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,