A Christian’s Introduction To Religious Blending in Cambodia

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2007 »Volume 44 2007 Number 1 »A Christians Introduction To Religious Blending In Cambodia

 By Gerard Ravasco, S.D.B.

Gerard Ravasco, S.D.B., a Filipino, worked in Papua New Guinea before being assigned to Cambodia. At present he is principal of Don Bosco Technical School, Sihanoukville, Cambodia. He earned a BS in Industrial Education from the Don Bosco College Seminary, Canlubang, Laguna, Philippines; an STB from the Don Bosco Center of Studies, Parañaque, Greater Manila, Philippines; and an MA in Theology from the South African Theological Seminary, Johannesburg, South Africa. He presented a paper entitled A Christian’s Introduction to the Religious Blending in Cambodia at the Seventh Socio-Cultural Research Congress in Cambodia, November 2004.

We live in a time of globalization, where we find ourselves rubbing shoulders, working together and living with people of different races and different creeds. This could be a fulfillment of that biblical passage: "Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!" (Ps 133).

Unfortunately, a stark contrast to this passage happens before our very eyes. Our world is enveloped in deep global conflicts, including those which many attribute to religious fanaticism. Misunderstanding of another’s culture or creed often leads to conflict. If we wish a peaceful co-existence to triumph in our world, our greatest challenge today is to maintain respect for each other’s beliefs without necessarily giving up ours. For those of us who live with people of another culture, understanding their cultural context and milieu will certainly help us understand them.

In this article we shall focus on Cambodia, also known as "Kampuchea."2 This country lies at the heart of Indochina, bordered by Thailand to the west, Laos and Thailand to the north, and Vietnam to the east. It is a fascinating place in that, despite its tiny size and its large, powerful neighbors, it has managed to remain uniquely Khmer.3 Its cultural traditions predate those of Thailand, and its dominant influences stem from the Indian subcontinent. At least 85 percent of Cambodia’s inhabitants adhere to Theravada Buddhism, which is the dominant religion in this Southeast Asian nation. Buddhism arrived in Cambodia during the first centuries AD. At first, Mahayana Buddhism predominated, but after the 14th century Theravada Buddhism gradually replaced the former as the primary religion. Christianity and Islam are also practised by a minority (Rooney 2003).

In a country where Buddhist philosophy is dominant, how does one go about introducing Christianity? In the words of Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Council for Culture: "You must help the Church to respond to these fundamental questions for the cultures of today: How is the message of the Church accessible to the old and new cultures, to contemporary forms of understanding and of sensitivity?"4

Our challenge then is the process known as inculturation. Dr. U. E. Umoren offers the following definition: "Inculturation refers to the missiological process in which the gospel is rooted in a particular culture and the latter is transformed by its introduction to Christianity."5 Christians in Cambodia should therefore take upon themselves this challenge of striving to understand the Khmer culture, to know the minds and hearts of those they live with, their values and customs, their problems and difficulties, their hopes and their dreams. It is only when we immerse ourselves in this task of inculturation that the Khmers will see that the message we bring is one of universal value that does not take them away from their cultural upbringing; rather, it enriches it via a process of transformation.

But first let us take a short glance at the history of Cambodia where we will see how the different religions entered and had a strong influence on Cambodia and its people.

Religious Influences in Early Cambodian History

The present Khmers claimed that they were descended from the Neak Ta (ancestral spirits) who had been the first settlers in a given region. The ancestors, in turn, were seen as responsible for a community’s well-being, expressed in terms of agricultural production, peace, and good health. Needless to say, the early Khmers were animists. Those Khmers who claimed high status demonstrated it by sponsoring feasts and by displaying their accumulated wealth, which in the case of chieftains often included several wives, married to form alliances between families from different villages. It was at this time (around first to sixth century AD) that Indian traders and missionaries began to appear little by little on this Southeast Asian mainland in search of spices, tropical artifacts, ivory, and other forest products.6

The coastline of what is now southern Vietnam, then inhabited by Khmers, made an ideal stopping place, where traders turned the corner of Southeast Asia as they plied their route between the Roman Empire, India, and China, hugging the coasts where possible. Because of the monsoons, the Indian ships that reached Southeast Asia often had to stay for several months, waiting for the prevailing winds to change. It is likely that during these lay overs, local chieftains became interested in certain Indian practices, such as those that measured the solar year and others that set priests and chieftains above and apart from the rest of society, by means of a system of ranks, or castes. Hence began India’s influence over the Khmer kingdoms, especially through the Brahman traditions.

