Cambodian Buddhism in the United States

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Carol A. Mortland
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , September
     2017.
     366 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781438466637.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Carol A. Mortland is a retired professor of cultural anthropology, whose focus throughout her career has been on immigrant and refugee experiences in the United States, and especially on the Khmer communities that came to the United States in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979). For a very long time, the amount of academic material published in English on Cambodians, either in Cambodia or elsewhere, was very limited, and Dr. Mortland's 1994 volume Cambodian Culture Since 1975: Homeland and Exile (Cornell University Press) was an important part of what existed. Cambodian Culture focused primarily on Cambodians in the United States, and was co-edited with Dr. Judy Ledgerwood (to whom Mortland's new book is dedicated), and May Ebihara, a giant of American anthropology of Cambodia, whose village ethnography, Svay (Columbia University, 1971), was for decades the only book-length, English-language anthropological study of Cambodians in Cambodia. Of those three scholars, Mortland is the one whose focus has remained most fully on Cambodians in the United States, so she is perhaps the best-qualified anthropologist to write a survey text such as Cambodian Buddhism in the United States.

The book is organized into fourteen chapters, including an introduction and epilogue, with each of the main chapters focusing on particular aspects of Cambodian Buddhism and its practices today in the US. These include entire chapters focusing on Khmer Buddhist beliefs, rituals, religious personnel, temple organization, and congregations, as well as a chapter on non-Buddhist Cambodians, the challenges of rebuilding Khmer Buddhism in a foreign land, as well as the histories and challenges of temple expansion and organization. This is a straightforward approach to dividing up the subject matter, though it allows little room for Mortland to make more explicit comparative or theoretical observations.

Throughout the book, Mortland relates a general vision of the Khmer people of the United States, whose journey to the US began in horrifying systematic violence, to face the daunting odds of preserving their minority religious culture. Many of the specific stories are heartwarming descriptions of people who dedicated astonishing amounts of time and energy to building, expanding, and running temple communities, that often serve as community centers in general, for Khmer-Americans. Some of those stories are frustrating and upsetting, such as the common stories of temple conflicts that divide communities, or of groups of opportunistic monks who strive to take over established temples. Some are funny and sad simultaneously, such as the story of a devotee who obtained a Buddha relic in the form of ashes and took them to be blessed by a monk, who then sneezed them away (she got a second batch of relics later; 305). But most of the stories simply help build an overall understanding of the trajectory and concerns of Khmer Buddhists in the US, and the particular challenges that face them as a changing community.

As a specialist in Khmer Buddhism in Cambodia, and not in the United States, I was particularly pleased and struck by the sections of Mortland's book where she describes early attempts to acquire and create temple spaces. Having witnessed some of this challenge over the years with the Khmer temple nearest to me, I felt that a great deal had been made clearer as a consequence of these descriptions. The challenges of acquiring and retaining monastic personnel also became clearer because of this book.

One difficulty remaining with the book stems partly from Mortland’s focus on the United States, and partly from her self-described occasional challenges with Khmer speech and writing. The latter results in a few naming errors, where the description of a ritual is correct, but it is given the wrong name, for instance (41). But the focus on the United States, and on reporting her informants' characterizations of Buddhism in Cambodia directly, results in misrepresentations of Cambodian Buddhism that, if corrected, could have lent additional depth to her study. There are several locations, for instance, where Mortland makes claims about how Buddhism is practiced in Cambodia that are quickly proven to be untrue at the first visit to a Cambodian temple, such as the claim that monks are forbidden manual labor: the site of a work-gang of novice and elder monks working on a temple construction project, or engaging in other forms of work, is not unusual (126). Such claims among elderly Cambodian refugees in the United States may represent a romanticization of Buddhism which is important evidence of their resettlement to take into account. Similarly and possibly for related reasons, Mortland persistently represents Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia as having existed for “millennia” or “2000 years,” which is not an accepted understanding of the history of Buddhism in Cambodia, which seems to have been primarily Hindu and only exceptionally Mahāyāna Buddhist until well into the second millennium CE.

Mortland's Cambodian Buddhism in the United States will be valuable first for those seeking to understand Khmer Buddhist communities and practice in the United States, and second to those seeking to compare the experiences of those communities with other refugee and immigrant religious groups in the US, or to compare with Khmer Buddhism in Cambodia or elsewhere. I recommend it highly to those interested in the topics above, and to institutions with ethnic studies, immigration studies, refugee studies, Asian-American studies, or religious studies departments.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Erik W. Davis is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Macalester Community College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Date of Review: 
January 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Carol A. Mortland is a retired professor and the coeditor (with David W. Haines) of Manifest Destinies: Americanizing Immigrants and Internationalizing Americans, and (with May M. Ebihara and Judy Ledgerwood) Cambodian Culture Since 1975: Homeland and Exile.

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