Code of Old Sayings, a Khmer Didactic Poem
By Trent Walker
Situated in a quiet compound not far from the Mekong River, the monastic library of Vatt Phum Thmei in Kampong Cham province is the largest manuscript collection in Cambodia that has been entirely digitized by BDRC. The roughly 2,500 fascicles of palm-leaf manuscripts there were carefully restored and cataloged by the Fonds pour l'Édition des Manuscrits du Cambodge (FEMC), a project of the École française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO). The only complete palm-leaf library surviving from pre-war rural Cambodia, the collection at Vatt Phum Thmei includes an especially rich variety of Khmer-language texts, both sacred and secular. Among these are an impressive variety of didactic poems, or cpāp' (chbap), short, aphoristic verse compositions that were traditionally studied, copied, and recited by children studying at Khmer Buddhist temples.
The Vatt Phum Thmei collection includes four copies of the "Code of Old Sayings" (cpāp' bāky cās' / chbap peak chas), one of the oldest surviving cpāp' transmitted in Cambodia. Some manuscript colophons attribute it to a certain Braḥ Sugandh, a title for a high-ranking monk between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. The aphorisms it contains do not form a unitary narrative but rather combine many threads of ancient sayings, woven together into a single text for memorization and moral edification. Many of its more memorable sayings remain current up to the present; others reflect the social norms of the period it was composed in.
The text opens with a clever series of proverbs that warn against selfishness and carelessness:
Here are the old sayings: You're blind to your own faults,
yet make mountains out of the minor flaws of others.
Deep in the wild forest, you forage all together,
but when the honey's found, you eat it all yourself.
You've got some but want more. You act but don't reflect.
Thinking just of yourself, you disregard others.
You eat the finest food, but fail to chew it well.
You mistake this for that: Cham for Pnong, Chong for Kuoy,
Grandpa for your grandma, your son for your nephew,
two things instead of one, and sorrow for true bliss.
Unshaved with a monk's robe, eyes closed before a mirror,
a horse becomes an ass, an elephant a mouse.
The middle section of the text includes stanzas that urge the listener to look after those less fortunate than themselves, albeit in a patronizing tone that reflects the unequal society of the author's time:
Don't trample on the weak; bring them under your wing.
If someday you are rich, don't tyrannize the poor.
The rich should shield the poor, as clothes protect the skin.
The wise guard the unschooled, like a junk a sampan.
The high protect the low, as ancient law mandates.
The full feed the hungry; the strong defend the meek.
Look after one another; don't condemn the masses
to everlasting debt, for hedges need their thorns.
The closing lines of the text enjoin the student to learn this poem by heart and take it as their moral compass:
Don't fail to bear in mind these words of the ancients;
what the forefathers said is worthy of much thought.
These are your instructions, a code to be your guide.
Hold fast to this counsel without letting it go.
Here ends all my advice, my wise recitation
of these time-tested words—please memorize them all!
The four manuscript versions of the "Code of Old Sayings" from Vatt Phum Thmei, largely copied in the early twentieth century, vary considerably in terms of their handwriting. Since the "Code of Old Sayings" was one of the first texts a young student might learn to inscribe on palm leaves, poor penmanship abounds in these four manuscripts. Most of the scribes were novice monks who were just beginning to learn the difficult art of inscribing ornate Khmer letters.
One novice monk, named Keṅ (Keng), working in the early twentieth century, struggled to even write his own name on the manuscript he had just copied. In his first attempt, the lower line below, he forgot to write the lone vowel ("e") in his own name; in his second attempt, on the upper line, he misspells the word "novice monk" (nen), leaving out the final "n." One can only imagine the look on his teacher's face!
These so-called "flaws" reveal the deeply human process of making, copying, and studying Buddhist manuscripts in Cambodia. For short didactic poems like "Code of Old Sayings," the task often fell to the least experienced monks. For longer works, including revered scriptures and philosophical treatises, skilled copyists volunteered or were assigned to the job. For these voluminous manuscripts, we are privileged to witness some of the most graceful hands ever to carve Khmer letters onto leaves.
In the coming months, BDRC will be releasing palm-leaf texts from Vatt Phum Thmei and many other monasteries. We hope that by making these treasures of Khmer heritage freely accessible, more Cambodians will be able to study these writings and translators will render them into other languages for the benefit of Buddhists everywhere.
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