Online Analytical Insight Net for Discovery of Metteyya Awakened One with Awareness Universe (FOAINDMAOAU)
Magadhi Karnataka State
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as they are following the original words of the Buddha Metteyya Awakened One with Awareness:
1. Dasa raja dhamma, 2. kusala 3. Kuutadanta Sutta dana, 4.
priyavacana,5. artha cariya ,6. samanatmata, 7. Samyutta
Nikayaaryaor,ariyasammutidev 8. Agganna Sutta,9. Majjima Nikaya,10.
arya” or “ariy, 11.sammutideva,12. Digha Nikaya,13. Maha
Ambattha Sutta in Digha Nikaya
Digha Nikaya (Mahaparinibbana-sutta
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It is not unusual to find academic reference to the Christian roots of such
modern Western conceptions as individuality or rights, or the Weberian
thesis that the historical roots of capitalism lie in the Protestant ethic. Never-
theless, one rarely finds references to links between religion and the institu-
tions of Western modernity in actual practice. This is related to the fact,
explored by Casanova (1994), that in many Western countries modernization
entailed the development of a secular sphere, with religion increasingly
defined as a “private” issue. Civil society, by this logic, is by its very nature
secular, as is the modern nation-state. To this we may contrast Chatterjee’s
description (1986) of societies responding to colonialism, where there is
often a pattern of finding in spirituality a source of identity which allowed
them, while recognizing the power of Western science and technology,
to validate their own cultures as equal to that of the colonizers. In this
context the revitalization of religion, sometimes entailing its own “modern”
transformation, can be very much part of a modernizing process, however
ambiguous that modernization may be.
My essay here examines the project of the building of a hospital for
monks in Cambodia at the moment of the country’s independence. My
interest in this topic, which grows out of more general research on Cambodian
religious building projects, is the seeming incongruity of the combination of
“traditional” and “modern” elements. It is my hope that in this juncture of
the traditional and the modern we can find something significant about the
post-colonial project in Cambodia.
The monks’ hospital was the brainchild of a jurist named Khuon Nay,
who in late 1949 established what was called in French the “Societé d’Assist-
ance Médicale aux Religieux Bouddhique”, whose main goal was the cre-
ation of the hospital. Khuon Nay had in 1946 been one of the founding
members of the Democratic Party,2 one of Cambodia’s first political parties
and an important political force in the years immediately prior to independ-
ence; the Party was a strong advocate of nationalism and independence, and attracted key progressive members of the French-educated Cambodia’s elite
of the time. Cambodia had been encouraged by the Japanese to declare its
independence in March 1945; although within months Japan was defeated
and the French had officially returned as a colonial authority, its position
could never be quite the same. A new constitution called for a national
assembly and the creation of political parties, thus authorizing the existence
of the new Democratic Party. Its slogan, “Use the Elite to Serve the King
and the People” (Chandler 1991: 30) perhaps captures some of the spirit that
motivated the building of the hospital. It is also significant that the Party had
strong links to the leadership of the Buddhist Sangha and actively drew on
networks of lay Buddhist leaders. Khuon Nay played a prominent role in
Cambodian politics precisely in the period of the Democratic Party’s efflor-
escence, serving as the President of the High Council from 1948 to 1950 and
president of the National Assembly from 1951 until it was dissolved by King
Sihanouk in January 1953. During this period he also, at different times,
headed various ministries.
As a prominent Democrat, Khuon Nay would have been close to Suramarit,
the king’s father and an advisor to the party. His links to the royal family
were also underlined by his marriage to Princess Sisowath Soveth, the older
half-sister of Sisowath Kossamak, Suramarit’s wife and the king’s mother.
The association in support of a monks’ hospital was created precisely at
the time that Khuon Nay was conspicuously a public person, while Cambodia
was still a colony of France and Sihanouk was still king, a time of a flurry of
political activity anticipating independence. Actual construction began in
February 1953, soon after Sihanouk had dissolved parliament, and during
the month Sihanouk left for France to lobby for independence. By the time the
hospital was completed, in 1956, the country was independent and Sihanouk
had abdicated the throne to play a more active political role, setting up a
movement called the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, which quickly overshadowed
and replaced all other parties, including the Democrats. Sihanouk’s father
Suramarit became king and the hospital was named after his queen, Preah
Kossamak Hospital. Khuon Nay, by this time 65 years old, kept heading
the organization that raised funds for and administered the hospital, and was
still living nineteen years later, when the country fell to the Khmer Rouge.3
Why was the hospital built? In the text of a speech dated 25 January 1950,
Khuon Nay gives three reasons. The first is the most poignant. He states that
he began thinking about the hospital:
because I have been struck with great sorrow, the sorrow of being
separated from younger associates4 and friends who I loved greatly
with all my heart. Illness and death came to rob me of them, causing
me to grieve and feel great anguish. I would like to be free from the
whole cycle of lifetimes full of suffering.
These are ideas basic to Buddhist philosophy and ground the hospital and
Khuon Nay’s personal involvement in it in a deeply Buddhist perspective on
life. Those hearing the speech would surely have been reminded that only
eleven days earlier Ieu Koeuss, a prominent Democrat and the President of
the National Assembly, had been assassinated – a death that echoed the
death, in 1947, of Prince Sisowath Yuthewong, the founder of the Party,
both of a generation younger than Khuon Nay. As a Cambodian political
figure, Khuon Nay already had reason to be reminded of the transience
of human endeavour.
