Wednesday, October 15, 2014

History of Cambodia Buddhism - Part 3

A Notebook

The Khmer rebelled again in 1837-1839; and in yet another major uprising in September-October 1840.

The Vietnamese were shocked by the repeated rebellions of these “barbarians” whom they regarded as ignorant beasts incapable of coordinated action. The Vietnamese called them “rats and mice” and said, “The Cambodians are so stupid, we must frighten them. Ordinary moral suasion has no effect.” 

The Thai, ensconced with 35,000 soldiers in Batambang, used the insurrection of 1840 as an opportunity to intervene, and establish suzerainty over Udong, the Khmer court. According to Thai histories, they viewed this intervention as a defense of Theravada Buddhism.

In 1847, the Thai helped reestablish a Theravada king, Duang, in Phnom Penh, and reestablish Theravada Buddhism as the state religion. One record states that King Duang: “leveled the [Vietnamese] fortifications at Phnom Penh and hauled away the bricks to build and restore… [seven] Buddhist monasteries near Udong. Broken Buddha images were recast, and new ones carved. Monks were encouraged to live in monasteries again, and people were encouraged to respect them.” [A History of Cambodia, Chandler, quoting an original source]. 

The return of the king with regalia and the reestablishment of Theravada Buddhism provided legitimacy to the king.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Theravada Buddhism in a weakened Kampuchea and Laos received sustenance from the Thai court and Sangha. Thailand was attempting to socialize and assimilate Kampuchea and Laos into their sphere of influence, and to undermine Vietnamese or the new European influence.

In 1855, King Duang invited the Dhammayuttika sect into Cambodia, in order to help spread the reformed, standardized, centralized Thai version of Buddhism throughout Kampuchea. The Dhammayuttika were founded by King Mongkut (Rama IV) in order to strengthen and raise the standard of education of Theravada monks, to withstand the effects western influence at Christian missionary activities. 

The coronation of Ang Duang in 1847 also marked the beginning of a rebirth and change for Khmer Buddhism that was only arrested by the impact of western-type modernization after WWII. Paradoxically, the French colonial rule and its secular industrial development goals served as a foil through which the sangha and the symbolic aspects of the Khmer court were revitalized from below. The monks led the people’s passive resistance to Frances ‘civilizing mission’ and succeeded in retaining control over their temple-based school system. Although the process of creating a new governing elite began with the French based secondary school system in the early 20th century, many well intentioned French reformers to ‘modernize’ the country were quickly ignored by the people, monks, and pre-World War II indigenous elites. It was not until after WWII that Cambodian elites in Phnom Penh became westernized and transformed the country form a Buddhist polity into a secular, western-type nation state.” [“Notes on Rebirth of Khmer Buddhism,” Radical Conservativism]

King Duong next turned at this time to the French as a counterpoint to Thai influence, in an effort to secure autonomy and independence from the Thai and Vietnamese powers. King Duong was open to the French influence, because of his friendship with a French Catholic missionary, Monseigneur Jean Claude Miche, whose mission headquarters was located in Udon and who encouraged the king to resist the Thai and establish connections with the French. King Duong thought that by making overtures to the French he might be able to regain control of the Mekong Delta and other land that the French were controlling in Vietnam.

It was at this time that King Duong sought help from the French to keep the Thai and Vietnamese in check, leading to the French protectorate, and ultimately to the colonization of Cambodia by the French. The Khmer people were largely unaffected by the French protectorate in the early years. The common folk were happy as long as they could have the land, Buddhism, and the king. These were the elements that provided stability in their lives. The problem arose later with the French Protectorate, in their attempt to impose Roman Catholic faith through aggressive missionary activity, repeating the assault on Theravada Buddhism that the Vietnamese had imposed.

With the growing imposition of French control, the Khmer people again rose up in insurrections and rebellions in the late 1800s. In 1867, an ex-monk, Pou Kombo, led a rebellion claiming that he had better right than King Norodom to be king.

Another huge nationwide rebellion, lasting about 18 months broke out in 1885.

Some monks had opposed the French from the start. Before the uprising of 1885, two monks had preached against the French in the countryside, calling upon Cambodians to defy colonialism in favor of what the French said was a wrong memory of Cambodia’s ancient past. A contemporary French report said: “These two adventurers belong to this category of prophets who, adorned with supernatural influence, dreamed of restoring the Kingdom of Cambodia to its ancient splendor.” Other anti-French monks followed. At one point the monks fielded an army of 5,000 peasants, but they were defeated as much by the royal family as by the French. In 1867, the last Buddhist rebel leader was captured by the French, who cut his head off, mounted it on a slate, and brought it to Phnom Penh for public display.”

“The monks quieted down but they never gave their full support to the French….
” [When the War was Over, Elizabeth Becker, p 42]

Nevertheless, the French did contribute to the sense of Khmer nationalism in a variety of unintended ways. 

The French “discoveries” and exploration of Angkor helped to begin the reawakening of Khmer nationalism, and ethnic pride and identity. From 1906 onward for the next 50 years, the French began restoring, studying, and recovering Angkorean ruins and history. Under French power the Khmer province of Batamgang which Siam had seized earlier in the century, was resotred to Cambodia. Angkor Wat, in the Batambang Province, was restored to Cambodia in 1906. This was an important milestone in Cambodian Buddhist history, and in the ascendancy of Khmer nationalism. Angkor Wat was the cradle of Khmer civilization and identity. In 1907, great ceremonies of rejoicing were held all across Cambodia, marking restoration of the Batambong Province. The people “thanked the angels” (thevoda) for the return of the district, and local officials assigned to the region came to Phnom Penh to pay homage to the king.

In 1909 a copy of the Cambodian translation of sacred Buddhist writing, the Tripitaka, was deposited in a monastery on the grounds of Angkor Wat; and for another sixty years Cambodian monarchs frequently visited the site and sponsored religious ceremonies there.” [A History of Cambodia, Chandler, p 150]

Modernization in Cambodia moved very slowly, because the monks, the royalty, and Khmer officials, the people held in most respect, resisted institutional change. In 1909 automobiles and typewriters were introduced into Cambodia, speeding up communication and transportation. 

While the Khmer Sangha in western eyes served as a conservative force, it was by no means a dormant or unimaginative institutional opposition to colonialism. The sangha also embarked on its own program of modernization in the first half of the 20th century that developed more rational ways of understanding the teaching of Buddhism. The Dhammayuttika reform movement spurred a renewed orthodoxy and higher academic standards and was in part responsible for a new emphasis on scripture and the study of Pali. The first schools of Pali were opened in Angkor in 1909 and at the Royal Palace Wat in Phnom Penh in 1915, both of which emerged into the Higher School of Pali in 1922. Its goal was to “favor and develop the study of Buddhist theology through a rational teaching of the ancient sacred languages Pali and Sanskrit, and the knowledge indispensable to the understanding and explication of the religious texts.” [Notes on Rebirth of Khmer Buddhism,” Radical Conservatism]

These initiatives led to the opening, beginning in 1933, of Pali elementary schools through the kingdom. By the 1960s, nearly one half of the wat schools taught at least the first three levels of Pali. “These developments coincided with the reform of the wat elementary schools that began in 1924 with a monk teacher-training program in Kampot province. While the French succeeded in supplanting the indigenous Confucian-based school system with secular schools in Vietnam, they were able only to strike a partial compromise with the Buddhist school system in Kampuchea. The Khmer monks retained control over primary education and saw it in their interest to incorporate some western teaching methods and curricula into what became known as “renovated” temple schools. In conjunction with this, the Kampot teacher training program developed into several “Applied Schools for Monks,’” whose purpose was to ‘place at the disposal of the monkhood practical methods of pedagogy oriented to the reform (renovation) of its mode of teaching.” [“Notes on Rebirth of Khmer Buddhism,” Radical Conservatism]

The wat schools were not replaced by secular state schools until the 1950s and 1960s.

