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Buddhism in a Dark Age

Cambodian Monks under Pol Pot

Ian Harris

Publication Year: 2012

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 Buddhist sangha under 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 Age outlines 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 of sangha administration 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.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Cover, Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This work came to life in 2003 as a research project at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), Phnom Penh. In due course I was able to organize my findings into a semicoherent scheme, and this further transmogrified into a monograph (Harris 2007) published by DC-Cam some four years later. ...

Note on Transliteration

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pp. xi-xii

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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 fine Buddhism 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, ...

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Chapter One: Unraveling of the Buddhist State

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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. ...

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Chapter Two: Buddhism and the Origins of Cambodian Communism

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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, ...

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Chapter Three: Buddhism and Khmer Communism: A Shared Conceptual Terrain

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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. ...

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Chapter Four: Dealing with Monks

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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. ...

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Chapter Five: Buddhist Practice and Material Culture under the Khmer Rouge

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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). ...

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Chapter Six: Monk Mortality and the Destruction of Institutional Buddhism

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pp. 118-138

In the 1950s the Khmer Workers’ Party still reflected its connections with the saṅgha by 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 “peasantlike characteristics,” ...

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Chapter Seven: Aftermath: Rebuilding the Saṅgha under Socialism

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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 ...

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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, ...


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pp. 173-208

Abbreviations and Glossary

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pp. 209-212


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pp. 213-238


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pp. 239-242

E-ISBN-13: 9780824865771
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824835613

Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 830023837
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Buddhism in a Dark Age

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Subject Headings

  • Buddhism -- Cambodia -- History -- 20th century.
  • Buddhist monks -- Cambodia -- History -- 20th century.
  • Communism and Buddhism -- Cambodia -- History -- 20th century.
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