The other reasons stated were also based on Buddhist teachings. He spoke
of the great merit to be gained by the gift of medicine, citing the case of the
arahant Ba ̄kula Thera living at the time of the Buddha who, because of
distributing medicine in a previous lifetime, lived 160 years completely with-
out illness; the speech was, after all, designed to remind contributors that
their donations would generate great merit for themselves, and an expression
of Khuon Nay’s own aspirations to merit.6 Finally, Khuon Nay stated his
fear that monks and novices receiving health care in hospitals for the general
public, where they were under a single roof with women, were in violation of
the disciplinary rules of the Patimokkha.
It should be noted that it is far from clear that a monk staying in a hospital
for the general public would always be in violation of the Patimokkha; never-
theless, a hospital exclusively for monks would have facilitated the mainten-
ance of monkly routine and discipline during periods of hospitalization. One
of the advantages of the hospital was that it included a small preah vihear
(the central ritual building of a Cambodian monastery or wat) consecrated
with ritual boundary stones (s ̄ıma ̄). This meant that the hospital and its
grounds could function officially as a wat, and that monks could legitimately
stay there the length of a rainy season retreat. It also meant that it could
legitimately be the destination of a kathin ceremony, the annual ceremony
whereby monks’ robes and other donations are brought in procession to a wat.
Khuon Nay’s 1950 speech, emphasizing Buddhist principles, did not bring
out the aspects of the hospital which were innovative: 1) the fact that, like
any modern hospital, it entailed systematization of health care on a large
scale, with the assumption that this kind of systematization could and
should be extended to the monkhood; 2) similarly, the fact that the hospital
project implicitly affirmed that the tradition of the monkhood could and
should interface with modern technologies of medicine; 3) finally, the fact
that the hospital project was consciously national in scale. The hospital
did not fall under the purview of either of the two monastic orders, the
Mohanikay or the Thommayut, but involved the cooperation of both under
an administrative committee with the symbolic patronage of the king. From
the beginning, the project was conceived as connected to the king and the
royal family, while, to the extent that it relied on contributions by the mass of
the Cambodian population, it also had a populist dimension.
The very creation of a formal organization is significant in a society that
had only recently begun generating social groupings which fell in the middle
ground between those of the royal government and the type of local organ-
ization which served a wat or a village. (Although a Buddhist Association
and various secular organizations were formed in the late 1930s, Cambodia
never developed anything remotely comparable to the YMBA in Burma
[Edwards 1999, 2004].) Khuon Nay’s association was to this extent part of a
movement in the direction of “civil society” – although it is significant that
the organization existed “under the high patronage of the king”, as well as
the fact that its goals and principal activities could be compared to the more
ad hoc community-level groups that are formed to organize kathin cere-
monies.7 The Societé d’Assistance Médicale aux Religieux Bouddhique was
officially registered, with its rules and regulations published in both Khmer
At the inauguration of the hospital, Khuon Nay stated that its cost had
totalled 12 million riel. Of this 3.5 million had come from “the Cambodian
people”, 6.5 million had come from the government, and 2 million from
foreign aid (Kambuja ̄ Suriya ̄ 1956a: 390). Foreign aid included, from France,
the donation of some equipment and the supply of medical personnel, but
consisted in large part of the donation of medical equipment by the United
States, eager to bring the newly independent country into its sphere of
influence (Agence Khmer Presse 1956).
One of the earliest fundraising activities took place in October 1952, when
two relics from India, one of the Buddha and one of the arahant Mogallana,
were brought to Cambodia, paraded through Phnom Penh with great pomp
and ceremony, and displayed for one week at the preah vihear on the grounds
of the Royal Palace. At this time, “tens and hundreds of thousands” viewed
the relic, and monks, ministers of the government, and the general Buddhist
public made offerings totalling 1,667,300 riel. Of this, 900,000 were to go
towards the monks’ hospital and 200,000 were to go towards the construc-
tion of a stupa in front of the railway station designed to contain a Buddha
relic (sakyamunichediy) (Ja ̄ Ga ̄n and Un’ Sou 2000; Institute Bouddhique
2001: x, xi).
Whatever else the building of the hospital may have been, it was a very
public event, if only because Khuon Nay had sufficient public profile to
make it so. Early on the campaign to build the hospital was endorsed by the
National Assembly. Its fundraising campaigns, the beginning of construc-
tion, and the inauguration of the hospital are recorded in Khmer and
French-language newspapers and news service reports, and the latter in
articles in the most prestigious journal of Cambodian culture of the time,
Kambuja ̄ Suriya ̄.
As such, it coincides with a handful of other events that focused public
attention on the role of Buddhism at the moment of independence: the estab-
lishment of a Buddhist University in 1954 (Sam 1987: 26); the publication of a fifty-volume Khmer translation of the Buddhist scriptures (the culmination
of a project begun in 1930) (Institut Bouddhique 2001: 218), and the building
of the Sakyamunichedi in front of the railway station to house a Buddha relic.