The process of Indianization continued for several centuries in Cambodia. Those most affected by it were members of the elite, who gave themselves Indian names, composed poetry in Indian languages, and followed the spiritual guidance of Indian Brahmins (priests). Indian religion, stressing the worship of such gods as Shiva and Vishnu, blended with local beliefs, particularly the ancestors and the spirits of the soil, believed to be responsible for the kingdom’s welfare and prosperity. Before long, local rulers were identifying themselves with Indian gods, and the gods themselves were seen as in some way linked with local ancestor spirits. Indian texts dealing with government organizations and kingship were understandably popular with these rulers (Chandler 1998:20).

The founder of Angkor was a king named Jayavarman II (reigned 802-834). In 770, he fought a series of campaigns to consolidate his control over different parts of the country. In 802, on Kulen mountain to the north of the present-day Angkor, he participated in a ceremony that identified him with the Hindu god Shiva and entitled him to the name of chakravartin (universal monarch). The ceremony, which opened the "Angkorean" era was re-enacted by succeeding Cambodian kings for at least 250 years, thus cementing their loyalty to Brahmanism. Interestingly, down the line, Jayavarman V (968-1001), although a Shaivite, was tolerant of Buddhism, and Buddhist scholarship flourished during his reign. He instructed one of his ministers who was an ardent Buddhist to put back the old statues of Buddha which had fallen down, and to erect new ones. He had numerous treatises and commentaries concerning Buddhism of the Great Vehicle (Mahayana) brought from other countries. Hence, Buddhism started to co-exist with the Brahmanist religion. Then followed Suryavarman I (1002-1050), whose name means "protected by the sun." He differed from many Cambodian kings by being himself a patron of Buddhism rather than Hinduism. On the other hand his successor, Utyadityavarman II (1050-1068) was a devotee of Shiva. Guided by a powerful guru, he revived interest in the devaraja cult and also revived the custom of building a massive temple-mountain (Baphuon) to house the lingam associated with his reign (Chandler 1998:34-44).

The last years of the 11th century were ones of turmoil and fragmentation. At different times, two or even three monarchs contended for the title of absolute ruler. Suryavarman II (1113-1150) emerged as the first king to rule over a unified Cambodian kingdom since Utyadityavarman II’s death in 1068. His devotion to Vishnu led him to commission the largest, perhaps the most beautiful, and one of the most mysterious of all the monuments of Angkor—the temple, the tomb, and the observatory now known as Angkor Wat. But in 1181, Jayavarman VII came to power. He was a fervent Buddhist and the last great builder-king of Angkor, who rebuilt the city’s walls and redesigned the entire city, placing his own temple-mountain, the Bayon, at the center. Before building the Bayon in the 1190s, Jayavarman built two other temples honoring his parents, and built over a hundred hospitals throughout the kingdom (Chandler 1991:64-71).

Two centuries following the glorious Angkor period were marked as much by political as they were by religious peace and about which historians know very little. One of the successors of king Jayavarman VII was reported to have tried to restore Shaivite orthodoxy. During his reign Buddhist images were destroyed and replaced with Hindu gods at the Bayon. Yet, the people, as well as numerous court members, for the most part adopted Buddhism. The people preferred the doctrine of Buddhist compassion which was more accessible than the metaphysical Hinduism, reserved for elite priests and warriors. Amidst all this popular unrest, a high dignitary of the court seized power under the name of Indravarman II (1295-1307) and re-established Theravada Buddhism.7

The most important change to note in Cambodia between the 13th and 15th centuries was the conversion of its people to Theravada Buddhism (the way of the Elders) which has been the religion of nearly all Cambodians ever since. This choice was probably made because the people found in it a gentler and less imposing way of spiritual nurture which does not exclude any of the other religions. From this point of Khmer history to the present, a lot of changes occurred; Cambodia was forced to move its capital from Angkor to Phnom Penh. Different cultures influenced the Khmer way of life; different political forces ruled her (Thailand, France, Vietnam). And it is in these waves of change that Christianity found its way to her shores.

An Overview of Christianity

The origins of Christianity can be traced back to the 16th century with the coming of Fr. Gaspar Cruz, a Portuguese Dominican, in 1555. He stayed for sometime at the Royal court of Longvek. In 1574, Fr. Sylvestre D’Azevedo, another Portuguese Dominican arrived and stayed for 22 years. At the beginning of the 17th century a certain number of Japanese Catholics migrated to Cambodia and settled down at Ponhea Lu. In 1660, Christians from Indonesia took refuge in Phnom Penh and in Ponhea Lu, and all the invasions from Vietnam and Siam (Thailand) during this period proved disastrous for the Cambodian Church.

