The Cambodian Buddhist Society, Inc. – A Study of Khmer Buddhism in America
By Annabel Richter
The tradition of Buddhism practiced in Cambodia – a small country embedded in the Indochina Peninsula and bordered by Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam – is a rich and longstanding one. Known as Khmer Buddhism, it aligns most closely with the Theravadin branch of Buddhism, which records indicate was imported to the region by Pali-speaking monks around the 13th century. Prior to this influx of Theravadin practices, Cambodia was largely dominated by a mix of Mahayana Buddhism (established in the area around 791 C.E.) and local religions, which commonly postulated the worship of ancestral, elemental, and animal spirits. Though the ruling powers of ancient Cambodia were actively promoting the practice of Buddhism – albeit a more Brahmanic and hierarchical version of the tradition perpetuated by contemporary Cambodians, over 90% of whom identify as Buddhist – Buddhism did not begin to flourish in Cambodia until the late 16th century after continual border conflicts with Thai and Vietnamese forces led to the religion infiltrating the country. From its initial introduction to Cambodian society, Khmer Buddhism quickly began to evolve as an independent branch of Buddhism consisting of two sects: the Tharavadin Thommayut and Mahanikay orders, practiced respectively by the aristocracy and the Cambodian common people. After nearly 400 years of peaceful dominance over the region and people of Cambodia, Buddhism was almost completely erased with the rise of the Khmer Rouge, a radical Communist group which overthrew the Khmer Republic and took power in the 1970s. Approximately 1.7 million Cambodians (over twenty percent of the population) perished in the ensuing violence as the Khmer Rouge sought to eliminate anti-Communist sentiments and supposed “instrument[s] of exploitation” like Buddhism. More than 50,000 monks died during the Khmer Rouge’s regime with thousands more enduring torture in “reeducation camps.” By 1979, only a single set of Buddhist scriptures, or Tripitaka, remained intact, and the monastic population had been reduced from 60,000 to less than 3,000 bonzes (monks). The widespread destruction of thousands-of-years-old wats (Cambodian temples), pagodas, stupas, and scriptures over the course of the Khmer Rouge’s reign led to fears that Khmer Buddhism and its strong ties to Cambodian culture would be entirely wiped out.
While it might seem strange to give a historical overview of the Cambodian genocide in a report on Buddhism in America, I believe it is vital to understand the context and background that drove thousands of Cambodians – thousands of Cambodian Buddhists – to abandon their home country and the religious protections once offered by Cambodia’s insulated society to seek refuge in the unwelcoming arms of the West. While the Khmer Rouge was officially dissolved in 1999, the people of Cambodia and the unique strain of Buddhism they practice have been heavily impacted by their forced relocation, the persecution of their religion, and the concessions they have made in order to preserve their culture and spiritual beliefs as immigrants in the United States.
Khmer Buddhism (Location, Beliefs, Affiliations)
Today, Khmer Buddhism is still primarily practiced by ethnically Khmer Cambodians and Cambodian-Americans in the U.S. Even within large congregations, such as the Cambodian Buddhist Society of Silver Spring, Maryland, it is rare to find a non-Khmer amongst the regular attendees of services; with the initial reestablishment of Khmer traditions and culture in the U.S. came a sense of tentative exclusivity, a sentiment that delegates most Cambodian wats to serve dual purposes as both places of worship and Cambodian-American community centers. This is true at the Maryland-based Cambodian Buddhist Society as well, where events like a beauty pageant to elect a “Miss Cambodian-American” from the temple’s congregation and free health screenings for the elderly are held in the same halls as the far more somber Festival for the Ancestors (Phchum Ben).
Members of the Cambodian Buddhist Society gather to hear prayers and chantings during New Year ceremonies in 2018.
