Buddhism in Cambodia | History

1. Buddhism in Cambodia

Buddhism in Cambodia has existed since at least the 5th century:

In its earliest form it was a type of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Today, the predominant form of Buddhism in Cambodia is Theravāda Buddhism:

It is enshrined in the Cambodian constitution as the official religion of the country. Theravāda Buddhism has been the Cambodian state religion since the 13th century (except during the Khmer Rouge period).

As of 2010 it was estimated that 96.9% of the population was Buddhist, and is currently estimated to be the faith of 95% of the population.

The history of Buddhism in Cambodia spans a number of successive Kingdoms and Empires. Buddhism entered Cambodia via 2 different streams:

The earliest forms of Buddhism, along with Hindu influences, entered the Kingdom of Funan with Hindu merchants.

In later history, a 2nd stream of Buddhism entered Khmer culture during the Angkor Empire when Cambodia absorbed the various Buddhist traditions of the Mon kingdoms of Dvaravati and Hariphunchai.

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 Mahāyānist, and Suryavarman I.

A variety of Buddhist traditions co-existed peacefully throughout Cambodian lands, under the tolerant auspices of Hindu kings and the neighbouring Mon-Theravāda kingdoms.

2. Possible early missions

Unconfirmed Singhalese sources assert that missionaries of King Aśoka introduced Buddhism into Southeast Asia in the 3rd century BC.

Various Buddhist sects competed with Brahmanism and indigenous animistic religions over approximately the next millennium; during this period, Indian culture was highly influential.

3. Funan

The Funan Kingdom that flourished between 100 BC and 500 CE was Hindu, with the kings of Funan sponsoring the worship of Viṣṇu and Śiva.

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 traveller Yijing (635–713 CE) toward the close of the 7th century.

2 Buddhist monks from Funan, named Mandrasena and Saṅghabara, took up residency in China in the 5-6th centuries, and translated several Buddhist sūtras from Sanskrit into Chinese.

Among these texts is the Mahāyāna Mahā Prajñāpāramitā Mañjuśrīparivarta Sūtra. This text was separately translated by both monks. The bodhisattva Mañjuśrī is a prominent figure in this text.

4. Chenla

The Kingdom of Chenla replaced Funan and endured from 550-802 AD.

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-Angkorian statuary in the Mekong Delta region indicates 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 Śiva and Viṣṇu.

An inscription from Ta Prohm (Ancestor Brahma) temple in Siem Reap province dated about 625, states that the Buddha, Dharma and Saṅgha are flourishing.

5. Angkor

The transition from Hindu God-King to Mahāyāna Bodhisattva-King was probably gradual and imperceptible. The prevailing Vaiṣṇava and Śaiva faith traditions gave way to the worship of the Gautama Buddha and the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara.

The Buddhist Śailēndra kingdom exercised suzerainty over Cambodia as a vassal state during the end of the 8th and the beginning of the 9th centuries.

King Jayavarman II (802–835), the first real Khmer King of the Angkor Empire, proclaimed himself Hindu God-King and identified himself with Śiva.

Nevertheless, he was increasingly friendly to and supportive of Mahāyāna Buddhist influence throughout his kingdom. Mahāyāna Buddhism became increasingly established in his empire.

The form of Mahāyāna Buddhism that was propagated in the Srivijaya lands was similar to the Pala Dynasty Buddhism of Bengal, and of the Nālanda University in northern India.

The Bengal University of Nālanda in Magadha (now Behar) was the theological centre of Mahāyāna Buddhism under the protection of the Pala Dynasty 750- 1200.

Śaivite interpretations of Buddhism, tinged with Tantric mysticism (that may have revived portions of pre-Aryan north-eastern Indian faith traditions) were worked out in Magadha and then were exported throughout insular and peninsular Southeast Asia, particularly to Java.

Yasovarman I (889-910), who ruled from the vicinity of Roluos in the late 9th century, seems to have been a Śaivite Buddhist influenced by Nālanda syncretism.

