Book Review: Until the Age of Nirvana: Buddhist Chants from Cambodia

- through Francois Leclercq

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Long buried in the heart of Cambodia, the sweet melody of Theravada Buddhist poetry has remained a hidden treasure, unknown to many English-speaking ears. Until Buddhist author and scholar Trent Walker, captivated by the haunting verses of Dhamma chants, translated a unique collection that spans centuries, each a secret whispered by the ancient soul of the land.

Shambhala Publications featured Walker’s Until the time of Nirvana: Buddhist chants from Cambodia in December 2022, filling a historical gap in English translations of Theravada Buddhist verses.

Walker remedied this absence by translating 45 Dhamma chants dating from 1620 to 1866, most of which were written anonymously. These ancient voices from the sacred temple-dotted hill of Oudong, the ancient Khmer royal capital, sing sorrowful laments and colorful tales – from the life of the Buddha to family gratitude (these ancient voices also wisely reminded to be grateful to my own family and forgive my younger self); from reflections on the fleeting nature of life to aspirations for nibbana; and much more are held in these delicate arms of wisdom, through the virtues of vowels and consonants, idioms and aphorisms meditated on so many years ago.


Cambodia and the Khmer Empire that flourished in Southeast Asia from the 9th to the 15th centuries gave rise to a rich cultural and spiritual heritage deeply linked to Theravada Buddhism. The poems, a testimony to the universal human experience, transcend the divided image of Cambodia, going beyond ancient splendors and modern horrors. These are offerings from a culture rich in spirituality, literature and art, in which the Khmer language dances to celebrate the Dhamma. The poetry that emanates from this tradition is so often an eloquent expression of spiritual knowledge, meditation practices, and the profound teachings of the Buddha.

In keeping with the Cambodian tradition of Dhamma chanting, emphasis is placed on the slow rhythm, complex melodies and ritual contexts of these verses. The translations aim to preserve the clarity and vitality of the original Khmer texts, retaining their syllabic and linear structures while providing insight into doctrinal, performative, historical and aesthetic dimensions, honoring the deep connection between breath, music and meaning . This is not an easy task. Translating poetry is as difficult as translation can be, let alone when the texts also span hundreds of years of nuances and layers that already require careful thought in their original language and contexts. Translating Cambodian Buddhist poems poses additional challenges due to their complex meters, unusually elaborate melodies, and complex rhymes.

More than 60 different melodies, each linked to specific measures, are used in the performance of these Dhamma chants, which evoke emotional responses, i.e. moving (samvega) or soothing (pass), shaping the link between words and emotions. Walker maintains a delicate balance of translation, considering musical and affective dimensions.

Translation approaches include rhyming, non-rhyming, extended and free methods. Thirty-three translations retain Khmer syllabic structures for English interpretation, while 12 employ extended or free methods. The rhyming patterns, dense in Khmer, are difficult to reproduce in English, but these translations aim to preserve the elegance and compressive nature of Cambodian poetry. These four translation methods offer a range of perspectives on the source texts, recognizing the compromises inherent in translating ancient languages, cultures, and spiritual traditions. My information-hungry inner nerd found particular pleasure in the relatively concise second part of the book, entitled “The Essays.” This section, as implied, offers a quick, but insightful, exploration of topics such as the evolution of Cambodian Buddhism (1850-1950).


Yet with all the information Walker offers us, the poetry pages themselves remain free as he breaks down and explores the different aspects of Cambodian metrical forms, the relationship between meter and melody, and the impact of different melodies on emotions. In the third part, at the end of the book, Walker discusses the meters represented and their historical development, emphasizing the stanza as the fundamental unit of Khmer poetry. It details the unique stories of the 45 Cambodian Dhamma chants, tracing their evolution through time and through the influences of scribes and chant masters. The essential ingredients of each song, such as title, meter, and performance style, are provided, along with source details and interpretive notes revealing hidden meanings and connections to Pali sources. Walker gently encourages us to explore the rich narratives embedded in the songs using these insightful notes.

My romantic, philosophical self loves the wings on which we can fly through time and soar through the thoughts of ancient souls shared through these poems. Yet my information-hungry inner nerd particularly enjoyed the relatively brief second part, "The Essays," which, as I hinted, offers us a quick erudition on the evolution of Cambodian Buddhism, colonial influences, textual changes and the impact of Cambodian Buddhism. modernization and the interaction between traditionalism and modernism; the preference for Buddhahood rather than arahantship; future aspirations and veneration of past and future Buddhas; meditation practices; esoteric systems; the syllables of the heart (especially in relation to the 33 parts of the body); and more. Although not integral to the appreciation of the poems themselves, it is a valuable treatise that many Khmer neophytes, Buddhists, and history buffs will find enriching.

Walker has done a magnificent job of helping these poems transport us into romantic realms and ways of being. We readers can navigate a landscape of ancient wisdom. We can imagine or, better yet, sing and energetically join those of an ever-present past, where the syllables linger like incense carried on the wings of breath and melody. These verses, a bridge across time, invite contemplation under the moonlit canopy of nightly rituals, echoing healing, mourning, dedication and consecration.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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