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As I write this sat in my apartment in Siem Reap, I can hear the monks chanting from the halls of Wat Preah Prom Rath.

It is the Cambodian holiday of Pchhhum Ben here at the moment, and the chanting goes on all night, every night throughout the holiday.

Although I have been here (in Cambodia) for what will be four years in just a couple of months time, it dawned on me, that I know very little about the Cambodian version of Buddhism that surrounds me on a daily basis, or at least I certainly don’t know enough.

I would like to think that I am not ignorant, I know a few monks thanks to the charitable work we do at The Mad Monkey, and I always ask our team about their particular religions and beliefs whenever possible, just from a perspective of curiosity if nothing else.

What I have never done, up until now is to take a really good, cold hard look at what Theravada Buddhism is, its origin and its beliefs in detail.

My interest was peaked this afternoon when my wife told me that …”the Cambodian holiday of Pchhhum Ben is when the gates of hell are opened up”….. “Interesting”… I thought to myself – that sounds highly suspicious, and more akin to Christian thinking than what I would have expected from those nice guys from Buddhism.

So for a few hours today, I read up on Thereveda Buddhism and even watched a few Youtube videos.  I thought I would sum it up for you in a nutshell in this blog post.

If you live in Cambodia, or even if you have a casual interest in the Far East, I am pretty sure you will find the information, well, lets say enlightening, if not slightly terrifying.  Today there are over 100 million Theravada Buddhists kicking around in South East Asia, so it is always good to know about what the people you are living with believe, even when it can seem strange to our western cultures.


What Is Theravada Buddhism in a Nutshell?

Theravada is one of the three major sects of Buddhism, and the oldest surviving branch of Buddhism apparently.  It is actually closer to early Buddhism than other Buddhist cultures. The name means Teaching of Elders’ and originates from Sthaviriya, one of the early Buddhist schools.
The purpose of the religion is to make its converts become arhats (arahats), or perfected saints who have achieved nirvana and thus avoiding rebirth.

The Theravada is more strict, philosophical and world-renouncing than all other forms of Buddhism. It is sometimes referred to as Hinayana Buddhism or southern Buddhism and spans several regions within South East Asia including Laos, Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand and of course Cambodia.

If you are Cambodian, Theravada Buddhism is one of the religions that you can comfortably practice, as it is regarded as one of the best religions by locals because it sticks to the initial believes and practices of The Buddha, and does not give room for unlawfulness. So popular in fact, that it is the official religion of Cambodia and is practiced by 95% of the population.

So with all of all of the talk of rebirth where does hell come in? Well to understand that, the first thing to do is to get to grips with the concept of rebirth.
Karma in Therevada Buddism is in short the good energy or the bad energy that you get back as a result of your actions.  Karma it seems, just like a good banana, takes a while to ripen, so you may do wonderful things in this life, but not actually get the benefits back in terms of having positive results until your next lifetime.

In Therevada Buddhism when you die and your body breaks up, you re-appear in one of the 31 planes of existence, as detailed in the teachings.  Some of these realms are the lower realms, what we would naturally translate to hell, although a Western idea of hell and a Therevada Buddism idea of the lower realms are actually very different things.

If you have been a good boy, or girl, then you will have to do the class again (Stay as human) or you may go up a class, to the nicer realms, if you have been a bit of an asshole you may stay in the same class and have a worse time of it next time around (as a human) or you will slip down a few realms, where you can end up as a ghost, an animal, a demon or in HELL!
Basically in western terms it can be equated to a game of Karma snakes and ladders.  The absolute aim of course is the assent to enlightenment and that means to stop the rebirth process, in short, to pack up the board game and head home.

Rebirth as it is defined in Therevada Buddism is to go up or down, or between these 31 planes of existence.  We as humans are currently on the 5th plane, which means we can be re-born again as humans, and if we are reborn again as humans, again how pretty we are, how long or how fulfilling our life is, is a direct result of the life we lived before and the ripening effect of our Karma Banana that we are carrying around in our spiritual pocket.