His successors (notably Jayavarman IV) dedicated themselves to Hindu trinity such as Viṣṇu and Brahma, as well as to Śiva, with whom they continued to be identified by hereditary families of priests.

Rajendravarman II (944–968) studied Buddhism intensely.

The Śailēndra dynasty also built the fantastic Mahāyāna Buddhist temple Borobudur (750–850) in Java. Borobudur appears to have been the inspiration for the later fabulous Angkor building projects in Cambodia, particularly Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.

The primary form of Buddhism practiced in Cambodia during Angkor times was Mahāyāna Buddhism, strongly influenced with Tantric tendencies.

The prevalence of Tantrayāna in Java, Sumatra and Cambodia, is a fact now definitely established by modern researches with the character of Mahāyāna Buddhism and Śaivism in these parts of the Indian Orient.

Already in Cambodia inscription of the 9th century there is definite evidence of the teaching of Tantric texts at the court of Jayavarman II.

In a Cambodia record of the 11th century there is a reference to the 'Tantras of the Paramīs'; and images of Hevajra, definitely a tantric divinity, have been recovered from amidst the ruins of Angkor Thom.

A number of Cambodia inscriptions refer to several Kings who were initiated into the Great Secret (Vrah Guhya) by their Hindu Brahmin gurus; the Śaiva records make obvious records to Tantric doctrines that had crept into Śaivism.

But it was in Java and Sumatra that Tantrayāna seems to have attained greater importance:

There Mahāyāna Buddhism and Śaivism, both deeply imbued with tantric influences, are to be seen often blending with one another during this period.

The Sang Hyang Kamahayanikan (Javanese prose), consisting of Sanskrit verses explained by an Old Javanese commentary, professed to teach the Mahāyāna and Mantrayāna.

The presence and growing influence of Buddhism continued as the Angkor Empire increased in power.

King Yasovarman I built many Buddhist temples in 887–889, representing the Maṇḍala of Mount Meru, the mythical axis of the world. The largest of these temples is Phnom Kandal or "Central Mountain" which lies near the heart of the Angkor complex.

King Rajendravarman II (944–968) "studied Buddhism intensely:

Although he decided to remain a Śaivite, he appointed a Buddhist, Kavindrarimathana, chief minister. Kavindrarimathana built shrines to Buddha and Shiva.

Jayavarman V (son of Rajendravarman) also remained a devotee of Śiva. He, too, permitted his own chief minister, Kirtipaṇḍita, to foster Mahāyāna Buddhist learning and divination."

6. Suryavarman I

Suryavarman I (1006–1050) is considered the greatest of the Buddhist kings, with the exception of Jayavarman VII.

The origins of Suryavarman I are unclear but evidence suggests that he began his career in north-eastern Cambodia. He came to the throne after a period of disputes between rival claims to the Khmer throne.

Claim to the Khmer throne did not exclusively include paternal lines but also recognized the royal maternal line, giving prominence to whichever line successfully supported the legitimacy of the claim.

A strong proponent of Mahāyāna Buddhism, he did not interfere or obstruct the growing presence and dissemination of Theravāda Buddhism during his reign.

Indeed, inscriptions indicate he sought wisdom from wise Mahāyānists and Hīnayānists and at least somewhat disestablished the Śiva-kaivalya family's hereditary claims to being chief priests (purohitar).

Surayvarman's posthumous title of Nirvāṇa-pāda, 'the king who has gone to Nirvāṇa' is the strongest evidence that he was a Buddhist."

7. Jayavarman VII

Jayavarman VII (1181–1215), the most significant Khmer Buddhist king, worked tirelessly to establish Buddhism as the state religion of Angkor.

Jayavarman VII was a Mahāyāna Buddhist, and he regarded himself to be a Dharma-king, a Bodhisattva, whose duty was to "save the people" through service and merit-making, liberating himself in the process.

Jayavarman withdrew his devotion from the old gods and began to identify more openly with Buddhist traditions. His regime marked a clear dividing line with the old Hindu past:

Before 1200, art in the temples mostly portrayed scenes from the Hindu pantheon; after 1200, Buddhist scenes began to appear as standard motifs.