The Cambodian Buddhist Society itself was initially organized in 1976 by members of the Cambodian populace of Oxon Hill, Maryland who were seeking a way to revitalize their culture and religion after being displaced to the West by the Cambodian genocide. Prayer practice, readings of sutras, blessings, rituals, and small ceremonies were originally held in “a converted, single-family residence… with the sanctuary in one part of the house and monk quarters in another” (Mortland 90). The congregation was later able to purchase a larger property in New Carollton, and in 1987, transferred activities to their current location in Silver Spring. As a center for Buddhist worship, CBS’ headquarters consists of two major buildings: a replica of a traditional Cambodian wat called Vatt Budhikarama that houses a ceremony hall as well as a residential area for monks and a vihara, or “Buddha Hall.” As of November 2020, a stupa is also being constructed, which, when completed, will house Buddha relics and the ashes of monks. The six monks who reside at the temple serve the community dharma teachers, counselors, achars (masters of ceremonies), and instructors of Khmer language, culture, folklore, dance, and music. Beyond performing these duties and maintaining the condition of the temple, it is also common for the monastics of CBS to visit lay households to offer blessings at birthdays, weddings, funerals, memorials, and house warmings.
The monks of the Cambodian Buddhist Society.
Before diving into the day-to-day activities that occur at the Cambodian Buddhist Society, it is necessary to understand some of the basic differences between Khmer Buddhism and the branch of Buddhism it technically falls under: Theravada, the “Way of the Elders.” As in all Buddhist traditions, Cambodians acknowledge the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the sangha (the combined lay and monastic community) as key components of a spiritually-wealthy life, and believe that adhering to the moral instructions set out by the Buddha’s life and “good-doing” (known as bon in Khmer) will earn them good kam (karma) while evil-doing (bap) will result in karmic deficits. The sum total of an individual’s actions will then determine the nature of their rebirth. As in the Theravadin tradition, most lay practitioners of Khmer Buddhism do not believe they will achieve enlightenment within their own lifetimes, and adhere to a stricter set of rules for earning good merit than other offshoots of Buddhism. However, there are several unique components of the Khmer tradition that set it apart from Theravada Buddhism and, in some ways, Buddhism as a whole. Belief in reincarnation rather than rebirth (e.g., the existence of an infinite soul, or praelong), the necessity of certain rituals to preserve the souls of the deceased, and the vestiges of several indigenous Cambodian spirit religions in the form of stiff superstitions differentiate Khmer Buddhism from other Buddhist paths. The majority of Khmer laity “know little about Theravada doctrine” and are more interested “in finding comfort and practical ways to improve their lives” than becoming masters of scripture (Mortland 17). Additionally, the tradition is focused on merit-seeking and largely ignores meditative practice, with the end result of accumulating good karma (e.g., nibbana or, in Khmer, neek pean) conversely described as a combination of the Christian afterlife, Buddhist heavens, and atheistic predictions of nothingness following the death of the body. Khmer Buddhists believe merit can be obtained in a number of ways, but especially by obeying the precepts for a good Buddhist life laid out in the Tripitaka, attending ceremonies, praying to Buddha altars, which are present and very prominently displayed in all Khmer temples; chanting verses, observing Holy Days, reading doctrine, and, most importantly, making donations of food and money to monks and temples.
Lay members of the Cambodian Buddhist Society wait in line to offer food to newly-ordained monks after a ceremony, a merit-making activity they hope will bring themselves and their families good kam in years to come.
Cambodian Buddhists cling fiercely to their religion as an integral part of their culture, with a common sentiment echoing among them: “to be Cambodian is to be Buddhist” (Mortland 77). In this sense, Western life has not impacted Khmer Buddhism as much as it has other branches of Buddhism. The insular nature of the tradition as a whole has excluded it in some ways from the “Westernization” that has somewhat overtaken Zen philosophies and yogic practices. Changes have come over time, at least to the Cambodian Buddhist Society of Silver Spring, in the form of altered schedules – contemporary workweeks do not always allow practitioners to observe holy days as often or as strictly as they may in Cambodia. However, one major aspect of Khmer Buddhism that has been almost entirely preserved is the relationship between the lay and monastic components of the sangha (the Buddhist community). Western and Eastern understandings of reliance, interdependence, and religious commitment seem to differ greatly, forcing monks at the Cambodian Buddhist Society to avoid making door-to-door visits for food donations, but this means that offerings provided directly by temple members are the sole sustenance of these dedicated monastics, a practice which has actually only served to strengthen the Khmer bonzes’s tradition of ascetism in the West.