The Buddhist Institute also served as a vehicle for a budding Khmer nationalism in the 1930s.
The development of Khmer Buddhism in the 20th century was also reflected in the increased number of wats and monks in Kampuchea. Although the increase in population was slightly larger, the number of wats increased from approximately 1,000 in 1870 to 2,600 in 1940 to 3,326 in 1969. Of the later figure, only 124 wats and less that 1500 monks belonged to the elite Dhammayuttika sect; which in spite of its small numbers enjoyed the advantage of the royal patronage. Before the 1970-75 civil war, there were slightly more than 65,000 monks and novices in a country of 7 million inhabitants. During the rainy season or period of Kathin, the number of monks in robes approached 100,000. While no statistics are available to us, the number of nuns, or female lay devotees (yay or mae chii) who take the eight precepts shave their heads and wear white robes, was also considerable.”

“The quantative growth and academic orientation of the Khmer Sangha in the 20th century accompanied, critics would say paid for, by a decline in the quality of Buddhist practices in the decades following WWII. Rituals, ceremonies and festivals became increasingly anachronistic and bereft of meaning in the context of westernized cultural and governing elite in the capital. Meditation (vipassana), which had never been a signature of Khmer Buddhism, was not promoted in the Khmer sangha with the same intensity as the Pali language and scripture, now transmitted through the relatively new medium of print. (The Khmer sangha did not begin to use movable type until after WWII). Finally, the Sangha was not entirely immune form the ideological rifts that plagued Khmer society in the 1960s, as some modernist monks took part in the political tumults that led to the society’s rupture in the 1970s
.” [“Notes on Rebirth of Khmer Buddhism,” Radical Conservatism]

In the areas of scripture, King Monivong (d 1941) launched the Tipitaka Commission in 1927 for the purpose of translating the entire Pali canon into Khmer. Supplementing its own manuscripts holding s with original texts form Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and the Pali text society in London, the project commenced in 1929 and continued under the auspices of the Buddhist Institute, which was founded the following year in Wat Unnalom. Completed in 1969 under the guidance of Ven Chuon Nath, the translation comprised 110 volumes between 400 and 800 pages each in length. Some outside commentators claim it is the first complete translation of the Singhalese recession of the Tipitaka into another language.

Soon after its founding the Buddhist Institute became a pivotal institute in Cambodian cultural and intellectual life. In addition to the Tipitaka project, it published Venerable Chuon Nath’s two-volume Khmer dictionary in 1935 and used the print media to publish and widely disseminate thousands of Buddhist and cultural texts for the people. A sister institute was founded in the Kingdom of Laos.” [“Notes on Rebirth of Khmer Buddhism,” Radical Conservatism]

SUZANNE KARPELES:The Buddhist Institute
The Buddhist Institute was the brainchild of the Suzanne Karpeles (d 1969) who encouraged and fostered a quiet renaissance of Khmer, Theravada Buddhism that led and fed the Cambodian independence movement. Karpales was an extraordinary woman whose efforts to develop Buddhism spanned continents.

KarpelesShe was a gifted scholar with three degrees from the University of Paris in Pali, Sanskrit, and Tibetan, when she went to Southeast Asia for further studies.
In 1930, she persuaded the French government to establish the Buddhist Institute in Vientiane, Laos and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. For twenty years she acted as General Secretary for both institutes. She will always be remembered in Theravada countries for having initiated and supervised and brought to completion the printing of the Theravada Tripitika in both Pali and in Khmer translation. In France, Karpales was very active in the first French Buddhist Association Les Amis du Boddhisme (Friends of Buddhism) founded by G.C. Lounsberry (an American women) in 1929. This association had strong Theravada leanings, and in 1930s, she organized a series of lectures in Buddhism at Sarbonne University in Paris, as well as publishing books in French, including meditation books.

“She was attached to the Ecole Francaise d’ Extreme Orient in Hanoi, then the worlds finest center of Oreintalism. Karpales came to Phnom Penh to build the royal library into a repository of irreplaceable Buddhist texts and relics and she collected both for safekeeping and to instruct the Cambodian bonzes, or monks, in texts that had long been ignored.” 

“Her mandate was to reeducate the Buddhist monks in what the French considered their traditional faith and erase much of the ‘superstitious practices’ that had ‘corrupted’ Theravada Buddhism in Indochina. The library established the Buddhist Institute in 1930. The Institute was the only center based in Cambodia that brought in students form other Indochinese colonies, largely the Cambodian minority living in Cochin China [the Mekong Delta, or Kampuchea Krom].”

“These Cambodians form southern Vietnam, the Khmer Krom, became part of Karpele’s larger project to revitalize Cambodian culture, pride, and aspirations. She surveyed the Cambodian minority community in southern Vietnam and led a crusade encouraging Cambodians to remember that the entire Mekong Delta was once their homeland….These Kampuchea Krom immigrants became the most ardent of nationalists in subsequent years, the favorite recruits of both the American CIA and the Khmer Republic.”
The Buddhist Institute quickly became the focus of a new intellectual life in this new crucial period between world wars. The French built only a minimal, elite system of secular schools in Cambodia. Otherwise, they merely altered the curriculum taught by the monks in the country’s native pagoda schools. The youth in Cambodia were largely taught by monks, who were responsible for the high literacy rate in the country, far higher than in Vietnam, and the Institute easily gained a position as the fullest expression of Buddhist education in Cambodia. It also discouraged Cambodians form traveling to Thailand for further Buddhist education; in Bangkok it was easy for Cambodians to pick up dangerous anti-French, independent ideas from Thai Buddhists.” [When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rough Revolution, Elizabeth Becker]

The Buddhist Institute became the first home of anti-colonialism in Phnom Penh.
“The Buddhists were eminently qualified for their part in brining Cambodians into the modern political era. Under the tutelage of the French, like Karpales they had become some of the few Cambodians introduced to the ideas of the modern world. Importantly, this was said to be accomplished without sacrificing their identity as Khmers. Most of Cambodia’s small aristocracy was conversant in the ways of the French, but they were compromised by their acquiescence to colonial rule….”

“By the twentieth century the monks had extraordinary power, despite their modest appearance. At dawn, the monks appeared with their heads bowed and begged for food outside the village doorways; they helped broker marriages and otherwise dictated behavior in the profound and mundane affairs of village life. The bonzes taught the children, raised the orphans, and set the moral and social standards of the country. N return, the people built their pagodas and monasteries and followed their strictures. The bonzes, who pledged their lives to poverty, filled the pagoda coffers and became the most important source of charity in the country, dispensing food or funds to the poorest of peasants.

Finally, the Buddhist monks were the only influential Cambodians in a position to question both the French and the King. The monks had attained an independent moral standing in the community not subject to the whims of royal beneficence. Unlike Vietnam and other countries of the Chinese tradition, Cambodia had no powerful mandarin class, only an aristocratic oligarchy that administered the government and whose fortunes were largely controlled by the king. The monks were recognized as a separate group protecting the country’s values and culture. When these holy men began questioning French rule, their doubts struck a deep chord in the country.” “Some monks had opposed the French form the start…” [When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rough Revolution, Elizabeth Becker]

[The monks] “felt French colonialism undermined rather than preserved the Cambodian state, as the French claimed. Buddhist agitators led protests against sending Cambodians to fight for the French in World War I, tearing down recruitment posters in Phnom Penh. When Suzaanne Karpales established her Buddhist Institute it was these dissidents to whom she gave a base of operation. The Institute became home of the first modern anti-colonial agitator in Phnom Penh.” [When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rough Revolution, Elizabeth Becker]

Cambodian literature in Khmer-language consisted of Buddhist texts and 19th century epics. There were no histories, or newspapers as Cambodian emerged into the 20th century. Literacy in Cambodia was related to study of Buddhist texts in the temples. Cambodian literary tradition was identical to Theravada Khmer Buddhist studies. 

“Before 1936, in fact, the only Khmer-language periodical, Kambuja Surya (Cambodian Sun) had been published on a monthly basis under the auspices of the French-funded Institute Bouddhique. With rare exceptions, the journal limited itself to printing folk-lore, Buddhist texts, and material concerned with the royal family. Even Cambodian chronicle histories in Khmer were not yet available in print.” [A History of Cambodia, Chandler, p160]

In Phnom Penh, a small French-educated intellectual elite emerged in the 1930s – 1950s, having been educated in Saigon.
The French were suspicious of Thai influence and therefore encouraged Khmer identity in an effort to inspire Khmer nationalism and inoculate them from the subversive anti-French elements of Siam. This enhanced and intensified Buddhist studies and Khmer Buddhist identity.

