The vast majority of the Cambodian population identified as Buddhist (96.9%) in recent surveys. Buddhism is the official religion of the country and public signs of reverence for the religion are evident throughout Cambodia. Of the remaining population, 1.9% identified as Muslim, 0.4% identified with Christianity, and 0.8% identified with ‘Other’. Among the Cambodia-born Australian population, 79.5% identified as Buddhist, 2.6% identified as Catholic, 7.0% chose ‘Other’ and 7.9% selected ‘no religion’.
The prominent form of Buddhism practised in Cambodia is Theravāda Buddhism. Followers of Theravāda Buddhism take refuge in the ‘Triple Gem’: the teacher (Buddha), the teaching (dharma) and the monastic community (the Sangha). These three elements of Buddhism provide a sense of stability within Cambodian society by offering a structure for people to base their everyday routines around. Although Buddhism has been revived, Buddhist ideas do not permeate education and ideology as strongly as they once did before the Khmer Rouge regime.
In Cambodia (and Theravāda Buddhism more generally), the Buddha is not considered a ‘God’ as understood in the Christian sense of the term. Devotion towards the Buddha is more similar to the respect a student has for a teacher. Reverence to the Buddha is accompanied with his core teaching (dharma) known as the ‘Four Noble Truths’, which dictates that underpinning all existence is suffering and one can reach liberation through practising the ‘Eightfold Path’.
The Sangha (the Buddhist monastic order that includes ordained monks, nuns and/or novices) is an important institution in Cambodia. Monks, nuns and other lay spiritual leaders are greatly respected within their communities. Some Cambodians will leave their families in order to offer their services to the monastery and perhaps become a monk themselves. There is a common belief that men should have the opportunity to have a monk’s education for at least a few months, if not several years. This is in part due to the belief that to have a son in the family who is an ordained monk will bring good ‘karma’ (merit) to the family.
The Buddhist temple complex (vott) is central to community life. Most Cambodians visit their local temple during special holidays and ask for blessings from monks in the event of a wedding, birth or funeral. If unable to visit a temple on important religious days, many Cambodians will pray at a small Buddhist shrine in or near their home.