Isaiah Seret reports on the history of Theravadin Buddhism in Cambodia and Khyentse Foundation’s work to support its tradition.
Buddhism in Cambodia is lucky to be around, and I don’t say that lightly. It was nearly wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, a revolutionary socialist party that systematically executed everyone in Cambodia with an education, including monks. During the massive turmoil of the 1970s, the Cambodian Buddhist sangha was virtually annihilated.
With the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the country began to heal, and Buddhism was desperately needed as a support for the lay society. Buddhist temples in Cambodia and neighboring Theravadin lands for centuries served the community through spiritual and family guidance, established orphanages, and gave food to those in need. However, it was not until the late 1980s that the Buddhist community was free to practice and grow, and few were left to teach the new generation of monastics. Who was left to revive the Buddhist tradition? Only a handful of learned teachers, nearly all non-monastics, emerged from hiding, and with government support a monastic education system modeled after western-style education was slowly reestablished.
In the early 1990s, after a break of some 15 years, Dhamma-Vinaya and Pali (elementary) schools for monks reopened, and the first high school for monks reopened in Phnom Penh in 1993. In 1997, Preah Sihanouk Raj Buddhist University in Phnom Penh reopened with a pre-BA program. To date, although 15 to 20 monastics have graduated with BAs from this program since 2001, most disrobe upon completing their studies. It is estimated that there are fewer than 50 educated monastics in Cambodia today.
Due to societal pressures and lack of opportunity, many of the monks who have graduated from the Buddhist University have gone into business and lay life. Although this might be due in part to the lack of a viable monastic community, it is also possible that a 20-year-old monk may not be sure what to do with his life. And after graduation, there is no possibility for further education, because the Buddhist University is not equipped to offer master’s and doctorate programs.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche visited Cambodia in 2004 and was greatly touched by the condition of monks living in makeshift structures. Rinpoche was deeply concerned that the Cambodian Theravadin tradition is in real danger of perishing if no effort is made to support and revive study and practice. He decided that Khyentse Foundation will help where possible, even if only in a small way.
To carry out this mandate, Khyentse Foundation explored various ways to establish a postgraduate scholarship program designated for Cambodian monks. One way to help is to offer financial assistance to Cambodian monks so that they can have the opportunity to study for an MA in the Buddhadhamma abroad, in countries where the Buddhist tradition is strong. The objective is for these monks to study and return to Cambodia to help restore Buddhism in their homeland.
With the advice and through the introduction of Professor Peter Skilling, a Buddhist scholar based in Thailand, Khyentse Foundation partnered with the Crestone, Colorado-based Khmer-Buddhist Education Assistance Project (KEAP) to offer a unique scholarship opportunity for outstanding monastics with a BA in Buddhist studies to further their studies.
The KF scholarships provide all expenses for the monks to attend a three-year MA program at recognized Buddhist universities in countries considered to have an extremely pure and unbroken lineage of Buddhist teachings. During the university summer break, the monks will practice meditation at retreats in the host country. A special English for Buddhist studies language crash course was recently completed at the Buddhist University in Phnom Penh that helped prepare the first two monk scholarship recipients, who will soon begin their studies in Sri Lanka.
KEAP is the only organization in Cambodia currently offering scholarship support for monastic education at the undergraduate level. The KF scholarship for postgraduate study is designed to supplement the KEAP program. Through this alliance, KEAP and Khyentse Foundation hope to produce a new generation of Buddhist scholars who will return to Cambodia as teachers and as the natural leaders that monks have always been in Cambodia.
With its network of more than 4,000 temples across a country that is more than 90 percent Buddhist, Theravadin Buddhism has been in the forefront of regenerative forces in the past. The rebirth of the Khmer culture and society will to a large extent depend on the renewal of standards in the Buddhist sangha. With planning and support from sympathetic friends, and the revival of the monastic community itself, Buddhism will again play a leading role in shaping a better future for Cambodia.
The KF-KEAP scholarship program for monastics in Cambodia is highly recommended and appreciated by Buddhist, government, and education leaders in Cambodia. The Foundation plans to gradually increase the number of awards from two to six scholarship recipients a year.