Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Theragata and Therigata: A Manuel for the Forest Tradition

The Theragata and Therigata are collections of ancient Buddhist poems, contained in the Kudkha Nikaya, which present a picture of forest monks and nuns in the original first centuries of Buddhism.

Reginald Ray, Buddhist Saints of India says;Forest tradition means to undertake a particular wandering, ascetic lifestyle, based on restraint in food, shelter, clothing, and medicine, in order to engage in meditation.

WANDERING. Having left the world and become a renunciant in the Buddha’s tradition the elders wander abroad, the women as well as the men (Ti 17, 20, 92). With no fixed abode, they “go to different countries, wandering unrestrained” (Ta 37). Referring to the geographical and temporal expanse of her peregrinations, a bhikkhuni tells us, “Anga, and Magadha, Vajji, Kasi, and Kossala have been wandered over by me. For 55 years without debt I have enjoyed the alms of the kingdoms” (Ti 110).

DWELLING IN THE FOREST. The wandering renunciant takes up residence in the forest, that is, in remote and uninhabited regions, for “forests [aranna] are delightful, where ordinary people find no delight. Only those rid of desire will delight there” (Ta 992). The specific places where the forest renunciants dwell include mountains (giri) (Ta 115), mountain cliffs (nagamuddha) (Ta 544), caves (lena) (Ta 309, 545, 1135), woods (vana) (Ta 545) hillsides (sanu) (Ta23), the bases of trees (rukkhamula) (Ta 217, 467, 998,), and so on. 

Sometimes the renunciant takes up residence in the cremation grounds (Ta 6, 315, 393, 599, 854). Occasionally, he or she lives in a small hut (kuti), and the frequent association of such huts with rain and storm suggests that it was during the rainy season that these were typically used (for example, Ta 1, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 59, 60, 325-29, 487). An indication of the variety of places in which a renunciant might life and meditate during his or her career is given in several of the songs, such as Samkicca’s, in which he remarks, “I have dwelt in woods, caves, and grottoes, in solitary lodgings, in a place frequented by beasts of prey” (Ta 600-601).

ROBE AND APPEARANCE: The garments of the monk/nun are typically made from rags, which have been collected “from rubbish heaps, cremation grounds, and streets” (Ta 578) and stitched together (Ti 1, 16). Anuruddha, for example, “sifted, took, washed, dyed, and wore the rags from a rubbish heap: (Ta 896). Generally, the renunciants of the Theragatha and Therigatha are tonsured, and both laity and matted-hair ascetics are depicted as having head and beard shaved (Ta 377, 512). The bhikkhunis similarly have shaved heads as marks of their way of renunciation (Ti 32, 75).

SEEKING ALMS. When the monk/nun seeks alms, they come from their forest haunts to where the laity live (Ta1054), receiving “left-over scraps…as food” (Ta 1057). Their food is “cooked a little here, a little there, in this family of that” (Ta248). The renunciant should wander from door to door, neither seeking out the wealthy nor avoiding the poor (Ta 579) and should not seek to fill the stomach: “While eating moist or dry food, he should not be satisfied. A bhikkhu should wander with unfilled belly, eating in moderation, mindful” (Ta 982). 

This austere begging practice is most conducive to meditation, for, we are told, “the mind of one who is greedy for flavors does not delight in meditation (Jhana)” (Ta 579 – 80). The renunciant is also to accept food, as it comes, without judgment. For example, Mahakassapa reports that he came down from his lodging and entered the city to seek alms, coming before a leper who was eating. “He offered a portion to me with his rotting hand; as he was throwing the piece (into my bowl) his finger broke off there. But near the foot of a wall I ate that portion; no disgust arose in me, either while it was being eaten or when it had been eaten” (Ta 1054-56).

