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Cambodia Buddhism: History and Practice

(Honolulu, Hawai’i: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005)

Ian Harris

Cambodia Buddhism: History and Practice

(Honolulu, Hawai’i: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005)
Ian Harris


How the protectorate started:

In 1853 the Catholic priest Jean Claude Miche had been responsible for
drafting King Ang Duang’s letter to Napoleon III, asking for French protection
and aid in retrieving the provinces of Cambodia that had been lost to the neighboring
powers of Thailand and Vietnam. Thus he was instrumental in establishing
a European presence in the region. But he was also an early observer of
the religious scene. Yet to his prejudiced eyes Cambodian Buddhism appeared
a “vast and absurd Pantheism, which covers with its veil a hopeless atheism.”
He wrote that it “defies the whole of nature,” for its sacred writings ranked “man
in the same class with the brutes.” Its conception of heaven was likewise problematic,
in that the blessed were supposed to experience various joys that “for
the most part consist in carnal pleasures of which decency forbids the mention”
(Miche 1852, 605, 607–610). Vii

The first seminal work on Cambodian buddhism was done by Adhémard Leclère, who begun his
service as a fonctionnaire in Cambodia in 1866 (vii). This seminal work covers a wide range of
matters from cosmology to metaphysics, the Buddhist annual cycle, its festival, monastic
ordination, the ecclesiastical organization and discipline. Yet still, these early works on Khmer
version of Buddhism suffer from a blatant, if nuanced, sense of European triumphalism. (viii)

Other noticeable early scholarships included Éveline Porée-Maspero’s three-volume study entitled
Étude sur les rites agraires des Cambodgiens (1962–1969), and more recently Ang Chouléan’s
Les êtres surnaturels dans la religion populaire khmère (1986), among his other studies.

“Into the fabric of my own work”

For Harris, the by far and away most significant scholar in the field of Cambodian Buddhist
studies is François Bizot.

Harris called the mid-1970s in Cambodia a time of “collective madness.” The work of Bizot
during this period is deemed with “outstanding competence, range, and originality.” Bizot’s
findings must be considered a major landmark in Buddhist and Cambodian studies, since “it clearly
demonstrates that, at core, the religious traditions of the country are at some variance with Theravada
orthodoxy of the sort now found in neighboring countries like Sri Lanka and Thailand. (ix)
Cambodia Buddhism: History and Practice
(Honolulu, Hawai’i: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005)
Ian Harris

One of Harris’ most poignant claims is his discussion of the importance of Buddhist modernism:
Here, he wrote:
Buddhist modernism, a phenomenon that has, in one way or another,
exercised a significant presence in all the countries of Buddhist Asia since the
end of the nineteenth century. Put simply, Buddhist modernism has a preference
for those modes of thought and behavior specifically authorized by the
“scriptural tradition” of Theravada Buddhism as expressed in the Pali canon
(Tripitaka) and its commentaries. It also shows a marked tendency toward laicization
and the employment of modern proselytizing techniques, such as pamphlet
production, distribution, and the like. Buddhist modernism, then, presents
itself as a movement of purification, reform, and return to the “original
truth” of the Buddha’s vision. It has tended to flourish in Buddhist cultures under
colonial rule and has been influential in the development of various national
liberation struggles, which may be read as alternative forms of the liberation
recommended by the Buddha. (ix)

George Coedès is another point of reference, fundamental to the understanding of early

Cambodian history. His work, in light of Vickery’s commentary and expansion upon in
Society, Economics, and Politics in Pre-Angkor Cambodia: The Seventh–Eighth Centuries
(1998) provides Harris with ample insights in the first chapters of this book.

Post-Angkorian period, arguably the least well-understood phase of the region’s historical
record, can be investigated through Mak Phoeun’s and Khin Sok’s works on the royal
chronicles, as well as Ashley Thompson’s 1999 doctoral thesis, “Mémoires du Cambodge,” in
which the author examines the manner by which ancient temples constructed in Angkor time
were reappropriated by a spreading “Theravada tradition with strong probable links to a
reinvigorated cult of kingship.”

Harris points to Ven. Huot Tath’s Kalyànamitt roboh kñom (My intimate friend, 1970), the
partial account of the career of arguably the most influential monk Ven. Chuon Nath, the
champion of the emerging Buddhist modernist cause. This account is crucial in teasing out
the tension that emerged within the Buddhist order, and “to a lesser extent” in the wider
Cambodian society, especially in and around the beloved capital in the first half of the
twentieth century.

He mentioned the 4 pillars – David Chandler, Steve Heder, Ben Kiernan, and Michael

“The first real manifestation of organized anticolonialism in Cambodia materialized in 1942,

when a monk-led demonstration challenged various reforms being imposed on the Khmer
people.” Xiii

However, Harris suggests a viable link between the Buddhist-inspired nationalist movement
and the germination of violent and virulent communism.
Cambodia Buddhism: History and Practice
(Honolulu, Hawai’i: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005)
Ian Harris


From Its Origins to the Fall of Angkor