According to a local legend, the Funan kingdom was founded by an Indian Brahmana
named Kaundinya (called Hun-tien by the Chinese sources) in the lower valley of
the Mekong in the first century AD. Buddhism and some forms of Brahmanical religion
like Saivism co-existed in the region until the end of the fifth century AD.
Among the kings of the Funan dynasty, Kaundinya Jayavarman (478-514 AD) sent a mission to China under the leadership of a Buddhist monk named Nagasena. During the reign of the same Chinese emperor, two learned monks from Funan came to China in the early years of the sixth century AD to translate the Buddhist scriptures. King Rudravarman (514-539 AD) is said to have claimed that in his country there was a long Hair Relic of the Buddha. The Theravada with Sanskrit language flourished in Funan in the fifth and earlier part of the sixth centuries AD. Around seventh century AD, the popular usage of Pali language in southern region suggested the strong appearance of Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia.
The great emperor, Yasovarman (889-900 AD) established a Saugatasrama and elaborated regulations for the guidance of this asrama or hermitage, at the time, Buddhism, Brahmanism and Vasnavism flourished in Cambodia. During the reign of Jayavarman V (968-1001), the successor of Rajendravarman II, Mahayana Buddhism grew in importance. The king supported Buddhist practices and invoked the three forms of existence of the Buddha. In this way, up to the tenth century AD Mahayana Buddhism had become quite prominent.
Pramakramabahu I, the king of Sri Lanka,is said to have sent a princess as a bride probably for Jayavarman VII, son of Dharanindravarman II (1150-1160), who was the crown prince. King Jayavarman VII (1181-1220AD) was a devout Buddhist and received posthumously the title of Mahaparamasaugata. The king patronized Theravada Buddhism, his records express beautifully the typical Buddhist view of life, particularly the feelings of charity and compassion towards the whole universe. An inscription from this king informs us that there were 798 temples and 102 hospitals in the whole kingdom, and all of them were given full support by the king. One of the monks who returned to Burma with Capata was Tamalinda Mahathera, who most probably was the son of the Cambodian king Jayavarman VII. Under the threat of the anarchical spirit of Sinhalese Buddhism his prestige diminished, his temporal power crumbled away, and the god-king was thrown down the altar." Theravada Buddhism had become the predominant religion of the people of Angkor by the end of Jayavarman's reign.
The second half of the twelfth century AD, Sri Lanka's fame as the fountain-head of Theravada Buddhism reached the Buddhist countries of South-East Asia. The knowledge of Sihala Buddhism was so wide spread and the Sihala monks were so well-known to the contemporary Buddhist world. At this time a Cambodian prince is said to have visited Sri Lanka to study Sihala Buddhism under the able guidance of the Sinhalese Mahatheras. Buddhism continued to flourished in Kambuja in the thirteenth century AD but yet to become the dominant religious sect in the country. After then, Theravada became the main type of Buddhism.
The change was undoubtedly due to the influence of the Thais of Thailand, who were ardent Buddhists, and had conquered a large part of Cambodia. Under the influence of the Thais, Sihala Buddhism was introduced in Cambodia. With the passage of time, the Brahmanical gods like Angkor Wat were replaced by Buddhist images. Gradually, Buddhism became the dominant creed in Kambuja and today there is hardly any trace of the Brahmanical religion in the country.
The Jinakalamali gives an account of the cultural connections between Cambodia and Sri Lanka in the fifteenth century. It states that 1967 years after the Mahaparinibbana of the Buddha, eight monks headed by Mahananasiddhi from Cambodia with 25 monks from Nabbispura in Thailand came to Sri Lanka to receive the upasampada ordination at the hands of the Sinhalese Mahatheras.
Buddhism continued to flourish in Cambodia in the sixteenth century AD. Ang Chan (1516-1566 AD), 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 Satha (1576-1594 AD), son and successor of Barom Reachea, restored the great towers of the Angkor Wat(the Visnu temple, see Fig.), which was built by Sriyavarman II (1113-1150 AD), had become a Buddhist shrine by the sixteenth century AD.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Thailand's interference in Cambodia's politics helped the former to influence the religious world of the latter. With the help of its Buddhist monks and Sangha, Cambodia developed her religion. Though Thailand disturbed Cambodia's politics and hampered its progress but the Thai kings and their Buddhist world made a great contribution to the progress of Buddhism in Cambodia.
In 1975 when the communists 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 library had been destroyed. Today Buddhism is struggling to re-establish itself although the lack of Buddhist scholars and leaders and the continuing political instability is making the task difficult.
Courtesy of the Royal Embassy of Cambodia in London,