THE IMPORTANCE OF SOLITUDE. One of the most frequently  repeated themes in the Theragatha and Therigatha is that of the necessity, the virtue, and the joy of a life lived away from others, in seclusion. One is to avoid all companions, “not living…with householders nor houseless ones alike” (Ta 581; see also 54, 577-80, 896), find no satisfaction (asamsattha) in company (Ta 860), and enjoy the “sweetness of solitude” (Ta 85). Dwelling “alone in the forest like a tree rejected in a wood” (Ta 62), the monk/nun is not to grieved, for “if no one else is found in front or behind, it is very pleasant for one dwelling alone in the wood…alone, companionless, in the pleasant great wood” (Ta 537, 541). The solitary retreat of monks/nuns makes them inaccessible to others, the virtue of which is often stressed (for example, Ta 109). It is not only that renunciants are to live in retreat alone; in addition, they wander alone (Ta 1122).

Their solitude exists in order to facilitate meditation, for bhikkus and bhikkhunis withdraw into solitude for the purpose of meditation and therefore “should resort to a lodging which is secluded” (Ta 577). Significantly, like the other elements of the forest life, such solitude supports meditation not only physically and socially but psychotically and spiritually. The Theragatha and Therigatha present the belief that, by retiring to solitary retreat, the forest renunciant may purify defilements in a depth and manner not possible “In company.”

It should be observed that women ascetics face the particular threat of harassment and even attaqckd by men, a theme highlighted in the Therigatha. One nun in her forest abode remarks on her fear of this danger but says that such fear is a wile of Mara to which she will not succumb. For her, as for the  other renunciants both women and men, courage and tenacious resolve prevail: even if 100,000 rogues were to menace her, she will not move a hair’s breadth (Ti 230-31). Although complete solitude is the general rule, forest monks/nuns sometimes live together with one or a few like-minded others (Ta 177-78), or in small communities (Ta 148), or when a disciple lives with or near his or her teacher (Ta 66). Such situations are exceptions, however, and in the two texts the general rule applies that where people gather in numbers, be they laity of renunciants, the virtue of the true renunciant life is compromised (Ta 245, 898).

SPEAKING LITTLE. The renunciant is peaceful and taciturn, speaking little. Sariputta, we are told twice, is “calm [upasanta], quiet [uparata],  speaking in moderation [mantabhanin]” (Ta 1006, 1007). Gangatiriya tells us, “In two rainy seasons I uttered only one word” (Ta 127). Elsewhere in the texts reference is made to the noble (ariya) silence (tunhibhava) of the renunciants, indicating an implicit characteristic if not an explicit vow (Ta 650, 999). The theme of silence is connected with not only renunciants on the path, so to speak, but also with enlightened saints. Thus we read in Revata’s song, “Having attained to non-reasoning (avitakka) the disciple of the fully enlightened one is straightway possessed of noble silence” (Ta 650).

FOREST LIFE. These elements of the lifestyle of the forest renunciant are often described in concert, as in Upasena Vangantaputta’s gatha, in which he refers to a habitation that is secluded; a coarse robe fashioned form cloth taken form rubbish-heap, cremation ground, and streets; wandering “for lams form family to family without exception; and not living in company with householders not houseless ones alike” (Ta 577-81). Sometimes the collection of conventions followed by the renunciant represents one of the classical lists of ascetic requisites, such as the “four requisites” (Ta 1057) or other lists of dhutaguna-type practiced (Ta842ff.). Another, less standardized description is found in the song of Gangatiriya, who says, “My hut was made of three palm leaves on the  bank of the Ganges. My bowl was only a funeral pot, my robe a rag from a dust-heap”.

RIGORS OF FOREST LIFE. The life of forest monks/nuns is difficult and demanding, something expressed in a verse repeated several times: “Tormented by gnats and mosquitoes in the forest, in the great wood, like an elephant in te4h van of the battle, one should endure there mindful” (Ta 31,684). Another song mentions other hardships: “Brought low by colic, dwelling n the grove, in the woods, where there is restricted food supply, where it is harsh” (Ta 250, compare 435). The forest life is not only onerous, it can pose danger to life and limb, and several songs make reference to the continual threat of wild beasts (for examples, Ta 524, 577, 1135). Other verses make reference to the difficulty of finding sufficient food and to the loneliness of forest life, the inclement weather one faces in the forest, the threat of attacks by others, and so on, as well as the social disapprobation that seems to go along with and to parallel whatever praise may come one’s way (Ta 1119). These difficulties are summarized in the following frank appraisal: “Truly it is hard to go forth...sustenance of life is difficult for us with whatever comes our way” (Ta 111). While presenting a realistic picture of the rigors of forest life, the saints are able, at the same time, to affirm its unique value in comparison to the alternatives. As Godatta observes imply, “There is happiness arising from sensual pleasures and pain springing from seclusion: but the pain springing from seclusion is better than happiness arising from sensual pleasures” (Ta 669).

