Buddhism in a Dark Age

Buddhism in a Dark Age: Cambodian Monks under Pol Pot

Ian Harris
Copyright Date: 2013
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    Buddhism in a Dark Age
    Book Description:

    This pioneering study of the fate of Buddhism during the communist period in Cambodia puts a human face on a dark period in Cambodia's history. It is the first sustained analysis of the widely held assumption that the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot had a centralized plan to liquidate the entire monastic order. Based on a thorough analysis of interview transcripts and a large body of contemporary manuscript material, it offers a nuanced view that attempts to move beyond the horrific monastic death toll and fully evaluate the damage to the Buddhistsanghaunder Democratic Kampuchea.Compelling evidence exists to suggest that Khmer Rouge leaders were determined to hunt down senior members of the pre-1975 ecclesiastical hierarchy, but other factors also worked against the Buddhist order.Buddhism in a Dark Ageoutlines a three-phase process in the Khmer Rouge treatment of Buddhism: bureaucratic interference and obstruction, explicit harassment, and finally the elimination of the obdurate and those close to the previous Lon Nol regime. The establishment of a separate revolutionary form ofsanghaadministration constituted the bureaucratic phase. The harassment of monks, both individually and en masse, was partially due to the uprooting of the traditional monastic economy in which lay people were discouraged from feeding economically unproductive monks. Younger members of the order were disrobed and forced into marriage or military service. The final act in the tragedy of Buddhism under the Khmer Rouge was the execution of those monks and senior ecclesiastics who resisted.It was difficult for institutional Buddhism to survive the conditions encountered during the decade under study here. Prince Sihanouk's overthrow in 1970 marked the end of Buddhism as the central axis around which all other aspects of Cambodian existence revolved and made sense. And under Pol Pot the lay population was strongly discouraged from providing its necessary material support. The book concludes with a discussion of the slow re-establishment and official supervision of the Buddhist order during the People's Republic of Kampuchea period.45 illus.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6577-1
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. 1-11)

    In the course of writing this book, I began to realize that it was, in part, a semiconscious homage to Holmes Welch’s very fineBuddhism under Mao. While I cannot claim that author’s experience or breadth of knowledge, I intend that this offering will, however imperfect, stand as a memorial to the many Cambodian Buddhist monks and laypeople, both named and unknown, who lost their lives or had their futures traumatically altered by the tragedy that overwhelmed their country in the 1970s. The choice to present periodic lists of personal names and places in the form of a litany reflects...

  6. CHAPTER ONE Unraveling of the Buddhist State
    (pp. 12-28)

    Following King Sisowath Monivong’s death in April 1941, an adolescent prince, Norodom Sihanouk, came to the Cambodian throne under close French tutelage. This unenviable position ensured that he was discredited in the eyes of Cambodians who were opposed to foreign control. Among this group were powerful sections of the newly radicalized Buddhistsaṅgha, some of whom were to become influential in the emergence of organized anticolonialism.¹

    In the late 1930s the French had attempted to romanize and rationalize written Khmer. Among certain segments of thesaṅghathe idea provoked open hostility. Many monks regarded the reform as an attack on...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Buddhism and the Origins of Cambodian Communism
    (pp. 29-42)

    From its foundation in 1930, the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) had made sporadic attempts to recruit the first generation of Cambodian anticolonialists. Two young monks appear to have been involved with the first known Khmer communist, Ben Krahom (Kiernan 1981, 161–162), and another shadowy figure, a twenty-eight-year-old Khmer from Kampuchea Krom called Thach Choeun, apparently joined the ICP in 1932. According to French intelligence sources, Thach Choeun had also been a monk in Takeo province.

    But while the authorities took an interest in early Chinese and Vietnamese communist cells, they regarded the Khmer as “nonchalant and undisciplined” (Morris 1999,...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Buddhism and Khmer Communism: A Shared Conceptual Terrain
    (pp. 43-63)

    Duch (b. 1942) was the chief of the Khmer Rouge S-21 security facility at Tuol Sleng, where around sixteen thousand persons perished during Democratic Kampuchea.¹ He had been educated at the Lycée Sisowath and in 1959 came in second in the country’s national baccalaureate examinations. Subsequently enrolled as a student at Phnom Penh University, he managed, as many poor young men before him had, to find housing at Wat Unnalom—probably in monks’ house (kuṭī) number 3 (Huy Vannak 2003, 83). During his first period of residence there, in 1961–1964, Duch’s political activities came to the attention of the...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Dealing with Monks
    (pp. 64-89)

    The communists’ first formal contacts with individual pagodas occurred at differing times, depending on the progress of the conflict. In provinces such as Stung Treng and certain districts of Svay Rieng, such contact happened almost immediately after Sihanouk was overthrown. Other provinces fell under communist influence as the 1970s progressed, while Phnom Penh and many provincial cities held out until 17 April 1975. However, in some eastern provinces, Buddhist monks had been obliged to deal with the Vietcong well before the Khmer Rouge arrived on the scene.

    Vietcong troops were based in Chan Trea district, Svay Rieng, from at least...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Buddhist Practice and Material Culture under the Khmer Rouge
    (pp. 90-117)

    The ordination of a monk is arguably the most significant of all Buddhist rituals. It is a two-stage process, starting with the “going forth” (pabbajjā) of the novice (sāmaṇera) and followed sometime later by a higher-level initiation (upasampadā) into the status of the fully ordained monk (bhikkhu). Under normal circumstances the novice should be between seven and nineteen years of age, and thebhikkhutwenty-one or over. There is reasonable evidence that in some parts of the liberated area the Khmer Rouge did not obstruct novice ordinations before 1975.¹ One informant, for instance, was confident that many young boys in...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Monk Mortality and the Destruction of Institutional Buddhism
    (pp. 118-138)

    In the 1950s the Khmer Workers’ Party still reflected its connections with thesaṅghaby describing significant segments of the Buddhist monastic order as possessing a “patriotic, progressive and national outlook” (Sher 2004, 70). Many of these monks were close enough to the land to have some “peasant-like characteristics,” according to the KWP, while others manifested “good political standpoints.” However, by the time of Democratic Kampuchea this preexisting yet rough-and-ready division between rural and urban monks had crystallized into a fairly solid distinction between “base monks” (saṅgh mūlaṭṭhān) and “new monks” (saṅgh thmī). While the former were deemed “proper and...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN Aftermath: Rebuilding the Saṅgha under Socialism
    (pp. 139-167)

    During the Khmer Republic period, prophecies circulated predicting the demise of Buddhism. As the Khmer Rouge grip on the country tightened, they seemed to be coming true. By 1978 Yun Yat, the minister of culture, information, and propaganda, told a Yugoslav reporter that “Buddhism is dead and the ground has been cleared for the foundations of a new revolutionary culture” (Stanic 1978). Yet an ex-monk who was present at the time rather courageously took issue with her, on the grounds that, for him at least, Buddhism and communism were compatible. His fate is unknown, but the story suggests, as I...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 168-172)

    Since 1979 the Cambodian political landscape has shifted from a uniquely extreme and nationalistic communism to one marked by a strange amalgam of postconflict democratization, dominant party authoritarianism, and unregulated market liberalism.¹ As Buddhism has begun the process of recovery following its almost total liquidation, it has had no option but to accommodate itself to these bewildering and unpredictable currents of change.

    In the PRK the monastic order had little freedom to reestablish itself along pre-1975 lines, since it was required to act as a partner in a project of national reconstruction determined by the governing regime. It suffered from...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 173-208)
    (pp. 209-212)
    (pp. 213-238)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 239-243)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 244-245)