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History of Cambodia Buddhism (II)

Copy From a Notebook of Preah Thera Bhikkhu Santi (Tom Flint), Seatle USA

Prepared by Preah Bhikkhu Vodano Sophan

Suryavarman II, 1112-1152 was publicly devoted to Vishnu. Angkor Wat was his temple. He believed himself to be Vishnu incarnate. Even though Hindu worship was reinstated, the momentum for the ascendancy of Buddhism continued as a sort of popular revolution as the people increasingly abandoned the failed and burdensome ways of the Devaraja.

From the reign of Jayavarman VII onward, Buddhism was the ascendant religion of the Cambodia, except for a brief period at the end of the 13th century when there seems to have been a brief revival of Hinduism, responsible for he defacement of some of the Buddhist images of Jayavarman’s reign.
Images of Buddha carved into niches in along the path lining a processional way at the Preah Khan, for instance, were crudely removed and defaced in a determined effort to transform the Buddhist complex into a Hindu one in the thirteenth century.

[In legends and literature, Jayavarman VII is sometimes obliquely referred to as the “Leper King” – and Khmer folk legends continue the tradition that a great, king leper king lived in seclusion within the temple palaces. What is that about?]

The conversion of Cambodian elite to Theravada Buddhism occurred shortly after the reign of Jayavarman VII. All the great building projects came to an end at his death, marking the virtual end of classical Angkor.

“During the Angkor Empire (9th to 13th centuries) the Khmer kingdoms and outlying principalities were loosely unified under the Khmer Rulers who based their powers on Hindu (devaraja, or god-king) and Mahayana Buddhism (Buddharaja, or Buddha-king) cosmological theories of order and political authority. Although several kings and ministers professed the Buddhist way, Suryavarman I and Jayavarman VII were Buddharajas of distinction who built numerous religious foundations of distinction (hospitals, sanctuaries, statuary, temples) in many parts of the realm. It is interested to note that Jayararman’s Buddhism had strong tantric features.”
But the presence of Pali Theravada tradition was increaseingly evident. This Singhalese-based Theravada Buddhist orthodoxy was first propagated in Southeast Asia by Taling (Mon) monks in the 11th century and together with Islam in the 13th century in the southern insular reaches of the region, spread as a popularly-based movement among the people. Apart from inscriptions, such as one of Lopburi, there were other signs that the religious venue of Suvannabhumi were changing. Tamalinda, the Khmer monk believed to the be son of Jayavarman VII, took part in an 1180 Burmese-led mission to Sri Lanka to study the Pali cannon and on his return in 1190 had adepts of the Sinhala doctrine in his court. Chou Ta-Laun, who led a Chinese mission to Angkor in 1296-7 confirms the significant presence of Pali Theravada monks in the Khmer Capital.” [“Notes on the Rebirth of Khmer Buddhism” Radical Consrvativism, Peter Gyallay-Pap]

During the time Tamalinda was studying in Sri Lanka (1180-1190) at the famous Mahavihara, a dynamic type of Theravada Buddhism was being preached as the “true faith” in Sri Lanka. This pilgrimage-embassy to Sri Lanka included five monks including Tamalinda, accompanied by the monk Chapata, and

