Animistic undertones in Cambodian Buddhism

By Elliot Ambrose

When Sen Santhou’s brother fell ill three years ago, his family took him to a hospital where the doctor told them that he could not be cured. Believing that her son’s illness was being caused by displeased ancestral spirits, Sen’s mother prepared a special dish for an offering to appease them.

Ceremonies such as this are widely performed by Cambodians despite the dominance of Buddhism, exhibiting the way in which traditional animistic beliefs still exist within mainstream religious practices in the country.

Santhou, a tour guide at the temples of Angkor Wat, describes animism as something that is done without thinking and that is absorbed by children at a young age from their parents. “People practice Buddhism, they don’t practice animism. They just do it.” he said.

In a cemetery just outside the main temple complex of Angkor Wat one can see evidence of the influence of animism. Most Cambodians are cremated after death and, if the remaining family has enough money, their ashes can be stored in large decorative tombs. Less wealthy families will construct “spirit houses” to store the ashes.  Food, alcohol, and money are left as offerings beside the ashes and incense is burned in order to please the spirits of the deceased.

Many Cambodians believe that the cause of misfortune and illness stems from angry ancestral spirits and that offerings made to the spirits will remedy the problem. For Santhou’s brother, a dish was made and placed in a square formation formed by banana leaves with balls of rice and candy on each corner. The offering was brought to a special place near the family’s house and a small request for forgiveness was made.

Unfortunately, the offering did not cure Santhou’s brother of his illness. Sen has not given up on the traditional animistic practices, however, as he realizes their place within Cambodian culture and the Buddhist religion. Showing only minor sorrow as he talked of the loss of his brother he stated, “Only Buddha knows what will happen in your life.”

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