Backgrounder: Religious practices in Cambodia

By Colin Tom

Here are five things to know about contemporary religious practices in Cambodia.

  • Buddhism came to Cambodia with Hinduism, but became the official religion of Cambodia in the 13th and 14th centuries.
  • Cambodians practice Theravada Buddhism. “Theravada” literally means the teaching of the elders and is the oldest surviving Buddhist school. This branch of Buddhism emphasizes the four noble truths (Dukkha [suffering] Dukkha Samudaya [cause of suffering], Dukkha Nirodha [cessation of suffering] Dukkha Nirodha Gamini Patipada [pathway to freedom from suffering]), the three marks of existence Anicca (impermanence) Dukkha (suffering) Anatta (not-self), and the three noble disciplines discipline (sīla), training of mind (samādhi) and wisdom (paññā). Theradava is also distinct from other forms of Buddhism in that it does not portray Buddha as a god
  • Buddhism and Hinduism were absorbed from beyond the borders of Cambodia, fusing with the animist beliefs already present before the country’s immunization. Animist practices are still strongly present within family funerary rituals and contemporary religious practices.
  • Islam and Christianity also exist in Cambodia although they are much less prevalent than Buddhism.
  • There are divisions among “modernists” monks and “traditionalists.” “modernists” have attempted to respond to Western criticism of Buddhist institutions by re-interpreting Buddhist teachings.  “Traditionalists”, on the other hand, prefer to stick to the practices and teachings handed down through the monastic oral tradition, which have traditionally centered on the performance of merit-making ceremonies and the attainment of “heightened states” through concentration meditation.  Contemporary monks utilize modern technology while still maintaining traditional monastery practices.

Sources:  Lonely Planet, Cambodian Culture, Wikipedia, Buddhism in Cambodia, Monk chat. 


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