According to the Mahavamsa – Buddhism was introduced to Suvannabhumi, (“golden land”) in 3rdC BCE under the reign of King Asoka. Venerable Sona and Uttara, were sent to propagate the doctrine in this region following the 3rd Buddhist Council held in Pataliputta, India by King Asoka.
ROYAL PATRONAGE THROUGH THE CENTURIES
The presence and influence of Buddhism continued to grow under successive kings.
9th -10thC CE
Indravarman I (877-889 CE) He created a unified Khmer Empire and began the great irrigation systems that gave rise to the authentic Angkor Empire.
King Yosavarman (889-910 CE) He succeeded Indravarman I and reigned for about 10 years. He built several temples according to Mahayana Buddhist specifications, representing Mount Meru, the mythical Buddhist axis of the world.
The largest of these temples is Phnom Kandal or “Central Mountain” which lies near the heart of the Angkor complex. He also built temples to Shiva, Vishnu and Buddha. Buddhism was having significant and growing influence at this time.
King Rajendravarman II(944-968 CE) He studied Buddhism intensely. Although he decided to remain a Shivaist, he appointed a Buddhist chief minister who built shrines dedicated to Buddha and Shiva.
Jayavarman V (968-1001 CE) Son of Rajendravarman, also remained a devotee of Shiva. He, too, permitted his own chief minister to foster Mahayana Buddhist learning and divination.
Surayavarman I (1002-1050 CE), The next successor after Jayavarman V, was a patron of Buddhism. His was probably the most outstanding Buddhist King second only to Jayavarman VII. He was a strong proponent of Mahayana Buddhism, he nevertheless did not interfere with the growing prominence and dissemination of Theravada Buddhism during his reign.
King Udayadityavarman II (1050-1065 CE) He was the successor to Suryvarman I. He restored Shivaism though he did not restore the Brahmin priests, the Sivakivalya clan, as the court chaplains.
12th-13th C CE
King Suryavarman II (1113-1150 CE): He ordered the building of Angkor Wat which he dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Angkor Wat portrays the Hindu cosmology, with the central towers representing Mount Meru, home of the gods. The outer walls represent the mountains enclosing the world; and the moat, the oceans beyond.
King Dharanindravarman II (1152—1160 CE), He appeared to be a devout Buddhist King. He was father of the greatest of all Khmer Buddhist kings, Jayavarman VII.
Jayavarman VII (1181-1219 CE)
In 1177, Angkor was invaded by the Champas and it created a sense of trauma and crisis throughout the Angkor Empire. King Jayavarman VII ascended to the throne in the sense of crisis that had descended on the Khmer empire.
He studied the doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism, rather than Theravada. His Mahayana faith was the source of his attempt to be a Dharma-king, a bodhisattva, through service and merit making, to liberate himself and his kingdom.
He thought that he and his people had become disillusioned with previous beliefs, because of their failure to protect the Angkor Empire from being sacked by their enemies. He may have felt an instinctive revulsion for the religion of his enemies. He withdrew his devotion from the old gods, and began to identify more openly with the Buddhist traditions. His regime marked a clear dividing line with the Hindu past.
Before 1200 CE, art in the temples mostly portrayed scenes from the Hindu pantheon. After 1200 CE, scenes from the Buddhist Jatakas, and life of the Buddha, along with scenes of the Ramayana began to appear as standard motif.
He was elderly, perhaps 60, when he became king. He worked feverishly to accomplish his works in saving the Khmer people and establishing a Buddhist empire, in a race against time.
He had a sincere earnest belief of his destiny as a bodhisattva whose path in life was to deliver his people from suffering. The people were objects of his compassion, an audience for his merit-making, his redemption. He built numerous public works to serve the people, including, water works, hospitals, temples, hospices for travelers, far beyond any other Cambodian king.
One sign of the change underway was the building of many monastic buildings, including monasteries and libraries. Whereas in former times, all effort had been focused on building the massive temple-mount of the deva-raja, now more resources were invested into building monastic residence.
There was a shift away from the cult of the king to the cult of the Sangha, which was more “earthly”, in direct contact with the people.
The Preah Khan was example of Jayavarman VII’s building projects. The centre of this Buddhist sanctuary contained a beautiful statue of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva, sculpted in the image of Jayavarman’sVII father. Today, a stupa stands there. Shrines dedicated to Vishnu and Shiva are also in the Buddhist temple, showing Jayavarman VII’s continued inclusiveness in supporting Hindu tradition.
He considered his city, Angkor Thom, and this temple, The Bayon, to be his “bride”. The object of the marriage, as the inscription goes on to say, was the “procreation of happiness throughout the universe” – a worthy objective for a Buddha-king.
King Jayavarman VII sent his son Tamilinda to Sri Lanka to be ordained as a Buddhist monk and study Theravada Buddhism at Mahavihara.
When Prince Tamalinda returned after 10 years of ordination, he was a senior monk, capable of administering ordination in the Theravada lineage, which insisted on orthodoxy and rejected Mahayana "innovations" such as tantric practices. He succeeded his father and became King Indravarma II.
The mass conversion of Khmer society to Theravada Buddhism amounted to a nonviolent revolution every all level of society.
Theravada Buddhism succeeded because it was inclusive and universal in its outreach, recruiting the disciples and monks from not only the elites and court, but also in the villages and among the peasants, enhancing its popularity among the Khmer folk.
Their message succeeded because it provided a meaningful way of relating to the world for many who had been marginal to the classical civilizations or who had been seriously affected by the disruption of the classical civilizations in the past centuries.
The post-Angkor period saw the dramatic rise of the Pali Theravada tradition in Cambodia and the decline of the Brahmanic and Mahayana Buddhist religious traditions there.
There is evidence to show that Theravada Buddhism existed in Cambodia in the 14thC CE. An inscription dating to 1308 CE was found in a temple near Siem Reap, written partly in Pali and partly in Khmer. Believed to be the earliest Pali inscription in Cambodia and was composed by Indravarman III after his abdication to become a monk. He retreated to a forest monastery to devote himself to study and practice of Theravada Buddhism. The Siamese invaders of Cambodia in the 13th who later settled in Cambodia were thought to be responsible for the introduction of Sihala Buddhism to the region.
The Thai chronicles Jinakalamali has an account of religious connections between Cambodia and SL in the 15th century. In around 1423 CE, 8 Cambodian monks with 25 monks from Thailand went to SL to receive higher ordination. Having studied the sacred texts from the SL Mahatheras, the 8 Cambodia monks were ordained in the presence of 20 Mahatheras in 1424 CE at Kalyani in SL.
Conclusion Today, Cambodia is a Theravada Buddhist country. Theravada Buddhism has been the Cambodian state religion since the 13th century CE (except during the Khmer Rouge period). In 2007, Buddhism was estimated to be the faith of 95% of the Cambodian population.
By WHH Notes with courtesy from Sister Jean Lau from Pali College