Cambodian Buddhists

Quick Facts

  • Christians remain a small-but-growing 2.5 percent of the 16 million people living in the former communist nation of Cambodia, where gold-trimmed temple rooftops twirl over both city skylines and rural landscapes. 
  • Cambodian Buddhist temples serve as gathering places for dozens of nationally observed Buddhist festivals throughout the year. 
  • Followers of Jesus in Cambodia who previously had to maintain a more ‘underground’ status are increasingly sharing the gospel more openly and there are signs of an emerging disciple-making movement in Cambodia. However, there are not yet signs of such a movement among GTA’s followers of Jesus. 
  • The seventh-largest population of Cambodians living outside of Cambodia is in Canada (38,490 per 2016 census) with at least 6,500 living in the Greater Toronto Area and almost 40 per cent of them (15,350) living in Québec.

When did Cambodian Buddhists first come to Canada?

Immigration of Cambodians to Canada is relatively recent. From 1980 to 1992, Canada welcomed more than 18,000 Cambodia refugees who were fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime and the ‘killing fields’ of Cambodia. These refugees were resettled in urban areas across Canada, primarily Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, Gatineau, and Montréal. Prior to 1975, there had also been a small number of Cambodian business people and students living in Canada, mainly in Quebec. About 200 Cambodians who had come to study at Québec universities under the Colombo Plans scholarships in the 1950s and 1960s ended up settling in the province. Their presence eased the transition somewhat for the Cambodian refugees who began arriving in Québec in the 1980s.

The earlier settlers served as interpreters for the new arrivals, which helped them to learn French. The Cambodians who have settled in Québec have thus adjusted more easily than those who settled elsewhere in Canada, including Toronto. Cambodian refugees who arrived in Canada were typically rural people with little education. Only 3 per cent had completed primary school and only 2 per cent had completed secondary school. In addition, only 8 per cent could speak one of Canada’s official languages.

Many adult Cambodian immigrants had difficulty in learning either of Canada’s two official languages and therefore had to accept poorly paid, unskilled jobs in manufacturing or as seasonal agricultural labourers.
Many younger Cambodian Canadians who were born in Canada are completing secondary and post-secondary education and are employed in professional fields.

Where do Cambodian Buddhists predominantly gather in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA)?

  • The GTA Cambodian community originated in the Jane and Finch areas of Toronto, and as Cambodians diversified in profession and status, many relocated into other cities such as Etobicoke, Vaughan, Newmarket, and Hamilton. 
  • Within the last decade the main areas of Cambodian settlement were the intersections of Broadview Avenue and Gerrard Street, Finch Avenue and Jane Street, and Jane street and Woolner Avenue; in addition, many Cambodians live along Driftwood Avenue, Finch Avenue, Gosford Boulevard, London Green, and Regent Park. 
  • There are at least five Cambodian-related eateries in GTA where Cambodians gather for meals and interaction. 

Population estimate in the GTA:  6,500

What are Cambodian Buddhists' lives like?

  • Throughout the year the Khmer celebrate many holidays, most of a religious or spiritual nature, some of which are also observed as public holidays in Cambodia. The two most important are Chol Chnam (Cambodian New Year) and Pchum Ben ("Ancestor Day"). 

  • The Khmer Buddhist calendar is divided into 12 months with the traditional new year beginning on the first day of khae chaet, which coincides with the first new moon of April in the western calendar. The modern celebration has been standardized to coincide with April 13.

What do Cambodian Buddhists believe?

  • Cambodian Buddhism has much in common with parallel traditions in Thailand and Sri Lanka, yet there are also significant differences. Distinctly Cambodian Theravadan Buddhism developed by accommodating itself to premodern Khmer modes of thought.

  • Most Khmers follow Theravada Buddhism blended, in various forms, with Hinduism and animist traditions, whereas Vietnamese and Chinese Cambodians tend to be Mahayana Buddhists. Cambodian Canadians make efforts to maintain their religious practices, although some have converted to Christianity. There is a Cambodian Theravada temple in Toronto, as well as a Canadian Cambodian cultural association. Such places facilitate important religious and cultural practices such as meditation instruction, merit-making (the religious or philosophical belief that if a person does good, he or she will receive good), weddings and festivals.

  • Youth organizations help young Cambodians to navigate the confusing dual identities of being both Khmer and Canadian. However, partly due to negative experiences during the Khmer Rouge era, some Cambodians are still suspicious of those who seek positions of authority, and community networks tend to be based on traditional and informal hierarchies rather than elected leadership.

  • The modern Khmer strongly identify their ethnic identity with their religious beliefs and practices, which combine the tenets of Theravada Buddhism with elements of indigenous ancestor-spirit worship, animism and shamanism.  Most Cambodians, whether or not they profess to be Buddhists (or Muslims), believe in a rich supernatural world. Several types of supernatural entities are believed to exist; they make themselves known by means of inexplicable sounds or happenings. Among these phenomena are khmaoc (ghosts), pret and besach (particularly nasty demons, the spirits of people who have died violent, untimely, or unnatural deaths), arak (evil spirits, usually female), neak ta (tutelary spirits residing in inanimate objects), mneang phteah (guardians of the house), meba (ancestral spirits), and mrenh kongveal (elf-like guardians of animals). All spirits must be shown proper respect, and, with the exception of the mneang phteah and mrenh kongveal, they can cause trouble ranging from mischief to serious life-threatening illnesses.

PRAY
for Cambodian Buddhists in the GTA

  • Pray for justice and healing from the Khmer Rouge genocide of the late 1970's.
  • Pray for a display of God’s power and continued unprecedented growth within the Cambodian Church.
  • Pray for deliverance and salvation for the millions of children in bondage to forced labor, human trafficking, and the sex trade.
  • Pray for the Cambodian Church in Etobicoke to continue reproducing disciples and start new churches.

Resources

Urban Reach Assisting Churches is a peoples group website that seeks to provide an accessible online portal for receiving and sharing tools, information, expertise, and resources related to engaging and embracing the diverse peoples of Canada.
Click the Ureach Toronto Logo for more resources on Cambodian Buddhists.
Prayercast is a website dedicated to activating prayer around the world.
For prayer resources on Cambodian Buddhist peoples, click the Prayercast logo.

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