To many devout Cambodian Buddhists, the Tripitaka—the sacred texts of the Buddha—is something to worship, not to read.
In pagoda libraries, the 120-volume set stands pristine and unthumbed, its pages as clean as the day they were printed.
It took Cambodia’s best scholars nearly 40 years to translate the Tripitaka into Khmer from the original Pali.
Although the work was finished in 1968, the outbreak of war meant it was not until 1995 that Japanese Buddhists printed 1,200 sets of the Tripitaka as a gift to the Cambodian people.
Yet today, in a country where books are luxuries, the Tripitaka is mostly unread. Some disciples complain that 120 books of more than 300 pages apiece are just too much to read.
Six weeks ago, the Buddhist Institute took action. Scholars began a project to produce cassette recordings of the entire Tripitaka, volume by volume.
The recordings are being broadcast from 5:30 am to 6 am daily on FM96 radio in Phnom Penh and FM100.5 in Kompong Cham, so that people can absorb Buddha’s teachings in detail, says Nguon Vann Chanthy, director of the Buddhist Institute.
“We are recording the Tripitaka to help people, because most Cambodian Buddhists are illiterate or don’t like reading,” he said. “If we broadcast Buddhist teachings on the radio, people will become more interested and will understand what Buddhism means.”
The Tripitaka consists of three parts: the Suttanta, or Buddha’s discourses; the Abhidhamma, which discusses the philosophy and doctrine behind the discourses; and the Vinaya, on Buddhist discipline.
Three Buddhist volunteers are recording the volumes page by page, as well as creating an index to all 120 volumes that includes definitions of words rarely used today.
With each volume filling 12 cassettes, the whole project could take three years to finish. Forty hours have been recorded so far.
Suon Orsoth, a 36-year-old traditional doctor, said he is volunteering his time because he believes it is so important for Cambodians to truly understand the Buddha.
“What I have read so far in the Tripitaka is so great, in the educational sense,” he said. “If everyone follows the teachings of Buddha, we [will] have a clean, peaceful society.”
He said the Buddha did not just teach religious philosophy, but discoursed on other issues, such as healthcare.
“The Buddhist messages in the Tripitaka show that Buddha is one of the world’s great philosophers,” he said.
The books contain important lessons for modern-day Cambodians, who suffered a decline in morality during the war, he said.
Devout Cambodians say they are delighted to hear about the recording project.
Thy Sona, who marched in a parade to celebrate Buddha’s birthday last week, said broadcasting his teaching is a wonderful idea “I have never read the Tripitaka, but I’ve heard it contains all the teachings of Buddha,” she said.
And if she has to miss one of the radio broadcasts, she can go back and read the relevant passages in the book version, she said. She hopes to find advice and inspiration from the Buddha on personal problems, such as controlling her children.
One Phnom Penh professor who specializes in literature and ancient texts, however, said that even the best religious books do not contain all the answers for society.
“For the present society [in Cambodia], what the Buddha has taught may not be so helpful,” said Long Seam. “Of course, it is religiously helpful, but not socially and economically.”
Buddha taught more than 1,000 years ago in India, he noted. “I am not so modernistic, but the reality today is so different.”