During Jayavarman VII's reign, there was a shift away from the concept of Deva-raja God-King, toward the concept of the Saṅgha, the concept of monks.

In former times, great effort and resources were invested into building temples for elite Brahman priests and God-Kings.

Under Jayavarman, these resources were redirected to building libraries, monastic dwellings, public works, and more "earthly" projects accessible to the common people.

While Jayavarman VII himself was Mahāyāna Buddhist, the presence of Theravāda Buddhism was increasingly evident.

Sinhalese-based Theravāda Buddhist orthodoxy was first propagated in Southeast Asia by Mon monks in the 11th century and together with Islam in the 13th century in southern insular reaches of the region, spread as a popularly-based movement among the people.

Apart from inscriptions, such as one of Lopburi, there were other signs that the religious venue of Suvaṇṇabhūmi were changing:

Tamalinda, the Khmer monk believed to be the son of Jayavarman VII, took part in an 1180 Burmese-led mission to Śrī Lanka to study the Pāli Canon and on his return in 1190 had adepts of the Sinhala doctrine in his court.

Chou Ta-Laun, who led a Chinese mission into Angkor in 1296-97 confirms the significant presence of Pāli Theravāda monks in the Khmer Capital."

8. Decline of Angkor & new Theravāda kingdom

After the 13th century Theravāda Buddhism became the state religion of Cambodia.

King Jayavarman VII had sent his son Tamalinda to Śrī Lanka to be ordained as a Buddhist monk and study Theravāda Buddhism according to the Pāli scriptural traditions.

Tamalinda then returned to Cambodia and promoted Buddhist traditions according to the Theravāda training he had received, galvanizing and energizing the long-standing Theravāda presence that had existed throughout the Angkor Empire for centuries.

During the time Tamalinda studied at the famous Mahāvihāra Monastery in Śrī Lanka (1180–1190), a new dynamic type of Theravāda Buddhism was being preached as the "true faith" in Śrī Lanka:

This form of Buddhism was somewhat militant and highly disciplined in reaction to the wars with the Tamil that nearly destroyed Buddhism in Śrī Lanka in the 9-10th centuries.

As Theravāda Buddhism struggled for survival in Śrī Lanka, it developed a resiliency that generated a Renaissance throughout the Buddhist world, and would eventually spread across Burma, Chang Mai, the Mon kingdoms, Lana, Sukhothai, Laos, and Cambodia.

In the 13th century, wandering missionaries from the Mon-Khmer-speaking parts of Siam, Burma, Cambodia, and Śrī Lanka played an important part in this process.

When Prince Tamalinda returned after 10 years of ordination, he was a Thera, a senior monk, capable of administering ordination into this vigorous Theravāda lineage, which insisted on orthodoxy and rejected Mahāyāna "innovations" such as tantric practices.

The mass conversion of Khmer society to Theravāda Buddhism amounted to a nonviolent revolution at all levels of society. Scholars struggle to account for this sudden and inexplicable transformation of Khmer civilization.

Theravāda Buddhism succeeded because it was inclusive and universal in its outreach, recruiting the disciples and monks from not only the elites and court, but also in the villages and among the peasants, enhancing its popularity among the Khmer folk.

The post-Angkor period saw the dramatic rise of the Pāli Theravāda tradition in Southeast Asia and concomitant decline of the Brāhmaṇic and Mahāyāna Buddhist religious traditions.

A 1423 Thai account of a mission to Śrī Lanka mentions 8 Khmer monks who again brought orthodox Mahāvihāra sect of Singhalese order to Kampuchea.

This particular event belied, however, the profound societal shift that was taking place from priestly class structure to a village-based monastic system in Theravāda lands.

While adhering to the monastic discipline, monks developed their Wats, or temple-monasteries, not only into moral religious but also education, social-service, and cultural centres for the people.

Wats became the main source of learning and popular education.

