Manuscript classification

The key difficulty we encountered initially in our attempt to reconstitute what could have been the traditional literature of the monasteries was due to the fact that the remembrance of what it used to be like was not clear in any living memory. The ritualistic and doctrinal preoccupations of Khmer scholars, who have a living knowledge of texts in the local language, never venture into the questionings of methodology, history and criticism peculiar to philology. The lack of critical concern does not of course mean ignorance, but the knowledge of Khmer monks, that of the “initiation masters” (grū) or “ritual masters” (ācāry), was essentially practical. It did not take into consideration the literary history of the texts or the critical identification of the schools to which their teaching belonged, nor even the ways in which the doctrinal knowledge contained therein was passed on.

It must be added that since the early 20th century, the elitist and normative preoccupations of an influential part of the Khmer Buddhist clerical hierarchy, out of concern to promote a return to what it conceived as being the canonical authenticity that it claimed to have found in the strict criteria of Singhalese orthodoxy, ended up favoring the literal study of Pāli texts, to the exclusion of any consideration for the vernacular corpus. Large portions of local religious literature that testified in various ways to an original literary creativity in Cambodia in the last few centuries—as was also the case elsewhere in Southeast Asia—were thus downplayed before being given up to neglect, when they were not, in some instances, the object of destructive censure. With the exception of the major literary notes by Nhok Thèm (ñuk thèm) published in Kambujā Suriyā magazine between 1965 and 1968, the learned Cambodians of the Buddhist Institute who played a major role in the dissemination of supposedly canonical Buddhist literature in Cambodia were not really supportive of applying critical philology methods to the study of texts in the Khmer language, quite the contrary.

As for western scholars, notably those of the École française d’Extrême-Orient, they were no more zealous in attempting to describe this literature systema-tically. For instance, the priceless work Recherches sur la littérature laotienne (Research on Laotian Literature), published by Louis Finot in 1917, has no equivalent in the realm of Khmer literature (Finot 1917).

In a chronicle appearing in the 1912 volume of the BEFEO, George Cœdès announced that a general inventory including a short note on each work based on a “comprehensive, final list of all works written in the Cambodian language” prepared from “1,200 inventories carefully compiled” by pagoda leaders would soon be published (Cœdès 1912, 176), but the project never saw the light of day.

Suzanne Karpelès, whose role nearly two decades later was a determining factor in the founding of the major Khmer institutions charged with inventorying and conserving Cambodia’s literature—the Royal Library and later the Buddhist Institute—seems to have been motivated principally by pedagogical ambitions to help enhance the general level of education of monks in Cambodia through the promotion of Indian studies, notably through learning Pāli.

François Bizot thus came to be the first researcher to really dedicate himself to a systematic study of Cambodia’s vernacular religious literature. For over 30 years he made an in-depth study of an original family of texts dealing with ritualized meditation practices peculiar to the Indochinese Theravādin space. His work provides precious tools for the identification of texts pertaining to this tradition, the importance of which is decisive in understanding and describing the history of Indochinese Buddhism.