MEDITATION. The inside practice e of meditation is the substance of the spiritual quest. Meditation stands at the center of the Theragatha and Therigatha; one abandons the world, follows the arduous conventions of forest life, and dwells in solitude and silence all for the purpose of mediation. And one meditates because it is the sole road to enlightenment (Ta 112). It is uniquely through mediation that one trains one’s mind (Ta 134), develops good qualities (Ta 352-53), gains the highest happiness (Ta 884), and achieves liberation (Ta 112). Thus, in one’s solitary retreat, “one should meditate undistracted” (Ta 37) “continually putting forth energy” (Ta 266). The sounds of the forest are welcome because they “awaken the sleeper to mediation” (Ta 22). One should sit down, cross one’s legs, and hold one’s body erect Ta 29). Then one carries out the practice of meditation to transform the minds unruliness (Ta 355ff.) and gradually bring it into a state of calm (Ta 689). Mindfulness (sati) is the standard practice of the two texts. Sometimes other standard practices are mentioned, such as the practice of concentration (jhana) (Ta 12), “recollecting the Enlightened One” (Ta 354, 382), and practicing the four unlimited (appamanna) (Ta 386). There are also references to the classical cremation ground contemplations (Ta 567ff., 18).

Meditation is depicted as an arduous practice requiring commitment and exertion, because the mind is wild and chaotic. Dominated by conflicting and defiling emotions, it is a horse that needs to be tamed and a wild elephant that needs to be put in a pen (Ta 355-59). Given this situation, one must exert oneself in order to attain success. 

Part of the rigor of mediation is the lifelong commitment it entails, seen in Anuruddha’s reference to fifty-five years of mediation practice (Ta 904). The rigor of  mediation is also a day-to-day commitment, as implies by one of the classical dhutaguna practices wherein the renunciant does not lie down at any time but remains upright, meditating night and day (nesajjika). 

In addition to expressing the rigors of the solitary meditative path, the songs also speak of the joy and contentment that it brings. Bhuta remarks, “’when in the sky the thunder-cloud rumbles, full of torrents of rain all around on the path of the birds, and the bhikkhu who has gone into the cave meditates, he does not find greater contentment than this” (Ta 522). 

Meditation is not something abandoned at the time of realization but plays a role for the enlightened ones in two ways. . First, although enlightened, one continues to meditate, like Bhaddiya, who, “having plucked out craving root and all, meditates, happy indeed” (Ta 466). Second, meditation, it would seem, becomes internalized and defines the state of being of the saint.

The Theragata also notes that the Forest Tradition was already being abandoned and sidelined by Buddhist monks and nuns who were attracted to a more comfortable, conventional monastic way of life.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Upagupta, master of the Indian Forest Tradition

John Strong, Legend and Cult of Upagupta: insists on the forest tradition as the source of the cult of Upagupta, throughout Southeast Asia - Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Thailand.

Venerable Upagupta was the third-generation successor of the great Arahant disciple of the Buddha, Venerable Ananda.

Upagupta was disciple of Venerable Sanakavasi, the patriarch of Mount Urumunda, a disciple of Venerable Ananda. Sanakavasi was a native of Rajagrha, according to the northern legends (Asokarajasutra). He introduced Buddhism to Mathura in the west, by establishing a forest tradition on Mount Urumunda where he built a large temple.

Venerable Sanakavasin is associated with the Second Buddhist Council whose patron was Kalasoka.

When Venerable Sanakavasi passed away, Venerable Upagupta became his successor as patriarch.

“Not enough attention has been given to the fact that the masters of the Dharma in the legends were forest-dwelling ascetically inclined tradition of meditators,” Strong wrote.

