Handwritten literature in the vernacular and handwritten literature in Pāli

A general observation can be made about monastic libraries, and that is that the overwhelming majority of texts reproduced and disseminated in Cambodia’s monasteries were actually in Khmer, not in Pāli, contrary to the common strongly entrenched view.

The teaching of Pāli gained some momentum in Cambodia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This fresh enthusiasm was due first to the reform originating in Siam and later to the academic concerns of a few Frenchmen aiming to regenerate Khmer Buddhism. However, it does not seem that this teaching ever involved the mass of bikkhu as was and still is the case in Thailand. What George Cœdès observed about the Dhammapadaṭṭhakathā, Maṅgaladīpanī Aṭṭhākathā Maṅgalasutta and Sarātthasaṅgaha being “the Pāli culture reservoir for Siamese and Cambodian monks” (Cœdès 1915, 2) is still perfectly accurate, but it must be added that these three texts are most frequently found in Cambodia’s monasteries in a Khmer translation.

This remarkable effort to translate into the vernacular—and we are very short on detail as to the circumstances thereof except to say that it started well before the foundation of the Buddhist Institute—was clearly intended to make available to the monks of Cambodia, in the language accessible to them, texts approved by the normative reform of which the influence went far beyond just the dhammayutikanikay in Cambodia. This fresh abundance of texts in the Khmer language had a key secondary effect of banishing or even causing the disappearance of the mainly non-canonical collection in the local language that had for centuries given its substance to Khmer religious life. So it was that a classic Buddhist library imposed itself in Cambodia at the turn of the century, to the detriment of a traditional collection of which the study and especially the reproduction were at the same time very much discouraged. And so it was that great literary works the features of which still adorn monasteries in the form of murals, such as the Reamker or Trai Bhet, have ceased being recopied to such an extent that their manuscript versions have become rare. Still more fundamentally, the new normative erudition of the saṃgha deliberately detached itself from the old Khmer tradition: cosmogonical texts deemed to be “classic,” such as the Trai Bhumi, were subjected to a veritable censure as were the great works of traditional doctrine, such as the Braḥ Dhammavịṅṣuṃṅ or as the Braḥ Dhammatrai, which is undoubtedly the most authentic and significant text of the original Khmer theravāda tradition.

La littérature manuscrite en langue vernaculaire et la littérature manuscrite en langue pāli The inventory that escaped destruction and observation of newfound practices happily make it possible to retrace, at least in part, what the old tradition of Khmer Buddhism used to be, its richness first reported on by François Bizot when he published Le Figuier à cinq branches in 1976.