Assessment of the EFEO-FEMC’s manuscript classification method

With the benefit of hindsight and acquired experience, which by definition the EFEO-FEMC team did not have at the start of its mission, the weaknesses of this classification are clearly seen. Notwithstanding, the authenticity with which it reflects the original conceptions of learned Khmers seems nevertheless more advantageous than any harm that might result from its shortcomings.

The most obvious and interesting of these original Khmer conceptions is seen in their putting the two genres of “Traditional accounts” (V.1) and “Texts for meditation” (V. 3) into the “Traditional texts” group. Although they are part of Cambodia’s Buddhist literature, texts falling into these two genres were classified systematically by the Khmers as separate from those of the “Texts for preaching” (III.1 to III.6). This was done on purpose, based on the fundamental difference in the mode of transmission of the texts of both groups. Indeed, works belonging to the six “Texts for preaching” genres feature an open instruction, socially organized in monasteries, notably during preaching rituals conducted in public by monks.

Évaluation du classement des manuscrits mis en œuvre par l’EFEO-FEMCIn the Khmer vocabulary, all of this literature is the /beydok/ (piṭaka), however distant may be the relationship of the texts in question with the true Pāli canon of the “Three Baskets” (traipiṭaka). On the other hand, texts identified as “traditional” pertain to an initiatory instruction inducing the practice of rituals, organized in the narrow and always personal framework of the unique relationship between a master and a disciple. Although the texts pertaining to this type of instruction (V.1 and V.3) deal with strictly Buddhist beliefs and practices, they are never included in the corpus that makes up the /beydok/.

Another oddity that appears in this classification has to do with the classifying under the “Classic novels” genre (II.1) of a number of texts that are obviously Khmer renderings of certain jātaka (“accounts of one of the past lives of the Buddha”) originating from large informal collections of Southeast Asia, such as the “Fifty Past Lives of the Buddha” (Paññasajātaka), or the “Five Hundred¬—to Five Hundred and Fifty—Past Lives of the Buddha” (hā ray jāti). By thus restricting the jātaka group (III.5) to accounts of the “Last Ten Past Lives of the Buddha,” making up the Dassajātaka to the exclusion of all the others, the EFEO-FEMC team members were simply reflecting a distinction actually practiced by the monks in Cambodia. Indeed, Khmer monks never preach from the pulpit any jātaka other than those from the Dassajātaka, leaving it up to defrocked monks, generally the pagoda ācāry, to recite in imitation of them the jātaka from the other collections, always outside of the vihāra.

A manifest weakness of the classification implemented by the EFEO-FEMC is the rather vague nature of the “Doctrinal texts” (III.1) group that are only defined by default. This rather imprecise genre actually includes books pertaining to the open instruction in Buddhism given in the monasteries, but not part of the more clearly defined categories (III.2 to III.6). This lack of precision is revealing inasmuch as, having never been studied by western scholars and never being read anymore by Khmer Buddhists, most of these doctrinal texts are viewed as obsolete and therefore uninteresting and ignored. Only their description will make it possible to propose a classification according to more fine-tuned criteria, but virtually the entire task remains to be done.

All the same, it is good to point out that some of the literary genres used in this system of textual classification are practically unrepresented in Cambodia’s monastic libraries. This is the case, for instance, of the “biographies” (jīv pravatti) of which just one copy has been found in the libraries catalogued to date.