The Place of Animism within Popular Buddhism in Cambodia: the Example of the Monastery

by Ang Choulean

The Cambodian monastery as a sacred territory where animist forces combine with Theravada canon.

Pirogue Pagoda Siemreap Willgoto

Publication: Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 35-41 | Published by Nanzan University

Published: 1998

Author: Ang Choulean

Pages: 7

Language : English

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Since the ancient Cambodia the main enduring characteristic in the elaboration Khmer religious thought was the search for harmony between animistic foundation and Indian philosophico-spiritual contributions”, writes the author. With the adoption of Theravada the system acquires its ultimate enrichment. While preserving the elements of its Brahmanic inheritance, Theravada succeeded in inculcating a strong preoccupation with moral and spiritual matters, even among the most common strata of the society.”

In this short yet vivid description of the typical Cambodian monastery (vihear), the author shows how local spirits (anak ta, bray...) are present in the sacred territory delimited by the sima. About the bray spirit (often inhabiting the racing pirogue stored within the monastery), he remarks: Here we see how a female spirit of inauspicious death arrogates, so to speak, Buddha’s supernatural powers to herself. Indeed it is the vihar itself which shelters a bray and accepts her as a guardian.

Photo: The monk Preah Ang Chan-han Hoy and his legendary pirogue at Wat Preah Prohm Rath, Siem Reap, Cambodia (by willgoto).

Tags: Khmer religion, Theravada Buddhism, animism, syncretism, female spirits

About the Author

Angchoulean2 2

Ang Choulean

Ang Choulean អាំង ជូលាន (1 Jan 1949, Kompong Kleang, Cambodia) is an anthropologist, a professor of historical anthropology at the Royal University of Fine Arts and a former Director of the Department of Culture of APSARA.

He was the second Cambodian national to be granted the Fukuoka Grand Prize in 2011.

Ang Choulean is the author of numerous academic papers and books, including an ethnographic essay on Food and Cuisine in the Angkor Area (La cuisine d’Angkor, 2020).

Read Prof. Choulean reflections on reading, education and the need for scholarly debate in Cambodia (Khmer Times, 3 May 2023).