The Buddhist Institute was the center of this activity.

The three key channels for Cambodian self-awareness in the 1930s, in fact, were the Lycee Sisowath, the Institute Boddhique, and the newspaper Nagara Vatta, founded in 1936 by Pac Chhoeun and Sim Vac; both men, in their 30s, were soon joined by a young Cambodian judge, born in Vietnam and educated in France, named Son Ngoc Thanh. The three, in turn, were closely associated with the Institute Boddhique, to which Son Ngoc Thanh was later assigned as librarian. This brought them into contact with the leaders of the Cambodian Sangha, with Cambodian intellectuals, and with a small group of French scholars and officials, led by the secretary of the Institute, Suzanne Karpales, who were eager to help with the Cambodian intellectual renaissance.” [A History of Cambodia, Chandler]

Son Ngoc Thanh was Khmer Krom, born and raised in the Mekong Delta. His earliest education was in a Khmer-language pagoda. “He transferred to the French system for his secondary education and went to France for his university studies, which included one year of reading law. As a citizen of a French colony, Cochin China, rather than the Cambodian protectorate, Thanh received and education rare for a Cambodian of that era. He returned to Cochin China and finally settled in Phnom Penh, where he joined the Buddhist Institute shortly after it was founded. Thanks to his education, Thanh became the Institute secretary.” [When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rough Revolution, Elizabeth Becker]

The Nagara Vatta newspaper, established in 1936, published under the auspices of the Buddhist Institute, was the voice of the new Khmer intellectual renaissance. The word “nagara vatta” means “temple realm” in Sanskrit, and is a play on the word “Angkor Wat” which means the same in Khmer.

The paper saw its mission as to “awaken” the Cambodian people. Son Ngoc Thanh, the Buddhist Institute secretary, was agitating for independence in the Khmer language through the newspaper, reclaiming the culture and preserving the national integrity. It was a “pro-Khmer” paper and promoted Khmer identity and ethnic pride.
In 1937, the paper published 5,000 copies per issue and its readership was undoubtedly even higher. It was certainly read avidly by Buddhist monks throughout the kingdom.
The newspaper called for seditious behavior but disguised it in religious language. Together Tanh and the Buddhists initiated the first serious discussion against colonialism in Phnom Penh. They were met with censorship and surveillance. Aware that in Burma political Buddhism had become a problem, the French moved quickly to curtail these activities of Phnom Penh’s budding Buddhist nationalists.” [When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rough Revolution, Elizabeth Becker]


As the newspaper grew more anti-French and anti-colonial, it paper was suppressed in 1942, in circumstances leading to a huge monk-led uprising. More than 30 Cambodians were imprisoned for long sentences following the “Monks Demonstration.” How did it occur? The French had put down Khmer insurrections before. The French and Vietnamese exploited the Khmer, who paid the highest taxes in Indochina. In 1916, perhaps as many as 100,000 Khmer protested the high taxes and marched on Phnom Penh, stunning the French who had imagined that the Khmer were passive, lazy and ignorant, incapable of mass, coordinated action. Again in 1925 a spontaneous uprising in which Khmer villagers killed a French government agent. But the 1942 “Monks Demonstration” was an unprecedented challenge to the French protectorate.

The Japanese had entered Phnom Penh in 1941 and announced the end of the European hegemony in Asia. The Thai reacted quickly and attacked and seized Batambang province in 1941. Angkor Wat remained in French control. The Japanese became the new colonial power in Cambodian during this time, and left the French to administer the country.

French military weakness and Japanese sympathy for certain anti-colonial movements – evident throughout southeast Asia by 1942 – had not passed unnoticed among the [Khmer} intellectuals – many of the members of the Sangha – who were associated with the Nagara Vatta and the Institute Boddhique. Between 1940-1942, the paper took on increasingly pro-Japanese and anti-colonial line. During these years, at least 32 issues of the paper were censored. In ten issues the lead editorial was suppressed….” [A History of Cambodia, Chandler]

For the Cambodians, the Thai invasion and seizure of their sovereign land marked the end of their allegiance to the French; it was the breaking point of endurance with the supposed “protection” by the French, who had failed them.

The French had failed in their basic responsibility to protect Cambodia from its neighbors – the raison d’etre for French colonial rule. The elite woke up from its delusions and saw the French in a severe light. They were receptive when Son Ngoc Thanh of the Buddhist Institute engineered a partnership, bridging the lower-class Buddhists with the elite. He was a rare figure, trusted by the Buddhists who otherwise had few connections with the French-speaking elite of Phnom Penh. The Buddhists were far too traditional. If they spoke a foreign language it was Thai. Their supporters and members were from the lower classes. The students they recruited form the capital for their drive against the French generally came from the polytechnic schools.”
“Thanh had an entrée into the upper strata through the Friendship Association of Sisowath School Alumni [Because of his elite French education]….”
Than helped coax the Friendship Association of the Sisowath School Alumni toward Khmer nationalism.
“The alumni groups began sponsoring the monks to travel around the countryside preaching against French colonialism. The alumni association gave the Buddhists badly needed funds as well as new legitimacy. Joined together, they represented a potent threat to the French, and indirectly, the monarchy, as long as the king supported France. The traditional Buddhists and the modern elite comfortable in European language and politics began to have immediate results. But the elite were very small in numbers, and it fell on the monks to become the visible emblem of revolt and their saffron robes the symbol against French colonialism.” [When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rough Revolution, Elizabeth Becker]

This set the stage for the explosion of 1942, known as the “Monks Demonstration.”

The climax of the confrontation between this movement of Buddhist monks and Khmer aristocracy of Phnom Penh against the French occurred in July 1942. The French closed the Nagara Vatta and arrested the leading monk, Hem Cheav. Venerable Hem Cheav (1898-1943) was an important monk, revered by the peasants and honored by the elite classes of Khmer society. He was a professor at the Ecole Superieure des Pali in Phnom Penh, and had audaciously appealed for Cambodian soldiers to desert from the French colonial army. “He preached nonviolence, but not exclusively, recognizing the formidable impediment of the French army and police in his fight for independence. One of the charges against him, and other monks, was translating seditious materials form Thai.” [When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rough Revolution, Elizabeth Becker]. The French arrested him and another monk Nuon Duong. The French committed sacrilege and desecration by manhandling a monk, refusing to allow him to ceremonially disrobe before incarcerating him, a grotesque violation of Buddhist and Khmer sensibilities.

When Venerable Cheav was arrested, he reportedly said, “Sirs, you can do everything you like here. You are the masters. You can take my life, but my spirit will continue.” 

On July 20, a crowd of nearly 2,000 people, more than half monks, marched from Phnom Penh’s principal boulevard from behind the royal palace to the French colonial office of the resident superieur, Jean deLeus, near Wat Phnom, and demanded the release of Venerable Hem Cheav. When the French police refused them admittance to the official, the crowd rebelled. The French police attacked the unarmed crowd when they became unruly. Police photographed the demonstrators, and later arrested 200 of them, including Pach Chhoeun, the editor of the recently suppressed Nagara Vatta newspaper, who had led the protest and presented the petition to the French official. Buddhist leader Son Ngoc Thanh went underground and hid in Phnom Penh for several days during the clampdown, the escaped to Batambang, then on to Thailand, eventually making his way to Tokyo. Meanwhile Cheav was defrocked and imprisoned in the infamous, prison island in Vietnam, Poulo Condore, where he died in 1943.

The French continued to inflame the Cambodians Buddhists. In 1943 the French tried to replace the Khmer alphabet with the Roman one, as part of a “modernization” campaign. The Sangha and Khmer intellectuals saw this is an attack on traditional Buddhist and Khmer culture.

On March 9, 1945, the Japanese displaced the French and four days later King Norodom Sihanouk dissolved the treaties of 1863 and 1884 signed by his grandfather King Norodom, and declared the end of the French protectorate. When in 1945 the French were weakened at the end of the war, the Khmer alphabet was restored. The Buddhist lunar calendar was also restored at this time, replacing the Gregorian calendar that had been imposed by the French. 

