The Barang’s Guide to Cambodian Buddhism

Upon arriving in Phnom Penh you’ll  surely be struck by the monks wandering around in bright orange robes and the intricate colourful pagodas. Glorious Buddhism! However, beneath these overt displays of the religion, what’s not immediately clear is that this is not your standard version of Theravada or Mahayana Buddhism. The world of the Khmer people is one that’s teeming with the spirits of the dead.

Like many South-East Asian countries, when Cambodia adopted Buddhism it didn’t signal a complete abandonment of earlier beliefs such as ancestor reverence and Hinduism. Rather, all these things were synthesised into a complex and sometimes ill-defined tapestry of folklore, spirituality and superstition. After discussions with a number of Khmer adults and children, I’ve compiled this quick guide to get you oriented.

1.   Much like in The Sixth Sense, there are ghosts all around us. While adults generally can’t see them, cats and dogs can. Babies can too, but for most people the ability atrophies during childhood. A few shaman-types who retain this ability can provide a link to the world of the dead.

2.   When you die you will turn into a ghost. In fact, so will every animal. Strangely also like in the Sixth Sense, <SPOILERS> initially you will not realise that you are dead. As a ghost, you will not have one of your index fingers, which presumably you don’t tend to notice right away.

3.   After seven days you will try to visit your family at home, and this is when the horrible truth will hit you. At this point, several different things can happen:

  • If you were a very good person in life you will be taken to Heaven, where Buddha lives. This essentially means achieving the traditional Buddhist aim of breaking free from the endless cycle of rebirth and suffering.
  • If you were an evil person in life you will be taken to Hell. Tortures include having to climb a tree covered in needles and being hung upside-down in a vat of boiling water. The duration of your stay in Hell and your specific punishment will depend on your sins. For example, if you said bad things a lot in life you will have your mouth stretched open to the point of agonising pain.
  • If you were really evil in life you will turn into a special giant ghost covered in blood that wanders the land in solitude. This is a particularly terrible and feared spirit, and may be taller than a house.
  • If you were neither particularly good nor particularly evil you will stay in between, lingering in the world for an unknown time.

Regardless of which of these fates awaits you, if you didn’t make it to Heaven then sooner or later you will be reborn as a human or some other animal and go through the cycle again.

4.   Ok, so that’s the destiny awaiting you in the afterlife. There are also several other ghosts and spirits swirling in the world:

  • Every piece of land that somebody owns has a guardian angel to protect it from bad spirits. These angels live in the colourfully painted concrete ghost houses you see on stilts outside many abodes and buildings. Offerings here keep the angel benevolent and motivated in its job.
  • Every house that gets built also gains a guardian spirit that lives in the house and protects it as a second line of defence, should the angel prove insufficient.
  • Very large old trees in forests are often inhabited by a tree spirit. If you are travelling in an unknown place and want to rest beneath such a tree or even pee there, it’s important to ask the spirit’s permission first. If you neglect to do this the spirit could make you sick or incite snakes/insects to come after you. If the tree is cut down the spirit will leave and look for a new tree, like any good hermit crab of the sea.
  • The ghosts of humans who drown in rivers are doomed to linger there and watch over the river. They can never leave and be reborn until another ghost takes their place. So be careful around rivers, or one of the drowned ghosts just may try to swap places with you.
  • If a mother dies during childbirth she will become a particularly chilling ghost. For the 7 days before she realises she’s dead, she will climb to the top of a tree and sing a wailing song of lamentation for her lost child.
  • The ghosts of children, however, have a happier fate. They are a playful lot and have the right to come and go where they please – even guardian angels and house spirits will not turn them away. Many households hang small red clothes and candy on their fences to make sure they are provided for. Now, remember how babies can see the spirit world? Well for this reason the children ghosts like to play with them. Sometimes though, they can accidentally scare the baby or exhaust it from playing for too long, and cause it to start crying. In this case it’s often just a matter of the Khmer mother telling the children ghosts “Ok, that’s enough for today” and they will leave, soon restoring the baby’s happiness.
  • A Chinese belief, which has spread to some of the cities in Cambodia, is that the children ghosts often pick a shop to live in. They alert the shop owner to their presence in a dream. If the shop owner then keeps them happy by buying occasional presents like candy and toys, the ghosts will induce lots of customers to come into the shop, often without quite knowing why they’ve come in. If the child ghosts are neglected though, business will be bad.

5.   People make offerings of rice at pagodas so that ghosts of family members will have something to eat. People pray for ghosts in order to accelerate their rebirth. People also offer small balls of rice for the baby and children ghosts.

6.   If you lied a lot during your life then your ghost will have a tiny mouth. This is why thin rice noodles are also brought to the pagoda – so the ghosts with tiny mouths can have something to eat.

7.   An important belief held by Cambodians in the countryside is that the living and the dead must never cohabit, lest ill events occur. For example, if the ghost of a deceased husband were to remain in the family house and was unable to move on from his living wife, he could accidentally cause her to become sick. There’s also the darker possibility of a ghost intentionally causing harm to its family, either because of some unresolved resentment, or become it wants to be united with their ghosts. This is one of the reasons the guardian house spirit and angel are so important: to keep out dead relatives. The family will go to the pagoda to make offerings to their ancestors, not do it in the home.

8.   Finally, one belief practised by Cambodians from the countryside is that it’s essential to protect the house from spirits during child birth. The midwife will draw an X on the door and hang something sharp there like a knife or pair of scissors, and all windows must be sealed. This gives the best protection from spirits for the mother and infant.

This is obviously a huge simplification of the immensely complex and varied Khmer belief system, but it’s not a bad starting point. If there are any important elements I’ve omitted or misrepresented, please let me know and I shall make amendments. See you around the streets!

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