Pchum Ben Festival
|By Antonio Graceffo
day, of the tenth month, of the Khmer calendar marks the Pchum Ben festival.
This is a time when the spirits of the dead ancestors walk the Earth. And
the living can ease their suffering by offering them food to eat.
At four in
the morning, nearly all of the residents of Phnom Penh gather at the temple
with offerings of rice, which they toss on the ground, feeding the dead
the ghosts have small mouths". One man explains. "So we have to
use special rice".
|Many of the
people throw sticky rice, which, apparently is easier for the spirits to
consume. According to Buddhist beliefs, the lives that we live, after death,
are predicated by the actions that we took when we were living.
would be punished with small punishments, such as being an unattractive
ghost or having a small mouth. With a small mouth, it is hard to eat. Other,
more severe, punishments could include being crippled or having no mouth
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At 8:00 AM,
people return to the temple, with offerings for the monks. "They don't
just give food", explains Mey Sameth, who was a monk for seven years.
money and other things as well. As a monk we looked forward to this period
all year long, because we can get new clothing and good food".
the people return with more food, which will be shared between monks
and poor people. So many of the Buddhist traditions seem to relate to feeding
the poor. Disabled people also crowd around the temple begging alms. To
give help to the less-fortunate, particularly during Pchum Ben, is to acquire
explained that the offerings they made during the festival were to cancel
out past sins.
PM there will be more prayers for the dead. "At 8:00 we monks had to
go to bed". Laughs Sameth, fondly remembering his days of obedience
and simplicity. "Because the people would be coming back to the temple
at 4:00 the next morning, we had to be up at 3:00."
Khmers will say that the festival lasts fifteen days, ending on the fifteenth
of the month. But in actuality, the ancient, traditional festival lasted
three months, ending on the fifteenth day, of the tenth month of the year.
explains more about the festival. "The Buddha commanded that the monks
remain indoors and do nothing for these three months", he says. "It
was a good time for monks to pray and meditate, and go deeper into their
practice of Buddhism. But it also had a practical effect. In the past,
poor people were invited to plant crops inside the temple grounds, to supplement
their diet. If the monks were active, walking around, they could
destroy the young plants. So, they were commanded to stay in doors".
For the monks,
the festival represents a special time of reflection, during which they
can concentrate on purifying their minds. "We want to be free
of vice. And remember the commandments". The commandments include:
Do not do harm (kill), No sex, Do not lie, No Alcohol, and no stealing.
"If the young monks committed an infraction during the festival, then
we would not be permitted to take part, which would mean that we wouldn't
get any offerings".
|The last four
days of the festival were public holidays in Cambodia. And most Khmers
visited their home, where they had family reunions.
friends and colleagues,
it was amazing to see that even people who considered themselves only marginally
religious still took the Pchum Ben festival seriously. They felt a real
obligation to feed their ancestors, lest their suffering should continue.
Even friends who claimed to have converted to Christianity, and who attended
church regularly, took time out of their schedule to make the early morning
pilgrimage to the temple, and feed the ancestors.
It was as if
they were saying that their choice to convert was a personal decision,
but one that shouldn't be imposed on the souls who died before.
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show that even under the Khmer Rouge, and later under the communists, prohibitions
against religious worship were unenforceable during Pchum Ben. In fact,
the prohibitions were eventually lifted, with the result that high ranking
Party members felt obligated to attend temple with their superiors.
religion is such an integral part of the Khmer culture that neither political
upheaval, economic crisis, the spread of foreign religions, or the intervention
of modern society will shake the fundamentals of Khmer beliefs. It
is refreshing to see that, although many aspects of the Khmer culture were
lost during the Regime, the Khmers have managed to maintain their religious
devotion and their family-centered way of life.
are the previous articles that Antonio wrote for the magazine:
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Index ~ Cambodia