The Cambodian Buddhist Society: Current Activities, Day-to-Day Schedule, Rituals, Festivals, Cultural Classes, Celebrations of Cambodian CultureA traditional Cambodian folklore dance being performed by members of the community.
The foundational tenets of Khmer Buddhism can be seen in action at the Cambodian Buddhist Society, which is incidentally the oldest and one of the largest Khmer temples in the United States to date. It is considered a primary contact point between government agencies and the Cambodian refugee community of the East Coast. According to the Society’s website, its core objectives are to conserve the Cambodian Buddhist religion, to conserve Cambodian culture, to provide monastic training, and to provide humanitarian assistance. The temple conducts organized religious services on all Buddhist holy days, hosts ancestral rites and weddings on special occasions, and regularly organizes celebrations related to Cambodian culture like Chol Chnam Tmey (Lunar New Year) and Phchum Ben (Festival for the Ancestors) as well as ceremonies practiced in the Theravadin tradition, such as the Offering of Robes (Ben Kathin), the End of the Rainy Season Retreat (Cheng Vossa), and the Last Sermon of the Buddha (Meak Bochea).
Offerings for newly-ordained monks are neatly arranged in this picture taken at a Robe Offering Ceremony (Kathina) in 2016.
Chanting sessions, which include recitations of verses like “Homage to the Buddha” and “The Prayer to Spread Merit to all Sentient Beings,” takes place every morning and evening, and on Sundays, classes for the instruction of Khmer language, dance, and music are held for young members of the temple. The majority of donating practitioners at CBS appear to be ethnically Cambodian Khmer Buddhists, with tourists of various nationalities often making the short trek from Washington, D.C. to get a glimpse of the impressive shrine housed on the grounds.
The vihara, filled with visitors hoping to pay homage to CBS’s famed Buddha shrine.
Within the vihara sits an imposingly huge Buddha statue, its gold exterior juxtaposed by the oil paintings of famous scenes from jatakas as well as the life of Siddartha Gotama and well-lit by two crystal chandeliers, ceiling spot-lights, and a stained glass-window. The “Buddha Hall” of CBS is greatly revered by its members, with the money for its construction almost entirely raised by the Society’s most beloved abbot and its technical founder: the Venerable Preah Sumedhavong Oung Mean Candavanno.
The Venerable Preah Sumedhavong Oung Mean Candavanno (Writings and Philosophy)
Ven. Oung Mean was born March 13, 1927 near Cambodia’s capitol city of Phnom Penh. He entered monkhood at the age of 14, and after his ordination, studied religion, Pali, and Sanskrit at Buddhist schools in Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, India, and England. Besides maintaining his knowledge of his native language of Khmer, Oung Mean also became fluent in Hindi, French, English, Pali, Sanskrit, Thai, and Burmese over the course of his travels, allowing him to gain insights into the traditions – Buddhist or otherwise – of cultures across Southeast Asia and beyond. In 1947, he departed for England to pursue a doctorate in Religious Studies at Manchester University in England. However, civil war broke out in Cambodia in 1975, and once learning of his countrymen’s struggles as newly-displaced refugees, Oung Mean was motivated to help revitalize the Khmer tradition in transplanted Cambodian communities in the States, and traveled to Washington, D.C. in 1978. Throughout the 1980s, he attracted attention as a traveling representative of Khmer Buddhism, “holding ceremonies wherever he went and advising Cambodians on conducting rituals, obtaining monks, and setting up temples” (Mortland 84). For a scattered populace desperate to find connections to their country, culture, and religion in a strange new land, Oung Mean’s presence was a welcome one, and after repeated requests from the board of directors of a nascent temple in the Washington, D.C. area to join their administration, he agreed to lend his efforts to help build up the organization. This organization is known today as the Cambodian Buddhist Society.