Between 1768 and 1777, Fr. Levavasseur, a French priest, wrote books in the Khmer language, including a Cambodian-Latin Dictionary. He also established some religious communities. In 1784, a Vietnamese invasion destroyed the Church and drove the Khmer Christians towards the south of Cambodia. In 1785, a Siamese invasion deported a big number of Khmer Christians to Bangkok. Some escaped and regrouped themselves as one community in Battambang in 1790.

In the middle of the 19th century, the Kingdom of Cambodia was destroyed by civil war and the Christian communities were almost all annihilated. In 1866, King Norodom had the Khmer Christians leave Ponhea Lu and had them stay at the capital, Phnom Penh, where they were given land to build their church in the Prek Luong district. During the French Protectorate, many Catholics from Vietnam came and settled down in Cambodia.

In 1923, Rev. Arthur L. Hammond and his wife, both Americans of the Evangelical Church, left Saigon and settled in Phnom Penh. Reverend Hammond was charged with translating the Scriptures and Reverend D.W. Ellison with opening a biblical school. A translation of the New Testament was completed in 1934, and the entire Bible in 1940. It was published only in 1954 by the British and Foreign Bible Society after several revisions by a committee of translators. However, at this period, the French authorities took offense at Ellison’s Bible School which trained new pastors. In 1930 King Monivong issued a decree prohibiting all religions with the exception of Buddhism and Catholicism.

In 1957, some 400 years since Christianity arrived, Simon Chhem Yen was ordained as the first Khmer Catholic priest. On 14 April 1975, Msgr. Joseph Chhmar Salas became the first Cambodian to be ordained bishop just on that day after the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. During the Khmer Rouge regime all Khmer priests and nuns and a great number of Khmer Christians lost their lives. During these years of genocide, all church buildings and structures were destroyed. The Phnom Penh cathedral was leveled to the ground. Later, the Khmer Rouge was overrun by the Vietnamese who also forbade the freedom of religion. Finally, on 4 April 1990, after the Vietnamese pullout, Christian communities were given government permission to worship freely.8

It is striking to note the pattern of these four centuries. Each time a Christian community was established, there followed a period of disruption by war or political restrictions. For the Christian communities this has meant that they had to start their work from scratch after every period of disruption.

Religions that Influenced Cambodian Culture

After our historical survey of the entrance and influence of the three formative religions, namely, Animism, Brahmanism, and Buddhism, we shall now look into the depth of their influence as illustrated in Cambodian daily living.

Animism in Cambodian Culture

Like other farmers all over the world, Khmer people are Animists in a way because they must appease the forces of nature in order to live and survive. These forces of nature or "spirits" are part of their everyday life. There is the "spirit of the forest," the "spirit of the river," the "spirit of music" that musicians invoke before playing an instrument, "the spirit of dance" that is venerated before performing on stage, " the spirit of the house" that rules over the destiny of the people living in it, and so many others.

The spirits of the land (neak ta: literally "person grandfather") are the founding spirits of the village or the initiators of the particular cult of a village. These neak taare the real masters of the land. They assure protection to the villagers, health, fertility of the soil, and seasonal rains. They must be venerated or appeased by lighting incense sticks or candles or by offering liquor, bananas, sometimes a raw or cooked chicken, or a pig’s head. These spirits have a miniature house usually at the entrance of the village or of the area they are supposed to control. In fact one can observe that almost all houses of Cambodians have a "spirit house" in front of them rather than a mailbox.9

Other spirits are called "protectors" (areak also spelled arak). While a rite dealing with possessions is performed with music, banging a gong that gradually becomes faster, a medium (shaman) in the middle of a cloud of smoke of incense sticks, goes on stamping down the spirit (banchoan areak) until possessed by this spirit. Then he falls into a trance in which state the will of the spirit will be revealed (Men 2002:225).

Brahmanism in Cambodian Culture

A clear influence of Brahmanistic tendencies to the Khmer way of life is that of having many gods to implore for protection. Tevoda are kinds of deities in the Brahmanist Pantheon and are regularly worshiped. The word tevoda has the same root as theos in Greek, and deus in Latin. This word is very much venerated that in fact the very first line of the Khmer National Anthem implores their protection as the song starts with the Som Puak Tevoda (Please heavenly deities protect our king, etc.).

In Phnom Penh, inside the royal palace, one can see the conical shape of the royal throne or the royal crown. This may be some kind of survival of the Brahmanistic influence. Here in the palace as well as in many pagodas, one can notice in the middle of the spire over the roof a likeness of Brahma with the four faces. The royal dances also are a manifestation of this Indian influence we speak of and often times these dances include a religious dimension.