Early western explorers, settlers, and missionaries reported widespread literacy among the male populations of Burma, Thailand, Kampuchea, Laos, and Vietnam.

Until the 19th century, literacy rates exceeded those of Europe in most if not all Theravāda lands. In Kampuchea, Buddhism became the transmitter of Khmer language and culture.

With the rise of Siam in the west and Vietnam in the east, the classical Angkor Empire disappeared and the beginning of present-day Cambodia began.

Cambodia became from this time forward a Theravāda Buddhist nation.

9. Buddhist Middle Ages

The Jinakālamālī chronicle gives an account of the cultural connections between Cambodia and Śrī Lanka in the 15th century:

It states that 1967 years after the Mahāparinibbāna of the Buddha, 8 monks headed by Mahānanasiddhi from Cambodia with 25 monks from Nabbispura in Thailand came to Śrī Lanka to receive the Upasampadā ordination at the hands of the Sinhalese Mahātheras.

As Angkor collapsed under the advancing jungles, the centre of power of the Theravāda Cambodia moved south toward present day Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh was originally a small riverside market centre where the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap River converge.

Phnom Penh was founded when Lady Penh found a "4-faced Buddha" floating down the river on a Koki tree during the flooding season. She retrieved the Buddha image and had the Wat Phnom constructed to house the image.

The 4-faced Buddha facing the 4 directions is important in Khmer Buddhist iconography, signifying the establishment of the kingdom of the Buddha of the Future, Maitreya, who is often identified with the Buddha-king of Cambodia.

After 1431 when the Cambodian kings permanently abandoned Angkor due to a Siamese invasion, the royal court was located on Phnom Oudong 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 Theravāda Buddhism and force the Khmer people to practice Mahāyāna Buddhism.

The Siamese, on the other hand, would periodically invade Cambodia and attempt to drive out the "unbelievers" in an attempt to protect the Theravāda religion.

This power-struggle between the 2 ascendant powers continued until the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century.

10. Colonial era

Buddhism continued to flourish in Cambodia in the 16th century:

King Ang Chan I (ruled 1516–1566), a relative of King Dhammaraja, was a devout Buddhist. He built pagodas in his capital and many Buddhist shrines in different parts of Cambodia.

In order to popularize Buddhism, King Satha I (ruled 1576–1584), son and successor of King Baraminreachea (1521–1576), restored the great towers of the Angkor Wat, which had become a Buddhist shrine by the 16th century.

Each successive wave of European influence was accompanied by Catholic missionaries, but Theravāda Buddhism proved surprisingly resistant to foreign attempts to convert the Khmer people.

During the colonial period, the peace was periodically breached by outbreaks of religiously motivated violence, including periodic millenarian revolts.

During the 17-19th centuries, Thailand's involvement in Cambodian politics extended Thai influence into religious matters as well:

On King Norodom's invitation, monks from the Thai Dhammayuttika Nikāya established a Dhammayuttika presence in Cambodia.

The newly formed Dhammayuttika order benefited from royal patronage, but frequently came into conflict with the existing Mahā Nikāya lineage. The Dhammayuttika were sometimes accused of holding loyalty to the Thai court, rather than to the Khmer nation.

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.

11. Khmer Rouge era

In 1975 when the communist Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, they tried to completely destroy Buddhism and very nearly succeeded.

By the time of the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, nearly every monk and religious intellectual had been either murdered or driven into exile, and nearly every temple and Buddhist temple and library had been destroyed.

The Khmer Rouge policies towards Buddhism - which included forced disrobing of monks, destruction of monasteries, and, ultimately, execution of uncooperative monks - effectively destroyed Cambodia's Buddhist institutions.

Monks who did not flee and avoided execution lived among the laity, sometimes secretly performing Buddhist rituals for the sick or afflicted.

Estimates of the number of monks in Cambodia prior to the ascension of the Khmer Rouge vary, ranging 65 000-80 000. By the time of the Buddhist restoration in the early-1980s, the number of Cambodian monks worldwide was estimated to be fewer than 3 000.