“Sankavasin, when he is in Kashmir, rejoices at the contemplative life and sings of his meditation on rocky peaks and in deep ravines which keep him warm despite his wearing but a single garment of hemp. When he returns to Mathura and is taken for a mahalla monk, the next contrasts him to the Tripitaka masters form South India, who have memorized the whole of the Buddhist canon but knows nothing about meditation. The tripitaika master is a scholar monk, but the Upagupta knows he is a matricidal fornicator and will have nothing to do with him. Sankavasin, on the other hand, follows the vocation of mediation; he may look grubby, have long hair, and appear to be a mahalla, but he is actually enlightened, and he is Upagupta’s master.”

Upagupta himself was the head of the Natabhitika monastery on Mount Urumunda, which Sanakavasin founded. This monastery is repeatedly called “the foremost of all the Buddha’s forest-haunts (aranyayatana) where the lodgings (seat beds) are conductive to meditation (samatha).”

From her, Upagupta instructs monks from all over India who came to see him. The Ashokarajavadana says the Buddha predicted that Upagupta would be “the foremost of all those who are instructors of mediation.”

“Too often, the ascetic practices in general and the pamsukulika practices in particular have been studied from the perspective of the town-dwelling monks, who tolerated them but did not follow them, rather than from the perspective of the forest-dwelling monks, who advocated and maintained them…..The Pamsukulanisamsan ( is a text that is self-avowedly of the ascetic tradition). It is a Pali work of the anisamsa genre (telling the “advantage” of doing good deeds) and has found popularity in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. It tells the story of the very first pamsukula: A rich merchant of Uruvela had a daughter who died giving birth to her first child, who was still born. The merchant then decided to offer some robe material to the Buddha; he took an expensive piece of cloth, wrapped it around the dead fetus and the afterbirth of his daughter, and kept if for seven days. Then he deposited it on the road where he know the Buddha was due to pass. The Buddha, seeing it, thought,, “ This is the first pamsukula…the Buddhas of the past wore pamsukula; I, therefore, will wear one too.” He picked it up; the decaying fetus and afterbirth fell on the ground, which then shook and trembled to mark what for this tradition was a momentous occasion.”

“There follows an account of the washing, drying, and dyeing, of the pamsukula by the Buddha with the divine help of the god Indra; and then, as the text puts it, ‘the Buddha’s old robe disappeared, and he became a pamsukulika.’ Later, the Buddha exalts the wearing of rag heap robes in no uncertain terms: ‘the pamsukula robe,’ he declares, ‘is the best. It is while wearing it that the Buddhas have liberated all creatures…O monks, I wear the pamsukula robe; you should do likewise.”

“The real hero of this text, however, is not the Buddha but his disciple, the elder Mahakassapa, who the story goes on to present as a sort of patron saint of the pamsukulikas. The tale passes very quickly over his ordination and then features a noteworthy conversation between him and the Buddha. Mahakassapa asks the Buddha how many ‘vocations’ (dhura) there are open for Buddhist monks. The Buddha replies, “There are two: the vocation of books and the vocation of mediation.’ The elder then wants to know what is meant by these. ‘In the vocation of books, replies the Buddha, ‘a monk memorizes on nikaya, two nikayas, or all the texts of the canon. In the vocation of mediation, a monk practices awareness of the perishable nature of existence and he reaches arahantship. The Buddha goes on to describe the thirteen ascetic practices and in particular the wearing of pamsukula (of which he lists twenty-three different kinds) Kassapa decides to choose the vocation of meditation, but he does so fro noteworthy reason: “ I wandered forth,’ he declares, ‘to become a monk when I was an old mahallaka; I cannot follow the vocation of books! I will therefore follow the vocation of meditation.”