The central tower of the Angkor temples represents the king who is endowed with divine prerogatives by virtue of his royal coronation. He is also considered as a medium of communication between heaven and earth and can secure the fertility of the soil. At the beginning of each rainy season, the king of Cambodia ploughs the first furrow, the "sacred furrow," a gesture of defloration of the virgin soil and a necessary gesture to gain a fertile harvest (Ponchaud 1990:196-98).

Buddhism in Cambodian Culture

Buddhist doctrines speak about the role of sadness and suffering in life (dukkha), acceptance of proper relationships between groups in society, the effect of past actions (good and bad) as determinant of the current life circumstances (karma), and proper behavior, a humble attitude and merit-making to improve one’s path through reincarnation. Human life is explained as essentially social in character, connected through these interlocking and reciprocal relationships.

In a way, social inequalities in Cambodia are accepted as the consequences of the "load of merits or demerits" of previous lives. One was born poor because of the bad deeds he or she committed in a previous life; others are rich and powerful because of the merits in their previous lives. As Bit comments: "Life in the present incarnation cannot be changed but the measure of man’s emotional development is his reaction to his circumstances. Such an attitude stifles the desire to succeed at the expense of another and encourages the Cambodian to accept his situation, whatever that may be" (Bit 1991:23). Because of this somewhat passive resignation, Buddhism in Cambodia has become very tolerant of all other religions.

The followers of Buddhism in Cambodia are mostly in rural areas. These people easily merge classical Buddhist thought with animistic and Brahmanist traditions. Because of this syncretism, cultural patterns have developed through the centuries but which are not typical of Buddhism as practiced elsewhere. A by-product of the many gods which are present in the belief system has been a diffused reliance on any one (god) as the unfailing agent to relieve fear. When allegiance and devotion to one does not bring about the desired effect they long for, another god can be tried. The consequence for the Cambodian believer is a kind of endless search for spiritual protection with conflicting cultural norms, guiding the search. This effect overflows too in the Khmer society. What results is a society characterized by a system of reciprocal relationships between patron and client, which offers another source of implied protection for the people (Bit, 21).

Thus, the religious world of the Cambodian people is an accumulation of different strata of religious beliefs piled up one after another. And in the process each early pre-Christian religion was assimilated, cultivated, and interpreted again and again down through history. To put it simply, the Cambodians are officially Theravada Buddhists and yet Animism and Brahmanism have been interwoven in the way they live their Buddhist faith.

With hindsight, let us reflect on the history of Christianity here in Cambodia. A question that could baffle many is: How come after more than four centuries, Christianity was never assimilated culturally in the Khmer way of living, unlike Animism, Brahmanism, and Buddhism? Would it perhaps be because of Christianity’s very exclusive doctrinal ways or because it was plainly not considered Khmer? The hypothetical possibilities for an answer could be endless. For our part, our challenge is to find routes that can bring Christian concepts into the heart and mind of our Khmer friends in order to trigger this assimilation.

In Search for Possible Routes to Pastoral Action

The Christian Re-entry

After taking over from the Khmer Rouge for 10 years, and because of much international pressure, the Vietnamese finally pulled out of Cambodia in 1989. On the 1st of May 1988, Prime Minister Hun Sen promulgated a new constitution declaring Buddhism the state religion and allowed practice of other religions that conformed to constitutional requirements. In June, the Council of Ministers forbade the spreading (proselytizing) of the Christian religion to the Khmers in the Kingdom of Cambodia. However, reception of bibles, various religious books as well as material gifts by Christian humanitarian organizations were tolerated. On the 14th of April 1990, Easter Sunday, more than 1,500 Christians, Catholics and Evangelicals, Khmer, Vietnamese and foreigners, were for the first time in 15 years united to celebrate the Eucharist publicly in Phnom Penh (the capital). The 1990s saw many other Christian denominations and communities arriving in the country. Though proselytizing is strictly prohibited by the government, public worship and conversions of willing Khmers are tolerated. This is the situation we face right now. It might sound ironic but a further understanding of Cambodian culture explains this.

Down through Cambodian history, we have seen Animism, Brahmanism, and Buddhism cross paths with each other. But far from working towards exclusivity, we have seen that they intermingled and emerged into a particular Khmer way of practicing Buddhism. Thus, we find a certain kind of religious tolerance of Cambodian culture towards religion. This, however, has a negative side effect on its people. Their brand of tolerance could develop in them a further passive resignation towards any religion. This could prove negative in the sense of their lack of deep reflection towards a religion that they might encounter in the future. Pastorally for Christianity, this could mean that there may be a danger of having Khmer neophytes receiving baptism, not because of a total commitment towards Christ but because of peer or family pressure, or even because of financial or social gains they perceive as coupled to the acceptance of Christianity.