The patriarchs of both Cambodian Nikāyas perished sometime during the period 1975–1978, though the cause of their deaths is not known.

Due to their association with the Thai monarchy, monks of the Dhammayuttika order may have been singled out for persecution.

12. Post-Khmer Rouge era

Following the defeat of the Khmer Rouge by Vietnamese forces, Buddhism initially remained officially suppressed in Cambodia:

Following challenges to the legitimacy of the Vietnamese-backed People's Republic of Kampuchea, policies towards Buddhism began to ease starting in the summer of 1979.

A group of monks who had been exiled and re-ordained in Vietnam during the Khmer Rouge period were sent to Cambodia,

and in 1981 one of them, Venerable Tep Vong (born 1932), was elected the 1st Saṅgharaja of a new unified Cambodia Saṅgha, officially abolishing the division between the Dhammayuttika order and the Mahā Nikāya.

The ordination of new monks was sponsored by the government as a public show of piety and lifted restrictions on ordination.

Following the withdrawal of the Vietnamese military, the newly renamed Cambodian People's Party sought to align itself with the Buddhist Saṅgha, declaring Buddhism to be Cambodia's "state religion" in a 1991 policy statement.

In 1991, King Sihanouk returned from exile and appointed a new Saṅgharaja for each of the Dhammayuttika and Mahā Nikāya orders, effectively marking the end of the unified system created under Vietnamese rule in 1981.

13. The Cambodian Saṅgha

Since 1855, the Buddhist monastic community in Cambodia has been split into 2 divisions, except a brief period of unification in 1981-1991: the Mahā Nikāya and the Dhammayuttika Nikāya.

The Mahā Nikāya is by far the larger of the 2 monastic fraternities, claiming the allegiance of a large majority of Cambodian monks.

The Dhammayuttika Nikāya, despite royal patronage, remains a small minority, isolated somewhat by its strict discipline and connection with Thailand.

The Mahā Nikāya monastic hierarchy - headed by the Saṅgharaja - has been closely connected with the Cambodian government since its re-establishment in the early-1980s. 

High-ranking officials of the Mahā Nikāya have often spoken out against criticism of the government and in favour of government policies, including calling for the arrest of monks espousing opposition positions.

Officials from the Mahā Nikāya hierarchy appoint members to lay committees to oversee the running of temples, who also act to ensure that temples do not become organizing points for anti-government activity by monks or lay supporters.

Nevertheless, divisions within the Mahā Nikāya fraternity do exist.

14. Modernists and traditionalists

Divisions within the Saṅgha between "modernists" and "traditionalists" were recorded in Cambodia as early as 1918:

Broadly speaking, "modernists" have attempted to respond to Western criticism of Buddhist institutions by re-interpreting Buddhist teachings - particularly those related to philosophy and meditation - in light of both modern secular knowledge and the textual source of Theravāda teachings, the Pāli Canon.

"Traditionalists", on the other hand, prefer to stick to the practices and teachings handed down through the monastic oral tradition,

which have traditionally centred on the performance of merit-making ceremonies and the attainment of "heightened states" through concentration meditation.

Traditionalists have tended to reject modern interest in Vipassanā meditation as a foreign affectation, and have focused on the rote memorization and recitation of Pāli passages rather than attempts to study, translate, and interpret the contents of the Pāli Tripiṭaka.

For many years, Mahā Ghosānanda (1013-2007) remained the most visible and recognizable figure of the Mahā Nikāya modernists:

Through his Dhammayietra program and other attempts to use the influence of the Saṅgha to effect social change in Cambodian society, Mahā Ghosānanda brought to Cambodia a form of Engaged Buddhism not previously seen among Cambodian religious institutions:

This form of modernist, Engaged Buddhism has proved very popular with Western Buddhists and NGOs, who have lent their support and funding to efforts by Mahā Ghosānanda and other modernist leaders.

