstice, but the comparison can’t be extended if we move away from an academic conception of Cambodian history.

The official well-established Cambodian history mainly originates in the French protectorate regime (1863 - 1953). It teaches us a well orderly succession of Indian religions in the Khmer land: first Hindu religion with its Shiva and Vishnu variants, then higher vehicle Buddhism (Mahayana) in the 13th century to finish with the triumph of lesser vehicle Buddhism (Theravada) from the 14th century to today.

Another analysis is nevertheless possible. What if these apparently well defined religious expressions were mere labels used by the royal power at a given time? The most striking example comes from King Jayavarman VII (1181 - 1215). After the Cham invasion of the Khmer empire (1177), he organized a war for independence and finally succeeded in driving away the invaders. Angkor Wat having been sacked by the Cham army, the empire was facing a serious spiritual crisis as the former Hindu religion hadn’t been able to fulfill its duties of protection. The solution chosen by Jayavarman VII after he was crown in 1181 was to shift religion from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism. This doesn’t mean that Mahayana Buddhism was imported by Jayavarman VII, but purely and simply that Mahayana Buddhism had always existed in Cambodia and was at a given time thought to be more convenient as an official state religion.

In order to reach a deeper understanding of Khmer spirituality, it seems that we have to admit that, at a humbler level, the sociology of these religions doesn’t have much to do with well ordered succession principles. Those religions entered Khmer space almost in the same period and are more distinguished by the social part they fulfill than by their doctrines and dogma. Such a consideration allows us to conceive that syncretism as it can be observed during Khmer New Year ceremonies goes back to the origins.

A practical introduction to modern Cambodian syncretism
« Phnom Kchâng, “the mountain of the shell” is a block of limestone situated in the Kampot region which contains an impressive natural cave. Inside the cave there is a square little temple of which the inner walls contain 6 recesses probably intended to place funerary urns containing the ashes of dead people after the incineration. The ground of the cave is strewn with the fragments of the urns, probably broken by burglars, and incinerated bones of the dead people.  

Entering the cave, one has the impression to be the first discoverer to come to this place, and moreover, the temple is not easily accessible as, not so long ago, on could only access the cave with ropes. Many people of the neighborhood claim that they don’t know anything about this temple which has nevertheless been recently listed by the ministry of Culture after one hundred years of official ignorance.  The main surprise is to come as an exploration of the adjoining cavities reveals the presence of big piles of burnt bones incinerated only a few months ago. A little analysis allows discovering an unfailing continuity of the practice of placing there the incinerated bones from time immemorial.

The question which must be considered is why people go on placing bones in a shiva shrine. The venerable of the pagoda claimed that these practices haven’t existed since a very long time. As concerns the villagers, silence is the rule: they never ever heard about that.

Back to Khmer New Year
Khmer civilization is not a mere adaptation of Indian conceptions. Through a number of examples taken in the fields of religion, art and writing we could see that what has taken place in the Khmer land is a total transformation of Indian concepts through their adaptation to local pre Hindu local culture. The anthropologist may well divide the various strata in order to show the origins of one peculiar cultural fact, for the population a ceremony and its ritual is a logical whole.

Khmer New Year is precisely the ceremony where all the components of Khmer civilization meet in a deeply original combination. The famous popular games and the various ceremonies of the 3 days have immemorial origins and even through their modern translation into Buddhist terms, they encompass in a whole the various manifestations of Khmer spirituality.

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