The latter two events, in particular, occurred in 1957, which in Cambodia
was the year 2500 of the Buddhist calendar. Since Buddhist scriptures are
popularly interpreted to say that the Buddha of the future, or the Maitreya,
will arrive 5,000 years after Gautama Buddha entered nirvana, the year 2500,
as the half-way mark, known as the Buddha Jayanti, was considered espe-
cially auspicious. This auspiciousness was accentuated by the fact that four
Theravada Buddhist countries, including Cambodia, had recently achieved
independence. Probably the momentum of the occasion initially generated
the Sixth Buddhist Council in Rangoon, a two-year event which was timed to
end on the occasion of the Buddha Jayanti as celebrated in Burma, in 1956.
Both Sihanouk and Chuon Nath, Cambodia’s most senior monk, visited
Burma at the time of the Council.
There was a sense of the dawn of a new Buddhist era. One of the key
books published on the occasion of the celebrations in India stated, “It is
believed that this anniversary will bring about a great revival of Buddhism
and universal peace throughout the world” (Bapat 1956: 53–54). Sarkisyanz
quotes a prominent Burmese editor telling him, in 1952, that, “. . . there is
some belief even here that the 2500th anniversary of the Mahaparinibbana
of the Buddha will mark a great Revival of Buddhism and there is some
feeling that the ‘Golden Age’ for which all men long, may dawn with this”
(1965: 207). This new era was symbolized, among other things, by the fact
that relics of the Buddha that had been in British possession were being
returned to Buddhist countries, such as the one designated for the new
Sakyamunichedi. The introduction to a book published by the Cambodian
Buddhist Institute on the occasion of the 2500 celebrations even suggested
that Sihanouk fulfilled the role of the prophesied Preah Pat Dhammik
(Institut Bouddhique 2001: v).
In each of the four newly independent Theravada countries, the coincidence
of independence and a new Buddhist era meant the emergence of move-
ments to involve Buddhism in social agendas (Gombrich 1988; Sarkisyanz
1965; Stuart-Fox and Bucknell 1982). This was also true in India, where
Dr Ambedkar used the occasion of 2500 (celebrated in India in 1956) to
organize the ritual conversion to Buddhism of thousands of members of the
untouchable caste. Celebrations in Thailand included the release of political
prisoners; Reynolds notes that “the occasion also gave progressive activists
and writers an opportunity to celebrate May Day 1957 and nudge history
forward” (Reynolds 1987: 34). Earlier in the year a leftist party had also been
founded in Burma, named after the future Buddha Maitreya (Sarkisyanz
The 2500 celebrations in Cambodia, focused especially on the installa-
tion of the Buddha relic in the new Sakyamunichedi, were organized on a grand scale, bringing together thousands of monks and lay people and deeply
capturing the imagination of the public. Unlike other relics in Cambodia,
this was not associated with a specific wat, but a central public place in the
capital of the new nation.9 The festivities were doubtless the most massive
celebration to that date of what was being defined as the spirit of the new
country, at this moment dramatically celebrated as a Buddhist country.10 It is
not surprising that, on the agenda for visiting Buddhist dignitaries were tours
of the one-year-old monks’ hospital.
The preface to a book published by the Buddhist Institute on the occasion
of the 2500 celebrations starts with a reference to the Buddha which
emphasizes his healing characteristics:
The Buddha is a vecchea kru (a doctor/teacher over doctors) in the
world. He has provided remedy: the moral philosophy which chris-
tened the humans of the world, suffering from disease of the heart
and soul (khang pleu chitt), the defilement of desire (tanha) – and
provided cure, in accordance with his vocation, before entering nir-
vana. There remains only Buddhism – as a teacher instead of the
actual Buddha – up until the present time.
(Institut Bouddhique 2001: I)
Later in the preface there is an extended discussion of how events taking
place in Cambodia, and the 2500 celebrations, relate to a prophetic
text, the Puttumneay, and it is striking how this is interpreted specifically in
Whoever is able to live at the halfway point of the religion and has
fulfilled the injunctions of dharma on three points – 1) by not threat-
ening his/her father or mother, and thus destroying the Buddha, 2)
by not stealing the possessions of others, 3) by never killing or des-
troying life – this person will have great well-being, for there is the
prophecy that, in the future, a golden mountain and a mountain of
silver, crystal, bracelets of cat’s eye gems, and sourikan will arise, and
among all humans there will be no more diseases. When it is time to
die, death will come at the end of one’s life. Does this mean that, in
the near future, this will really occur in our Cambodia? Because we
have seen some of this dimly starting at the present time – namely
that in our country, the two-year projects for dike construction,
both general projects and those for the pier at the ocean-front in
Kampong Som – all could be regarded as mountains of gold and
silver for all Cambodians. One should note that all these dikes can
permit Khmers to farm rice during two seasons in one year, and that
the planting of crops will generate increases, and the production that
will be born from the Khmer earth (preah thorani) will be carried by way of the ports of the Khmer fleet to be sold in world markets,
bringing gold and silver to Cambodia to the extent of meeting the
heart’s desire of the Cambodian people.
Not only that, Khmer health organizations have received great
amounts of aid in the form of effective remedies from the health
organizations of the world, in order to do away with the diseases of
the people, and can relieve the disease which our nation has believed
cannot be cured. We see that the truth appears little by little in
sequence; one should regard it indeed as the truth.
