Stirring and Stilling: Dharma Songs from Cambodia

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Cambodia is one of the few countries with over 90% of their population practicing Buddhism. Since around the 5th century, Khmer people began to follow Mahayana Buddhism, and Theravada Buddhism has been the main religion since the 13th century. The only exception was during the Khmer Rouge period which resulted in the destruction and loss of much of the Buddhist cultural heritage of Cambodia. Therefore, the preservation of the surviving cultural treasures of Cambodia is of utmost urgency.

Among these treasures are Buddhist scriptures, classical Khmer literature, poetry, music, dance and theatre. Cambodian religious music includes chanting of certain Buddhist scriptures in Pali and the recitation of poetry rendered by monks and lay people alike. However, Pali (the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism), is rarely understood by the laity. The recitation of religious poems (smot) occupies a position between chanting and singing. Unlike chanting, poetry recitation may be accompanied by a solo instrument such as a flute or string instrument. The main themes of smot recitation are devotional and educational Buddhist texts and the Buddha’s Birth Tales. These poetic texts are composed entirely in Khmer language, or sometimes mixed with some Pali and Sanskrit phrases, but easily understood.

Phnom Penh pagoda Botum Vodei

Buddhist procession at Wat Botum Watey Reacheveraram in Phnom Penh, c.1919. Source: Base Ulysse, Archives nationales d’outre mer

Great efforts have been made in recent years to preserve Cambodian manuscripts through digitization and conservation. However, the preservation of oral traditions appears more difficult and is paid less attention to. One rare resource that aims to help to preserve and to publicize Buddhist poetry recitations from Cambodia is the website “Dharma Songs” by Trent Walker. Recordings of recitations in Khmer language with translations into English, performed by Trent Walker, are presented. The website offers a chance to learn about—and listen to—the Cambodian Dharma song tradition, smot. Associated with it is a multimedia online book  with the title “Stirring and Stilling: A Liturgy of Cambodian Dharma Songs” that was originally conceived as a printed book accompanied by a set of CDs. However, the text and recordings have been made available online to enable people from around the world to experience and appreciate this special musical tradition.

Dr Trent Walker, a scholar of Southeast Asian Buddhism, developed the resource based on six years of research into Cambodian Dharma songs as both a student and performer of smot himself. His English translations of sixteen Dharma songs are presented in this resource for the first time. Walker also works with Bangsokol, a multi-disciplinary stage production combining music, film, movement and voice.


Revealing Hidden Collections: Buddhist Literature in UK and SE Asian collections

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Pre-modern or traditional Theravada is a little understood or researched subject and there are large gaps in our knowledge of Theravada between C5th-3rd BCE canon/C5th CE commentaries and the 18th/19th centuries. In the modern period there were many changes in Buddhism in response to colonialism, modernisation, state formation and the cold war and history is written from the perspective of modernised Theravada. The history of traditional Theravada remains obscure. Elements of traditional Theravada are preserved in some marginalised communities in Southeast Asia and in the manuscript collections of both monastic and university libraries around the world. Information about these texts, however, if it exists at all, is confined to handwritten lists and remains inaccessible to the wider community of Buddhist scholars. Within this project, the focus will be on one particular Tai group, the Shan, since their materials are the least studied and there remains a living tradition of Shan scholars who have the specialist poetic and subject skills necessary to access these materials.

This project, funded by the Dhammakaya Foundation, will catalogue unexamined collections of Shan texts from the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, Cambridge University Library and from temple libraries in Thailand and Burma, as well as identifying traditional meditation manuals from these places and the British Library in London.

Special attention will be given to widening and deepening our understanding of the diversity of two fields of specialist Theravada literature, meditation techniques and manuals, and secondarily grammatical texts. Searches for manuscripts from these genres in collections of Burmese texts, supplementary fieldwork in Cambodia and Laos and the translation of two important texts from Thai and Sinhala will increase our understanding of how to categorise such material and will in turn inform the cataloguing project.

The project will work with the TEI/XML schema developed for the Fihrist catalogue, which will be enhanced to incorporate descriptive terminology relevant for Shan Buddhist materials. A data entry form will be developed suitable for use by subject specialist cataloguers with no knowledge of the XML schema. Existing descriptions from handwritten catalogues created for Cambridge University Library’s Scott collection and for South East Asian temple collections will be re-keyed into TEI/XML using the data entry form. Original catalogue entries for the Bodleian and other libraries in the UK and South East Asia will be created by entering descriptions directly into the data entry form.

Anticipated Outcomes

• International access to hitherto uncatalogued and inaccessible materials through an online catalogue of Shan manuscripts
• An agreed TEI P5 schema and transliteration scheme for Shan Buddhist manuscripts
• Key tools for future researchers through looking at the literatures of Theravada regions, in particular protecting and recording the endangered literatures of traditional, non-modernised Theravada
• Reference materials to assist researchers working in the historical grammatical and, especially, meditation traditions of Theravada regions.