The Rebirth of Buddhism


Keyes, Charles F.

      Communist Revolution and the Buddhist Past in Cambodia IN Asian Visions of Authority: Religion and the Modern States of East and Southeast Asia. Charles F. Keyes, Laurel Kendall and Helen Hardacres, eds. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, p. 43-73.


During Democratic Kampuchea (DK), Pol Pot and his colleagues set out to deliberately destroy Buddhism, the religion of more that 90 percent of Cambodia’s people. In 1978, Yun Yat, DK Minister of Culture, told Yugoslav journalists that "Buddhism is dead, and the ground has been cleared for the foundations of a new revolutionary culture" (cited in Keyes 1994). The exact circumstances and timing of this devastation varied throughout the country (see Vickery 1984), but the goal was clear. Monks were forced to disrobe and return to lay life. Refusing to do so could result in execution. Temples were in some cases destroyed, often blown up, in other instances they were converted to secular uses such as warehouses, clinics and prisons. Buddhist imagery was smashed, defiled and in some cases hauled off and dumped in rivers, lakes and ponds. Religious texts were burned, thrown in rivers or otherwise destroyed. The library of the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh vanished. One researcher estimates that, of the religious texts held in temples across the country, 80 percent or more did not survive the DK regime (Olivier de Bernon, personal communication).

When the Khmer Rouge were driven from power by the Vietnamese in 1979, the new Cambodian government, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), permitted the partial restoration of Buddhism. Khmer Theravadin Buddhist monks were brought in from southern Vietnam to restart the ordination line of monks. By 1982 there were some 2,300 monks ordained. The restrictions on religion under the PRK included allowing only those over 50 years of age to become monks. Young men were needed in the military and for agricultural production. Keyes writes that it also seems that the PRK wanted to ensure that the sangha (the order of monks) did not reemerge as an independent institution. He writes, "Buddhism was also still viewed in Marxist terms as having a potential for offering people ‘unhealthy belief’" (Keyes 1994: 62). The government did allow for the restoration of temples, but did not allocate any government funding for such undertakings (Keyes 1994).

Major changes began to take place in Cambodia with regard to religion in 1988-89. During the process of political reform that would eventually lead to competing political parties, the PRK (renamed the State of Cambodia [SOC] in 1989), was trying to shed their communist linkages. The reestablishment of Buddhism and support for religion was seen by SOC as a key factor in the process of political legitimization, including their attempts to portray themselves as Khmer (as opposed to Vietnamese). The age restrictions on ordinations and a "detested" tax on temples were removed (Keyes1994:63). In April 1989, Hun Sen, Heng Samrin and Chea Sim, the most senior members of the SOC government, participated in a ceremony to reinstall a Buddhist relic in the monument in front of the train station. At the same time Buddhist prayers began again on the national radio station. Buddhist shrines were built at Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek to commemorate the deaths of the victims of DK. Buddhism was again formally declared the national religion. Pali schools were reopened. With funding from abroad, especially from Japan and Germany, religious texts began to be reprinted. The numbers of monks began to rise, from 6500 to 8000 in 1985-89, to about 20,000 in 1991 (Keyes1994:62-63), to 50,081 in 1998-99 (Ministry of Cults and Religion 1999).

With the restrictions on ordinations and temple reconstruction removed, the 1990s saw an explosion of temple reconstruction throughout the country. Everywhere rural communities took it upon themselves to rebuild local temples that had been destroyed, damaged or neglected during the DK and PRK regimes. Rural families living at subsistence level set aside whatever small amount of surplus they could to contribute to restoring temples and performing rituals, particularly ceremonies for the spirits of deceased family members. If the family did not have any cash to contribute, they could still provide materials or labor. Overseas Khmer also made important contributions to this process, sending money from abroad or returning to support construction of temples or chedey (repositories for the ashes of the dead) and ceremonies for their loved ones. Given the extreme poverty in the Cambodian countryside during the 1990s and continuing today, it is remarkable that this restoration has taken place. Gleaming new buildings with tiled roofs and beautiful wall murals dot the central plains.