These monks spent ten years in Sri Lanka, becoming Theras who could perform ordination on their own authority after returning to their respective countries in Burma, Thailand (Mon regions), and Cambodia. The form of Theravada Buddhism in which they were educated was a particularly militant, resilient brand, due to centuries of struggle for survival against the Tamil oppression that nearly obliterated Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and did extinguish Buddhism in southern India.
Theravada Buddhism almost completely disappeared from the world in the 9th and 10th centuries. It remained active only in a few centers in southern India, Ceylon, lower Burma and central Thailand.
By the ninth century, Buddhism of all schools was very much in retreat in its homeland India. From the ninth to eleventh centuries, Hindu Tamils waged continuous attacks against those kingdoms in southern India and Ceylon where Buddhism continued to exist. In southern India, Buddhism was finally extinguished; it was almost extinguished in Ceylon as well. Early in the eleventh century, the Singhalese had been forced by the Tamils to leave their old capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonaruva and to take refuge in the mountains country of southern Ceylon. In the middle of the elevenths century, the Singhalese king Vijaya-Bahu I was able to rally a significant force and in 1065, he succeeded in reconquering the country. He found that Buddhism had practice ally disappeared form the kingdom; monasteries had been destroyed and sacked, the order of nuns had completely disappeared, and there were not even sufficient monks left to perform a higher ordination. In order to reestablish the religion, he sent to Burma for some monks.” [The Golden Peninsula, Charles Keyes.]
When Buddhism was reestablished in Sri Lanka, it was a deliberately orthodox form. In the 13th century, wandering missionaries from the Mon-language parts of Siam [semi-Khmerized monks of lower Menam valley], Burma, and from Sri Lanka played an important part in this process. In addition, increasing numbers of pilgrims and monks from Cambodia traveled to India and Sri Lanka, to study Theravada Buddhism and obtain authentic ordination lineages.

Tamilinda and his colleagues, upon their return to Cambodia, Burma and Mon country, aggressively propagated this new, resilient “true faith” which insisted that monks strictly adhere to the rules of the monastic traditions (vinaya), and strongly emphasized pure ordination lineages which could be traced back to the Mahavihara in Ceylon. They also insisted on orthodoxy and rejected Mahayana “innovations.” This orthodox version of Theravada Buddhism was promoted not only in oral teaching and sermons, but also through compassion of texts.
[Note: “Chapata…was the author of a series of works in Pali, notably the grammatical treatise Suttaniddesa and the Sankhpakannana, a commentary on the compendium of metaphysics and Abhidhammathasangaha.
Another monk of the same sect, Dhammavilasa…was the author of the first collection of laws composed in the Mon country, the Dhammavilasa Dhammathat, written in Pali….” The Golden Peninsula, Charles Keyes]

By the thirteenth century a full fledged mass conversion to Theravada had been achieved throughout Cambodia, permanently disestablishing any other from of institutional religious practice. For the past thousand years, most Theravada Buddhists throughout the Angkor-Khmer Empire had lived unobtrusively as forest ascetics, meditating in the forests and jungles, living in quiet contact with the rural folks in the remote and withdrawn areas of the empire. These monks acted as a leaven over the centuries, spreading education, building up local folk traditions through ceremonies, story-telling and rituals.

How to explain this massive conversion to Theravada Buddhism, which amounted to a nonviolent, irrevocable in the foundations of civilization as it had been practiced for centuries?

Theravada Buddhism was inclusive and universal in their outreach, recruiting disciples and monks from not only the elites and court, but also in the villages and among the peasants, further enhancing its popularity among the Khmer folk. The Theravada tradition under Prince Tamalinda were aggressive in promoting and proselytizing Theravada Buddhism. “Their messages succeeded because it provided a meaningful way of relating to the world for many who had been marginal to the classical civilizations of who had been seriously affected by the disruption of the classical civilizations in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.” [The Golden Peninsula, Charles Keyes]
It is important to stress that whereas Buddhism had been the religion of a small number of virtuous and a small number of elite lay persons prior to the twelfth century, the Theravada Buddhism introduced by those who had been to Ceylon became a popular religion whereas prior to the thirteenth century Buddhism was practiced in thousands and thousands of villages…” [The Golden Peninsula, Charles Keyes]

Cambodians were ripe for conversion. The political integrity and morality of the kingdom were thrown into question at the time, and Cambodians converted en masse to this new faith that offered social tranquility without striving for material gain or power. The modest Buddhist bonzes were a welcome change from the arrogant and wealthy priests of the kings. The new Buddhists dressed in simple saffron robes. They possessed a sense of responsibility for all, not just the nobility. Eventually they became as revered as the devaraja, who in turn became a Theravada Buddhist himself as patron of the faith.” [When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rough Revolution, Elizabeth Becker]

