Sunday, November 04, 2007

Religion and the Arts in Khmer Life: A Question of Continuity and Challenge


Sam-Ang Sam, an ethnomusicologist and performer by training, was educated in Cambodia at the Royal University of Fine Arts, in the Philippines at the College of Music (University of the Philippines), and in the United States of America at Connecticut College and at Wesleyan University, where he received his MA and PhD degrees in Music Composition and Ethnomusicology respectively. Sam-Ang has been actively involved in the art field and refugee resettlement since his arrival in the United States in 1977. He has made a significant contribution to the international understanding and appreciation of Cambodian traditional performing arts through his documentation efforts, scholarly work, and numerous cultural exchange projects with dancers and musicians from Cambodia.

RELIGION AND THE ARTS have always been an inherent part of the Khmer life and have played an important role in the development and decline of Khmer civilization. This article discusses Cambodian Buddhism and the influences religion and the arts have had on the
shaping of Cambodian culture and society. I would like to look at the relationship between religion and the arts as a vehicle for expressing fundamental Cambodian beliefs and customs through looking at the roles of music, dance, and literature in Buddhist tradition. Through understanding how religion and the arts are interwoven, I would like to highlight the importance of preserving such Cambodian Buddhist practices. Buddhism in Cambodia Cambodia is essentially a Buddhist country. Some 95% of the country's population is Buddhist and Buddhism has been the core of Khmer culture and civilization. To exemplify the importance of religion, one finds that Cambodia's National Trinity has been "The Nation, Religion, King," suggesting the three important components of Khmer national identity. In the Khmer view, the upheavals which occurred following the coup in 1970 (during the Khmer Republic and the Democratic Kampuchea) were the result of breaking the concept of national trinity as the Monarchy and Buddhism were abolished.

A blend of Animism, Brahmanism, and Buddhism have been deeply embedded in the Khmer's beliefs for millennia. The history of Cambodia has revealed that at the beginning, in our case the earliest we can go-the Funan period (first to sixth centuries A.D.)-Khmer people practiced Animism. When Brahmanism and Buddhism were introduced, the Khmer did not abandon their beliefs and replace it with new ones, but adapted the new religion to the old one. Khmer religious practices reflect a conscious 'Khmerization' suiting Khmer tastes, adopting beliefs that were practical, and which helped serve the community both socially and spiritually.

Impact of Buddhism in Khmer Society
Buddhism plays a significant role in Khmer rural and urban life. In Buddhism, the essential teaching rests upon the good deeds, accumulation of merits, and peace-making. Adhering to the ten Buddhist precepts, this is how Khmer dedicate their souls and merits to the next world. In the traditional setting, monasteries functioned as educational and cultural centers, and offered a wide range of social services. Past and current Kings have often lived a monastic life for some time in order to gain education and become good and effective leaders. Monasteries also served as mental health centers, retreat centers for the aging, recreational centers, meeting places, rest areas for travelers, orphanages, and funeral homes. Each individual Khmer owes a great deal to the monastery for the memorable experiences it provides from childhood to adulthood to old age. For an elderly person, the monastery provides a peaceful place to relax, meditate, and prepare for death. When life ends, remains are cremated and the ashes are kept in a stupa
within the temple grounds.

The Arts in Cambodia
Throughout Khmer history, religion has also had a tremendous influence on the expression of Khmer traditional arts, especially in architecture, sculpture, literature, music and dance. Religious Ceremonies and Khmer Life Ceremonial practices in Cambodia depict a blend of Animist, Brahmanist, and Buddhist influences. Animist beliefs such as arakk (guardian spirit), neak ta (male guardian spirit), and witchcraft have been with the Khmer people since the olden days and these practices are still prevalent in the rural areas of Cambodia today. When members of the family and village are ill, people perform spiritual ceremonies to have mediums enter into trance in order to tell the causes of the illness. In the belief that spirits cause the persons to fall ill, ceremonies are performed to ask for forgiveness and for the sick persons to get well again. Khmer Court Dance Associated with the royal court of Cambodia for over a thousand years, Khmer court dance originates in the sacred rituals of ancestral worship, and has thus been regarded as "sacred dance." On the walls of the Angkor temples, 1,737 apsara (celestial dancers) were carved, reflecting a period of history in which Khmer performing arts reached its greatest expression (Thierry 1963:361, Sam 1988:231-232, Sam 1997:13-14). Regarded as "sacred dancers," these apsara functioned as intermediaries between the gods and humans, whose function was to perform and make offerings to soothe gods and the spirits of ancestors. Thus, one may observe Khmer dancers, still true today, move about the earthly world noticeably celestial in their aerial stylized walking manner, adorned in their divine costumes and headdresses. Alongside the Angkor Vatt Temple, Khmer court dance is perceived to be the symbol of Khmer national pride and identity.

In dance, ceremonies are always conducted with an offering. The smoke of lighted candles and incense sticks signify an eclectic practice of religion and beliefs. Going back to the very beginning of a dancer's career, a ceremony called pithi sampeah krou or "ceremony of paying homage to the spirit of the teacher" precedes one's first lesson (Chan Moly Sam 1987:13). This ceremony is so important that a dancer performs it over and over again throughout his/her dancing career. The ceremony is believed to place a dancer under the safeguard of Samdech Preah Krou (the spirit who resides in the dance) who thus protects and blesses the apprenticeship.