“The notion that the vocation of meditation (forest tradition) was particularly appropriate for monks who had entered the Sangha late in life (that is, mahallas) has important repercussions and may go far in helping to explain the town-and-book monks’ attitude towards long-haired ascetics and forest monks. As he Buddhist Sangha evolved, it became clear that the establishment liked to recruit new members when they were young. Not only did this allow for more control in maintaining the status quo, but it had the practical effect of giving more time to young monks for memorizing sutras when their minds were still supple and not yet preoccupied with pastoral cares and other duties. Monks ordained late in life not only found it more difficult to learn great numbers of texts by heart, but they brought with them habits form lay life that they sometimes found hard to shake and which caused them to be viewed with suspicion.”

“More importantly, becoming a forest monk late in life seemed to follow a well-established Brahmanical pattern of spiritual development, rather than a typically Buddhist one. According to the doctrine of the four ashramas, or stages of life, after being a student (brahmacarin) and hen a householder (grhastha), a twice-born Hindu could become a forest-dwelling hermit (vanaprastha) ‘when he had seen the birth of his sons’ sons and white hairs began to appear on his head.’ In India, then forest meditation was classically the prerogative  of men who turned to spiritual practices in their old age. Youth, the brahmacarin, stage, was the time for memorization of texts and for celibacy.” [John Strong, The Cult of Upagupta]

The scholar monks look back at the writings of Sakyamuni. The forest monks look forward to the Buddha of the future, Maitreya. Mahakassapa is instructive in this regard, he awaits the coming of Maître in a meditative trance in the mountains, and will present the Buddha’s robe to him. It is not clear whether he is dead or alive.

The forest saints are witness to the potency of the Dharma, of the possibility of present enlightenment, and to the awaiting of the Buddha of the future, Maitreya.

Forest monks were most active in promoting the vajrayana in India.

