Cambodian Popular Religion involves the “less formal but far more immediate realm of spirits, ghosts, and guardians.”[i] This belief system is “popular” in the sense that it is prominent among Cambodians in Long Beach and Cambodia, but not formally organized or codified. It is important to note that although popular religious beliefs and practices are discussed separately on this website, they are closely integrated with the Theravada Buddhist tradition as practiced among Cambodians and most Cambodians do not see the two as separate systems.
At the basis of Cambodian popular religion is a belief in a “vital essence” found in all human beings, animals, plants (such as trees and rice), and features in the landscape (such as rivers and mountains). Guardian and ancestor spirits, known as Neak Taa, populate the landscape and are always present. Neak Taa must be treated with respect so as not to make them angry. Related to the belief in a vital essence is a belief in fate which is influenced by the movement of planets, sun, and moon; the four cardinal and four ordinal directions; and the topography of the land. Kru Khmer are experts, such as astrologers, soothsayers, fortune tellers, and spirit mediums, who help individuals interpret and, if possible, manipulate these elements toward favorable outcomes. Unlike karma, which is seen as being an absolute force over which people have very little control in this lifetime, the elements of Cambodian popular religion are seen by most people as aspects of life which they have some personal control over and may be able to manipulate to their benefit.[ii]
Since an individual cannot know all that might befall them in a lifetime, many rituals associated with both popular religion and Buddhism include a method for invoking protection. One common form of protection, known as yoan (sacred writings) makes use of sacred Pali script (the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism), Buddhist imagery, and Hindu yantra (geometric designs) which are drawn on cloth squares, tattooed onto the skin, or inscribed onto pliable pieces of gold, silver or lead known as katar (metal yoan). Yoan provide protection to people, their homes and country.
As mentioned earlier, all these beliefs and practices have been integrated with Buddhist practices and monks play a central role in many of these rituals. Many, but not all, of the rituals and practices of popular religion are learned in the temple and many Kru Khmer were once monks.
Long Beach and greater Los Angeles is home to many such Kru Khmer and although strong belief in aspects of popular religion is diminishing, especially among the younger generation growing up in the United States, it remains strong among many older Cambodians in the community.