From this pattern of religious tolerance overflowing to the people’s passive acceptance of a religion, there could be the danger of Christianity being accepted and later assimilated as "one" of the many religions they would turn to out of convenience. The utilitarian use of Christianity could find a way through the Khmer way of thinking and be included and integrated subconsciously into their existing belief system (Men, 228). This simply means that Christian educators should always be aware of this tendency of Christianity’s absorption into Khmer culture’s multi-faceted belief system. To avoid this pitfall, knowledge and the understanding of Khmer culture and its intricacies are indispensable for a Christian who wishes to live with the Khmer people.

A Difficulty of Proclamation

Being immersed in understanding the Khmer culture, however, does not relieve us Christians from the task of proclamation of the Gospel because deep down in us we know that there already exists in the individuals and peoples we encounter an expectation, though at times unconscious, of knowing the truth about God, about humankind, and how we are set free from sin and death. But then this proclamation should not be prompted by a sectarian urge or a spirit of proselytism or a sense of superiority.

Deeply aware of this situational complexity, Christians are tasked with "speaking the truth in love" (Eph 4:15), of proclaiming the Good News with loving respect and esteem for the Khmer listeners. The Christian’s proclamation must be that which respects the rights of consciences and does not violate freedom, since we know that faith always demands a free response on the part of the individual. This respect is twofold: "Respect for man in his quest for answers to the deepest questions of his life, and respect for the action of the Spirit in man."10

Christians, in obedience to Christ’s command, are urged on to this task of proclamation: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:19-20). Every Christian knows that every person has the right to hear this Good News of God who reveals and gives Godself in Christ.

Bridges across the Two Worlds

Our task of proclamation can only be done in a spirit of true dialogue with our Khmer Buddhist friends. For only a sincere dialogue could provide the link or the bridge across these two worlds of Christianity and Buddhism. Incidentally, in the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions has mentioned "Buddhism" among those religious traditions worthy of high regard. The Secretariat for Non-Christians have issued a two volume set Towards the Meeting with Buddhism in 1970. It published articles on the background and the contemporary situation of Buddhist traditions as well as suggested topics for dialogue. However, on our part we shall make use of what we have discussed in order to build different types of bridges across the two worlds.

1. The Theological Bridge

A helpful starting point for sincere dialogue is to look for what unites rather than what divides. St. Paul becomes a model for us in our search for common platforms for a theological discussion and exchange. Once, the apostle Paul was brought to the Areopagus and asked what new teaching he had to present because the Athenians spent a lot of their time in discussions of new topics. And so, Paul, as he stood in the middle of the Areopagus, said: "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, gives to all men life and breath and everything… Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’" (Acts 17:22-28). Paul sought after what the Athenians already knew and believed implicitly. From these points of departure, Paul presented his own concepts and beliefs. It is in this context that we present our theological bridges across the two worlds of Buddhism and Christianity.

Our first theological bridge is the quest for "the" religious model: Buddha for the Buddhist and Christ for the Christian. Both received a mission: On the day of his enlightenment Gautama became "Buddha" who had the mission to save all living beings by proclaiming the truth about all things and his disciples saw in him as their way towards their "salvation" (nirvana). Jesus on the day of his baptism saw his mission as the "Christ"—the savior, He who proclaims: "I am the way, the truth and the life" (Jn 14:6). Although both Buddha and Christ lead a life of detachment from their own self and from the world, they are nevertheless filled with compassion towards the people of the world. And this legacy of compassion they left for their followers to emulate. Those who wrote the story of Buddha and those who wrote the one of Christ describe them both as fulfilling the hope of humankind. The Buddhists wrote the history of their master by relying on his teachings; The evangelists wrote the gospels through the eyes of those who heard the teachings of Jesus and witnessed his deeds. The only difference would be that the latter wrote the gospels in the light of the resurrection of Jesus.

Our second theological bridge is the quest for harmony between human beings. This is achieved through the prerogative of the moral precepts: the Noble Eightfold Pathfor the Buddhist, and the Ten Commandments for the Christian. For the Buddhist, it is worded as right views, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditational attainment. For the Christian it is worded as "right" worship, honor for parents; do not kill, steal, lie, covet, or commit adultery (cf. Dt 5:6-21). Both teach respect for one’s fellow human beings and the right to treat and be treated fairly and well. Both speak about the value of doing good to others as embodied in their ethical principles. In short, it is in living righteously that harmony is brought about within a given community of persons.