Forest Tradition in India: origin of Mahayana

The Mahayana literature continuously praise the forest tradition and make calls for monks to return to the forest and practice dhutangas. This theme of the Mahayana literature has been overlooked by scholars, until recently.
First, this strong strand of radical asceticism may be yet another element in early Mahayana literature that has not been clearly recognized, or given its due, precisely because it is so much at odds with Chinese understandings of the Mahayana….Second, if this radical asceticism and the exhortations to forest life found in the literature were actually implemented, then we might have found a second location for the early Mahayana in India….the early Mahayana groups may have been marginal in small, isolated groups living in the forest, at odds with an not necessarily welcomed by, the mainstream monastic orders, having limited access to both patronage and established Buddhist monasteries and sacred sites.
“So Mahayana may well have grown up among – or been significantly influenced by – those who had left the monasteries in order to practice their Buddhism more austerely and ore single-mindedly, both in deep meditation and also in the practice of the various ascetic acts (dhutagunas) such as dressing only in rags form the dust heap, eating only food gained form alms, and so on. Mahayana may have been the result of an austere (perhaps even puritanical) ‘revivalist movement’ that felt it was returning to the example of the Buddha himself, and the long and painful path he trod to full buddhahood…..” [Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism.]
Forest monks in India were critical of the comfortable, conventional lifestyles of the settled town-monks, which they considered an abuse and laxity of the original way of the Buddha. The Mahayana Sutras’ criticism of the “hinayana” are a record of these half remembered criticisms.
 The most violent expression of the criticism of the abuses of town monks is found, perhaps, in the Rastrapalapariprccha. The Rastrapalapariprccha – like the Kasyapaparivarta, the Ratnarasi-sutra, the Maitreyasimbandada-sutra, and similar texts – constantly criticizes monks who are ‘intent on acquisitions and honors,’ but it also criticizes monks for owning cattle, horses, and slaves and monks who are ‘intent on plowing and practices of trade’; have wives, sons, and daughters; and assert proprietary rights to monasteries and monastic goods.
The sort of criticism found in the Rastrapalapariprccha and such other texts is, however, almost always joined with calls to return to ‘the forest’ and to ascetic practices  dhutangas.
It is clear that by the time of the final composition of the mainstream Vinayas that the dhutangas or ascetic practices were – for the compliers – all but a dead letter…It is, however, equally clear that some strands of early Mahayana sutra literature were attempting to reinvent, revitalize, or resurrect these ascetic practices. Such attempts are clearly visible in texts like Rastrapalapariprccha, the Maitreyasimbanada-sutra, the Ratnarasi-sutra, and even in texts like the Samadhiraja-sutra.
Moreover, almost an entire chapter in the Astashasrika is taken up with what appears to have been a serious debate and dispute concerning the centrality of the dhutagunas in the early Mahayana.
The new texts record a vigorous debate anout the restoration of the dhutangas and a call to return to the Forest Traditon way of  life.
The Rastrapalapariprccha and the Kasyapaparivarta both make constant appeals to ‘delighting in living in the forest,’ to ‘living zealously the forest uninterested in all worldly diversions,’ to living alone ‘like a rhinoceros, never forsaking forest dwelling,’ ‘living in an empty place’ or ‘in mountains and ravines,’ etc.
Both the Rastrapalapariprccha and the Maitreyasimhanada Sutra say that all former Buddhas ‘abided in the domain of the forest’ and exhort their hearers to imitate them; in fact both imply that it was through abiding in the forest that the Buddhas achieved enlightenment.
The Samadhiraja-sutra – like the Rastrapalapariprccha – returns to the old ideal of living alone ‘like a rhinoceros’ and says there never was, nor will be, nor is now a Buddha who, when residing in a house, achieved enlightenment and adds, ‘one should dwell in the forest seeking seclusion.’
The Ugrapariprccha says, ‘a bodhisattva who has gone forth, having understood that ‘dwelling in the forest was ordered by the Buddha,’ should live in the forest.’
The Rastrapalapariprccha-sutra says; “He must accept the restrictions of the pratimoksha…he must be irreproachable…Being free from passion, free from hate, free from ignorance, he must always have pleasure in solitude…and the jungle…where there are not many men, abandoned by men, suitable for complete absorption.”
He must abstain from commercial activity, or medical studies, not mix with nuns, and not be addicted to chattering. In fact, the monk who really desires to obtain enlightenment should behave according to the pattern that most modern students of Buddhism assume is the norm in practice as well as theory for all Buddhist monks.
The sutra criticizes the village monks, who have no ascetic life and are obsessed with worldly gain and comfort. They do wicked things like owning property, engage in trade, speak to women in private, criticize forest monks. They are hypocrites, who destroy the teaching of the Buddha. They are unfaithful, indolent, confused; conceited and always angry. When they see a monk engaged in meditation they expel him from the monastery and beat him with a stick.
In the early days, the term bodhisattva generally means ‘good monk’ as opposed to the decadent worldly monks. The sutra has a lot of detail on the importance of the good bodhisattva dwelling in the forest or wilderness, living an austere life practicing the dhutagunas.
The sutra also makes frequent reference to the jatakas as models of the forest monk.
The Mahayana Sarvadharmapravrttinirdesa-sutra, even criticizes forest monks who neglect their meditation but travel from village to village preaching to the laity out of compassion: He is a “dharma-preacher [dhhharmabhanaka]. The forest hermit is described as having supremely pure morality, supernatural knowledge and powers, and is a formidable ascetic. He is a bodhisattva, an expert in meditation. The hermit and his disciples never go on alms round in the villages because “the Lord has urged and praised that we should live in seclusion.”  So some monks founded forest monasteries, small places with a few monks 
around a teacher; and other forest monks traveled, visited villages from time to time, to teach the people out of compassion, staying in forest monasteries from time to time.
“The Sarvadharmapravrttinirdesa-sutra allows us to hypothesize that as time passed the Mahayana, which probably originated among antisocial forest hermits with the idea of returning to what was seen as the ascetic spirit of the Buddha himself, eventually became itself institutionalized …. “
Then it began to have real impact in India, in the fifth century. “At this point we can only postulate that the Mahayana may have had a visible impact in India only when, in the fifth century, it had become what it had originally most strongly objected to: a fully landed, sedentary, lay-oriented monastic   institution – the first mention of Mahayana in an Indian inscription occurs, in fact, in the record of a large grant of land to a Mahayana monastery. In the meantime the Mahayana may well have been either a collection of marginalized ascetic groups living in the forest, or groups of cantankerous and malcontent conservatives embedded in mainstream, socially engaged monasteries, all of whom continued pouring out pamphlets espousing their views and values, pamphlets that we now know as Mahayana sutras.” [Schopen]