Scholars suggest that the classical Angkor Empire collapsed from desertion from within and assault from without, from the growing external threats and assaults from Saim and Vietnam.
The post Angkor period (14th to 19th century) saw the dramatic rise of the Pali Theravada tradition in Southeast Asia and concomitant decline of the Brahmanic and Mahayana Buddhist religious traditions. A 1423 Thai account of a mission to Sri Lanka mentions eight Khmer monks who again brought orthodox Mahavirhara sect of Singhalese order to Kampuchea. This particular event belied, however, the profound societal shift that was taking place from priestly class structure to a village-based monastic system in the Theravada lands. While adhering to the monastic discipline (vinaya), monks developed their wats, or temple-monasteries, not only into moral religious but also education, social-service, and cultural centers for the people. Wats became the main source of learning and popular education. Early western explorers, settlers, and missionaries reported widespread literacy among the male populations of Burma, Thailand, Kampuchea, Laos, and Vietnam. Until the 19th century, literacy rates exceeded those of Eur9ope in most of not all Theravada lands. In Kampuchea, Buddhism became the transmitter of Khmer language and culture.” [“Notes on the Rebirth of Khmer Buddhism” Radical Conservativism,]

Indravarman III (1295-1307, established Theravada Buddhism became once and for all the state religion of Cambodia during his reign.
As the old Angkor Empire declined, the center of government increasingly began to migrate to the center of Cambodia, near present day Phnom Penh, away from the old Angkor area of Siem Reap.

Under the Angkoran kings, the common people were virtual slaves. Chou Ta-kuan, an envoy of the court of Kubla Kahn, left a record of visiting the Ankoran people. He described that life centered around the palace and temples. People worked on building projects, canals, temples, servicing the temples, serving the shrines. One such temple he witnessed included 18 high priests, 2,740 officiants, 2,303 servants and 615 dancing girls. Ta Prohm temple housed 12,640 people and in addition required 66,625 men and women servant of the temple.
Similarly, the people dependent on Preah Kahn – that is to say, those obligated to provide rice and other services – totaled nearly a hundred thousand, drawn from more than five thousand three hundred villages. The inscription goes on to enumerate people who had been dependent on previous temple endowments. Drawn from thirteen thousand five hundred villages, they numbered more than three hundred thousands. The infrastructure needed to provide food and clothing of the temples – to name only two types of provisions. – must have been efficient and sophisticated. Coedes estimated that the annual rice consumption by people in religious foundations came to 38,000 tons.” [Chandler, A History of Cambodia]
Jayavarmans hospitals were staffed/supported by “the services of 838 villages, with adult population totaling approximately eighty thousand people. The services demanded appear to have been to provide labor and rice for staffs attached to each hospital, or approximately a hundred people and their dependents.” [Chandler, A History of Cambodia p 61]

The Theravada revolution was a grassroots movement of the common people in resistance of, or rejection of, the oppressive burden of maintaining the god-king religion of Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism. The great temples of Hindu and Mahayana had thousands of slaves attached to them, to supply the monks in their elite lifestyles. The people paid dearly for the merit making works of the king and the temples connected to his court and worship. Wm Shawcross notes: “[Theravada Buddhism] unlike almost all the previous religions of the country, its doctrines were not imposed from above but were preached to the people. It was simple, required no expensive priesthood or temples and little ceremonial. Its missionaries practiced austerity, solitude, humility, and poverty. Their example and their direct contact with the people started to undermine the old state religion and the monastery which rested upon it. Theravada Buddhism remained the great belief and comfort of the Khmer people until 1975. “[Sideshow] The people then gently rejected the corruption of the elite system that excluded them, and turned to the gentle, poor, humble Theravada path.