Khmer Music Music also accompanies every Khmer as far back as his cradle. Lullabies are common and there are numerous traditional songs embedded with traditional morality. Music ceremonies are conducted throughout one's life, starting with the birth blessing, hair shaving, entering the shade (rite of passage), ordination, wedding, and family gatherings at a funeral. Music also plays a very important role in the accompaniment of the performing arts, including dance, traditional theater, the ceremony of paying homage to the spirit of the teacher, ancestral worship, and national ceremonies such as the Khmer New Year, Soul Day, and Worship of the Spirit.

Khmer Literature: The Reamker
The Reamker (Khmer version of the Ramayana), Moha Bharata, and old religious scriptures in literary forms are the foundation upon which ideas, beliefs, and philosophies are built in Khmer society. Brahmanist literature, such as the Reamker (Ramayana) denotes the victory of good over evil, with the King representing the good, with a mission and duty to destroy evil to protect the weak or the ruled. In the Khmer Reamker, the authors intended to portray Preah Ream not as a god or Avatar of Vishnu, but as being an ordinary human being, engaged in human activities and having emotions (Giteau 1957:18, Kak 1996:20). In doing so, the Reamker becomes very popular among the people as it unfolds their real and natural ways of life contextually, socially, religiously, and culturally. With good always prevailing over evil, this, in essence, teaches Khmer how to conduct their lives appropriately. In the performances of masked play, for example, only certain episodes are chosen to perform, and those only happy ones. Sad or unfortunate episodes are not supposed to be staged, as they bring bad luck (Kak 1996:24). Reamker and Buddhist jatakas, which depict the life of Lord Buddha, serve as the main themes for the development of several Khmer art forms, including dance, plays, paintings, bas-reliefs, sculptures, and astrology.

The oral history retold by Ta Chak (Mi Chak 1897-1971) is invaluable for its revelation of Khmer life and development and evolution of Khmer literature-the variation of the word use in spoken and written Khmer languages (Bizot 1973). In the Angkor vicinity, the bas-reliefs of Reamker story adorned the historic temples, including the temples of Koh Ker, Banteay Srey, Ba Puon, Angkor Vatt, and Banteay Samre (Sar 1975:2, Kak 1996:22). Along the walls of other monastic shrine halls, including Vatt Bau (Siem Reap), Vatt Chaktotih (Udong, Kampung Spoeu), and Vatt Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot (Phnom Penh), the Reamker is beautifully painted.

Challenge of the New Millenium:
A Question of Continuity
Religion has certainly been the pre-eminent foundation of Khmer societ. Religion and the arts have had a great impact in the shaping of Khmer culture. The Khmer Buddhist religion has strengthened common beliefs, building solidarity of the people and nation, teaching values, self-esteem, pride, and emphasis upon the mental over the physical, and the spiritual over the materialistic. Buddhism for Cambodians, is at the heart of their tradition, culture, and identity. The Khmer Rouge atrocity (1975-1979), in which more than a million of Cambodians died by torture, starvation or illness, destroyed the foundation of the Khmer family– in separating children from parents, husbands from wives– along with education and health. To many Khmer people, the absence of Buddhism is the absence of the “Khmerness”.

In this new context, efforts are being made to restore, revive, and preserve Buddhism in Cambodia. The traditional arts are also increasingly being viewed as valuable resources for community development, urban revitalization, and the development of tourism. Recreating and preserving the traditional practices of Buddhism in the new physical and social contexts beyond Cambodia, however, are next to impossible. In Japan, Australia, France, Canada, and the United States, millions of Khmer people now make their new homes. The change in education, experience, context, value and role of monks and Buddhism itself, makes the practice of Buddhism a challenging one. New monks, particularly young ones, do not learn Pali or Sanskrit, as there is no such school. Ceremonies have been curtailed and simplified. Without encouragement from parents, the practice of Buddhism among the younger generation is

As we begin the new millennium, in the context of the computer age and technology, a new chapter will be written on religion and the arts, and the shaping of Khmer culture. In my opinion, it is the responsibility of the present and future generations to keep alive the culture of their forebears. In Cambodia and Khmer communities beyond, a valuable first step is to look back and study their religious and artistic traditions and understand them. The challenge ahead is not to break away from tradition, but to find a contemporary way of expressing it. Only within continuity of the past, can Khmer cultural identity be preserved and reaffirmed for
its future generations.

Bizot, François, Histoire du Réamker. Paris, 1973: Ecole Française d'Extrême-Orient.

Giteau, Madeleine, Histoire du Cambodge. Paris, 1957: Didier.

Kak, Chan That, Traditional Drawing of Ream Kerti Story on the Preah Keomorokot Temple (Royal Palace). Phnom Penh, 1996: Kampuchea-Japan Friendship Publishing House.

Sam, Chan Moly, Khmer Court Dance: A Comprehensive Study of Movements, Gestures, and Postures as Applied Techniques. Newington, CT, 1987: Khmer Studies Institute.

Sam, Sam-Ang, "The Pin Peat Ensemble: Its History, Music, and Context.", Ph.D. Dissertation, 1988, Wesleyan University.

Sam, Yang, "Society, Administration, Economy, Religion, and Culture during the Angkor Period." 1997, Unpublished paper and "Udong: Liberation from Catastrophe." 1995, Unpublished paper.

Khmer Buddhism and Politics: 1954-1984. Newington, CT, 1987: Khmer Studies Institute.

Sar, Sarun, Reamker, 3rd ed. Phnom Penh, 1975: n.p.

Thierry, Solange, Les Danses Sacrées. Paris, 1963: Sources Orientales.

The Source of This Article is from Siem Reap

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