The Khmer devotion to Buddhism
The Khmer, the fifth largest ethnic minority group in Vietnam with a population of over 1 million, were the first inhabitants of the Mekong river delta which covers Vietnam’s southern region and present Cambodian areas.

Associate Prof. Dr. BUI XUAN DINH


The Khmer, the fifth largest ethnic minority group in Vietnam with a population of over 1 million, were the first inhabitants of the Mekong river delta which covers Vietnam’s southern region and present Cambodian areas.

The formation of Chenla kingdom and Nguyen lords’ expansion in the 18th century divided the group into inhabitants of two nations. The Khmer live mostly in three regions in southern Vietnam. The first one, which covers Can Tho, Soc Trang, Bac Lieu and Ca Mau provinces, is the fertile plain along Hau river. The second, the coastal area of Tra Vinh and Vinh Long provinces, is the group’s most ancient place of residence where their cultural traits are preserved. The last, which embraces An Giang and Kien Giang provinces, is composed of both hilly and flat areas. Khmer people also live in Ho Chi Minh City, Can Tho city and Tay Ninh province.

The Khmer live on wet rice cultivation in combination with animal raising, fishing and handicraft (knitting, silkworm rearing, weaving, mat making, pottery and palm sugar making). In some places, the Khmer make boats which are a major means of transport in the Mekong river delta.

Due to economic development and influences by the Viet, Vietnamese-Chinese and Cham, the Khmer’s society before the country was reunified in 1975 saw a relatively wide gap between its two main classes: landlords and farmers. Ninety-five per cent of the land in the community were private, including 70.5% owned by landlords who made up only 2-5% of the population.

Khmer people live in a phum or soc (village). A number of phums form a khum (commune) and many large phums can form an administrative unit.

Khmer people live in patriarchal families where matriarchy is, however, clearly seen. A Khmer family does not distinguish between paternal and maternal sides which are treated equally. In the old time, the Khmer did not have family names. A person’s family name was his/her father’s given name. Only when the Nguyen dynasty rose in the South that the Khmer was given family names including Thach, Kim, Son, Lam and Danh. The group also used some Chinese family names.

In a Khmer family, all children have equal inheritance rights and obligations to take care of parents and family affairs. The Khmer encourage marriage between relatives other than natural siblings, which is seen as a way to tighten relationship and protect people and property of family lines.

Khmer people are followers of Hinayana whose deep influence is reflected in Khmer culture. Every phum has a pagoda which is built in the village center and surrounded by houses. Before 1975, southern Vietnam had as many as 400 big pagodas. Each pagoda has a knowledgeable master monk who is assisted by another monk, a board comprising a phum‘s prestigious Buddhists and 10 men conversant with Buddhist rituals and prayers.

A pagoda is not merely where to worship Buddha, but a place for a phum to manage its villagers, discuss community affairs and receive guests. It is also the village school. Many pagodas have libraries and cemeteries for followers. A Khmer’s feelings and behaviors toward the society are closely linked with his phum’s pagoda, just like the communal house for a Vietnamese northerner.

At the age of 12, a Khmer boy must live and study in a pagoda as a Buddhist follower for a certain period (depending on his family’s conditions) before he becomes a grown-up. During the boy’s stay at a pagoda, which is also a way to show gratitude to his parents, he is taught about Buddhist philosophy and knowledge as well as proper manners. While staying at the pagoda, the boy may not eat from 12h until 6h of the following day. He is also not allowed to eat dog or cat meat. In the old days, a young girl must stay in a dark room for 9 days or in her house for certain time to learn Buddhist prayers taught by Buddhist monks. During this period, which was obligatory for a girl before she could get married, she was also taught housework and proper manners.

Monks, especially master monks, are respected in Khmer society. They make up a large part of Khmer intellectuals and are consulted by followers on community affairs.

Khmer customs are also deeply influenced by Buddhism. Their rituals are all held based on the Buddhist calendar according to which a month is based on the lunar circle. A Khmer wedding, which is most complicated of all other ethnic weddings in Vietnam, comprises many formalities imbued with Buddhist philosophy and moral concepts. A monk plays an important role in a Khmer wedding.

In addition to Buddhism, the Khmer has traditional beliefs, including the totem of worshiping dragons by people living in wetland areas and the worshiping of anéktà (tutelary deity) who is believed to protect a family, family line, forest or village.

The Khmer also have a ritual to pray for rain, which is held in mid April ahead of a rainy season. They also worship the deities of fields and animals who are believed to protect crops and livestock from harmful animals and insects, and the soul of rice before harvesting a crop.

The Khmer attach importance to worshiping ancestors, which is closely combined with Buddha worshipping. Therefore, Khmer people do not set up ancestor altars at home, but in pagodas where most ceremonies for ancestors are held.

One of the Khmer’s three most important rituals in a year is Chon Chnam Thnay, the new year festival on the 14th, 15th and 16th of Chett (mid April) when families prepare offerings to their ancestors at home and in pagodas and bath their elderly grandparents and parents. In every pagoda, a ceremony to bath Buddha statues and monks is held.

The second ritual is Xen Don ta which is held from August 29 to September 1 at families and pagodas to make offerings to ancestors.

The last one is Ok om Bok in mid lunar October to worship the moon and pray for bumper crops. During this ritual, which is also called dut com (feeding green rice), an adult feeds green rice and a banana to a child and asks him what he wishes for. The child’s answer is believed a forecast for the next crop. During Ok om Bok, the Khmer fly lanterns, float lighted banana tree rafts and organize boat races for entertainment and in praying for favorable weather and bumper crops.

The Khmer have a treasure of fairy tales, legends and comic tales as a result of the group’s relatively developed literature. Their sculpture is characterized by pagodas’ architecture and colorful decorative patterns associated with Buddhist tales. The Khmer music is associated with dances and stage performance.-

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