Spirit Cults and Buddhist Practice in Kep Province, Cambodia

By O'Lemmon, Matthew | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, February 2014 | Go to article overview

Spirit Cults and Buddhist Practice in Kep Province, Cambodia


O'Lemmon, Matthew, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Introduction

Founders' and spirit cults have arguably grown in influence in Cambodia since the slow reconstruction of Buddhism in the country began in the 1980s. Spirit cults continue to shape religious practice and the relationships which Cambodians establish with their local Buddhist temples. This article presents research conducted in Kep Province, Cambodia, and examines how practices involving the tutelary spirits, anak-ta-wat, popularly known as neak ta, have shaped Buddhist expression in the postwar era. Specifically, this article addresses the question of whether cults and customs involving neak ta have grown in importance as a result of the loss of Buddhist monks and lay specialists.

Spirit cults are common throughout Southeast Asia, cutting across ethnic, religious, and political lines and referring to a wide variety of spirits--from ancestors to the spirit owners of animals and natural phenomenon. (1) They are usually distinguished from founders' cults which involve spirits that are seen as the original and ultimate owners of a particular piece of land. (2) Neak ta generally occupy areas of land or conspicuous topographical features (large rocks or trees, for example), but they can also have personal relationships with individuals; it is not uncommon to hear Khmers speak of a certain neak ta as their neak ta, with corresponding obligations and expectations. This article addresses the belief in neak ta as a whole and from this point forward will not distinguish between founders' and spirit cults, using instead the latter term to denote the entire range of beliefs related to the spirit world.

One long-standing subject of debate in the study of spirit cults in Southeast Asia is whether they are part of an integrated belief system or represent separate systems within major religions. Manning Nash's analysis of Burmese Buddhism depicts an integrated system of beliefs working in conjunction with tutelary spirits called nats. (3) However, Nash describes their divergent roles, with canonical Buddhism providing a 'clear view of the remoter ends of human existence', and the belief in hats allowing Burmese to handle day to day problems. (4) Hans-Dieter Evers observes that the inclusion of spirit cults within Theravada Buddhism, from the worship of phi in Thailand and Laos, hats in Burma, devalaya shrines in Sri Lanka, to neak ta in Cambodia has at times been described as one of the two divisions within the religion. (5)

Melford Spiro, taking a syncretic approach, notes that the interlocking systems of nibbanic or canonical Buddhism, kammatic Buddhism or the transfer of merit between individuals, and apostrophic Buddhism or the curing of illness and defence against demons, form one religion. (6) Yet B.J. Terwiel points out that while the prevalence of non-canonical beliefs and spirits in rural Thailand is interpreted as part of the broader whole, more educated individuals within cities compartmentalise Thai Buddhism to include those beliefs found in and outside the Pali canon. (7) Thomas Kirsch, similarly, portrays Thai Buddhism as a 'range of variation' made up of Theravada Buddhism, spirit cults, and Brahmanic beliefs. (8)

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, such variations have been placed alongside and within larger belief systems such as the study of identity among the Mirek in northwest Sarawak, and 'epistemologically individualistic' religions in Malaysia. (9) Research on belief systems in the region has also included traditional spirit worship and Buddhist identification in Singapore and in northern Thailand. (10) At the heart of such cults is the mediums' 'exclusive right to act as mediators between the lords and human settlers', a right which 'is supposed to pass to the hereditary heirs and successors of the original founders of the settlement, in perpetuity'. (11) Association with a spirit extends beyond successors to include every member of a social unit, particularly during times of stress. …

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