The transition from handwritten to printed literature

In Khmer tradition, beyond the meaning of the words that it contributes to form, each letter etched is of itself part of the system of representation of a mystical ontogenesis: in this mode of representation, the body of the reader identifies itself with the “body of the dhamma” through the physical assimilation of the texts, through writing, pronouncing, reciting or visualizing of a text. The handwritten object is itself invested with a sacred value, independent of the retranscribed text. Etching the text is considered to be a meritorious act (puṇy), which, when completed, is sanctioned by a “completion ceremony” (chlaṅ) which determined the “fruitage and benefits” (phal ānisaṅs) accruing to the copyist and to the donor if the latter was not the copyist himself.

The sacredness of the manuscripts is sometimes highlighted by the pagination system used: the syllables of a sacred formula, such as NA MO BHU DDHĀ YA, on their own as so many mantras, are etched on the back of each leaf as a pagination mark instead of a number figure or letter of the alphabet.

Up to the 1920s, the traditionalist hierarchy of the saṃgha held out as long as it could against the printed publication of Cambodian texts, notably religious texts. Indeed, the transition from traditional writing to printing was not only a change in technology in traditional Cambodia regarding the way texts were reproduced: it was a total change in the ritual relationship between the reader and what he was reading.

This mystical notion given to the letters and handwritten ollas was scoffed at by the tenants of the reform inspired by the dhammayutikanikay imported from Siam by King Ang Duong, which valued the understanding that the reader should have of the texts. The new progressive hierarchy of the saṃgha, led mainly by Venerable Chhuon Nath and Venerable Huot That, who, unlike the older members, could see the normative impact that could be expected from printing. It made a radical change to the official position with regard to the publishing of printed texts that it henceforth promoted actively. The undertaking, unparalleled to this day in any other country of the world, of a complete bilingual edition of the three parts of the Tripiṭaka along with the most significant paracanonical texts, started in 1930 and completed only in 1969, contributed powerfully to the loss of interest of the monks in satra reading. Indeed, the standardization of Khmer spelling, which had to be done as a typographical necessity, caused the traditional spellings to become obsolete and left the satra inaccessible to or tedious for modern readers.

At the same time, the expansion of schooling based on the use of printed textbooks for the greatest number, gradually caused young Cambodians to become completely unfamiliar with the traditional writing.

The fact remains that although tradition in Cambodia held that manuscripts be burned on the funeral pyre of prominent monks, as mentioned earlier, there is reason to doubt that this would happened to printed books, much less CD-ROMs.