Meditation: Recently Paul Harrison has expanded on the importance of appreciating the deep, sustained, and prolonged meditation practices apparently undertaken by the forest hermit monks who were behind the production of many of the early Mahayana sutras. He suggests approaching Buddhist texts with consideration of their meditative context. Harrison draws attention, for example, to ways in which early Mahayana sutras centered on Pure Lands, such as the Sukhavativyuha or Aksobhyavyuha Sutras, provide prescriptions for concentrated visualization, visualizing the Buddha with whom the meditator wishes to make contact – to ‘visit- - in his Pure Land, effectively constructing the Pure Land in the mind of the meditator, and replacing or substituting an alternative ‘pure world’ for the contaminated word of everyday life. Such texts are not simply read. They are, as it were, like music scores performed. And it is within this sort of context of intensive meditative transformation of reality that   we can begin to understand a text like the Sarvapunyasamuccayasamadhi sutra  that speaks of Bodhisattvas discovering ‘treasures of the dharma’ deposited inside mountains, caves, and tress, and tell s us that ‘endless dharma-teaching in book-form come into their hands.’
“There are other early Mahayana sutras, however, that speak not of books appearing in the hands, or being found in caves, or receiving direct teachings from a Buddha seen in a vision, but rather of deities, supernatural beings (including, not inappropriately for a forest monk, tree sprits), visiting the forest monk meditator and given him significant revelations. These supernatural beings are found throughout Buddhism, and often visit at night, frequently just before dawn. Their visits and ‘admonishment’ are generally viewed possibility by the  tradition, and Harrison points out that even the mainstream Buddhist canons have in them teachings preached by deities under such circumstance s and accepted as the authentic ‘word of the Buddha.’
The production of the Mahayana sutras, seem to have been the productions of forest hermit monks. The monks. They may have dwelled in isolation from one another and had no regular direct connection with each other. They communicated with the Buddha or deities, with his Dharma-body, dharmakaya.  [summary from my notes on various essays by Paul Williams, Reginald Ray, Gregory Schoper.]

Friday, November 14, 2014

Forest Bodhisattvas: Forest Tradition Origin of the Mahayana

Mahayana Buddhism may have arisen out of the Forest Tradition of India. A growing body of  scholarship by Reginald Ray, Gergory Schopen, and Paul Harrison, state that the Mahayana tradition was an outgrowth of the monastic forest tradition, who were critical of the domestic comfort, laxity, wealth, accommodation of the settled village monks.

The Chan (Zen) tradition introduced into China by Bodhidharma may also be seen as a forest tradition, emphasizing meditation practice rather than sutra-scholarship.

The book by Daniel Boucher, Bodhisattvas of the Forest and the Formation of the Mahayana: A
Study and Translation of the Rastrapalapariprccha-sutra,
outlines this research.

The Rastapala clearly preaches the ideal of rigorous ascetic practices, dhutanga, in the wilderness.

Primary sources for study of forest tradition in Mahayana Buddhism include Rastrapalapariprccha-sutra (short: Rastrapala). Other Mahayana texts of the forest tradition are  Ratnarasi, Kasyapa-parivarta, and Uprapariprccha, which share a pro-forest-dwelling ideology with the Rastrapala.

Paul Harrison, in “Searching for the Origins of the Mahayana: What are We Looking For?” says – “Far from being the products of an urban, lay, devotional movement, many Mahayana sutras give evidence of a hard-core ascetic attempt to return to the original inspiration of Buddhism, the search for Buddhahood or awakened cognition…They also display a strong and positive emphasis on the dhuta-gunas (extra ascetic practices) and aranya-vasa (dwelling in the forest or jungle), which is surely rather strange in the documents of a supposedly lay-dominated movement.”

The practice of dhutanga in the forest was an important part of the early Mahayana.

The Shier toutuo jing (Sutra on the Twelve Dhutagunas) is a Mahayana text translated into Chinese in the early sixth century.