In a written work of his available on the Cambodian Buddhist Society’s website, “Buddhism in Few Words,” Oung Mean discusses the practice of insight through water-based metaphors.
“[Buddha] said that his teaching is a gradual path and he compared it to the seashore, which is different from the bank of the river. The bank of a river is so steep that man falls into the water suddenly and can be drowned, while the seashore is like a gradually descending floor; just as one walks into the deepening water step by step, so one depends one’s practice and understanding of the Buddhist religion step by step. This means that Buddhism should be practiced in the proper order – from the beginning, through the middle, to the end. The beginning of Buddhism is moral conduct or Sila; the middle is concentration or Samadhi; and the end is wisdom or Panna.”
– Ven. Preah Sumedhavong Oung Mean Candavanno, “Buddhism in Few Words”
A separate meditation on “Buddhism and Human Society” dissects the idea of Buddhism as a self-centered and self-fulfilling practice, aligning the beliefs of the Cambodian Buddhist Society with “applied” or humanitarian Buddhism.
“For Buddhism, ultimate happiness must be based on moral and spiritual principles, but these principles can only be practicable in the right social, economic and political environment. If poverty, repression and injustice prevail, it is difficult for men to devote themselves to spiritual development. Therefore material security and social harmony have to be achieved. However… material welfare has to be recognized as a means to a further end, that is, moral and spiritual development.”
– Ven. Oung Mean Candavanno, “Buddhism and Human Society.”
Oung Mean served as the Cambodian Buddhist Society’s first abbot until his death in 1993 at age 66. During his tenure, he “raised more than $2 million to build its new headquarters and the adjoining Wat Buddhikarma [Vatt Buddhikarama]” (“Oung Mean, 66, Dies”), sponsored the immigration of Cambodian monks from refugee camps in Southeast Asia, conducted Buddhist services across the United States, organized English, Pali, and Khmer literacy classes at CBS, trained new monks in the Khmer tradition, and above all else, strove to revitalize the Khmer tradition in America. If he were to see the continuation of traditional Cambodian cultural practices, Khmer Buddhist rituals, and community togetherness that occurs within the walls of the temple, I am sure he would agree that Khmer Buddhism is alive and well in America.
The Cambodian Buddhist Society, Inc.
13800 New Hampshire Avenue, Silver Spring, MD 20904
Tel: (301) 622-6544, (301) 602-6612
References & Works Cited
- “Cambodian Buddhist Society, Inc.” The International Buddhist Society, http://www.ibcdc.org/temples/cbs.htm.
- Harris, Ian. Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice. University of Hawai’i Press, 2005. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wqjc1.
- Mean Candavanno, Oung. “Buddhism and Human Society.” The Cambodian Buddhist Society, Inc., http://www.cambodian-buddhist.org/buddhism_and_hs.html.
- Mean Candavanno, Oung. “Buddhism in Few Words.” The Cambodian Buddhist Society, Inc., http://www.cambodian-buddhist.org/buddhism_few_words.html.
- Mortland, Carol A. “Cambodian Buddhism in the United States.” SUNY Press, 2017. EBSCOhost, http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?sid=c9876243-46a3-4168-ba66-72e48e575455@pdc-v-sessmgr04&vid=0&lpid=lp_1&format=EB#AN=1563434&db=nlebk.
- “Oung Mean, 66, Dies; High Cambodia Monk.” The New York Times, 24 Mar 1993, Section B, Page 7. The New York Times Archives, https://www.nytimes.com/1993/03/24/obituaries/oung-mean-66-dies-high-cambodia-monk.html.
- Ross, Russell R. “Buddhism.” Cambodia: A Country Study, U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO) for the Library of Congress, 1987. Country Studies, http://countrystudies.us/cambodia/48.htm.
Unless stated otherwise, all photos come from the publicly available gallery of the Cambodian Buddhist Society, Inc.