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Buddhism in Cambodia
Khmer-Buddhist Educational Assistance Project

Since the late 13th century, Theravada Buddhism has been a way of life among the Khmer and other lowland peoples of mainland Southeast Asia. To this day, some 85 per cent of the population in Cambodia live in villages whose symbolic centers are still the wats, or temple-monasteries. The wat was not only the moral-religious center of village communities, but served important educational, cultural, and social functions as well. Until very recent times, the temples were the main centers of learning with schools and libraries where the Khmer culture and language was preserved and transmitted from generation to generation. They also served as culturally- and environmentally-sensitive foci for people-centered development that included, indeed featured, social safety nets for the poor, destitute, and needy. Until the recent time of troubles that began with civil war in 1970, it was still common for all men to ordain as monks at least once in their lives, an act most commonly done as rite of passage for young men entering adulthood and society.

      Through the 1960s, the Kingdom of Cambodia was commonly known as a peaceful, Buddhist country. It was tolerant of the other faiths -- Muslim, Chinese, Christian, as well as indigenous peoples -- that constituted approximately 10 per cent of the population. At the Sixth World Council of Theravada Buddhists in Rangoon in 1955-56, the Cambodian Sangha, or monastic community, was singled out for its strong adherence to the Vinaya, or Buddhist discipline. But soon thereafter, it became caught in and the victim of the ideological conflicts (the "isms" such as nationalism, whether of "left" or "right," and communism) that swept through the region.

 The Destruction in the 1970s

Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives during the 1970-75 civil war, when American saturation bombing targeting Vietnamese communist sanctuaries and communist atrocities took their toll of Buddhist monks, laypeople, and temples. The Cambodian Buddhist Sangha was virtually annihilated by the communist Khmer Rouge regime in the years that followed through early 1979. Of some 65,000 monks and novices in the country in 1969-70, no more than 3,000 are believed by all available accounts to have survived the civil war and genocide during the decade that followed.

An estimated 1.7 million people of a population of seven million in 1975 lost their lives during the horror of the Khmer Rouge regime, when Buddhism in all its forms was a special target of destruction for the loyalty it commanded among the people. Of the 3,369 temples in 1970 that marked the Cambodian landscape and towns, nearly two thirds were destroyed and the remainder damaged and/or desecrated. The same fate was meted out to the Muslim mosques and the less than a handful of Christian chuches in the country. Temple-monastery buildings left standing were used for storage, as torture and execution chambers, and centers for the political indoctrination of the population. By the end of the decade, the physical destruction of Buddhism in Cambodia was nearly complete.

Partial recovery in 1980s

When the Vietnamese communists drove out the Khmer Rouge in early 1979, the people, working spontaneously through revived lay temple committees, began to reconstruct the country. Temples and villages were repaired or gradually rebuilt.

The resources for small-scale public works projects such as road and bridge repair and social and literacy programs were collected and provided through the temples. In September 1979, the first seven Cambodian monks were officially re-ordained by a delegation of Theravada monks brought from Vietnam. But Buddhism as a force for meaningful cultural and social renewal remained repressed under the Vietnamese-dominated regime until 1988, when many restrictions on Buddhist practices were lifted. The most notable restriction barred men under the age of 55 from ordaining as monks.

Since the late 1980s, the number of monks and novices has risen from approximately 8,000 to more than 50,000 today. As a social phenomenon, it is significant that the Buddhist revival in Cambodia has been spearheaded by Cambodia's villagers, the main victims of nearly a generation of ideological conflict and oppression. With meager means and enormous spirit, the common people have been in the forefront of rebuilding their temples, ordaining their sons, and reclaiming their Khmer Buddhist way of life.

The Education Problem

The quality and standards of the Cambodian Sangha, however, have remained low through the 1990s given the loss of an entire generation of learned monks. Only some 20 percent of monks, the bulk of whom are under 25 years of age, receive some formal training, mainly from lay teachers whose qualifications tend to be rudimentary. The first secondary school for monks re-opened in 1993, but nearly all of its graduates in the past two years have moved into fields such as computers, accounting, and English as preparation for jobs in lay life. Few have chosen the monastic path of teaching the Dhamma and Vinaya to monk students and laypeople. The low numbers and quality of training and education for monks and, consequently, the generally poor discipline of the monks in Cambodia today remain one of the great social problems of the country and its recovery as a moral community. The weakness and lack of resources of the Sangha and Ministry of Religious Affairs have prevented them from introducing meaningful education reform while many local masters at the wat level are simply no longer there.

The Future in Balance

Since the UN-brokered peace plan in 1991 and elections in 1993, Cambodian society has begun a process of opening up and democratization, in part through the prodding of an international community still operating for the most part on European time, reason, and logic. At the same time, the new freedoms and aid dollars have helped foster a growing climate of greed, corruption, and licentiousness in a country whose social fabric remains frayed. The rebirth of Khmer culture and society, not to mention political renewal, depends to a great extent on the renewal of standards in the Buddhist Sangha. In this context, it must be remembered that the western concept of "church" and "state" separation is meaningless in Cambodia and the Theravada lands of Southeast Asia. For the Cambodian Sangha to resume its traditional role as the moral conscience and spiritual guide of the people, it is necessary for the new generation of monks and novices, not to mention the younger lay devotee nuns and laypeople, to receive the best possible training and education. Bereft of the moral and cultural leadership base of the Sangha, it is difficult to imagine the Khmer people overcoming their inner and outer conflicts and charting a peaceful, tolerant course for rebuilding and developing their country.

      Well-trained monks as well as nuns are needed to minister to the people's psychic, cultural, and social needs in ways that the western development agencies and the state are unable to do. Based on historical precedents, Buddhism in Cambodia can play a critical role at both the village community and societal levels in promoting a meaningful peace, healing, and reconciliation process; in guiding a people-centered development that is culturally and environmentally sensitive and based on social equity; and in contributing to the wider moral, intellectual, and political regeneration of the country. The Buddhist Sangha and network of temples have been in the forefront of regenerative forces in the past; in spite or because of materialistic globalization/ development pressures, it can, with help and encouragement from sympathetic friends, again play a leading role in shaping a better future for all Cambodians.


Updated: 1-8-2000

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