Our third theological bridge is the quest for the "perfection" of the law: Compassion for the Buddhist and Love for the Christian. Both are encouraged by these virtues to do more than just adhere to the minimum. Both are asked to pay attention to others; to refrain from harming or even saddening others, from upsetting them even sometimes to the point of not showing our own feelings (e.g., anger, disappointment, discontent). Both take pity on beggars, on the poor and the unfortunate. The difference of course lies in the fact that for the Buddhist, the poor are companions of pain, and giving alms makes one acquire merits. On the other hand, for a Christian the motivation is that each one is a "likeness" of God and as Jesus would say, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Mt 25: 40).

2. The Catechetical Bridge

Suffice it to say that, in our study of the three pre-Christian religions, we could find certain catechetical bridges that could be useful to help interested Cambodians or neophyte Khmer Christians make that crossing from an Animistic, Brahmanistic, or Buddhist conceptual framework to a Christian one.

In the previous chapter we saw the Khmer animistic tendencies especially in their strong belief in the spirits (be they good or bad). But these concepts also exist in our Christian thinking though in a different way. For example, the Christian gospels are filled with stories of exorcisms of the devil that possess people and make them mute, bent or sick. In our present century, these stories puzzle scientifically educated people who must interpret the biblical texts in a symbolic manner. However, it is in this same animistic context that Jesus Christ brought the Good News of liberation in his own time. It must be remembered that even in the Christian Church people still engage in the practice of exorcism.

To expect to destroy this cultural given in the Khmer people is unrealistic. It will reappear as long as the people are not deeply liberated of their fears. What could be done is to affirm that the risen Jesus is Master of all these spirits and that he is the Victor who lives with those who believe in him (cf. Eph 1:16-23). This message can liberate people interiorly and enable them to progress towards a genuine conversion. This is the orientation of the Christian Church here in Cambodia. It is one of following the example of St. Paul who proclaimed the universal sovereignty of Christ: the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Col 1:16). Therefore, we present to Khmers a Jesus, who rose from the dead, and is the Master of all these spirits. He is above and over all the good and bad spirits alike.

The vocabulary used by Christians here in Cambodia concerning God and anything related to divinity is drawn from the vocabulary the Brahmans used in reference to their divinity. This Brahmanisitic vocabulary seems to be relatively close to the categories of biblical theology in the Old Testament. The word Preah as used by many Cambodians, and in the Christian translation of the Bible, corresponds to one of the many deities of Brahmanic literature. For centuries, the Catholic Khmers were accustomed to use the word Preah Mochas Suor (the Master of Heaven) which is a translation of the word used for God in China and Vietnam. It corresponds relatively well to Brahma or Indra. In the same way, we can say that omniscience, omnipotence, and love of human beings are divine attributes that have some correspondence with Brahmanism. But in the 60s, Catholics started using the wordPreah Atitep (the First God) but rather rapidly the word was discarded, because in Cambodian popular literature this god is often depicted as a cruel and wicked god who always picks a quarrel with humans when he interferes in their lives. Now Catholics and other Christian churches prefer to use the word Preah Jia Os Mochas(God who owns everything) in translations of the Bible. Furthermore, all the terminologies concerning God and anything about God is drawn from the royal vocabulary of the country’s language. Christians chose this vocabulary because the Old Testament speaks of the kingship of God and his kingdom (Ponchaud 1990:199-200).

If one understands well the Buddhist cosmology, then one will realize that no Khmer child will want to go to "heaven" (Sthan Suor). Instead, the child would prefer to go to the Nirvana. That is why in the new ecumenical translation of the Khmer Bible, an intermediary word had to be chosen for Heaven—Sthan Baramasokh which means "a place of great bliss." And for a Buddhist, there is no "creation;" the "nature" (thommacheat) was born by itself (kaeut aeng). This is the definition given to students at secondary schools or at the pagodas and is something which is a matter of fact for them. For a well-educated Buddhist then, the idea of creation in Christian doctrine is a figurative and fictional story only. And so for a Buddhist, to declare God as "creator" means to put Him at the same level of Brahma, Indra, and Shiva residing in the heavens—the upper world. Consequently, this means for them that the Christian God is neither eternal nor infinite. Thus, it might not be convenient to start introducing the God of the Christians by speaking about creation as we are wont to do. Maybe it would be better to speak first about the desire for infinity that is in the heart of every person and which leads to a certain spiritual experience.11