“There can be no doubt that living in the wilderness in order to practice a rigorous form of reclusion was central to the orientation of the Rastrapala. Over and over again the authors of the Rastrapala exhort those on the bodhisattva path to ‘take pleasure in the wilderness’ and ‘dwell alone like a rhinoceros’, to ‘not abandon residence in the wilderness’, to take ‘pleasure in lodging in secluded hinterlands’, to ‘always dwell in forests and caves’, and to ‘frequent the wilderness and manifold hinterlands.’ Specific dhutaguna practices are listed in the story of Punyarusmi’s going forth after the death of the Buddha: “having gone forth he became a wearer of the three robes; he always practiced begging for alms and he only sat, never lying down.”

“Even when they are reviled on all sides, these sons of mine, remembering my words now during the final period of the Dharma, will dwell in forests in the hinterland at that time.”

“Those who are disciplined in morality and virtue will be despised in the last period of the Dharma. Abandoning villages, kingdoms, and cities they will dwell in the wilderness and forest.”

The Ratnarasi sutra vigorously promotes the dhutangas. Jonathan silk has translated and studies this sutra. The Sutra praises the sramana who “follows the yogic practice of cultivating the path,” “who delights in dwelling in the wilderness,” “who abides in the dhutagus,” and “who wanders alone like a rhinoceros.”

The true monks is “alone, unaccompanied, with nothing on which to rely, without possessions, without chattels”. He is entreated to take his alms systematically, in conformity with standard dhutaguna practice, showing no preference for generous patrons or disfavor toward those who give nothing. Although he practices alms begging, he should refrain from intimate contact with specific patrons or dropping hint s as to what he might prefer in his bowl. The monk should acquire his robes from the refuse heap, taking no delight in adorning his body with new robes.

Kasyapa-parivarta sutra, in the Maharatnakuta collection of Chinese and Tibetan cannons, is similar to the Ratnarasi says “There has never been a bodhisattva who dwells in the household and who has awakened to unexcelled, perfect enlightenment. They all, moreover, having gone forth from the household, fixed their thoughts on the wilderness with a predilection toward the wilderness. Having gone to the wilderness, they awakened to unexcelled, perfect enlightenment. And it is there that they acquired the prerequisites [sambhara] for enlightenment [bodhipakkyadhamma].”

The Ugrapariprccha marks the wilderness dwelling as a necessity, even if frightening; a requisite for all who set  out for Buddhahood.

When we start to look for the Forest Tradition explicitly in Mahayana literature, we begin to notice how wide-ranging the wilderness-dwelling motif  is within the Mahayana sutra literature, even when it is not the central preoccupation of any give text. In fact, wilderness dwelling shows up in places where we might least expect it, including texts that are overtly hostile to the monks who practice it. That even some Mahayana sutras qualify or oppose the wilderness for its members reminds us that we are witnessing one dimension of  the dialectic of tradition. 

Even the etymology of the words for Buddhist monastery reflect the root origin of forest dwelling. The word arama implies gardens filled with lush vegetation, flowers, birds - a sort of “garden of eden”. Buddhist monks refer to mandapas (groves) as components or constructions at monastic sites, and although this term is usually translated as a "hall" or "pillared hall." The most prominent architectural structures in gardens were bowers (mandapa nikunja), which could either take the form of a clump of trees which formed a sort of enclosure, or just as typically, were fashioned by arranging vines and other creeping plants around the structure of a roofed pavilion (mandapa).

The function of these "bowers" or mandapas was to provide shade, but that they were also "places of shelter and rest from the games and pursuits of the garden . . . places of seclusion--places where lovers could conduct their amorous liaisons in secrecy".

The early Indian garden, while full of flowers, flowering and fruit trees, and flocks of all sorts of birds, was a natural space, cultivated and carefully tended by gardeners called aramikas,  a category of lay workers who do the manual labor of the "monastery."

The Mulasarvdstivdda-vinaya of north India in the early centuries of the Common Era were fully aware of "the institution of the garden." Buddhist monks viewed their establishments as gardens, parks, groves. Buddhist monks had a detailed knowledge of the Indian garden.

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 [et.al] 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.”