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Buddhist Music of Cambodia*

Buddhism has existed in Cambodia since at least the 5th century, and in its earlier form was a type of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism has been the Cambodian state religion since the 13th century (excepting the Khmer Rouge period), and is currently estimated to be the faith of 95% of the population.  The history of Buddhism in Cambodia spans across a number of successive kingdoms and empires. Buddhism entered Cambodia through two different streams. The earliest forms of Buddhism, along with Hindu influences, entered the Funan kingdom with Hindu merchants. Singhalese sources assert that missionaries of King Ashoka introduced Buddhism into Southeast Asia in the 3rd century BC. Various Buddhist sects competed with Brahamanism and indigenous animistic religions over approximately the next millennium; during this period, Indian culture was highly influential.  The Funan Kingdom that flourished between 100 BC and 500 AD was Hindu, with the kings of Funan sponsoring the worship of Vishnu and Shiva. Buddhism was already present in Funan as a secondary religion in this era. Buddhism began to assert its presence from about year 450 onward, and was observed by the Chinese traveler Yijing toward the close of the seventh century.

Two Buddhist monks from Funan, named Mandrasena and Saṃghabara, took up residency in China in the 5th to 6th centuries, and translated several Buddhist sūtras from Sanskrit into Chinese. Among these texts is the Mahāyāna Mahāprajñāpāramitā Mañjuśrīparivarta Sūtra, a text was separately translated by both monks.  The Kingdom of Chenla replaced Funan and endured from 500-700. Buddhism was weakened in the Chenla period, but survived, as seen in the inscriptions of Sambor Prei Kuk (626) and those of Siem Reap dealing with the erection of statues of Avalokiteśvara (791). Some pre-Angkorean statuary in the Mekong Delta region indicate the existence of Sanskrit-based Sarvāstivāda Buddhism. Khmer-style Buddha images are abundant from the period of 600-800. Many Mahāyāna bodhisattva images also date from this period, often found alongside the predominantly Hindu images of Shiva and Vishnu. An inscription from Ta Prohm temple in Siem Reap province, dated about 625, states, that the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are flourishing.

The Buddhist Sailendra kingdom exercised suzerainty over Cambodia as a vassal state during the end of the eighth and the beginning of the ninth centuries. King Jayavarman II (802-869), the first real Khmer king of the Angkor Empire, proclaimed himself god-king and identified himself with Shiva. Nevertheless, he was increasingly friendly to and supportive of Mahayana Buddhist influence throughout his kingdom.  Mahayana Buddhism became increasingly established in his empire. The form of Mahayana Buddhism that was propagated in the Srivijaya lands was similar to the Pala Dynasty Buddhism of Bengal, and of the Nalanda University in northern India.  Angkor Wat (left) is a temple complex originally founded as a Hindu capital for the Khmer Empire, but gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple toward the end of the 12th century. It was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in Yaśodharapura (present-day Angkor), the capital of the Khmer Empire, as his state temple and eventual mausoleum.

For the first thousand years of Khmer history, Cambodia was ruled by a series of Hindu kings with an occasional Buddhist king, such as Jayavarman I of Funan, Jayavarman VII, who became a Mahayanist, and Suryavarman I.  A variety of Buddhist traditions co-existed peacefully throughout Cambodian lands, under the tolerant auspices of Hindu kings and the neighboring Mon-Theravada kingdoms.

After 1431 when the Cambodian kings permanently abandoned Angkor due to a Siamese invasion, the royal court was located on Udon Mountain, a few miles north of Phnom Penh. Siamese incursions from the west and Vietnamese invasions from the east weakened the Khmer empire. The Vietnamese invaders attempted to suppress Theravada Buddhism and force the Khmer people to practice Mahayana Buddhism. The Siamese, on the other hand, would periodically invade Cambodia and attempt to drive out the "unbelievers" in an attempt to protect the Theravada religion. This power-struggle between the two ascendant powers continued until the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century.