Buddhist ritual life is central to community wellbeing. This includes the celebration of life cycle rituals such as wedding and funerals, and annual celebrations such as New Years and Kathin (the ceremony where new robes and other supplies are offered to the monks). With the temples restored and with monks reordained, more people have been able to sponsor ceremonies to the memory of their deceased relatives killed during the DK regime and the war. By doing so the proper order of relationships in society and across the spiritual realm is restored. "At the same time they may make peace with their own feelings of guilt and remorse over the suffering of their fellows over the past twenty years" (Ebihara and Ledgerwood 2002:281). Meas Nee  has written of this process:

      Looked at from the outside, religion, the teaching of monks, music, traditional games, and traditional skills are a way to strengthen culture. But I see them as not just that. They are the way to build unity and to heal hearts and spirits. They help to create a community where everything can be talked about, even past suffering. They help to create a community where the poorest are cared about. They help to restore dignity (1995:70).

The Buddhism that is being recreated in the last two decades is of course not the religion of the pre-revolutionary era, but has changed in important ways. There is a significant portion of the population who was born or was very young under DK and who grew up under the PRK who have little or no religious orientation or training. It may be that Buddhism has essentially skipped a generation and is now being taught again to young people by the elderly. This notion is supported by the research of a Japanese scholar, Hiroshi Komai, who conducted research in one village in the southern province of Takeo. Based on survey data, Komai argues that age is an extremely significant factor in religious beliefs and activities. He finds a decline in religious attitudes and activities such as giving alms and attending religious ceremonies among the age group 30-49. In contrast he finds many people aged 18-29 and over 50 to be "more affirmative to Buddhism" (1997:25). It should be noted, however, that May Ebihara, in research conducted in 1959-60, also found a decline in participation in religious activities in roughly this same age span. She attributed this to the fact that adults at this age are busy starting families and farms and have little time or spare cash (1968:395). Further research is needed in other locations and across time to confirm this pattern. The crucial time will be when this cohort is elderly – will they revert to spending most of their time at religious activities – as previous generations of Khmer have done?

Komai also found a general decline in religiosity across all age groups. Only about one third of respondents "behave religiously," that is: offer food to the monks on alms rounds, visit a temple regularly and observe the precepts (Komai 1997: 21). Only about 20 percent of adult men in this village had ever been monks or novices during their lifetimes; during Ebihara’s 1959-60 research the number had been two-thirds (Komai 1997:21-22). Sedara Kim reports that in his research village in Siem Reap province, very few young men became monks, in part because of expense. The local government officials charged fees to allow ordinations, and the ordination ceremony itself was very expensive (Kim, personal communications). In urban areas the number of young men who ordain is probably even lower.

At the same time, there are new movements that herald creative changes within Khmer Buddhism. One such movement is the Dhammayietra Peace Walks that have taken place annually since 1992. These walks, led by Buddhist monks across different areas of the country, act to symbolically reunite the country and build peace from the dedicated actions of individuals. Skidmore writes that the Dhammayietras offer a "symbolic ‘washing away’ of Khmer Rouge memories, the creation of new collective memories, and the reclaiming of a physical manifestation (Angkor Wat) of the Buddhist-centered world view" (1996:25).

There are also positive changes in the form of civil society actors who specifically use Buddhism in their efforts to "rebuild" and "develop" Cambodian society. Since 1993, Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) have sprung up by the dozens. Some of these NGOs are self-defined as Buddhist in character, and use Buddhist ideas and approaches to address a range of social problems from the protection of human rights to the delivery of health care services.

Much more research is needed on the ways that Khmer Buddhism is changing in the new millennium, but it is clear that the Khmer Rouge were unsuccessful in their efforts to destroy Khmer religion.

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