Buddhism in Cambodia
According to the stone sculpture as well as bronze objects, since ancient time, Cambodia practiced both Buddhism and Hinduism. The alternation between the two religions depend on the religious belief of the reigning monarch. For further research, we found that there were two branches of Buddhism were practiced in ancient Cambodia. They are Mahayana Buddhism and Hinayana Buddhism.
Mahayana Buddhism was predominant during the reign of Jayavaraman VII (1181-1218). Lokesvara or Avalokitesvara (Male divinity) and Prajnaparamita (Female divinity) represented Mahayana Buddhism. They are Bodhisatvas, who have not yet reached enlightenment.
Hinayana Buddhism believes in a single Bodhisatva who has reached enlightenment.
Today, Cambodia practices Theravada Buddhism based on the Tripitaka (The Three Gems of the Buddha).
About 95% of Cambodian population is Buddhist. There are more than 4000 pagodas (Wat) were built in all over the country. Traditionally, each village has a pagoda, where there are at least five monks. The number of monks varies depend on the size of the population of the village.
A typical pagoda would consist of a main building called “Preah Vihea”, where the sanctuary is. Another building called “Sala Chhan”, the hall for having meal for monks. Besides, there would be several smaller building for residences of the monks. And the kitchen was built separately and usually large. Within the pagoda compound there is at least a big pond or “srah” in Khmer. Because the ground was excavated for the foundation of the main building. And in the ponds is growing lotus.
Within the main building, Preah Vihea, which always faces east, contains a big statues of Buddha and many smaller one. Preah Vihea is not opened daily, it’s reserved for major religious ceremonies of the years, such as Khmer New Year, PChum Ben, Chol Vossa, Kathentean, etc.
Stupa is another component of a pagoda. They are built around the pagoda wall for containing the ashes of dead people. As a Buddhist, dead body would be burn with fire, and the cremains would be kept in a container called “kort”. If the family of the dead person can afford to build the stupa, then the cremains would be kept in the stupa. If not, the “kort” would be placed in the house with photo for incense offering. In some pagodas, there are public stupas, which the stupa was built by many Buddhist, not in the name of any specific family. For those people who couldn’t afford to build their own family stupa, could keep the ashes in this public stupa.
Roles of Buddhist Monk in The Khmer Society
Buddhist monk has important role in everyday life of Cambodian Buddhist. It’s a kind of public service. We need Buddhist monks for blessing ceremony in the wedding, in the new house celebration, and of course in the funeral. In other major religious events of the year such as, Khmer new year, Pchum Ben Days, people also invite monks to have a blessing ceremony at their homes. Out of these occasions, people also have this kind of preparation at homes at their relative’s dead anniversary. The traditional Khmer funeral is a kind of series ceremony. There are continues ceremonies after the day of dead 7 days, 100 days, one year, and after that every year. When one is living, he might miss to celebrate his birthday, but after he died, the dead anniversary mustn’t miss. And each ceremony are prepared with the participation of the monks. Monks also be invited in any day, if people want to refresh their lucks or want to chase away all unseen-bad-stuffs in the house.
For Buddhism, the days in Luna month is counted as 15 days before the full moon day and 15 days after the full moon day. There are four holy days in a month. Day 8th before the full moon day, day 15th full moon, day 8th after the full moon day, and day 15th after the full moon day. Old people in the village would go to the pagoda on these holy days.
All Buddhist monks must shave their hair, and of course the hair must be shaved periodically. But it doesn’t mean monks can shave their hair at any time they want. Day 14th before the full moon and day 14th of waning moon are called “Thngay Kor” means “shaving-day”. So monks only can shave their hair on these two days of the month.
The full moon is very strongly linked to Buddhism in Cambodia. Among those four holy days of the month, the full moon day is the most important. Khmer new year, Pchum Ben, and Moon festival are reached their peak on full moon day. There are two full moon days which is the biggest festival of Buddhism, they are Meak Bochea and Visak Bochea. Meak Bochea is celebrated on full moon day of month 2nd of Luna calendar to commemorates the last sermon of the Buddha. Visak Bochea is on full moon day of month 6th of Luna calendar to mark the day of birth, attained enlightenment, and passing away of Buddha.
Being a Monk
Traditionally, most men in Cambodia become monks in their early age. The purpose of become a monk is to train one’s characteristic mentally and spiritually. Because as a monk, one must be regulated by Buddhist law, life in pagoda adheres to a rigid routine. So that one will become a human being which living with the teaching of Buddha.
In ancient time, pagoda is the only school. Monks were the only literate people residing in rural communities. People send their son to be a monk to learn both literacy and to train personality. A man who used to be a monk gained respect from other. They were regarded as a person with knowledge.