(Institut Bouddhique 2001: vi)
I have found no concrete evidence that the building of the monks’ hospital
was planned to coincide with the Buddha Jayanti, but the implications of
passages like this, and the fact that Buddha relics were used to raised funds
for it, is suggestive. What is clear is that, at this particular historical moment,
the hospital was used as evidence that Cambodia was a Buddhist nation and
a distinguished if not even auspiciously marked member of the community
of Buddhist nations.
A sermon given on the one-year anniversary of the hospital emphasizes
[The association was formed] in order to build a separate hospital for
monks in a way that was appropriate to the honor of a Buddhist
country . . . And this hospital for Buddhist monks, precisely in the
form you see here, was born out of the spirit of compassion of bene-
factors, both from among the monkhood and the lay community,
from the entire kingdom, demonstrating that our Cambodia has a
generous heart well-filled with dhamma in Buddhism, flowing with
willingness (satthea) to generate the signs of dhamma, such that it
may be seen clearly that it is no less than any other Buddhist country.
(Pang Ka ̄t’ 1957: 6)
The movement to build the monks’ hospital reflected a particular strand
of Cambodian Buddhism. Since the 1920s, there had been a major division
within the Mohanikay Order between traditionalists (the ancient or boran
tradition) and reformists. The latter were at the time called Dhammakay, a
term which emphasized the degree to which they drew on elements from the
Thommayut as well as the Mohanikay tradition; at the present time, the
reform movement is generally simply remembered as the “modern” or samey
practice (Marston 2002).
The reform movement is most commonly associated with two scholar
monks, Huot Tat and Chuon Nath, who rose to greater and greater promin-
ence within the Cambodian monkhood (Edwards 2004; Hansen 2004). At the time of independence, Huot Tat was the head of the Pali school and
Chuon Nath was the Mahanikay patriarch. Chuon Nath, in particular, is
enshrined in Cambodian national consciousness as the icon of the great
monk, an image that probably has less to do with awareness of his contribu-
tions as a scholar or a reformer than the fact that his prominence crystallized
at the moment of independence. (Many wats at the present time which con-
sider themselves “traditionalist”, and thus theoretically in opposition to the
reforms that Chuon Nath promoted, still display his picture prominently.)
One should keep in mind that many of the reforms promoted by Chuon
Nath and Huot Tat now seem somewhat arbitrary, and they were important
not so much because they were truly more faithful to Buddhist principles,
as they claimed, or because they were inherently “modern” in any absolute
sense, as because they came to define what at that moment was considered
modern in Cambodian Buddhism. They thereby in effect demarked cate-
gories within Cambodian Buddhism, giving direction both to those who
supported them and those who opposed them.
Sources of tension between traditionalists and modernists had to do with
the pronunciation of chants, the details of rituals, and ways of wearing robes.
More profoundly, perhaps, they had to do with modes of instruction for
monks – whether that of a disciple at the feet of a master or students seated
at desks in a modern classroom, and the principle of whether Pali chants
should be learned by rote and recited in the original language, or, instead,
there should be systematic instruction in Pali and translation into Khmer.
Reformists were devoted to the principle that the textual tradition of the
Buddhist scriptures should provide the basis for all practice and tended to
reject texts and rituals that had no clear scriptural foundation. They believed
that, by eliminating extraneous non-scriptural elements, one could arrive at a
form of Buddhism consistent with modern science and technology.
The Buddhism of the reformists was also one that interfaced well with
colonial administrative structures – and a locus of opposition among tradi-
tionalists was that it was associated too much with the French. We might add
that the vision of Buddhism promoted by the modernists was one that could
easily interface with the Buddhism of other countries, some of which were
undergoing similar reforms.
The prominent public events associated with Buddhism which took place
near the time of Cambodian independence were all very much projects pro-
moted by Chuon Nath and associated with his vision of Buddhism. This is
especially obvious in the case of the creation of the Buddhist University and
the publication of the Khmer version of the Tripitaka. While to a Western
observer, the enshrinement of a Buddha relic seems less “modern”, it was
also a project enthusiastically promoted by Chuon Nath and was in its own
way a product of his vision: in sharing the body of the Buddha, Cambodia
demonstrated that it was an integral part of the body of international
I see the monks’ hospital as intimately associated with this strand of
reformist Buddhism. Chuon Nath was one of the figures closely identified
with the project from the beginning and may have been the person to origin-
ally give the idea circulation in Cambodia. In a 1950 speech he mentions
having seen a hospital for monks in Laos and praised it upon returning to
Cambodia. The idea of a hospital for monks suggests a vision of Buddhism
consistent with science and technology and which, in more general terms,
was not afraid of innovation. It also represented a vision of Buddhism oper-
ating on a national level and in a strong degree consistent with the system-
atization of the monkhood as an institution. It was a symbol of Cambodian
Buddhism that could be represented to the larger Buddhist world, even, per-
haps, something that other Buddhist countries could look to as a model.
Khuon Nay’s emphasis that the monks’ hospital would help make the discip-
linary practice of monks consistent with Buddhist scriptures is also very
typical of the reformist way of looking at Buddhism, which gave stress to
scriptural validity over tradition.