Buddhism, as we have seen, has always presented itself as a moral teaching that enables one to have a correct understanding of the world one lives in. It leads to a correct perception of the values that must be the principle for his actions. However, it includes no idea of a personal relation with a god. In fact, the word used to designate religion in Khmer is Sassana which literally means "moral teaching." And so in Buddhism, there is no personal faith that leads to personal union with God, in love and in trust, through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit as Christians have. When a Khmer uses the expression "I believe" (knyom jeu) he means simply that: "I recognize that what you say or what your Jesus says is true. But it does not mean that I want to be united lovingly with him and the Holy Spirit." Here is a difficult point of explanation for the Christian faith. Suffice it to say that translators have not yet found a completely satisfying Khmer word for "faith" until the present.

3. The Practical Bridge

Needless to say in spite of our differences of culture and religion, we still hold our humanity as a common starting point. Thus, any attempt to work together with our Buddhist brothers and sisters can always be considered a practical bridge for these "two worlds." Here in Cambodia there have been many efforts down through the centuries at building bridges, but they are more indispensable now at these present times.

Many missionaries, including non-government organization volunteers from various international humanitarian organizations start their mission here by a seminar on Cambodian culture with a special emphasis on Buddhism and its implications in their social lives. Strikingly, Buddhist monks are always very accommodating to speak on behalf of their religion to other Christians without influencing them to give up Christianity and turn to Buddhism. This openness on both sides has opened up avenues for a common study of each other’s beliefs. Both sides are actively cooperating in common research especially as regards the in-depth study of the Khmer language.

Another avenue worth following is the common concern both Buddhist monks and Christian communities have for the benefit of people within their vicinity. This is actualized through social awareness programs launched by both sectors though separately yet simultaneously. An example is a non-smoking campaign initiated in the pagoda beside a Christian school. The campaign, not only prohibits smoking within the pagoda’s compound, but also includes occasional seminars about the danger of smoking given by the monks for people who enter their premises. This same program is carried out just across the street in the Christian school. Thus, Buddhist and Christians also conduct environmental programs which they launch in parallel yet simultaneous ways.

Buddhist pagodas take care of the general education of the young people within their area without expecting anything in return. This, too, is a goal for many Christian groups and organizations which come to stay here in Cambodia. A noticeable phenomenon in the city is that pagodas now offer English and computer lessons like their Christian counterparts to supplement the general education the children receive. Perhaps this common goal of education can be further enhanced later on in the future with a sharing of educative materials between the two.

Christians and Buddhist like to pray. Though the manner of praying, the person to whom it is addressed, the purpose of prayers may be different from each other, the intention of praying in order to ask for blessings is common. People go to Buddhist monks that their activities may be blessed; likewise, Christians go to their priests and pastors. Because of these there have been many occasions when Buddhists and Christians joined together in common prayer asking blessings both from Buddhist monks and Christian priests or pastors upon embarking upon social activities that would benefit the community—activities like opening of schools, digging of ponds (water sources), or marking the start of the plowing season. In connection with this, both Buddhists and Christians hold the spirit of their departed with reverence. In Cambodia, the feast of Pchum Ben is a week-long national feast when everyone goes to the pagoda to venerate and remember his/her departed loved ones. In Christian liturgy, we have the same feast on the first and second of November when All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are celebrated. In Christian countries this is a time when people light candles and pray in cemeteries for their deceased friends and relatives. Here in Cambodia, Christians move this feast to the week of Pchum Ben to show their solidarity with their Cambodian brothers and sisters in praying for the dead.

4. The Personal Bridge

Finally, Christians must confront the fact that in the task of inculturation and evangelization, no amount of theoretical debate, discussion, or catechetical methods of instruction can capture the ears and the hearts of Khmer listeners as much as witnessing to a life lived in Christ.

In fact, the Cambodian perception of religion invites us to examine ourselves in the light of our own Christian faith. We have seen how the Khmer Buddhists give importance to a good moral life. When Cambodians see that Christians live a life according to their Christian moral precepts, then a Christian becomes a credible witness of his faith in their eyes. The emphasis on moral living may be different in both of these religions; nevertheless, moral actions speak louder than words.

Khmer Buddhism holds asceticism and contemplation in high esteem. The mystical and spiritual experience is more important for them than just theory and knowledge of theological matters. This is also true of Christian spirituality. If Christians live an asceticism that negates the self in order to be nearer Christ and emphasize a spirit of prayer and contemplation that unites us with Jesus, then our Khmer listeners cannot but hear the message we bring.