On July 20, 1945 King Shinok presided over a rally celebrating the Monks Demonstration, aligning himself with the nationalist and independence movement of the Buddhist Institute. He was joined by the Buddhist nationalist leaders Pach Chhoeun who was released from prison; and Son Ngoc Thanh who had returned to Cambodia form Japan in April, to serve the new government as Foreign Minister. The Monks Demonstration was established as a national holiday. Son Ngoc Thanh immediately fell into disfavor when he challenged King Norodom Shinaok, who therefore became suspicious of him. At the end of the war in August 1945, Son Ngoc Than became Prime Minister. When the French returned to control of Cambodia , Thanh was imprisoned as a traitor (at the request of King Norodom Sihanok). The national holiday of the Monks Demonstration was immediately abolished.

The Cambodians were determined to have a degree of autonomy and self government. The French agreed to national elections in the following year of 1946. 

The Sangha played a role in turning out votes for the Democrat party in the nation’s first election of 1946. The occupying forces in Cambodia were always caught off guard and surprised by the unexpected, sudden popular “eruptions” of mass movement s in Cambodia, failing to recognize the integral role of the Buddhist Sangha that provided cohesion and vitality to the Khmer people.


Samdech Sangh Chon Nath (1883-1969), the Sangharaja or Patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism, was a leading figure throughout the years of intensifying nationalism, independence, and Khmer pride. He was apparently a Khmer Krom. He assisted the nationalist Khmer movement centered in the Buddhist Institute. He is most famous for writing the Khmer dictionary, printed under the auspices of the Buddhist Institute. The dictionary is considered one of the cornerstones of Khmer culture.
In 1940 Samdech Chon Nath was instrumental in establishing the first Khmer Krom Theravada Temple, Bau Quang Temple (Ratana Ramsyarama) in Saigon. The Abbot Venerable Ho Tong (Vansarakkhita) was ordained in Cambodia by Chuon Nath. 

Samdech Sangh Chuon Nath was a traditionalist. He was Khmer Krom, involved in anti-colonial activities in the 1950s, and against the Vietnamese communists who already occupied Kampuchea Krom. He concealed his Khmer Krom origins, and claimed to be from Preah Trapeang. 

In 1956 he attended the 6th Sangha Council of Buddhism in Kaba Aya Pagoda in Rangoon as the leader of the Cambodian delegation. MahaGosananda accompanied him. 
One monk's testimony says: “Samdech Sangh Chuon Nath always taught us that we have to think from the following basis: Suppose the Cambodian central power was destroyed by our enemies, they did not exist anymore. Hence you had to rebuild to reconstitute our nation from scratch. Take initiative was their motto. Take initiative to solve the village problems through consensus. Take initiative to develop the economy, education and health care. That was the tradition rooted in the collective memory of Preah Trapaing, the sweet home of Khmer freedom fighters.”
“Sanmdech Chon Nath always reminded us to take care by ourselves our village, in every ways of life, especially build and develop our civil society, by organizing ourselves the security, defense, education, economy, public works, health, distribution of land. Act like you are the parallel government. It will be obliged to agree with you if you are well organized. That was the philosophy that Ven Chuon Nath taught.”

His remains are enshrined today at Wat Uunalom in Phnom Penh.

Although suppressed, and underground, the Buddhist-led independence movement continued throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as the French returned and attempted to seize control of power in the wake of WWII. 

Many of the Buddhists of the Nagara Vatta newspaper and Monks Demonstration fled to the provinces and many eventually cooperated with the Vietnamese communists, becoming party members and fighting from bases in South Vietnam. Other Buddhists fled to the northwest of Cambodia and fought the French with support form the Thais. The Khmer Rough would eventually emerge out of these movements. As the Vietnam War heated up in the 1950s, the French eventually realized the colonial era was over, and withdrew from Southeast Asia. The Americans, fearing the ascendancy of Communism stepped in and tried to control the region.

The Pentagon conducted a 471 page study of Cambodian in 1959, entitled Psychological Operations: Cambodia, which noted with dismay or disgust that the Cambodians were not susceptible to being panicked or stampeded into mass movement, their horizons being limited to their village, Buddhist temple, and forest.
The Pentagon noted “the prototype of the successful American might be objectionable because of the connotation of disproportionate wealth. The economic gap is so great that Cambodians have no understanding of the typical American version of “play’.”

“The Cambodians are polite and gentle, and regard angers as ‘madness’.” The military report complained.
“The Buddhist Monks were another target. They could not, unfortunately, be aroused to violence – ‘this would be asking the clergy to be non-Buddhist’ – but ‘psy-warriors’ could play on the fact that ‘the monks are also human’ and try to persuade them that they were hated by the intelligentsia.” [Houk, John [] Psychological Operations: Cambodia: Project PROSYMS (Operating under contract with Department of Army) Washington D.C. USA: Special Operations Research Office, American University (AD-310.384) 1959; ix+471p. maps, biblog, indexs, 26x36cm.]


Buddhism was virtually destroyed in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period. The political convulsions of the 1970s in Cambodia are incomprehensible, inexplicable, defying description.

The actual physical destruction of the Sangha began during the 1970-75 and was conducted not by the Khmer Rough, but by the American saturation bombing, and the monks were increasingly caught in the cross fire between factions in the growing civil war within Cambodia. These factions were not deliberately targeting Buddhism, but the effect was the same: the killing of monks, destruction of temples, libraries, Buddhist heritage. By 1975 when the Khmer Rough came to power, the number of wats had been reduced to 2,800 and while many monks’ lives were lost, many men and boys joined the monkhood in an effort to take refuge and protection from the intensifying and expanding war.

The Khmer Rough had been gathering strength throughout the 1960s and early 70s. When they seized control of Cambodia in 1975, they purged “feudalists” which included aristocracy, mandarins, landlords and Buddhist monks. 

The Khmer Rough utterly devastated and annihilated Buddhism from the land of Cambodia, for a five year period of genocidal orgy. “Much of the Buddhist clergy had expected to be part of the revolution, not its victims. Encouraged by Prince Sihanouk and his appeals from Beijing, many of the Buddhists of the countryside joined the Khmer Rough. In a repeat of what had happened during the First Indochina War, the Khmer Rough actively recruited monks during the first years of the war and treated them with respect. Monks were named to ceremonial positions in the United Front government and allowed to continue administering to the faithful in many areas under Khmer Rough rule. Even when religions was suspended in the late war period, the Khmer Rough promised it was a temporary emergency measure to allow full mobilization of the people.”

“With victory, the Khmer Rough immediately attacked the Buddhist clergy, Buddhist pagodas, statuary, relics, libraries, and schools. The destruction was nearly complete, with more devastating consequences for Cambodia than the Chinese attack on Buddhism had been for Tibet.”

“The Khmer Rough murdered the top clergy immediately, enticing the monks to hand themselves over to their executioners with ruses similar to those used to kill off the former military officers of the Lon Nol regime.”

Those who were not executed were ordered to forfeit their robes and join the people to work in the cooperatives as common filed hands, an order that violate their religious tenets. Those who refused were killed. Many monks were ordered to marry, which prevented them from returning to the clergy. In some areas the Khmer Rough cadre allowed older monks to keep their saffron robes only to be countermanded by the Center.” “Without monks the people could no longer practice their faith, but the Khmer Rough was intent on erasing the faith form the country’s memory. The pagodas, too, became targets of the regime. The nearly 3,000 pagodas in the country were desecrated or destroyed. They were used as stables, granaries, prisons, and execution sites. Statuary were defaced. The sacred literature was burned or shredded.” [When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rough Revolution, Elizabeth Becker, p254.]

 Older more venerated and educated monks were executed, while younger monks and novices were forced to disrobe and work in the fields.

The Buddhist Patriarch, Samdech Huot Tat, was killed by the Khmer Rough. A statue of the patriarch which was smashed and thrown into the Mekong River by the KR, was reassembled and is today on display at Wat Ounalom.The highest and most recent estimate (1990) indicated that about 60,000 monks were killed and about 5,000 survived by escaping into Vietnam or Thailand, and becoming refugees.