Theravada Buddhism was a “relief from the burdens of the glory of Sanskrit-writing priests and the monarchs they deified. Between the Hinayanist evasion and the depredation of increasingly bellicose Thais, the Angkor civilization devolved.” [Angkor Life, Stephen O Murray]

Some insight into the nature of the rural/forest nature of the Theravada Buddhist monasticism that swept across Southeast Asia and the Khmer empire is revealed in the Sukothai Thai inscription of King Ram Khamhaieng of 1292. Sukothai was originally founded in the 12th century as a Khmer outpost of the Angkor Empire, with mainly a Thai population administered by its own “chiefs” (cao). “In the 1220s two of these Tai chiefs rebelled against the Khmer and established an independent Tai kingdom, the first Tai state in what is today central Thailand….” “The inscription of King Ram Khamhaieng of Sukhothai is the earliest document still extant written in Tai language (as distinct from Sanskrit or Khmer or Mon)….The inscription says the king made kathina robe offerings to the monks – “What is significant in this act is that the king traveled in a procession to a monastery some two kilometers away from the walled city itself. It was at this monastery, where monks were what is known as ‘forest dwellers’ (arannavasi), the senior monk of the kingdom, the ‘Mahatheara Sangharaja, the sage who has studied the scriptures form beginning to end, who is wiser than any other monk in the kingdom.’ The fact that the senior monk of the kingdom dwelt outside the city walls reflects a separation of religion and power that had not existed in the classic cities of mainland Southeast Asia.” [The Golden Peninsula, Charles Keyes, p263]. These monks were therefore abandoning or undermining the old elite social order that was centered in the great cities of Angkor. The inscription goes on to say that the “magical and spiritual center of the kingdom” of Sukhothai was the “Great Relic” (Mahadhatu) shrine in the center of the royal city. The Great Relic shrine had statues of Buddha, including “statues eighteen cubits in height” and it was the residence for “city dwelling” monks (nagaravasi).

Zhou Daguan (Chou Ta-Kuan), a Chinese emissary from the court of Timur Khan, Emperor of China, lived in Angkor Thom for a year in 1296-97 and wrote a small book about his observations. He described Theravada monks who shaved their heads, wore yellow robes, leaving one shoulder bare, walked barefoot. Their temples were simple, containing one image of Sakyamuni; they called Pol-lai (Preah). The image was draped in red cloth Buddhas on the towers were bronze. There were no bells, drums, cymbals or banners visible. The monks ate meat or fish but did not drink wine. They ate only one meal a day. They did not cook in the temple, but lived on alms food.
The books they recited from were very numerous. These were made of neatly bound palm leaves covered with black writing.” Zhou wrote. “Some of the monks were royal counselors, and therefore had the right to be conveyed in palanquins with gold shafts accompanied by umbrellas with gold or silver handles. There were no Buddhist nuns.” [Angkor Life, Stephen O Murray]
[Zhou also described observing the presence of Brahmins, and Shivaists (Taoists) all living peacefully together.]

Another factor in understanding the the overthrow of the old social order was the ascendance of Thai power, filling the power-vacuum of the disintegration of the Angkor Empire. The Thais first attacked Angkor in 1296, taking slaves and pillaging the capital. Then in 1352-1430 the Kingdom of Ayutthaya attacked and looted Angkor four times, enslaving and imprisoning many Khmer. Angkor was finally abandoned in 1441, when the center of government moved to Phnom Penh area.
When Angkor was abandoned by the king in the 15th century, (the chronicles of Ayutthaya say the final siege of 1431 lasted for seven months), some of the Angkor temples and ruins, such as Angkor Wat, continued to be maintained by Theravada Buddhist monks. Louis Finot wrote in 1902 that he believed the Khmer peasants may have even welcomed the collapse of the Angkor Empire: “There is no evidence that the Khmer people resisted the Thai aggression with vigor. They perhaps even looked on it as deliverance. They had been forced not only to supply labor to construct enormous monument, the size of which still staggers us, but to maintain innumerable temples [in which they could not worship]…They did not defend these rapacious Gods or the slave drivers and tithe-collectors with much ardor. The conqueror, in contrast, offered them a gentle religion of resignation, well suited to exhausted and discouraged people, and demanding far less: its ministers were pledged to poverty, content with alms of rice. This moral religion stressed peace of the soul and social harmony. We can understand why the Khmer people readily accepted it and happily put aside the burdens of their former glory.”

