In this post, I will explore how Buddhism functions as a part of the Khmer people’s collective unconscious– how, despite the fact that it is not a “religion” in the traditional monotheistic sense, it is an effective, inclusive, and gentle guiding force in many Khmer people’s lives.
Firstly, what is Buddhism?
“To many, Buddhism goes beyond religion and is more of a philosophy or ‘way of life’. It is a philosophy because philosophy ‘means love of wisdom’ and the Buddhist path can be summed up as:
(1) to lead a moral life,
(2) to be mindful and aware of thoughts and actions, and
(3) to develop wisdom and understanding.” (Source: http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/5minbud.htm)
These three principals are evident in Cambodian people’s daily attitudes. Primarily, the most noticeable principle in action is the second one concerning mindfulness. It is considered extremely rude to be rude in public in Cambodia. Unkind words, thoughts, or outward displays of anger were simply not seen. The only display of anger I saw throughout the whole trip was that of white tourists. The Khmer people stay cool, calm and collected in difficult situations– whether it be traffic, changing plans, or getting in arguments. To display anger would just be completely out of the norm! Cambodians know how to keep their anger and emotions “in check”.
Leading a moral life is also evident, when considering how impoverished the country is, yet how the crime rate is so low. For example, according to the UNODC, Cambodia only has 3.4 per 100,000 people in homicides every year, which is pretty low when compared to the rest of the world, including other impoverished countries such as Honduras (91.6/100,000), El Salvador, and Cote d’Ivoire. ((Source:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_intentional_homicide_rate#By_region)
Regarding the physical presence of Buddhism, the first obvious signs will be the many orange-cloaked monks who walk about the city of Phnom Penh, as well as the several “Wats” in which the reside.
As one explores Cambodia further, however, there are many smaller signs that Buddhism is prominent. For example, people will often wear small red bracelets around their wrists, which are a token one receives after visiting a Buddhist monastery that is supposed to give you luck and prosperity for as long as the bracelet stays on– once it falls/breaks off naturally, the person goes to a monastery again for a new one.
One consistent shared feature of houses, stores, and restaurants is that they all contain spirit houses. These almost doll-house like structures vary in size and style, however, the average spirit house is about two by two feet, either lays on the ground of the residence or is propped up with a pole, and always has incense near the house’s door. Sometimes, flowers, small fruit, or small statues of Buddha will be placed near there as well.
The purpose of the spirit house is to honor the deceased of the family. By lighting incense or giving small gifts, the ancestors of this family will be pleased and therefore bless the living with prosperity.
With these both obvious and subtle physical signs of Buddhism in Cambodia, it is interesting to note that the topic of Buddhism is never really brought up in conversation. While “Theravada Buddhism is the official religion in Cambodia” and it “is practiced by 95 percent of the population” (Source: http://www.cambodialostandfound.com/welcomecambodia.php?id=14), the Buddha or anything about the religion itself is not outwardly discussed nearly as much as, say, Christians are constantly discussing Christ or referring to the Bible.
To me, I find this extremely refreshing. The Khmer people go about their life with their own spirituality– they offer to spirit houses, give alms to monks, and visit wats, among other things. The religious imagery is prominent. However, Cambodians focus on acting out their beliefs more so than actively talking about, discussing, and debating about their beliefs to others, who may or may not be interested.
Buddhism is prominent as a lifestyle/religion and school of thought in Cambodia, and is displayed both in Cambodia’s architecture and cultural attitude. However, Buddhism is not a source of contention amongst its citizens in the way that Evangelical Christianity is in America, or how Sunni/Shiite Islam is in Iraq. Cambodian Buddhism is an excellent example of how spirituality can still be cohesively and peacefully be practiced in public, even in the diverse and ever-evolving views of 21st century humans.