The good thing to know is that on average you are going to spend 2-3 years in between your rebirths into the human realm floating around as a spirit ghost before you are sucked up headfirst into the womb of a lady whilst she is having sex, only to become the spirit in the egg that is about to be conceived. ( Mind your head )

If you have however been evil, you may just slip down to one of the states of deprivation, they are, very quickly,

4.  Asura – that is where you are a demon constantly fighting others (Not great)

3. Hungry Ghosts – Where you wander around trying to find sensual fulfillment (Sounds ok)

2. The animal realm includes animals, insects, fish, birds, worms, etc or if you really go off course (Not so bad)

1.  Hell – or the Naraka – (Absolutely fricking terrifying)

Now I should state that firstly, and just like one of those Russian wooden dolls, the hell realm of Naraka has lots of internal levels as well, just to make it interesting.

These are referred to as the Cold Naraka’s, there are 8 of those, and the Hot Naraka’s there are 8 of those as well, and all of them are pretty awful.  They vary from having a body covered in blisters from the cold, all the way to where hell guards impale beings on a fiery spear until flames issue from their noses and mouths.  If you have been a continued asshole you are heading here.

Each Karaka lasts a hell of a long time as well, no pun intended.  With the shortest of the hot Karaka’s of hell being just 1.62×1012 years long, and the time in the frozen areas of hell being roughly the same time it would take to empty a barrel of sesame seeds, if you could take out one seed every 100 years.
So you can imagine that these poor souls would like to get out and let their hair down once a year during Pchum Ben.

Except they can not.  Technically the ones that come back are the Hungry Ghosts, or “Preta” – they come back, they eat some cake, enjoy the can of coke that has been left out, have a bit of a party and then bugger off back to the Ghost Realm.  The difference is that the that beings that are in hell are confined there, just like a really really long prison sentence, whilst pretas (ghosts) are free to move about.

So there you go then, Pchum Ben is considered unique to Cambodia, so only in Cambodia these gates open and the spirits come and mingle, that is why it is customary to feed them. If you are a spirit in Bangkok for example, sorry but you have dipped out, better get the night bus.
If you have been really naughty you are not going to escape from your eternity or almost eternity of your hold and cold treatment.

Holy Shit.  Not a nice thing to tell your kids before bed-time, unless you don’t like them.


The Origin of Therevada Buddhism

The Theravada form of Buddhism resulted from a series of divisions that began in the Buddhist communities, within the 4th century BCE. The religion claims to trace its lineage back to the original teachings of Buddha and sticks to the original doctrines and customs as taught by him.

These were all greed upon during the third Buddhist council under the leadership of the then Indian Emperor Ashoka. These teachings were referred to as Vibhajjavada and were later split into four groups including Dharmaguptaka, Kasyapiya, Mahisasaka and Tamraparniya which later became the Theravada.

Although it is one of the oldest and most orthodox religions, the Theravada has been greatly influenced by native beliefs of the countries that are affiliated to the religion. The teachings followed by the Thevaradas are referred to as is the Palo Cannon, and most followers of the religion do not recognize contemporary Mahayana sutras.

In short it may have picked up a lot of animist beliefs and practices along the way, derived from the religions and cultures that existed before it. Beliefs and customs can vary even between different Pagoda’s in Camboda, as Pagoda’s have long histories.


The Core Beliefs of Cambodian Therevada Buddhism

Theravada beliefs are divided into various categories and most of them apply to other forms of Buddhism. These include:

Belief in the Supernatural (Deity): Members of the religion do not consider the existence of God, and only consider the Awakened One’ as the utmost, fully enlightened person, but not as their God. They use meditation for awakening or enlightenment and do not depend on external powers. To them, God only exists in various spiritual forms (on the 31 levels) , but with partial powers.

Buddha: It is believed that Sihaharta Gautama was a man, who through enlightenment became the Awakened One the same way Jesus became Christ, thus becoming the Buddha. Since the death of Buddha, his followers only contact him through his teachings which point to the awakened state of being.

Origin of Life and the World: Just like other forms of Buddhism, Theravadas believe in the scientific theory of creation, and that the world creates and recreates itself every fraction of a second.