Pamphlets with the articles of incorporation of the Societé d’Assistance
Médicale aux Religieux Bouddhiques were published in 1950 and 1954,
apparently for fundraising purposes. The covers of the Khmer versions of
the pamphlets had illustrations of the planned hospital. The 1950 picture,
drawn before construction had actually begun, was an idealized building in
a classical European style, vaguely antiquated, with its Greek columns in
front of a box-like three-storey building with curtained windows; a pair of
monks standing in discussion in front of the building convey an iconic,
school-book quality. Perhaps the most Cambodian element of the building is
a pyramid-like pointed roof rising above the box-like structure, pinnacled
with a small turret.
The 1954 picture, published when the building was actually under con-
struction (and during the year Cambodia achieved independence), resembles
the final building and was probably based on the architect’s drawings. The
building is bigger and more self-consciously modern in design – even, per-
haps, “heroically” modern. A flag now appears conspicuously on the roof of
the hospital. The artist no longer thought to include pictures of monks on
the grounds; the picture to that extent is less human in scale. The religious
element of the hospital is instead depicted by an angel-like male deity
(devata) in royal garb who hovers over the hospital at the pinnacle of a
rainbow. From his hands fall written Khmer syllables which with difficulty
can be seen to fit together in expressions of blessing: “May you have no
disease, no suffering, and be happy”; “Long life, good complexion, happi-
ness, strength . . .”12 The sequence of the two pictures suggests that the hos-
pital was conceived more and more in terms of a heroic modernity; even so,
that modernity was consciously linked to spirituality.
On the occasion of the inauguration of the hospital, the Minister of
Public Works, Meas Yang, made the very measured statement that, “This handiwork, added to many other handiworks completed since the Khmer
people have achieved independence, proves clearly our value and demon-
strates once again that our country has indeed entered a new era” (Kambuja ̄
Suriya ̄ 1956b: 493–494).
One should not exaggerate the modernity of the building in architectural
terms. It was not in the same category as what would be called the New Khmer
Architecture, which flourished soon after this, and was closely associated
with the work of the architect Vann Molyvann, who would combine with
great sophistication a modernist aesthetic with motifs from ancient Khmer
architecture; the hospital was a much more modest project.13 What it had
in common with the New Khmer Architecture was that it was an imposing
new building in a heretofore undeveloped part of the city, which seemed to
capture the momentum of the construction of the newly independent country.
Some of the later buildings associated with the Sihanouk period would be
in the vicinity of the hospital. A 1967 article in French, quoted by Sihanouk
in 1969, lists the hospital as one of the glorious buildings lining the road
from the airport to the centre of town.
The traveler, pressed for time, must think that this concentration of
beautiful edifices is nothing but a façade, and that it provides an
imaginary view of what is inside the wrapping paper. But that is
nothing of the case, because one observes after a short time that the
whole capital reflects the same concern for beauty and equilibrium.
New construction near the airport since the 1980s means that the hospital
is no longer easily visible from the road. But one can imagine that part of the
effect of the building in the 1950s and 1960s was that of a glistening modern
building situated at some distance from the road behind well-gardened
The hospital also, obliquely, demonstrates the relation between kingship
and socio-political developments in the country. Sihanouk’s political move-
ment, established in 1955, was called Sangkum Reastr Niyum, which translates
roughly as “Popular Socialist Community”. From the beginning, Sihanouk
stressed the idea of a socialism existing in interdependence with monarchy.
While some might say the modernization entailed in socialism was under-
mined by its link to monarchy, one might also, more from the perspective of
Sihanouk, say that what was being worked out was a peculiarly modern
permutation of monarchy. In 1965, Sihanouk had written an editorial for the
review Kambuja called “Our Socialist Buddhism” which would be later
published as a pamphlet by the Cambodian Ministry of Information. The
original article was composed a few months after Sihanouk had broken dip-
lomatic relations with the US, and in part represented the gesture of declar-
ing that Cambodia’s path was neither that of the US or of communism, both of which he criticized at length. The editorial was also a way of recalling the
Sangkum Reastr Niyum path of development up to that point and framing
its accomplishments in Buddhist terms.
Much like Khuon Nay’s 1950 speech, it spoke of the Buddhist recognition
of the universality of human suffering and of a socialist obligation to
address suffering. The “socialist” effort to resolve the problem of suffering
was very much conceived in terms of the bounty and the generosity of the
The editorial drew heavily on a book by Alexandra David Neel, who had
written, using strikingly militaristic images, that “Buddhism is a school of
stoic energy, of resolute perseverance and of very special courage, the aim of
which is to train ‘warriors’ to attack suffering.”14 Sihanouk wrote that:
Transposed to the plan of our national politics, such a doctrine
makes of us ‘warriors,’ convinced and energetic, fighting for our
national ideology, which is, in regards to internal politics, the fight
against under-development, against social injustice, the raising of
our people’s living standard, their happiness, and their joie de vivre in
fraternity and concord.
(Sihanouk 1966: 8–9)
In the essay, Sihanouk makes scattered references to Asoka as the model
of Buddhist kingship, such as when he quotes Neel that, “On the pillar
which Emperor Asoka had constructed for the edification of his subjects,
one reads: ‘I consider the well-being of all creatures as a goal for which I
should fight,” and adds his own comment: “It is the goal of the Sangkum”
(Sihanouk 1966: 19).