The Khmer Rough are thought to have completely leveled at least 1,900 wats, mostly in the countryside. Town temples survived because they were used for other purposes.Hang Ngor, author of A Cambodian Odyssey, on which the movie The Killing Fields was based, wrote of his work assignment to destroy the temple of Phum Phnom. The monks were denounced as “parasites” he reported:

Buddhism was the old religion we were supposed to discard, and Angka was the new ‘religion’ we were supposed to accept. As the rainy season began – normally the time when the youth from the surrounding villages would shave their heads and join the monkhood – soldiers entered the empty wat [at Tonle Bati] and began removing the Buddha statues [in 1975]. Rolling the larger statues end over end, they threw them over the side, dumped them on the ground with heads and hands severed form the bodies, or threw them into the reflecting pools. But they could destroy only the outward signs of our religion, not the beliefs within. And even the, as I noticed with bitter satisfaction, there was one statue they did not destroy. It was the bronze Buddha, still gleaming inside the small Angkorean outbuilding….”  [When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rough Revolution, Elizabeth Becker.]

In addition killing monks and destroying the temples and monasteries, part of the Khmer Buddhist literary patrimony was permanently destroyed. Libraries were burned. Irreplaceable Buddhist sutras were used as cigarette paper. The entire library of the Buddhist Institute was destroyed by burning it, and throwing it into the nearby Mekong River. Among the valuable holdings stored in the library was ethnographic and literary research of the Commission des Moeurset Coutumes, documenting classic Khmer cultural customs, manners, traditions and customs. All across Cambodia, palm-leaf texts which had been preserved in village temples, were destroyed.
Through oversight or error, some collections were not damaged or destroyed. In the national library, 343 palm and mulberry leaf manuscripts remained undamaged as well as 185 palm leaf manuscripts stored in the royal palace together with a complete set of the tipitaka. More than 100 palm leaf manuscripts were left undamaged in the museum library along with some 700 volumes of the Tipitaka.” [When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rough Revolution, Elizabeth Becker.]


In 1979, after the overthrow of the Khmer Rough, Buddhism was reintroduced into Cambodia by a delegation of Buddhist monks from Kampuchea Krom in South Vietnam. The Sangha grew in numbers and strength quickly. By 1981 there were 3,000 monks in Cambodia; in 1987, 6,700 monks and by 1990, 10,000 monks.
After 1979 there were still some restrictions on the freedom of Buddhism in Cambodia. For example, only men over age 50 could be ordained. Only four monks were allowed to live in a wat. Since 1988 Buddhism was fully restored. In July 1988, Radio Phnom Penh began broadcasting Buddhist prayers and ceremonies after an absence of 13 years.Then in 1989, Prime Minister Hun Sen officially apologized for his governments past “mistakes” during a ceremony in Kampot Province, where he prostrated before the head monk and asked forgiveness. In April 1990, the National Assembly officially amended the constitution to reestablish Theravada Buddhism as the state religion and the government decreed that “devout Buddhist followers can be ordained as Buddhist monks as they wish.”

History of Cambodia Buddhism - Part 2


King Suryavarman II, (1112-1152) was publicly devoted to Vishnu and Angkor Wat was constructed as his personal 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 revolution 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. The common people were relieved to be rid of the old oppressive slave-society.

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, Shawcross] 

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." [Southeast Asia, 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.

Buddhist Middle Ages

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 masters 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. 

History of Cambodia Buddhism - Part 1


Buddhism, under a variety of forms, existed in Southeast Asia for two thousand years or perhaps even longer. Buddhist legends say that Buddhism was originally introduced into Suvannabhumi, or the “Golden Peninsula”, by King Asoka, the great Buddhist Emperor in India, during the 3rd century BC.

For the first Thousand years of its history, Theravada, Saravastavada and Mahayana Buddhism co-existed throughout Southeast Asia, including the lands of present day Cambodia. These Buddhist traditions were practiced under the dominant Hindu religion of the region, which consisted primarily in the worship of the God-king, Vishnu or Shiva, embodied in the human king. 

Saravastavada Buddhism was Hinayana tradition, virtually identical with the present day Theravada, except it was based in a Sanskrit literary tradition, rather that Pali language tradition. The doctrinal teachings and the monastic practices were the same as Theravada. Theravada Buddhism was present also, evidence by Pali inscriptions from this period. Saravastavada Buddhism was the predominant form of Buddhism in Southeast Asia from the earliest days until Mahayana Buddhism became ascendant with the rise of the Angkor Empire from about 800 – 1200.
Mahayana Buddhism became increasingly influential over the centuries until it eventually replaced Hinduism as the official state religion under King Jayavarman VII.
At the height of the Angkor Empire, after the death of King Jayavarman VII, a “Theravada Revolution” occurred, and Theravada Buddhism became ascendant as the official state religion, which it has remained for past 800 years. Buddhism coexisted with the predominant Hindu Shiva worship for about one thousand years, until Buddhist religion became officially established about one thousand years ago, first with the establishment of Mahayana Buddhism of King Jayavarman VII, and then the ascendancy of Theravada Buddhism.

300 BC 

Buddhism, according to legend, came to Southeast Asia as early as 300 B.C. by way of missionaries dispatched by the renowned Indian Emperor Ashoka.
Unconfirmed Singhalese sources state that Buddhism was introduced to Suvannabhumi, or the ‘Golden Peninsula’, as mainland Southeast Asia was once referred to, in the 3rd century BCE under the reign of King Asoka, the great Buddhist ruler. According to these sources, two monks, Sona and Uttara, were sent to propagate the doctrine of the Master in this region following the great council of 247BCE held in Ashoka’s capital Patalipitta, India. While this mission may be legendary, it points to a truth that Buddhism ahs been present in Southeast Asia for a long time. Various Buddhist sects and schools, including Tantrism, vied or coexisted with a dominant Brahmanism and indigenous animistic faiths for centuries before the rise of the classical Southeast Asian empires beginning in the 9th century CE. Through in part Indian merchant traders, Indian cultural influence was pervasive in this early period. In Funan (1st to 5th century CE), the first organized Khmer polity, the Khmer people embraced not only the diverse Brahmanic and Buddhist religions but also the social customs and mores of India.” [“Notes of the Rebirth of Khmer BuddhismRadical Conservativism,]

FUNAN: 100 BC – 500 AD

Certainly there were Buddhists in Cambodia by 100BC.
In the 100BC-500AD the Kingdom of Funan in the present-day Mekong Delta established a flourishing sea-faring trade between China, Indonesia, and India. Hindu, principally Vishnu and Shiva religious practices were established in Funan.

An Indian Sanskrit inscription from 375 documents that an Indian claming descent from Scynthian line ruled as King of Funan. “He may have been responsible for establishing the worship of Surya, the sun god, who appears in many sculptures of this period. A second Indian, a Brahmin, succeeded him. Then other kings with Indian names appear in the inscription. One, Kuandinya Jayavarman (478-514) cultivated Buddhism, and sent a Buddhist mission complete with Funanese images [carved in coral] to the Emperor of China…” [The Art of Southeast Asia, Philip Dawson, p21]

[“Another early dated inscription of Kamboja (586-664) the Wat Prey Vier Sanskrit inscription is also definitely a Buddhist record, speaking of two Bhikkhus, Ratnabhanu and Ratnasimha, who were born of the same mother. That in Kamboja, Buddhism flourished already in the last half of the fifth century AD is also attested to by Chinese texts which have yielded to M Pelliot the important information that in 484 AD Jayavarman (king of Founan, who is also referred to in the inscription discovered at Ta Prom, cited above) sent the Indian monk Nagasena to present a memorial in the Chinese Imperial court which began with a panegyric of the Emperor a one of the patrons of Buddhism, in whose empire the Dharma flourished.” [Sanskrit Buddhism in Burma, Nihar-Ranjan Ray, 1936.]