High officials of the Cambodian government, by contrast, have tended to support the most conservative of the Mahā Nikāya monks,

- particular the members of a segment known as the Borān kammaṭṭhāna ('ancient practices'), an ultra-conservative movement that touts the worldly efficacy of the rote recitation of various Pāli and Khmer prayers and discourses.

Monks in the Borān movement typically are focusing on the rote memorization and recitation of certain verses and scriptures considered powerful.

Borān monks maintain that by sponsoring recitations of these verses, lay supporters can accrue great merit that will result in immediate, worldly benefits, such as financial or career success.

A large number of senior Cambodian officials (including Hun Sen) have patronized Borān temples, providing for extensive expansions and rich decoration of the most popular temples.

Borān monks also teach the efficacy of "group repentance" rituals, where, through the recitation of Pāli texts, the karmic fruit of earlier misdeeds can be avoided or moderated:

These rituals, which developed from New Years’ repentance ceremonies, have become very popular among certain segments of Cambodian society, and have been conducted by the current Mahā Nikāya Saṅgharaja, Tep Vong.

The Dhammayuttika order in Cambodia seems to occupy a middle position between the Mahā Nikāya modernists and traditionalists:

Like the Dhammayuttika order in Thailand, they place a higher premium on scriptural study and knowledge of the Pāli language than the monks of the traditionalist camp.

At the same time, they have not embraced the modernist, engaged notion of monks as agents of social development,

preferring instead to stick closely to traditional monastic roles of study, meditation, and providing merit-making opportunities for lay supporters.

15. "Young Monks" movement

Another division in the Cambodian Saṅgha can be seen in what has been called the "Young Monks" movement, a small group of politically active monks (primarily Mahā Nikāya) voicing public opposition to the current government.

The "Young Monks" are primarily junior members of the clergy, drawn from temples in and around Phnom Penh:

Unlike the engaged modernists, their interest is not in using the authority of the Saṅgha to aide social development programs, but rather to express direct opposition to government policies and corruption.

Since the 1993 UN-monitored elections, monks have been permitted to vote in Cambodia (a move opposed by some senior monks):

While this has not resulted in any large-scale mobilization of the Saṅgha as a political force, it has drawn some young monks farther into participation in parliamentary politics.

Many of these young monks are associated with opposition figure Sam Rainsy and his political party, the SRP.

Members of the Young Monks movement have participated in and organized public demonstrations in Phnom Penh, aimed at drawing attention to perceived government misdeeds.

The Mahā Nikāya hierarchy has condemned this form of political activism, calling for the arrest of some monks and defrocking others.

16. Khmer nationalism and Buddhism

Cambodian Buddhism was instrumental in fomenting Khmer national identity and the Independence Movement in the 20th century, leading to Cambodian independence as a sovereign state.

In their attempt to separate the Khmer people from their cultural allegiance to the neighbouring Theravāda Kingdom of Siam, the French encouraged a sense of Khmer identity by emphasizing Khmer-language studies and Khmer Buddhist studies:

They established Pāli schools within Cambodia to keep the Cambodian monks from traveling to Siam for higher education. These Khmer language study centres became the birthplace of Cambodian nationalism.

17. Cambodian adaptations

Cambodian Buddhism has no formal administrative ties with other Buddhist bodies, although Theravāda monks from other countries, especially Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and Śrī Lanka, may participate in religious ceremonies in order to make up the requisite number of clergy.

Cambodian Buddhism is organized nationally in accordance with regulations formulated in 1943 and modified in 1948:

During the monarchical period, the King led the Buddhist clergy. Prince Sihanouk continued in this role even after he had abdicated and was governing as Head of State. He appointed both the heads of the monastic orders and other high-ranking clergy.

After the overthrow of Sihanouk in 1970, the new Head of State, Lon Nol, appointed these leaders.

2 monastic orders constituted the clergy in Cambodia. The larger group, to which more than 90% of the clergy belonged, was the Mahā Nikāya. The Dhammayuttika order was far smaller.

