For fifteen days a year, the tormented spirits of the departed swarm silently into Cambodia’s Buddhist monasteries. The dead are here to search for their surviving kin who, by committing simple acts of kindness, can free them from the cycle of perpetual suffering.
Pchum Ben, the Khmer festival of the dead, has been an integral part of the Cambodian calendar for millennia. Now, senior members of the Buddhist order suggest it’s experiencing a renaissance: the number of teens and twenty-somethings making the annual pilgrimage to their local pagodas is, apparently, on the rise.
Khy Sovanragana, 38, has been abbot of Wat Mongkulvan since 2006. “Over the years, since my return from abroad, I have observed an increase in the number of young people coming to the festival,” he said.
Part is through a sense of familial duty, he believes, but “they also take delight in coming to the temple where there are a lot of people because they get to work and play. It is one of the best chances to socialise and catch up with relatives.”
Manet ‘Ly’ Jensen, 27, runs a bustling beauty salon in Phnom Penh. Originally from Svay Rieng, she — along with many of her friends — doesn’t consider herself “religious,” but she observes Pchum Ben every year.
She’s been doing so for as long as she can remember, always endeavouring to visit a pagoda on each of the festival’s 15 days.
“We go not because we’re devout Buddhists, but because we feel it’s important to pay respect to our ancestors and to spend time with friends and family who live far away,” said Ly, who this year will be honouring the memory of her mother.
A Tale of Two Realms
Gatherers stand outside Wat Ounalom and listen as monks recite the Dharma over the pagoda’s loud speakers.
The ritual has been observed since the 9th century, when Angkor became the proud seat of the Khmer Empire. At Wat Ounalom, above, hundreds gathered on Day 1 of the festival this year to honor their ancestors.
Literally translated, the name means “gathering” (pchum) and “offering” (ben).
The ritual has been observed since the 9th century, when Angkor became the proud seat of the Khmer Empire. The dominant system of belief in Cambodia at the time was not Theravada Buddhism, as it is today, but Hinduism and animism – the worship of a spirit world intertwined with our own (the Latin word anima means “soul” or “breath”).
It wouldn’t be absorbed into Cambodian Buddhism until Mahayana devotee King Jayavarman VII took the throne in 1181.
“It became part of the royal calendar after his mother died,” Khy Sovanragana, the abbot, explained. “He was so grief-stricken, he dedicated many temples. Banteay Chhmar is one of the most important, showing his gratitude to her and preserving her memory. During the Angkorian period, it was important to remember ancestors. He made it an official holiday, skilfully linking the event to Buddhism.”
Buddhism doesn’t attach much importance to the worshipping of ghosts, focussing more on rigorous mental training. But when Theravada Buddhism arrived in its present form sometime in the 12th or 13th century, Khmers embraced the new while continuing the old.
“Jayavarman was looking for sources to support Buddhism in the country,” said Khy Sovanragana. “Buddha saw through divine wisdom that ancestors did not have enough food, so needed ‘merit’ to be released from their suffering. King Jayavarman VII connected the festival of the dead to early Buddhism to make Buddhism more acceptable to the public.”
Even the Khmer Rouge couldn’t enforce their attempt to ban Pchum Ben.
One Good Deed…
Far from fading in the face of increasing rural-urban migration, the festival is experiencing an anecdotal surge in popularity among the young.
Key to the festival is karma.
To ease the ghosts’ suffering (hell comes in various hues, including fire, torture and perpetual thirst), the living offer parcels of sticky rice wrapped in palm leaves. Just as their Ankgorian ancestors did, Cambodian Buddhists file en masse to feed the monks at up to seven local pagodas from as early as 4am.
Each then pads three times around the temple, scattering fluffy white grains as they go. The gesture not only earns respite for tortured souls, known in Buddha’s preferred tongue Pali as “preth”, but also acknowledges the good deeds committed by surviving descendants. Good begets good in the circle of life and each gesture acts as a leg-up on the karmic ladder, leading eventually to Nirvana.
Contrary to popular belief, the festival is not a time of “doing nothing” for the pious. “Monks and nuns must remain in their residences, reciting the Dharma,” said Sok Piseth, a senior in Buddhist Studies at Batumwatey Monastery. “Each acts as a guru, a good adviser. It falls to them to explain the connection between the teachings of Buddha and the sticky piles of rice that litter the pagoda floors for more than a fortnight.”
Pchum Ben is commonly thought to have one purpose, that of appeasing the dead, but some scholars suggest there are three. “First we do something good and dedicate it to our ancestors,” