For many centuries, both Buddhism and Hinduism coexisted in this region. While the early Funan Kingdom was primarily Hindu, it was influenced by Buddhism, which became a secondary religion between the 1st and 6th centuries AD.
During the Angkor period in Cambodia, Buddha images flourished alongside representations of Hindu gods such as Shiva and Vishnu. In fact, one of the reasons the Khmer empire was so powerful and lasted so long was its incorporation of the Hindu concept of the “god-king.” The people believed the king’s power to be divinely-inspired or granted, and no one wanted to mess with a god.
The advent of Theravada Buddhism sweeping across Southeast Asia meant the subsidence of Hinduism although the divine aspects of the king persisted into the last century. The Hindu religion was very elitist, leaving the common people out, so the common touch of Buddhism had great appeal for the average Cambodian – they welcomed this religion, and eventually, it became dominant in the country.
Today, Buddhism is the primary religion in Cambodia. A majority of the population follows the Theravada Buddhist sect, which belongs to the Hinayana, or Lesser Wheel School, and is said to closely mirror the original form of the religion. The religion, in Cambodia, continues to be influenced by animist beliefs, and spirit and ancestor worship.
Burning incense sticks accompanies virtually all prayer ceremonies. This ritual has been in practice for thousands of years and links prayer with meditation and ritual purification.
The offering of alms is an ancient Buddhist tradition, born in the early days when monks were wanderers whose only possessions were a robe and a begging bowl. The tradition continues today and is a meritorious act, thought to bring good karma. Solemn almsgiving is conducted at dawn every day when monks leave their monasteries to seek sustenance.
Practice of Buddhism
Religious rituals form part of the daily life of most Cambodians. Visits to wats, the giving of alms, and merit making – the performance of good deeds as mentioned in the Buddhist doctrine – are performed by all devout Buddhists. Many men also enter monkhood, at least for a brief period.
Bowing and prostrating before an image of the Buddha, or before a monk, is believed to be an act of humility in Buddhist culture. The act is thought to bring good fortune. Feeding monks forms an important part of the Buddhist New Year celebrations.
Banana leaves and flowers, used as offerings in wats, are often artistically moulded into forms such as that of a stupa.
Visits to wats, thanksgiving ceremonies, prayers, and other offerings are an essential part of Buddhist celebrations. Most festivals are connected to the Buddhist calendar and may be specific to a particular tradition or ethnic group.
The New Year is a special occasion marked by rituals and baci sukhuan ceremonies. Celebrations last for several days; on the third day, statues of the Buddha, kept in wats, are cleansed with perfumed water. This ritual is said to bring happiness and good fortune.
There are several religious symbols in Buddhism, each representing different aspects of the religion. Most of them can be seen in wats, stupas, and other religious sites. Symbols such as the Wheel of Law are said to have been used by the Buddha himself.
The Bodhi tree is the tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment.
The Lotus represents the progress of the soul. Naga, or serpent, is a dragon-like figure representing wisdom and a protective force for the Buddha. The Wheel of Law, or Dharmachakra, is symbolized as an eight-spoked chariot wheel.
Visak Bochea, or Buddha Day, is held on a full moon night, usually in May. It is celebrated with traditional processions, among other activities.