Needless to say, to bear witness to Christ with one’s life is the ultimate strategy for winning the hearts of the people with whom we wish to share the Good News. We conclude with the words of John Paul II in Ecclesia in Asia: "To bear witness to Jesus Christ is the supreme service which the Church can offer to the peoples of Asia, for it responds to their profound longing for the Absolute, and it unveils the truths and values which will ensure their integral human development."12

Hope for the Future

At the beginning of this millennium, many Christian denominations saw Cambodia as a vast rice field ready for harvesting. They saw the Khmers as people that had to be saved in the shortest time possible. Door-to-door attempts towards proselytization became their strategy, offering them baptism by the hundreds. The government saw this as an insult to the Khmer laws previously established. For the Khmer every follower of Christ was as a Christian without any distinction, whether Catholic, Evangelical, Lutheran, or Anglican.

Before I came to this country, my friends reminded me: "Before you set foot in that place, always remember that God was there before you." Thus, learning more and more about the ways of the Khmer, their longings, and aspirations, becomes an imperative for those of us who wish to share our lives with this people. Only then will the Khmer people see us Christians as partners in search of the truth, partners in the quest of liberation from the social evils of the times, partners in developing the Khmer society, because they know we love them for who they are and not for who they could be. God has been here in Cambodia for centuries before I arrived and will continue to be here after I have left.




1. This article is based on the author’s research paper entitled: "Towards a Christian Pastoral Approach to Cambodian Culture," submitted to the South African Theological Seminary as partial requirement for the Master in Theology (Missiology) degree which was granted on 8 April 2004, supervised by Dr. Bill Domeris, Ph.D.

2. In this article, italicized words or those enclosed in quotation marks will refer to the phonetic spelling equivalent to the Cambodian word (script).

3. The terms "Khmer" and "Cambodian" mean the same and will be used interchangeably in the article.

4. Pontifical Council for Culture, "Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture."http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils /cultr/documents/rc_pc_pc-cultr_doc_03061999_pastoral_en. html

5. Umoren, "U.E., Enculturation and Inculturation: The Gospel of Liberation and the Culture of African Womanhood," http://www.sedos. org/english/umorem.htm. cf. Umoren, U.E. "Inculturation and the Future of the Church in Africa" in Ukpong, J.S. et al (eds.) Evangelization in Africa in the Third Millennium Challenges and Prospects, 1992, Port Harcourt: CIWA, pp. 63-65.

6. Paraphrased from Chandler 1991:42-43.

7. Tamalinda, the son of Jayavarman VII, lived in Ceylon (Sri-Lanka), a center of important Buddhist reform. He hoped to rediscover the purity of the origins of the Buddhism of the ancients. He introduced his preferred form of Buddhism, that of Theravada, into Cambodia.

8. Details (names and dates) taken from Directory of the Catholic Church in the Kingdom of Cambodia, pp. 106-107.

9. Common everyday beliefs of Cambodians.

10. John Paul II, Ecclesia in Asia, 6 November 1999, n.20.

11. Although this is common knowledge in Cambodia, there is also discussion on this found in the handouts of Dupraz, Birsens, and Pounchad 1990.

12. John Paul II, Ecclesia in Asia, 6 November 1999, n.20.




Bit, Seanglim

1991 The Warrior Heritage (California, USA: Seanglim Bit).

Chandler, David.



1998 A History of Cambodia, 2nd ed. (Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books).

1991 The Land and People of Cambodia, (NY: Harper Collins Publishers).

Dupraz, Bernard, Jean-Marie Birsens, and Francois Pounchad



1990 Insights into the Religious Background of the Khmers (Annandale, VA: Bishop Salas Center).

Men, Chean Rithy



2002 "The Changing Religious Beliefs and Ritual Practices among Cambodians in Diaspora," Journal of Refugee Studies, Vol. 15, No.2.

Ponchaud, Francois

1990 The Cathedral of the Rice Paddy (Paris: Fayard).

Rooney, Dawn F.



2003 "Cambodia," Microsoft Encarta 2004 (CD-ROM) (Redmond: Microsoft Corp).



Directory of the Catholic Church in the Kingdom of Cambodia (Phnom Penh, 2003).

John Paul II, Ecclesia in Asia, 6 November 1999,http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/docume...

Accessed on 15 December 2003

Pontifical Council for Culture, Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture,


Accessed on 1 December 2003

Umoren, U.E., Enculturation and Inculturation: The Gospel of Liberation and the Culture of African Womanhood, http://www.sedos.org/english/umorem.htm

Accessed on 30 November 2003