Buddhism was clearly beginning to assert itself from year 450 onward, when the Chinese explorer I-tsing, toward the close of the 7th century, wrote the celebrated Records of the Buddhist Religion, based on extensive travels in India, Sri Lanka, the Indonesian archipelago, “he found that the islands of Southeast Asia, the Mulasarvastivada-nikaya had been universally accepted, except in Malaya where there were a few being Mahayana.” [Sanskrit Buddhism in Burma, Nihar-Ranjan Ray, 1936]

There was some interaction between Funan and Indonesia and India during these early centuries. As Funan declined in influence around 500AD, the southeast coast of Sumatra gained importance as a sea route from China to Indonesia and India, the central power between Java, Malaysia, and Chaya in southern Thailand.

CHENLA: 500 – 700 AD

In the year 500-700, a proto-Khmer civilization was established in Chenla near the Mekong and Sap rivers. These people spoke Mon and worshiped Shiva. The Mon-Khmer languages are connected.

The Mon people were known as Dvaravati, and were established in Central and northeast Thailand [Muang Fa Daet] and in Chang Mai. The Mon Dvaravati had embraced Theravada Buddhism from the earliest times. Many inscriptions from this early strata of Theravada Buddhism have been recovered from the ruins of the towns.
Buddhas seated in the European style, known as Palai Buddhas, have been found throughout the Dvaravati areas. Also sima stones and clay votive tablets bearing images of Buddha and inscribed in Pali and Mon script have been found widely distributed throughout the Angkor Empire, in present day Thailand, Laos, southern Vietnam.

According to Ma Touan-Lin, a 13th century Chinese chronicler, there were ten monasteries of Buddhist monks and nuns studying the sacred texts in the 4th and 5th centuries CE [in Funan/Chenla – Cambodia]. He stated that two monks from Funan traveled to China in this period at the request of the Chinese emperor, to translate the Sanskrit Tipitika into Chinese. A passage from the History of Leang, a Chinese chronicle written in 502-556 CE, tells us that King Rudravarman sent a mission of monks to China in 535 under the direction of an Indian monk, Gunaratana. The delegation arrived in China in 546 CE, accompanied by 240 palm leaf manuscripts of Mahayana Buddhist texts. Evidence of a cult of Buddha’s relics was seen in Rudravarman’s request of the Chinese emperor for a 12 foot long relic of Buddha’s hair.” [“Notes of the Rebirth of Khmer Buddhism”, Radical Conservativism]

Although weakened in the Chenla period, Buddhism of the Mahayana tradition survived as seen in the inscription of Sambor Prei Kuk (626CE) and those of Siem Reap dealing, for example, with the erection of a statue of Avalikotesvara (791CE). Some pre-Angkorean statuary in lower Kampuchea and Kampuchea Krom attests to the existence of Sanskrit-based Theravada Buddhism. Additionally, fragments of Pali inscriptions dating from the 5th to 7th centuries have been discovered in the lower Burmese Mon region (Prome, or Crikshetra) and most recently in Prachinburi, Thailand (Dong Si Mahapot).

Abundant evidence exists indicating the establishment of Buddhism in Chenla during these centuries. Khmer-style Buddhas and Buddhist images are abundant from this period. Mahayana Buddhism had developed doctrines in which transcendent personages (bodhisattvas) played a major part. The bodhisattvas were living Buddhas, or people who were qualified for enlightenment but out of universal compassion decided to remain in the world to help other people escape from suffering. The bodhisattva’s spiritual states enabled them to perform all kinds of miracles, and more at will throughout the universe. The presence in Chenla of images of the bodhisattva alongside the images of Hindu deities suggests that these were more than one dynasty in the country with claims to royal sovereignty, in a situation also known in India. Some of these kings were Buddhist. In Khmer times the cult of Lokeshvara attained great importance. The bodhisattva images of Lokeshvara of Chenla existed both in stone and bronze. Their hair is done up in a carefully arranged chignon of rope-like locks, reminiscent of the long hair of Shiva images. At the front of the chignon is a small seated figure of the Buddha who is the bodhisattva’s spiritual authority.

Many Buddhist statues from 500 on were created in Cambodia. These indigenous Khmer images included both sitting Buddhas, and the standing with bent leg walking-Buddha. “There is one Buddha head, supposed to be the earliest, from Ran lok which is often said to recall the style of 3rd century Buddhas of Amarvati, on India’s Southeast coast. It is this resemblance which authorizes the assumption of its early date. There is indeed resemblance; but there are also marked differences. For this Ran lok head is a distinctively Cambodian work, with the marks of the sophisticated Cambodian style.” [The Art of Southeast Asia, Philip Rawson]

A number of inscriptions and temple foundations are ascribed to King Bhavavarman III who ruled before 639 to after 656. It seems that, although the King’s patron deity was probably Shiva, the religion of Mahayana Buddhism suddenly spread in the kingdom. A number of Mahayana images were made in a distinctive style, which was centered in Prei Kmeng, and was probably contemporary with that of Sombor, continuing during the Prasat Andet and Kampong Preah epoch. The most characteristic images of this Mahayana group are the bodhisattva and images of one type of Bodhisattva in particular, known as Lokeshvara, “Lord of the World.” It is more than likely that such images represented a Buddhist form of royal pattern. When a Hindu king would derive his royal authority from a Hindu deity, a king who was Buddhist would find it difficult to derive similar authority from the Buddha himself, who was a humble mendicant.” [The Art of Southeast Asia, Philip Rawson]

One of the earliest inscriptions of the ancient kingdom of Founan discovered at the monument of Ta Prohm in the province of Bali, dated about 625, states, among other things, that Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are in a flourishing condition; “and through the purpose of the inscription is not clear it can be surmised that it recorded the foundation of a Buddhist monastery. This inscription studied along with other early inscriptions of Kamboja, particularly with the Visnuite inscription of Prince Gunavarman, found among the ruins of the monuments of Prasat Pram Loven on the hill of Thap-musi, reveals the interesting fact that in contemporary Kamboja as in Borneo, Brahmanism and Buddhism existed side by side.”

The transition from Hindu god-king to Mahayana Buddha-king was probably imperceptible gradual and imperceptible. The cult of Shiva and Vishnu gradually blended and morphed into the cult of the Bodhisattva. The prevailing cult of Bhahmanism was Vishnu. Shivism was the dominant form of Hinduism in Angkor in the earlier period of the 9th and 10th centuries. Vishnuism became dominant in the 11th century. The image of Buddha of Tuol Prah Theat, standing straight legged, Khmer art, imitates the dignity of a Hindu god. This indicates the blending of Buddhist and Hindu imagery prevalent in Cambodia at this time.


What caused the ascendancy of Mahayana Buddhism throughout Southeast Asia at this time? I think it was the ascendancy of the Silendra dynasty, which arose to power in central Java. These may have been Khmer royalty who escaped the Funan Empire as it disintegrated. Both Funan and Silendra are known as “kings of the mountain”. These are the folks who built Borbudur in central Java in the 8th and 9th centuries. In other words, the Khmer royalty of Chenla may have migrated to Sumatra as their kingdoms disintegrated, bringing with them the Hindu-influenced Mahayana Buddhist world view. Mahayana Buddhism was greatly enhanced and intensified in the Silendra dynasty, which had close ties to the Mahayana Buddhist Pala Dynasty of Bengal. Both the Pala and Silendra dynasties were greatly influenced by the Mahayana Buddhist learning, Nalanda University, the vortex of Buddhist learning at the time. The Nalanda University in northern India radiated enormous influence throughout the world, under the patronage of the Pala kings.

The Bengal University of Nalanda in Megadha (now Behar) was the theological center of Mahayana Buddhism under the protection of the Pala Dynasty [750-1060]. Shivaist (specifically Pashupata) interpretations of Buddhism, tinged with Tantrik mysticism (that may have revived portions of pre-Aryan northeastern Indian cults) were worked out in Megadha and then were exported throughout insular and peninsular Southeast Asia, particularly to Java. Yashovarman I, who ruled form the vicinity of Roluous in the late ninth century, seems to have been a Shivaist Buddhist influenced by Nalanda syncretism. His successors (notably Jayavarman IV) dedicated themselves to Vishnu and Brahma, as well as to Shiva, with whom they continued to be identified by hereditary families of priests. Rajendravarman II studied Buddhism intensely.” [Angkor Life, Stephen O Murray]

Srivijaya, capital of Sumatra, became an empire of neighboring islands in the Malayasian-Indonesian archipelago around 675-700. The inscriptions from this time document that Mahayana Buddhism was emerging as a dominant social force. By 750 Srivijaya extended its influence to Java and other surrounding islands. An inscription here in Java records the erection of three brick temples dedicated to Sakyamuni Buddha, Padmapani and Vajrapani in 775. The earliest inscription from Java is also a Mahayana Sanskrit document, the Kalasan inscription dated 778, which records a dedication of a temple to Tara, by the king of Srivijaya. This temple of Kalsan still stands today near the Barabudur.

