The leaders of the Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University (SBU), the oldest Buddhist education institute in Cambodia, have expressed their commitment to teaching the Pali language, the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism. They claim that if not for them, “The language may be lost”.

While addressing the March 18 opening ceremony of the second semester of SBU’s Master’s Degree programme, venerable Yorn Seng Yeat, deputy rector of the university, said no other educational institution in the country taught Pali, including the other Buddhist universities.

“I am not levelling criticism at any other schools, as I believe that nearly all subjects are worth teaching. It is just that if SBU falls, Pali is finished in Cambodia. It won’t matter how much we regret its loss – when it is lost it will be too late,” he added.

He explained that securing financial support for students of Pali was difficult, as many donors seemed to prefer to demonstrate their devotion through the construction of statues and ornamental pieces in pagodas.

“There is no light that is as bright as education. The Buddha spread his dharma and enlightenment through education, not any mystical power. This is what made it possible for Buddha to deal with people from all walks of life, from kings to prostitutes, or even murderers,” he said.

“Cultivating education and knowledge is the most important part of our religion, but without intelligence, many people do not understand why it is so important. I realise this may offend some people, but if they are unhappy, let them be unhappy,” he added.

Venerable Dith Vireak, head of the Pali postgraduate programme at SBU, also addressed the assembled students.

“We need to attract financial donors who will provide scholarships for our post-grad students. The best way we can do this is to strengthen our academic discipline and achieve good results,” he said.

“We are witnessing a decline in the number of students. We cannot force people to undertake the important work that we do here, but need to find ways to attract them to the field of Pali in particular, if we want to preserve the Kingdom’s rich knowledge of this ancient tongue,” he added.

SBU was established in 1954, under the auspices of the Ministry of Cults and Religions. At the end of 2022, 1993 students were enrolled across it three branches, in Phnom Penh, Kampong Chhnang and Battambang.

The student body consisted of 422 monks, 511 non-ordained male students and 1061 female students.

They each major in one of nine subjects, including Philosophy of Buddhism, Law, Education Administration, General Management, Khmer Literature, Ecology, Pali, Sociology and English literature.