Buddhism and Hinduism
Vietnam and Cambodia are heavily Buddhist. Cambodia weighs in over 95% Buddhist. Knowing something about Buddha and Buddhism would be beneficial for any traveler to Southeast Asia.
As the story goes, a Nepalese prince across the Himalayas had a personal epiphany about the meaning of life. In the famous anecdote, Prince Siddhartha Gautama left his sheltered palace life and encountered aged, diseased, and suffering subjects. This depressed him and he gave up his posh digs for the life of a beggar. While meditating under a Bodhi (fig) tree, he achieved his understanding of Life. As the “enlightened one”, he became known as Buddha. The location of this Bodhi Tree is preserved at the Bodh Gaya Temple in India which you may visit. For an excellent discussion of the life of Buddha, in the context of contemporary India, check out Meeting the Buddha. To give it a shot yourself, check out Buddha in Blue Jeans: An Extremely Short Zen Guide to Sitting Quietly and Being Buddha.
The particular brand of Buddhism in Cambodia is Theravada, which came by way of Sri Lanka. Vietnam is predominantly Mahayana Buddhism. The distinction between the two is probably only appreciated by devoted followers and relates to the specific texts and teachings used by each to produce enlightenment. The Heart of Buddha’s Teachings is an understandable primer on Buddhist principles.
The great majority of temples and iconography you will see in your travels throughout Southeast Asia is Buddhist. However, there is also a sufficient Hindu cultural influence that may warrant some review. The essential epic is the Ramayana, (pronounced “ra-MY-yun). This is the story of Rama, the blue-skinned hero of Indian legend. This story is so important to Indian audiences that a 42-episode TV series has been produced and remains one of the most popular TV shows in India. Throughout gift stores and galleries, you will see pictures of a blue-skinned god-like figure. It is Rama. He has a constant enigmatic smile, similar to the Mona Lisa, which is a reflection of his understanding of the fickle nature of Life. A significant percentage of the male population of India is named Rama. He’s a big deal. We suggest an excellent book that relates the ancient epic to contemporary India called, Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God. It is a great introduction to this important tale.
In addition, pick up a paperback version of the short Bhagawad Gita. This is the essential set of verses of the Mahabharata, the other major Indian epic. It is considered a holy text. The Bhagawad Gita is a conversation about life, fate, faith, and morals. It is presented as a conversation between the warrior hero, Arjuna, and Lord Krishna, who is acting as Arjuna’s charioteer. There is a fascinating passage where Krishna, in a final effort to convince Arjuna of his authority, reveals a glimpse of the incomprehensible glory of the divine. It is dazzling, powerful and astonishing to Arjuna. There are parallels to the visions of heaven described in Revelations or the last Canto of Dante’s Paradise.