A Sailendra dynasty copper-plate inscription from 875-900 says Balaputradeva of the Sailendra dynasty granted some villages for the upkeep of Nalanda University, revealing the devotion of the Mahayana Buddhist kings. The Sailendra dynasty also built the fantastic Mahayana Buddhist temple Barabudur in Java about this same time. This may have been the inspiration for the later fabulous Angkor building projects in Cambodia. The celebrated Bengali Buddhist monk, Atisha (980-1053) visited the city of Srivijaya, the capital of the Sailendra dynasty Sumatra, center of Mahayana Buddhism. The zeal of the Silendra’s for Mahayana Buddhism of Nalanda radiated its influence throughout the neighboring countries. This influence apparently spread at least until the eleventh centuries, explaining Jayavarman VII’s embrace of this form of Mahayana Buddhism, and launching the tremendous building projects of Angkor, in imitation of the tremendous efforts of Barabudur.

This rising Mahayana influence eclipsed the other Hinayana (Theravada and Saravastavada) forms of Buddhism that had flourished in Southeast Asia for the past 800 years. This new, intensified, robust Mahayana Buddhism was then reintroduced into Cambodia, with the rise of the Angkor Empire, under the patronage of the Silendra Dynasty of Java, who was probably themselves Khmer. Theravada Buddhism continued to exist throughout Cambodia and Southeast Asia, primarily as a forest tradition, practiced by hermits and anchorites in rural settings.

In Cambodia, an inscription from 782 refers to the dedication of a temple to Bodhisattva Manjusre (Manjugosa).
Images of Maitreya are also found.

King Jayavarman II (802-869) is the first real Khmer king of the Angkor Empire. He proclaimed himself God-king and began to establish the capital of Angkor (Rolous) near present day Angkor. Jayavarman, as a young man had visited Java-Sumatra and for some years lived and studied in the Mahayana Buddhist empire. He returned to Cambodia to proclaim himself god king (devaraja), according to Khmer traditions, clearly identifying himself with Shiva. Even though he maintained the ancient Hindu traditions of Cambodia, he was increasingly friendly to Mahayana Buddhist influence.

In Indian Cultural Influences in Cambodia, B R Chatterji said that the Sailendras of Srivijaya-Sumatra, towards the end of the eight and the beginning to the ninth centuries, exercised some sort of suzerainty over Cambodia as a vassal state.

When King Jayavarman II returned in Cambodia, he built three capitals in secession: Hariharalaya, Amarendrapura, and Mahendraparvata. Amarendrapura, identified with Banteai Chmar, has been found to be essentially a Mahayana city presided over by Avalokitesvara.
The founder of Angkor-period dynasty, Jayavarman II had spent many years in the ardently Mahayana Buddhist kingdom Zabeg (the Arab name for a Kingdom of the Southern Sea, including Java, Sumatra, and much of the Malay peninsula). In the late-eighth century a Zabeg maharaj had sent a fleet for the head of a young Khmer (Zhenla) king who had rashly spoken of wishing the Zabeg maharaj decapitated. It is unclear whether Jayavarman II was in Java at the time, or soon there after the Zabeg maharaj had demonstrated his greater claim to being divinely powerful ( and just: he did not despoil the kingdom but had its kings’ head removed, embalmed, and returned to Zenla for the new king to remember). It is fairly certain that the Zabeg maharaj approved the Khmer council’s choice of a new king. It is also fairly certain that Jayavarman II moved inland at least partly form knowing how easily the Zabeg fleet had captured the Zhenla capital and taken away his predecessors head.”
“Jayavarman II had a Brahman priest consecrate his miraculous lingam on the highest mountain-top of Phnom Kulen (northeast of Angkor) as Prameshvara .ie the Supreme Lord, and ratify his capital as being Mahendra, the appropriate place for Shiva to reside. In turn, Jayavarman II made the family of Sivakaivalya the perpetual hereditary chief priest and royal chaplain….” [Angkor Life, Stephen O Murray]
The priests were court functionaries who helped chose and approve the new king. A new king would seek the approbation of the priests to divinize and legitimize his reign. The Theravada Sangha serves a similar purpose in Thailand, and modern Cambodia.

Tantra in Cambodia
This Vajrayana form of Buddhism was similar to Tibetan Buddhism of the Buddhist monks of Magadha and Bengal during the Pala dynasty:
“…the prevalence of Tantrayana in Java, Sumatra and Kamboja, a fact now definitely established by modern researches into the character of Mahayana Buddhism and Sivaism in these parts of the Indian Orient. Already in Kamboja inscription of the ninth century there is definite evidence of the teaching of Tantric texts at the court of Jayavarman II. In a Kamboja record of the 11th century there is a reference to the “Tantras of the Paramis”; and images of Hevajra, definitely a tantric divinity, have been recovered form amidst the ruins of Angkor Thom. [A Hevajra image was also found in Sumatra]. A number of Kamboja inscriptions refer to several kings who were initiated into the Great Secret (Vrah Guhya) by their Brahmanical gurus; the Saiva records make obvious records to Tantric doctrines that had crept into Sivaism.”
“But it was in Java and Sumatra that Tantrayana seems to have attained greater importance. There Mahayana Buddhism and the cult of Siva, both deeply imbued with tantric influences, are to be seen often blending with one another during this period. The Sang hyang Kamahayanikan, consisting of Sanskrit versus explained by an Old Javanese commentary, professed to teach the Mahayana and Mantrayana….”

Tantrayana blended Sivaism with Mahayana Buddhism. According to Nepalese accounts from this period, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are emanations of the Dhyani-Buddha Vairocana. The Kawa poem, the Nagarakretagama show that Kretanagara, the ruler of Singasari, was given to tantric practices: “A statue of this king has been found in a cremation ground which is a certain proof of his profession of Tantric doctrine; [it states that the king] had gone through the ten ceremonies of purification and the eight processes of initiation and that the carried out with scrupulous care the five makaras ‘free from all sensuality.’ The inscription engraved on the pedestal of his statue in the robes of a monk records that after his initiation on the cremation ground, he was supposed to be identified with Akshobya….”

The presence and influence of Buddhism continued to grow under successive kings. In 877-889, Indravarman I creates a unified Khmer Empire and begins the great irrigation systems that gave rise to the authentic Angkor Empire.

In 889-910, King Yosavarman succeeded Indravarman I and reigned for about ten years. He built several temples according to Mahayana Buddhist specifications, representing Mount Meru, the mythical Buddhist axis of the world. The largest of these temples is Phnom Kandal or “Central Mountain” which lies near the heart of the Angkor complex. He also built temples to Shiva, Vishnu and Buddha. Buddhism was having significant and growing influence at this time.

King Rajendravarman II (944-968) “studied Buddhism intensely. Although he decided to remain a Shivaist, he appointed a Buddhist, Kavindrarimathana, chief minister. Kavindrarimathana built shrines to Buddha and Shiva. Jayavarman V (son of Rajendravarman) also remained a devotee of Shiva. He, too, permitted his own chief minister, Kirtipandita, to foster Mahayana Buddhist learning and divination.” [Angkor Life, Stephen O Murray]

King Jayavarman V (968-1001), was a Shivast, but very strong patron of Buddhism, which exerted increasing influence on the royal court of Angkor.

Surayvarman I (1002-1050), the next successor after Jayavarman V, was a patron of Buddhism. His is probably the most outstanding Buddhist King except only Jayavarman VII.