The disintegration of Angkor Empire was gradual decline and depopulation over along period of time.

[ What were the effects of the revolution? 1) the monks were simple and poor, in contrast to the elite, indulged priest class of the big mountain-temple palaces; 2) they lived in contact with the people, dependent on daily alms, in contrast to the temple priests who were remote, living on taxes; 3) they “un-deified” the God-king, and the Mahayana Buddha-king, abandoning his royal court, and centering themselves in the forests as “outsiders” and marginal people; 4) they did not support pursuit of early glory or gain, especially that of taking lives or causing suffering; 5) the Theravada religion readily de-emphasized the things of this world, thereby undermining the authoritarian, militaristic state and the massive empire-enterprise needed to uphold the state; 6) they undermined Khmer Imperial glory; 7) peasants persisted in the Imperial ruins; 8) civilization falls apart.

Phnom Penh was probably a small riverside market center. The founding legend says a lady named Penh discovered a Buddha floating down the river on trees and enshrined it at Wat Phnom. The new Theravada kingship was more accessible to the people, like the model of the Mon and Thai kings, traceable to the Davaravati Mon kingly traditions which had practiced Theravada Buddhism for more than a thousand years.

Theravada Buddhism has proved astonishingly resistant to any foreign attempt to convert the people.
In 1556 the Portuguese missionary Gaspar de Cruz spent about a year in Cambodia and visited the capital Lovek where King Cham reigned. The missionary was disappointed about his inability to convert the Khmer people, and blamed is failure on the Khmer loyalty to the Buddhist monks and the Theravada king
He described the monks in typical Christian chauvinist terms: The monks are “exceedingly proud and vain…alive they are worshiped for gods, in so that the inferior among them do worship the superior like gods, praying unto them and prostrating themselves before them; and so the common people have great confidence in them, with great reverence and worship; so that there is no person that dare contradict them in anything….[It] happened sometimes that while I was preaching, many round me hearing me very well, and being very satisfied with what I told them, that if there came along any of these priests and said, ‘This is good but ours is better,’ they would all depart and leave me alone.” [A History of Cambodia, Chambers, p82]

When Western merchants and missionaries first made contact with Kampuchea they discovered three tiered society, consisting of royalty-nobility, the common people who were mainly rice farmers, and the Buddhist Sangha of monks who were custodians and repositories of Khmer culture and identity.
The lives of the common people, peasants and farmers, have generally been overlooked and disregarded by historians, who tend to view history as a chronicle of elites and of war. Theravada Buddhism is a common people’s religions. Theravada Buddhism is a sort of spontaneous mass movement of the peasants. It accumulates momentum undetected by the attention of the elites, who generally disregard activities of the peasant class as irrelevant. In Theravada, the people are subatomic particles which eventually become manifest in atomic behavior. This invisibility of momentum is what gives the sense of “timelessness” and “paradise” that people often attribute to Theravada Buddhist countries, where centuries and ages pass with stability (the highest value of the poor peasant class), ages passing without apparent change.


What was Buddhism like in Cambodia in the 19th century?
By the 19th century, Thailand exercised some type of authority over Cambodia, Issan, and Laos, Chang Mai and Chang Rai – though these outlaying kingdoms were relatively autonomous and paid tribute to the Thai court in Bangkok.