Salvation: Salvation is referred to as enlightenment, which refers to the journey to Nirvana or liberation from suffering and cycles of rebirth. In order to eliminate karma, which causes rebirth, one must deal with negative beliefs that result into cravings and desires and cultivate attributes that lead to enlightenment including compassion, charity, moral conduct, wisdom, meditation and loving-kindness.

Attaining Enlightenment: Each individual has to make their own way to enlightenment without the help of an external force. The teachings only exist to give directions but making the journey solely belongs to the follower.

After Death: Unlike other religions, there is no transition of souls after death and negative mentalities normally persist through rebirth processes until the persons intentions qualify for enlightenment. Once this stage is attained, the individual is liberated to a state of selflessness, commonly referred to as the Nirvana, and graduates to a Buddha.

The power of choice: According to the religion, people have the freedom to do right or wrong. It is believed that evil deeds result from ill cravings, desires and attachments that are commonly expressed as greed, violence and hatred which when not dealt with result into a rebirth.


The difference between Theravada and other forms of Buddhism

The Sthaviriya, from which the Theravada religion is derived, differs greatly from other schools of Buddhism on various teachings. Some of these differences include:

Enlightenment: The religion emphasizes on individual enlightenment, and the aim is to become an arahant but beneath the arahant there is an understanding of the doctrine of anatman, the nature of the self which differs from that of the Mahayana.

Basically, Thevarada considers an individual’s personality as a delusion and once individuals are freed from their personalities then Nirvana is achieved. On the other hand Mahayana and other schools of Buddhism consider individual anatomies and all physical forms as delusions.

The Arahant: Other Buddhists such as the Mahasamghika believe that arahants are bound to make mistakes, while Theravadas believe that the arahants are perfect and of incorruptible nature.

Insight: According to the Theravada religion, insight into their teachings comes at once and not gradually. This is reflected in the four levels of attainment used by the religion where attainment of the four paths appears suddenly.

Self-Power: Theravada teaches that enlightenment comes entirely through one’s own efforts, without help from gods or other external forces. Some other Buddhist schools also emphasize this but are mostly devotional to external forces.

Literature: All Buddhists consider the Tripitaka as the approved scripture; however there are several sutras (teachings) that are not considered to be legitimate by the Thevaradas.

Organization of Teachings: Theravada Buddhism uses the Pali Canon rather than the most common Sanskrit that has common terms such as sutta for sutra, dhamma for dharma etc.

Meditation: In the Theravada tradition, the main way of realizing enlightenment is through the Vipassa meditation, that emphasizes disciplined observation of thoughts and the body and how these connect. Although some schools of Mahayana emphasize on meditation, others do not.

Buddha: Theravada only acknowledges historical Gautama Buddha and other past Buddhas, however Mahayana and other Buddhist schools accept other contemporary Buddhas such as Medicine Buddha and Amitabha who are very popular. As for Boghisattvas, Theravada only esteems Maitreya bodhisattva, while Mahayana Buddhism accepts all other bodhisattvas available besides Maitreya. These are the Samanthabadra, Ksitigarbha, Mansjuri and Avalokitesvara.

Rituals: Theravada performs some rituals but they are not heavily emphasized as in Mayahana schools

Death: The process of death is not very clear in the Theravada religion, and a dying person is normally advised to meditate on emptiness and impermanence. However with other Buddhists, it is believed that people manifest various inner and external signals before they die and this prepares them for the next rebirth.

Vegetarianism: This is not highly regarded as in Mahayana schools, it is suggested in Theravada, although it is not compulsory.


My Summary of Cambodian Therevada Buddhism

I actually realized how little I knew about the religion of the country I live in by writing this article, and I have to say that I am not ready to get packed off to the monastery yet.  That being said reading up has been fascinating, and although it is not for me I can certainly recommend a deeper delve if you are in any way interested in understanding Cambodia at a deeper level.


Other links & Suggested Reading Therevada Buddhism

What Theravada Buddhists Believe
What is Theravada Buddhism?
The Therevada The Teaching of the Elders


About the Author

Mad Monkey is Southeast Asia’s leading hostel operator — born in Cambodia with more properties in Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, Laos, and the Philippines. We pride ourselves in creating meaningful and sustainable travel experiences for our guests, whilst promoting socially responsible tourism.