King Surayvarman I was a Tamil-Malay (Srivijaya) “usurper” to the throne, who claimed legitimate succession to the throne through his Khmer mother. His father was king of the Buddhist kingdom of Tambralingam on the Malay peninsula. He publicly venerated Shiva or Rama, but was officially a Mahayana Buddhist king.
A strong proponent of Mahayana Buddhism, he nevertheless did not interfere with the growing prominence and dissemination of Theravada Buddhism during his reign. “Indeed, inscriptions indicate he sought wisdom from wise Mahayanists and Hinayanists and at least somewhat disestablished the Sivakaivalya family’s hereditary claims to being chief priests (purohitar). Suryavarman’s posthumous title of Nirvanapada, ‘the king who has gone to Nirvana’ is the strongest (though not incontrovertible) evidence that he was a Buddhist.” [Angkor Life, Stephen Murray]

King Udayadityavarman II (1050-1065), was the successor to Suryvarman I. Udayadityavarman II “restored Shivaism (and especially how own Shiva-lingam of gold in the Baphuon) though he did not restore the Brahmin priests, the Sivakivalya clan, as the court chaplains.
King Dharanindravarman II (1152—1160), appears to be a devout Buddhist King. He was father of the greatest of all Khmer Buddhist kings, Jayavarman VII.

In 1177, the Chams sacked Angkor, creating a sense of trauma and crisis throughout the Angkor Empire by attacking and looting the capital.
King Jayavarman VII (1181-1219), ascends to the throne in the sense of crisis that had descended on the Khmer empire. Jayavarman VII studied the doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism, rather than Theravada. His Mahayana faith was the source of his attempt to be a Dharma-king, a bodhisattva, through service and merit making, to liberate himself and his kingdom. Why did he officially establish himself as a Buddhist king, turning his back on the old Hindu deities? Perhaps he and his people had become disillusioned with the Hindu gods, because of their failure to protect the Angkor Empire from being sacked by their enemies, the Cham. 

Jayavarman VII may have rejected Hinduism because the Cham sacked Angkor, and he may have thought that Shiva failed the Khmer people. The Cham themselves were Hindu, and he may have felt an instinctive revulsion or disgust for the religion of his enemies. He had practiced Buddhism for a long time, and naturally began to accentuate the Mahayana Buddhist aspect of the tantric god-king religion that had long held sway in Khmer dynasties. He withdrew his devotion from the old gods, and began to identify more openly with the Buddhist traditions. His regime marked a clear dividing line with the Hindu past.

Before 1200, art in the temples mostly portrayed scenes from the Hindu pantheon such as Vishnu reclining on a lotus leaf, or the churning of the primeval sea of milk of primal creation. After 1200, scenes from the Buddhist Jatakas, and life of the Buddha, along with scenes of the Ramayana began to appear as standard
Jayavarman VII was elderly, perhaps 60, when he became king. He worked feverishly to accomplish his works in saving the Khmer people and establishing a Buddhist empire, in a race against time.

Jayavarman VII was a “bodhisattva king,” a Buddha-king, something like the Dalai Lama. “He was considered to be a living Buddha, or bodhisattva, turning back from the brink of enlightenment to redeem his people (a new concept in itself) from suffering. By redeeming others in this way, it was thought, a king redeemed himself.” [A History of Cambodia, Chandler]
He had a sincere earnest belief of his destiny as a bodhisattva whose path in life was to deliver his people from suffering. The people were objects of his compassion, an audience for his merit-making, his redemption. Images of Jayavarman portray him in the ascetic seated meditation posture with a serene, enlightened expression.
He built numerous public works to serve the people, including, water works, hospitals, temples, hospices for travelers, far beyond any other Cambodian king. Chandler calls him the “most otherworldly of Cambodia’s kings.” Inscriptions say he “suffered from the maladies of his subjects more than from his own; for it is the public griefs that make a king’s grief, and not his own.” 

Another inscription reads: “Filled with a deep sympathy for the good of the world, the king swore this oath; ‘All beings who are plunged in the ocean of existence, may I draw then out by virtue of this good work. And may the kings of Cambodia who come after me, attached to goodness…attain with their wives, dignitaries and friends, the place of deliverance where there is no more illness.” 

One sign of the change underway was the building of many monastic buildings, including monasteries (vihara) and libraries. Whereas in former times, all effort had been focused on building the massive temple-mount of the devaraja, now more resources were invested into building monastic residence. There was a shift away from the cult of the king to the cult of the Sangha, which was more “earthly”, in direct contact with the people.

The Preah Khan was example of Jayavarman VIIs building projects. An 1191 inscription at the temple documents the residence of a community of 97,840 people associated with the monastery. The central Buddhist sanctuary contained a beautiful statue of Lokesvara, the bodhisattva, sculpted in the image of Jayavarman’sVII father. Today, a stupa stands there. Shrines dedicated to Vishnu and Shiva are also in the Buddhist temple, showing Jayavarman VII’s continued inclusiveness in supporting Hindu tradition. “Preah Khan housed a portrait statue of Jayavarman VII father, Dharanindravarman, with the traits of Lokesvara, the deity expressive of the compassionate aspect of the Buddha. The symbolism is relentlessly appropriate, for in Mahayana Buddhist thinking the marriage of wisdom (pranja) and compassion (karuna) gave birth to enlightenment, which is to say, the Buddha himself, the enlightened one.”[?] The Preah Khan, Ta Prohn and Bayon are representative of this layout. The Bayon, with the faces looking out in the four cardinal directions, represents the Buddha himself: Jayavarman VII.

Jayavarman VII also built the temple Ta Prahm to honor his parents in 1186. His mother was worshiped there as Pranjaparimita, the Goddess of Wisdom, the mother of the Buddhas. The temple also contained many shrines, including an image of his Kru (guru). The resident monks of the temple were Buddhist, Shivite and Vishnuite.
He considered his city, Angkor Thom, and his temple the Bayon, to be his “bride”. An inscription says “the town of Yosadharapura, decorated with powder and jewels, burning with desire, the daughter of a good family…who married by the king in the course of a festival that lacked nothing, under the spreading dais of his protection.”
The object of the marriage, the inscription goes on to say, was the “procreation of happiness throughout the universe” – a worthy objective for a Buddha-king.

The building projects commissioned by the Buddha king were redolent with tantric Buddhist symbolism. The word “bayon” means “ancestor yantra” – yantra is a magical, geometric mandala shape. The central image of the of the temple was a Buddha, a portrait of Jayavarman VII himself, sheltered by an enormeous hooded snake.
The haunting faces of the Bayon, looking into the four directions, crowned with a blooming lotus, represent the four Brhamaviharas – love of a Buddha: Loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity looking over the Angkor Empire, and the universe. The trinity of Avilokitshvara, Pranjaparimita and Buddha was central to his thinking and manifest in the projects he commissioned in his lifetime

He constructed the Bayon at Angkor Thom, and established the rising influence of Mahayana Buddhism, after thoroughly defeating the threat of the Champa.
“By the mid-tenth century, the temple mountains each king built to house the lingam representing his potency were becoming mausoleums after his death. Each new king who reigned long enough to build a temple mountain had his lingam installed in it. After his death his ashes or corpse was deposited there, which his spirit lived on in the image of a god.” 

In writing about Borobodur (the Javanese Angkor) Paul Mus explained that the temple-mountain was less a magnificent shelter for the dead than an architectural body, where the magic soul lived on – shifting from a human body to a stone body. The Mahayanist Buddhism of Jayavarman VII permitted such personal cults. Such self-glorification was anathema to the Theravada Buddhism of post-Angkor Cambodia.
Villages were assigned responsibility to provide for the maintenance of temples (not only of reigning kings and their dead ancestors, but of some living men of signal eminence too). Multitudes of Khmer peasants ‘contributed’. Ta Prohm had 3,140 villages with 79,000 individuals working to support it; Preah Khan had 5,324 villages and nearly a hundred thousand persons in its service.” [Angkor Life, Stephen Murray]

The peasants and the public rarely or never saw or entered the temples they supported, along with the huge colleges of priests.

Most scholars considered that the cult of the god-king was quite removed from everyday life. Devaraja was probably a burden without being felt to be much of an inspiration or blessing to those producing the rice surplus that made a religious elite and royal temple building possible. Surely the king inspired awe….” [Angkor Life, Stephen Murray]