Don Cormack wrote, “To be a Christian in Cambodian society was to be a social pariah, misunderstood and ill-treated, a convenient scapegoat for blame and abuse.”53
The Cambodian people have a religious system that is made up of many beliefs. Over the years they have mixed together elements from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Animism to form what is now referred to as Folk Buddhism, which has become a part of everyday life in Cambodia.
Although Folk Buddhism is composed of three separate belief systems, Animism plays the largest role and is a major cornerstone for Folk Buddhism. Animism is known as the belief that natural objects, natural phenomena, and the universe itself, possess souls.54
The first thing we need to know about Folk Buddhism is that it is saturated in beliefs revolving around spirits. The Cambodian people believe in a spiritual realm that is unseen to everyone.55 Followers believe in a constant battle between spirits, rather than one, all-powerful spiritual being. Followers of Folk Buddhism are also very superstitious and ritualistic. Because of this, their faith is practiced in a tangible, practical manner. For some, this may include going to a temple. But for many, a trip to a temple may be replaced with a daily walk into their front yard to a personally constructed spirit house. These spirit houses reflect what each individual worships and how they worship. Each house is constructed differently and serves a different purpose.56
Sadly in some cultures, Folk Buddhism has absorbed different aspects of Christianity and Catholicism, taking bits and pieces and making them into parts of their own. As such, you may stumble upon a spirit house built around Jesus or Mary. Keep in mind that such a spirit house does not signal the worship of our God, but rather the recognition of His powers, and a plea to help the person who built it. This will open up doors for ministry, but needs to be treaded upon very cautiously.
It is important to understand the cultural and spiritual context in which you will be ministering to understand how your words and your discussions might be perceived. Be careful to continue to take into account where you are, and allow God to lead you in your conversation. Spend time in prayer today that God might speak and work through you in all of your interactions with people in Cambodia—that they may be used for His glory and for the furtherance of His work.
53 Don Cormack, Killing Fields, Living Fields: An Unfinished Portrait of the Cambodian Church, the Church That Would Not Die. (England: OMF International, 1997).
54 HubPages, Ecoggins, “Folk Buddhism of Cambodia and Southeast Asia”, http://ecoggins.hubpages.com/hub/Folk-Buddhism-of-Cambodia.
55 Cambodia Research Network, CRN Cambodia, 2007 2nd edition “The Peoples of Cambodia”, pg. xvii, http://www.ratanak.org/ICEuploads/Peoples-of-Cambodia-2nd-edition.pdf.
56 Yary Livan, “Sacred Expressions,” Keepers of Traditions, 2007, http://www.massfolkarts.org/object_detail.asp?ObjectID=8080046 (accessed January 6, 2013).