Understanding Cambodian Buddhism
In order to understand Cambodian Buddhism, it is necessary to first understand Khmer cosmology and world view.
Khmer see that human life is affected by a variety of dimensions of levels of causality.
These factors are influential in human life, but are not ultimately fateful, determining human destiny. They cannot deprive the individual of free will. These energy factors are limited in their potency, and can strongly influence one’s individual experience, but human destiny is ultimately generated by one’s personal free, volitional action or “karma.”
Traditional beliefs include:
1. Spirits and gods (spirits below and gods above). The spirits may cause illness, accidents, influence plants and land fertility; and fertility of women. There are also group spirits, protectors, ancestors. These spirits must be respected and honored, and they will protect and nurture the human being. If they are dishonored, ignored or angered, they can be dangerous.
2. Vital Essences. The “winds” or essences are the energies of life. All living things have “vital essences.” These are air, breath, winds called “pralu’n” in Khmer. These vital essences exist in plural forms in the 19 parts of the body, in Khmer world view (32 parts of the body in Thai). The winds act in reality as a unity. They may survive death. These are called “chi” in Chinese, and “pranya” in Sanskrit, “spiritus” in Latin.
3. Fate: in the stars, in astrology and other elemental energies. Fate involves cosmic elements such as earth, water, wind, and fire, which have a powerful effect on us. Heavenly bodies, such as the sun, moon, stars, etc; topography of the land; elements of the body; osculation of day and night; directions (north, south, east, west) that orient us in the cosmic elements. Disturbance can be corrected through ritual reactions that restores, balances, reorients the individual to the cosmic elements.
4. Modern science, such as germ theory. These are well known to westerners, who think these are the only explanations for causality.
5. Karmal these above influences are limited, and experienced because we are born in human bodies in the human realm. They “influence” our lives, but do not “determine” our destiny or fate. Karma is the proper sphere of Buddhist practice. Our destiny/fate is caused by kamma, by our own actions in body, speech and mind. This is the formal realm of the Buddha’s teaching.
Our place in this world can change in the course of a lifetime, when Karma “burns out” or when Karma “ripens.”
In order to cultivate positive Karma, Cambodians practice formal Buddhism:
· They take precepts or vows “in their bodies” to perform bodily actions of virtue in body, speech, and mind.
· They must avoid demerit and perform acts of merit.
· Demerit is breaking precepts, such as expressing greed, hatred and delusion.
· Merit is accumulated through dana (giving gifts) especially to monks; keeping precepts; ordination; listening to Dhamma talks; performing acts of veneration to the Three Jewels; pilgrimage; meditation (bhavana); memorization and chanting of suttas.
· Meditation by elder people, especially in preparation for death, is powerful merit.
· Merit is also increased through “transfer of merit” in giving it to the goddess of the earth to spread it to all living beings.
Buddhism meets the present needs of human beings. People are interested in (A) protection from harm in the present time; (B) happy future; (C) attainment of ultimate liberation: Nibbana. The formal practices of Theravada Buddhism (morality, meditation, wisdom) are concerned with attainment of Nibbana. The esoteric practices within the Theravada tradition are concerned with lower realms of causality and powers that influence human life, such as vital energies, elemental energies, and harnessing or directing these powers skillfully in beneficial ways.
The practices are known as apotropaic Buddhism. Westerners often dismiss these practices as “superstition” and “magic.” Buddhist “magic” is original (not merely appropriation of earlier magical traditions) and is scriptural, taught by the Buddha himself. The paritta chanting ritual is core apotropaic Buddhism.
Characteristics of Cambodian Buddhism
Ian Harris outlined the general characteristics of Cambodian Buddhism:
· Cambodian-Pali texts focus more on ritual and experimental factors, rather than on doctrinal and didactic themes. These texts are used as practice guides under the guidance of a teacher.
· The “prime importance” of the need for initiation by a skilled master, not necessarily a monk.
· The tendency toward allegorical elucidation of texts and teachings
· The non-traditional use of meditation practices
· Visualization and sound are creative functions that may be used to hasten the process of spiritual transformation
· The spiritual transformation of the individuals is often conceived as a “mystic embryology” involving the creation of a Buddha within the practitioners own body.
· Special emphasis is placed on the abhidhamma. The Saddhavimala, an important text studied by Francois Bizot, says the seven books of the abhidhamma are the creative force behind body and mind of all things. In pre-modern Cambodia, the abhidhamma text was emphasized and preserved more often than the suttas. The abdhidhamma is associated with death and rebirth. The Mahapatthana is considered especially powerful.
Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, plays a prominent role in Cambodian Buddhist tradition. This is tied up with millenarian beliefs in the coming dissolution of Gautama’s Buddhism and the arrival of Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future. Statues of Maitreya are often present in Cambodian temples, at the base of the platform where the Buddha image is placed.
Cambodian Buddhism has a tendency toward esotericism (tantra) with its elaborate texts, rituals, meditations for better rebirth.
Cambodian Buddhism featured a “Forest Tradition” of asceticism in which these meditation traditions were practiced and transmitted from generation to generation. “Even if these men [[[Wikipedia:forest|forest]] monks] were attached to a monastery or more likely a teacher, they usually devoted themselves to solitary meditation in the forests on a hill. They were highly respected, even feared, and could be extremely stubborn about protecting their monastic ideal.”
The faithful laymen, especially the achars, played a prominent role in Cambodian Buddhism, and were protectors of the religion, and many of the esoteric traditions.