More striking, perhaps, are two other analogies. Sihanouk makes reference
to the story of Prince Vessantara, the immediate previous incarnation of
Gautama Buddha, who embodied the perfection of generosity to the extent
that he was willing to sacrifice all his possessions and his family. The analogy
hints that Sihanouk himself was a Vessantara figure (an idea which, taken to
its logical extremes, would also make him a bodhisattva). What he actually
states is that the Cambodian people have been generous to Sangkum Reastr
Niyum projects because of the example of Vessantara.
The foreigner must come to know that 80% of our schools and
infirmaries and a large percentage of our other accomplishments are
nothing but the generosity – I should rather say the Buddhist charity
– of innumerable admirers of Vessantara.
The other analogy he draws on is the Angkorean King Jayavarman VII – a
patron of Mahayana Buddhism and the ancient Cambodian monarch most
associated with Buddhism in popular Cambodian consciousness. The model of Jayavarman VII – a world conqueror who, depicted iconically in medita-
tion, was also a world-renouncer – is a theme running throughout the
Sihanouk period. In addition to being Buddhist, Jayavarman VII was also
the Angkorean king most massively engaged in building projects. In 1969,
Sihanouk would liken the building projects completed in the Sangkum
Reastr Niyum period to those of Jayavarman VII, calling Phnom Penh “the
new Angkor Thom” (Sihanouk 1969). In the 1965 editorial, Sihanouk uses
Jayavarman VII to explain Buddhist socialism, citing the ancient king’s
numerous temples and monuments, his thousands of kilometres of roads
and canals, and his hundreds of hospitals (Sihanouk 1966: 8; emphasis
mine). What I would like to emphasize is the degree to which the vision of
a new and “modern” society was constructed to echo the iconography of
In a provocative recent article about Cambodian kingship in relation to
the icon of the leper king, Ashley Thompson (2004) argues that, since the
time of Jayavarman VII (and the inscriptions know as the Hospital Edicts),
kingship, by means of its association with Buddhahood and its metonymic
extension to the body of the population, has been associated with healing.
The physical and moral well-being of the king is intrinsically tied to the
physical and moral well-being of the kingdom. The Hospital Edicts use
imagery of war to describe the king’s conquest of suffering and disease.
This association between kingship and healing, she argues, extends to the
reign of Sihanouk. The public emphasis in the 1950s and 1960s that the
hospital projects of Jayavarman VII paralleled Sihanouk’s own projects
supports, to a degree, the thesis that this idea was operative in Cambodian
popular consciousness and adds a dimension to the “modernity” of these
The monks’ hospital was completed early in the period of the Sangkum
Reastr Niyum, and we cannot assume that all the ideas in the pamphlet on
Buddhist socialism were fully developed at that time. The hospital project did
anticipate Sihanouk’s vision of socialism in the degree to which it was pre-
sented as a combination of popular will and royal patronage. Speeches at the
inauguration credited to Sihanouk the fact that there were government dona-
tions to the hospital and the arrangement of foreign aid in its support. We
do not know whether these speeches reflect his active involvement in the pro-
ject or simply the fact that at the time the social body was so deeply associ-
ated with kingship that all public projects tended to be seen as in some sense
What we do know is that, already, at the time of the hospital dedication,
speeches depicted the building of the hospital as in the tradition of Jayavarman
VII. The representative of the Thommayut Order stated on the occasion,
“Buddhism in our country has encountered a glorious resurgence. One can
almost compare it with the glorious growth [of Buddhism] in the era of
Jayavarman VII – simply because our king is a Buddhist of the highest order” (Kambuja ̄ Suriya ̄ 1956: 394). The representative of the Ministry of
Religion cited a famous quotation of Jayavarman VII when he stated:
The building of this hospital for monks is an indication that it was in
accordance with the policies of the government headed by the prince
[Sihanouk], under the sovereign authority of the king and the queen,
who have continuously had the desire to eliminate illness among
monks and eliminate illness among the people – because the illness
of the people is the illness of the king.
(Kambuja ̄ Suriya ̄ 1956)16
One more regional hospital for monks would be built in Takeo in 1957,
and an infirmary was built on the premises of a large Phnom Penh wat, Wat
Mahamontrey, at around this time. After that, as far as I have been able
to determine, the idea seems to have lost momentum. Sihanouk would
not, in fact, be known for sponsoring the building of Buddhist temples or
schools.17 If we see the hospital as a gift to the Sangha, so much in the
Theravada tradition of generating merit, no similar pattern would emerge.
What would be more characteristic of the Sihanouk period were “gifts” to
the people. Initially, many such projects supported with foreign aid, such as
the Soviet aid towards the construction, near the monks’ hospital, of the
Soviet-Khmer Friendship Hospital; they later represented significant civic
mobilization. The monks’ hospital, and a medical school building com-
pleted the year before near what would be the site of the Sakyamunichedi,
did anticipate the fact that there would be much hospital construction
during the period of his political power. A US report from the late 1960s
. . . many of the new medical facilities are reported to have been built
largely by popular subscription and with labor furnished by the
people of the village or district. Reports of civic participation come
from official sources, and there is corroborative evidence that people
in urban areas have contributed substantial sums toward the build-
ing of hospitals and that villagers furnish volunteer labor in building
their local infirmaries.