The Dhammayuttika was introduced into the ruling circles of Cambodia from Thailand in 1864; it gained prestige because of its adoption by royalty and by the aristocracy, but its adherents were confined geographically to the Phnom Penh area.

Among the few differences between the 2 orders is stricter observance by the Dhammayuttika Bhikkhus (monks) of the rules governing the clergy.

In 1961 the Mahā Nikāya had more than 52 000 ordained monks in some 2700 Wats, whereas the Dhammayuttika order had 1460 monks in just over 100 Wats.

In 1967 more than 2800 Mahā Nikāya Wats and 320 Dhammayuttika Wats were in existence in Cambodia. After Phnom Penh, the largest number of Dhammayuttika Wats were found in Battambang, Stung Treng, Prey Veng, Kampot, and Kampong Thom provinces.

Each order has its own superior and is organized into a hierarchy of 11 levels:

a) The 7 lower levels are known collectively as the thananukram;
b) the 4 higher levels together are called the rajagana.

The Mahā Nikāya order has 35 monks in the rajagana; the Dhammayuttika has 21. Each monk must serve for at least 20 years to be named to these highest levels.

The cornerstones of Cambodian Buddhism are the Buddhist Bhikkhu and the Wat:

Traditionally, each village has a spiritual centre, a Wat, where 5-70+ Bhikkhus reside.

A typical Wat in rural Cambodia consists of a walled enclosure containing a sanctuary, several residences for Bhikkhus, a hall, a kitchen, quarters for nuns, and a pond. The number of monks varies according to the size of the local population.

The sanctuary, which contains an altar with statues of the Buddha and, in rare cases, a religious relic, is reserved for major ceremonies and usually only for the use of Bhikkhus.

Other ceremonies, classes for monks and for laity, and meals take place in the hall.

Stūpas containing the ashes of extended family members are constructed near the sanctuary. Fruit trees and vegetable gardens tended by local children are also part of the local Wat.

The main entrance, usually only for ceremonial use, faces East; other entrances are at other points around the wall. There are no gates.

In the late-1950s, an estimated 100 000 Bhikkhus (including about 40 000 novices) served a population of about 5 million. This high proportion undoubtedly was caused in large part by the ease with which one could enter and leave the Saṅgha:

Becoming a Bhikkhu and leaving the Saṅgha are matters of individual choice although, in theory, nearly all Cambodian males over 16+ years serve terms as Bhikkhus.

Most young men do not intend to become fully ordained Bhikkhus, and they remain as monks for less than a year.

Even a son's temporary ordination as a Bhikkhu brings great merit to his parents, however, and is considered so important that arrangements are made at a parent's funeral if the son has not undergone the process while the parent was living.

There are 2 classes of Bhikkhus at a Wat: the Novices and the Bhikkhu. Ordination is held from mid-April to mid-July, during the Rainy Season.

Buddhist monks do not take perpetual vows to remain monks although some become monks permanently. Traditionally, they became monks early in life.

It is possible to become a novice at age 7, but in practice 13 is the earliest age for novices. A Bhikkhu must be at least 20.

The monk's life is regulated by Buddhist law, and life in the Wat adheres to a rigid routine. A Bhikkhu follows 227 rules of monastic discipline as well as the 10 basic precepts:

These include the 5 precepts that all Buddhists should follow.
The 5 precepts for monastic asceticism prohibit:

6. Eating after noon,
7. Participating in any entertainment
8. Using any personal adornments,
9. Sleeping on a luxurious bed,
10. Handling money.

In addition, a monk also is expected to be celibate.
Furthermore, monks supposedly avoid all involvement in political affairs.

Since the person of a monk is considered sacred, he is considered to be outside the normal civil laws and public duties that affect lay people.

Some of these practices have changed in the modern period, however, and in the 1980s Buddhist monks have been active even in the PRK government.

Women are not ordained, but older women, especially widows, can become Nuns. They live in Wat and play an important role in the everyday life of the temple:

Nuns shave their heads and eyebrows and generally follow the same precepts as monks. They may prepare the altars and do some of the housekeeping chores.