During the era of French rule, convulsions of violence, led by Buddhist holy men, would periodically break out against the French. Significant advances were made in the education of Cambodian monks, both in specifically Buddhist topics and more general studies. Primary education of Cambodian children continued to take place at temple schools. Monks were also encouraged to become involved in community development projects.  During the period of the Khmer Rouge, Buddhism ceased to function, many temples were destroyed, and most monks and novices were killed. As a consequence, the survivors have borne the responsibility of restoring Buddhism and its practices. Since 1979, it can again be said that Buddhism provides the moral fiber of the Khmer life-style but includes tenets derivative of Hinduism and animism.

Buddhists believe that life is a series of cycles of death and rebirth, during which the individual passes through a succession of incarnations. Depending on the person's conduct in previous lives, a new incarnation may be of a higher or lower status. Buddhists strive to perfect their souls to be released from the cycle of death and rebirth and attain the state of enlightenment (nirvana). In traditional Khmer society, men must enter the monkhood for at least three months during their lifetime, often at the age of twelve or thirteen. During this time, they learn Buddhist philosophy and social morality, and practice chanting. The temples where they study are centers of Khmer life, not only for prayer but also for education, medical care, and administrative organization. Since the 1950s, Buddhist education has been systematically organized to include modern knowledge from the primary level to the university level. Buddhist knowledge can be acquired at Buddhist institutions, including the High School of Pali, the Buddhist Institute, and the Buddhist University. The monks who reside in these temples are at the highest spiritual level for achieving nirvana. They wear distinctive saffron robes, shave their heads, and set out each morning to collect food from local people.

Though Buddhist scriptures, classical literature, epics, fables, books of games, and dance manuals all may be written in prose, most are written in verse. For dance and theater, poetic writings are adapted and set to song and music. The category of religious music embraces primarily chanting of the Buddhist scriptures and reciting poems rendered by monks and lay people at the temple or at home. Ordinary chanting (saut thoar) is rendered simply by monks and lay people, within a narrow range and in an intertwined texture, which seems chaotic on first hearing. The texts of the chants, usually in Pali (the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism), are rarely understood by either the practitioners or the listeners. This fact has led to debates over whether Khmer should become the language of Cambodian Buddhism so that all may understand. Some monks have offered chanting in Khmer, but it is not yet widely accepted.


Another category of Buddhist performance, the recitation of poems (smaut), is distinguished in style from both chanting and singing. Smaut occupies a position between chanting and singing, but unlike the former may be accompanied by a solo instrument such as a free-reed pipe, a duct flute, or a fiddle. For the Khmer, smaut is both powerful and didactic, even entertaining. It sets the mood and creates a religious atmosphere. It usually appears at various points in the sequence of a ritual. For example, a kind of smaut called saraphanh is associated with festivals celebrating the birth, death, and rebirth of the Buddha. Musically, the distinctions among chanting (saut thoa), reciting (smaut), and singing (chrieng) are not well expressed in the English terms. Khmer recitation is actually considered sweet, melodious, and musical, but it differs from song because it is in the rhythm of speech (also called rubato style) rather than strict pulsation or meter. Consequently it is considered a separate category from both chant and song.


The main themes used in smaut are from the tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures) and jataka (Buddha birth stories); these form the basis of the Buddhist precepts, which in turn are central in shaping Khmer lives and families. The texts are written entirely in the vernacular, or are mixed with Pali and Sanskrit. Temples were centers for the practice and preservation of this kind of art. Originally practiced and preserved there, the smaut later penetrated the primary schools and even the Royal University of Fine Arts (Faculty of Choreographic Arts), where it has become an important component of the school's stage presentations.


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Further reading (compiled from Paul D. Greene, Keith Howard, Terry E. Miller, Phong T. Nguyen and Hwee-San Tan, "Buddhism and the Musical Cultures of Asia: A Critical Literature Survey," in The World of Music,Vol. 44, No. 2, Body and Ritual in Buddhist Musical Cultures (2002), 135-175 (VWB - Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 2002).
  • Brunet, Jacques.  "Le plain-chant bouddhique au Cambodge" [The Buddhist plain chant in Cambodia].  Annates de l'Universitié Royale des Beaux-Arts (Phnom Penh, 1967) I.