In the pursuit of the Khmer identity, one Buddhist monk stands out as special. He is His Holiness Samdech Sangha Rāja Jhotañāno Chuon Nath, a visionary lexicographer of the Khmer language and the leader of Cambodian Buddhism.
Chuon Nath (11 March 1883–25 September 1969) was a Cambodian monk and the late Kana Mahanikaya Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia. His efforts to preserve the Khmer language in the form of the Khmer dictionary are one of his achievements.
He studied national literature during his childhood until he was 18 years old. In 1897, he practiced as a monk. He spent two years there to study the paradoxical phenomenon at Wat Ounalom, Phnom Penh.
He completed his monk education at the age of 21 and lived in Wat Por Beak, Kandal Stung district, Kandal province, in 1904. He subsequently acquired the Holy Name.
In the Khmer Buddhist Sangha, Nath led a reformist movement that developed a rationalist-scholastic model of Buddhism that was based on linguistic research of the Pali Language.
The young Khmer monks of the early 20th century were influenced by this new movement, known as the Dhammayuttika Nikaya. In addition to encouraging Khmer language identity and culture, the new movement helped to promote the idea of Cambodian nationalism.
The development of the Khmer language dictionary and the translation of the whole Buddhist (Pali cannon) texts into the Khmer language were notable achievements.
Chuon Nath, a farmer’s son, lived during the height of French influence and is known for his commitment to Buddhism and Khmer identity. He promoted “Khmerization” of religion and education using his depth knowledge of the Khmer language.
He invented Khmer words to describe modern inventions such as the railroad train by drawing from their Pali and Sanskrit roots. Choun Nath combined the words Yana, which means vehicle, and Ayomoyo, which means something made of metal, to create the present Khmer word Ayaksmeyana.
Choun Nath and Khmer scholars united to work on preserving the Khmer language and identity as French cultural influence spread through the protectorate.
Chuon Nath was a member of the initial committee that was given a royal order to create a Khmer dictionary in 1915.
In 1935, he became a teacher of Pali, Sanskrit, Khmer, and Lao at the Preah Sisowath High School, Phnom Penh.
In 1961, he served as president of a radio interview broadcast on National Radio on Fridays. He chaired the committee reviewing the Khmer History section and was the chairman of the committee to review and determine the meaning of the Khmer flag.
His first edition of the dictionary was published in 1967.
He also made contributions to the nation in the form of the national anthems “Nokor Reach” and “Pongsavotar Khmer,” which serve to protect Khmer identity and history.
Chuon Nath is mostly credited with writing Nokoreach, Cambodia’s national anthem. The phrase “Nation, Religion, King” was used in its composition as Cambodia’s slogan.
“Thousands of candles can be lit by the light of one candle without its light dimming. Joy does not diminish when it is shared.”