(Munson et al., 1968)
This was part of a campaign organized by Sihanouk. According to Martin
(1991: 74), the project began in 1964, when Cambodia was rejecting US aid.
“The state supplied iron to reinforce concrete; villagers had to supply sand
and bricks and do the construction work.” As she describes it, the pro-
gramme was very successful in terms of the sheer numbers of buildings con-
structed, but had a Potemkin village quality in remoter provinces, since there
was no money for medicine or furniture. She describes how communities would borrow medicine and furniture from the capital or nearby towns for
the inauguration ceremonies, then ship them back. Certainly there was an
element of theatre to Sihanouk’s projects of “modernity”. It is interesting
that this theatre of hospital construction consciously cultivated parallels
with the reign of Jayavarman VII.
In conversations with people in Phnom Penh at the present time, I have
found a widespread belief that the monks’ hospital was built under the direct
sponsorship of the Queen, Sisowath Kossamak, for which it is named, even
though I have found no documentary evidence of her involvement. This
reflects, I believe, a tendency of popular Cambodian conception to forget
institutions of civil society as such, and to conceive of projects from that
period instead as part of a general royal mandate.18 It may also reflect the
fact that donations to the monkhood by high-ranking women have particular
I have so far been able to find very little information about the actual
running of the hospital, how it was different from other hospitals, or what
impact it had on the Cambodian monkhood. One of the current adminis-
trators of the hospital says that before 1975 it primarily treated cases of
tuberculosis or of complications related to tuberculosis. In addition to
monks, a few lay persons received treatment in the hospital, perhaps lay
ritual specialists (achar) closely associated with Buddhist wats; they were
housed on the ground floor so they would be at a lower level than the monks.
Khuon Nay’s granddaughter recalls that his younger brother, Khuon Kim
Seng, was the principal doctor. “He lived within the premises with the whole
family in a wooden house built near a lotus pond”.19 (The pond circled the
hospital as a sort of a moat. The house was outside the wall behind the
hospital, near a small bridge connecting the hospital grounds to the outside.)
There were apparently at times some foreign medical personnel working at
the hospital. A French-language booklet giving the internal regulations of
the hospital states of the nurses that:
Their role is the same as that of nurses in other hospital establish-
ments, with, however, a small difference in regards to the status
of the patients. Here, in fact, it’s a question of monks who are
ill, toward whom it is necessary to comport oneself with great
tact, patience, and consideration. In a word, it is necessary to know
how to treat them with particular respect and deference, while
nevertheless not neglecting discipline and internal regulations.
(Hôpital des Bonzes 1956: 4)
A 1964 fundraising booklet states that the hospital received 2 million riel a
year from the Cambodian government, but that this had to be supplemented
by money pledged by donors on an annual or monthly basis, and fundraising
through the selling of flowers and plants. Appeals for funds were regularly broadcast on holy days (thngay sel) on the national radio (Kaev Sa ̄ret
In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge evacuated the population of Phnom Penh
to the countryside and in the course of the Pol Pot period, practically all
Cambodian monks were forced to disrobe. The monks’ hospital would never
again be a hospital for monks per se, although it was apparently used for
medical purposes during the Pol Pot period and would be one of the first
hospitals to be put to use after the fall of Democratic Kampuchea.
In the People’s Republic of Kampuchea period, the hospital was opened
again for the general public with the name April 17 Hospital. It was not until
the early 1990s that it would again be called Preah Kossamak Hospital.
Around this time one of the most senior Cambodian monks, Ven. Oum
Sum, once closely associated with Chuon Nath, made two separate attempts
to set up hospital units for monks, both doomed to close after short period
of time. When he travelled to the US with Mohanikay patriarch Tep Vong,
money donated to them was earmarked for two projects, one of these a
building for monks at the Calmette Hospital.20 This building was constructed
later that year, but soon diverted by the hospital to other uses, although
a sign still identifies it as the monks’ unit, and a plaque acknowledges
the contributions of Cambodian-Americans.21 Ven. Oum Sum later, in
1994, organized the construction of a small hospital/infirmary on the
grounds of his own wat, Wat Mahamontrey, under the authority of muni-
cipal health authorities. Municipal health staff proved reluctant to work at
the unremunerative hospital for monks, and this also fell by the wayside, with
the building converted to a monks’ residence at the time of Ven. Oum Sum’s
death. These incidents perhaps demonstrate that a hospital for monks, ori-
ginally so much associated with new-found independence and the project of
modernity, cannot capture public imagination and support in the way it
could before the war.
The most vivid reminder of Preah Kossamak Hospital’s past is a mini-
ature preah vihear that still stands on the grounds, a stone building with
Angkorean-style decorations built on an elevated platform of land. After a
period of use as warehouse in the 1980s, it was returned to its original
religious use. When I visited it in the summer of 2003, it was being used by a
small group of female and male lay ascetics, six doun chi and four ta chi.
They said they resided in the vicinity of the wat and had for the past four
years been coming here to do meditation during the rainy season. Every
other day they receive instruction by a monk from a wat associated with Ven.
Sam Bunthoeurn, a charismatic meditation teacher who was assassinated the
previous year under circumstances that remain unclear. A portrait of Queen
Kossamak is situated conspicuously in conjunction with the principle shrine
to the Buddha, and the lay ascetics tell me that she was the principal donor
of the hospital. I was struck by the great beauty of the small temple and the
calm sense of spirituality it evoked in relation to the hospital grounds, the larger hospital building, and the small group of women and men in retreat.
