Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka,
New Series, Volume XLVIII, Special Number
Issued on July 21, 2003 to commemorate the
250th Anniversary of Upasampada in Sri Lanka
The emergence of Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia is conventionally traced back to the 13th century A.C. However, there is emerging epigraphical and sculptural evidence, that Buddhism of both the Mahavihara and Abhayagiri of Sri Lanka had made a strong early impact on the development of Theravada Buddhism in South East Asia when a good part of this region was dominated from about the 5th-6th century A.C. by the Mon Khmer culture, and later became part of the Khmer empire.
The movement of Buddhist monks and teachers from Sri Lanka to the region was facilitated by advances in navigation technology that witnessed a quantum leap during the period of the fourth-fifth centuries. This helped the spread of the Pali language, the lingua franca of Theravada through
Pali texts written in Sri Lanka.
Cambodian monk translates Sri Lankan Pali text into Chinese
From the first to the sixth century, Funan, the earliest known kingdom in Cambodia with Oc Eo (in present day Vietnam), as the central port, was a trading power, and known as the most powerful kingdom in mainland Southeast Asia. The capital city of Funan was Phnom Ksach Sa in the province of present day Prey Veng in Cambodia. According to a local legend, the kingdom was founded by an Indian Brahmin named Kaundinya (Chinese form: Hun-t’ien) after subduing the queen of Funan, Soma (Chinese form: Liu-ye), a legend paralleling our Vijaya-Kuveni legend.
During the fifth and sixth centuries, Funan was an important centre of Buddhist learning (P. Pelliot, “Le Fou-nan”, BEFEO, vol. III,1903, Briggs 1951, p. 12). According to the Chinese History of Southern Ts’i (479-501), the King of Funan, Kaundiya Jayavarman (478-514) sent in 484, an Indian Buddhist monk, Nagasena, a resident of Funan as ambassador to the Court of the Chinese Emperor Wu-ti taking ivory stupas with him. According to another Chinese source, History of Leang (502-556), the same king sent another envoy to China in 503 with gifts including a coral statue of the Buddha (Hazra, 1981, p. 73). These illustrate the importance of Funan as a centre of Buddhism then.
One of the earliest references to Buddhist relations between Cambodia [Funan] and Sri Lanka goes back to 505 A.C. The Vimuttimagga, (a manual of practical instructions on sila, samadhi and panna) a Pali text of the Abhayagiri school of Sri Lanka, composed by Upatissa in the 2nd century
A.C., exists today in the Chinese language. At the invitation of the Chinese emperor, the Funanese monks Mandrasena and Sanghabhara (or Sanghapala) had taken many Theravada and Mahayana texts to China. It was the latter who translated the Vimuttimagga into Chinese in 505 A.C. (Demieville et al 1978). The Pali language and the Abhayagiri tradition of Theravada, it can be concluded, was known in Cambodia during this time. It may be noted here that it was several decades before this time that the Chinese Buddhist monk Fa-Hsien stayed at the Abhayagiri Vihara, and went back to China with a large number of Buddhist texts written in Sri Lanka.
Further evidence for the presence of Pali Language in CambodiaThere is other evidence for an early Pali presence. A statue of the Buddha with an inscription with the formula in the Pali language “Ye dhamma…” was found near Toul Preah in the province of Prey Veng in Southern Cambodia (IC, Vol. I, p. 297). The whole inscription is in Pali with only the word hetuprabhava in Sanskrit. On the basis of the script, Bhattacharya has dated this inscription to the 7th century. The presence of the Pali language in the 7th century in the Southern part of Cambodia indicates that Theravada Buddhism existed there at the time, at least in some pockets.