Chandler says, “Little is known about he sangha in nineteenth century Cambodia, and it could be misleading to assert that conditions were the same as those in Siam or Burma. There is no evidence, for example, that the sangha played a political role vis-à-vis the royal family, although monks and ex-monks were active in the anti-Vietnamese rebellion of 1821. By and large monks were widely respected and were repositories of merit, as sources of spiritual patronage, and as curators of Cambodia’s literary culture. They occupied a unique and therefore mysterious place in Cambodian life because they had abandoned – temporarily at least – agriculture, politics, and marriage.” [A History of Cambodia, Chandler, p106]
The 1821 uprising Chandler mentions occurred at approximately the same time in Cambodia, while in the Kingdom of Vientiane rose up (1825) against the authority of Siam. Siam ruthlessly crushed the rebellion and completely destroyed the kingdom of Vientiane, except for a few Buddhist temples which remained standing. The Thai took the Vientiane king back to Bangkok as a slave. The Vietnamese, who were also attempting to control Cambodia at this time, had encouraged the Vientiane uprising, evoking the fear, loathing and suspicion of the Thai, perhaps explaining the ruthless overreaction to the insubordination of the Vientiane kingdom.

The French inadvertently helped create Khmer independence and nationalist movement. How id it happen?
First, the French dispelled the political power of the old enemies of the Khmer, the Thai and the Vietnamese.
Second, the French helped recover Khmer identity through restoration, study and anthropology of Angkor Empire, generating national-ethnic identity.
Third, the French established a Buddhist Institute that generated a Khmer-language renaissance, and fostered nationalist and ethnic self awareness and pride.

The Thai and the Vietnamese had repeatedly invaded Cambodia to compete for power and control over the country. The Thai invaded, Cambodians appealed to Vietnam for help. Then the Vietnamese sought to subdue the Cambodians and they would turn to the Thai for help. Again and again this process continued for centuries. The Vietnamese finally got the upper hand in the early 1800s century. The Cambodian king was compelled twice a month to visit the Vietnamese temple in Phnom Penh and prostrate to the name of the Vietnamese emperor, while wearing Vietnamese ceremonial robes. The Vietnamese tried to suppress Theravada Buddhism, and impose Confucianism and Mahayana Buddhism on the Cambodians in an effort to “civilize” them. In 1820-21 the Cambodians rose up in a rebellion against the Vietnamese. The insurrection was led by a former monk named Kai, who was recognized as a “holy man” with supernatural powers. He organized his revolt from Ba Panom, a holy mountain in southeast Cambodia, the old capital of Funan and the place where the Buddhist King Jayavarman II landed when he returned from Java to establish the Angkor Empire. These monks and former monks embolden the peasants and Khmer populace in a general uprising my using charms and Buddhist incantations which would make them invulnerable to the enemy’s weapons. According to Khmer chronicles of these events, however, when the Khmer killed their enemies, the Vietnamese invaders, the nonviolent enchantment of the Buddhist charms was broken – and they were slaughtered in a terrible defeat.
During these insurrections, the Cambodian king was a vassal of the Vietnamese emperor, and was therefore duty bound to put down the uprising; yet he could not bring himself to fight against the insurrection led by Kai, whom he probably knew as a monk in Phnom Penh, and whom he would have revered as a holy man with great supernatural powers. The Vietnamese historians refer to the king as “extremely superstitious.”

This incident gives an insight to the popular Buddhism of the time. These “holy men” were greatly revered Buddhist leaders in Khmer society.
The Vietnamese regarded the Khmer as “uncivilized” barbarians and tried to “civilize” the Khmer – i.e. force them to adopt Vietnamese civilization, worldview, and religion. Part of their project involved suppression of Theravada Buddhism and the attempt to impose Vietnamese-style Confucianism and Mahayana Buddhism on the people – out of good intentions that nevertheless had terrible consequences for the Khmer people who were loyal to their own traditions.

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Started: Wed, August 13, B.E.2547,A.D.2003, Last Updated: July 23, 2005