Later I learned that, among patients in the hospital, it is still believed to have
great healing power.
The significance of the monks’ hospital lies in the fact that it is so quintes-
sentially a product of the period of Cambodia’s independence and the way
the project of modernity was conceived at that time. What I would want to
emphasize is the degree to which that project of modernity was imbued with
references to what might sometimes be called Cambodia’s “pre-modern” cul-
ture: to kingship and Buddhism and the mobilization of personal networks.
Insofar as we can generalize about Cambodian religious building projects, we
can see that some of the same concerns that inform neo-traditional religious
movements I have written about elsewhere also inform state-sanctioned pro-
jects very much labelled as “modern”.
These issues have wider relevance in that they parallel processes that were
taking place in other Theravada Buddhist countries at the same time, espe-
cially insofar as countries newly emerging from colonialism were redefining
themselves as Buddhist countries, and in different ways making the attempt
to adopt types of reformed Buddhism consistent with specific visions of
modernity. My research suggests that these issues were more salient in
Cambodia than is acknowledged in the standard histories of the period. In
particular, I see the Buddha Jayanti festivities in Cambodia, with their paral-
lels with what was happening in other Buddhist countries, as much more
significant than has generally been recognized.
1 Research for this essay was supported by a grant from the Center for Khmer
Studies with funding from the Luce Foundation. My thanks to Michele Thompson
for encouraging me to pursue this topic.
2 Personal communication, Julio Jeldres, 6 Feb. 2004.
3 Personal communication, Dina Nay, 10 Feb. 2004.
4 The word used here, koun chau, literally “children and grandchildren”, could refer
either to offspring or those serving under him.
5 Unless otherwise indicated, translations are mine.
6 One reference to the long life of Ba ̄kula Thera is the Ba ̄kula Sutta (M. iii. 125).
See Malalasekera (1983: 261–2).
7 Edwards (1999) indicates that many of the associations formed in Cambodia in the 1930s had fundraising goals. She suggests that in addition to the fundraising
activities of Cambodian wats, these organizations may have drawn on the model
of Chinese self-help and fundraising associations, which probably existed in
Cambodia since the late nineteenth century. Some Chinese fundraising was for
8 The prophecies of the coming of a dhammically powerful king, who will usher in
an era of millennial greatness, should be considered as separate from prophecies of the coming of the Maitreya, although in practice the two concepts sometimes
blur, with the implication that Preah Pat Dhammik will lead the way to the coming
of the Maitreya.
9 The relic was in 2003 moved to a huge newly constructed stupa at the old capital
of Oudong. Various reasons are given for the transfer to a new location. The
general consensus was that the site in front of the railway station was not auspi-
cious, perhaps because of prostitution in the vicinity, and that this may have
affected Cambodia’s history since independence.
10 The celebrations were in May. Osborne (1994: 105) and Chandler (1991: 91–2)
describe how in July 1957 Sihanouk resigned as prime minister and went into a
retreat for two weeks at a wat on Phnom Kulen, assuming a white robe and a
shaved head and announcing his permanent withdrawal from public life. While
Osborne attributes this to Sihanouk’s “physical and emotional exhaustion”, and
both authors see the immediate precedent to this as political wrangling within the
National Assembly, the conjunction with the Buddha Jayanti is probably more
significant than they acknowledge.
11 Scholarly work on the Puttumneay has been done by Smith (1989) and de Bernon
12 My thanks to Sath Sakkarak for helping decipher the messages in the shower of
13 Personal communication, Helen Grant Ross, 14 Feb. 2004. One source for infor-
mation on Vann Molyvann is Reyum (2001).
14 Ian Harris (personal communication, 22 Jan. 2005) suggests that David Neel may
have been influenced by the vitalistic ideas of Julius Evola.
15 This refers to King Suramarit.
16 The actual quotation in the Hospital Edicts, as given by Thompson (2004: 97)
is: “The illness of the body of the people was for him the illness of the soul – and
that much more painful: for it is the suffering of the kingdom which makes the
suffering of kings, and not their own suffering.”
17 Personal communication, Helen Grant Ross, 14 Feb. 2004. Nevertheless, it is clear
that he participated frequently in their ritual dedication.
18 The idea that Queen Kossamak sponsored the building of the hospital is also
stated in Sam (1987: 9).
19 Personal communication, Dina Nay, 9 Feb. 2004.
20 Because of the US trade embargo at the time, the funds had to be sent to
Cambodia via an NGO, the American Friends Service Committee, which was
licensed by the State Department for humanitarian activities in Cambodia. I
accompanied the two monks during the Washington State segment of their visit
and visited the site of the hospital building under construction later that year.
Details of the financial arrangements were clarified for me in personal communi-
cation by Susan Hammand of US-Indochina Reconciliation Project (12 Jan. 2004)
and Dave Elder of American Friends Service Committee (22 Jan. 2004).
21 Guthrie (2002: 63–4), drawing on field research by Sek Sisokhom, makes reference
to the monks’ hospital project at Calmette. Although the total picture remains far
from clear, her data do give some indication that the decision to use the building
for patients other than monks generated controversy at the time.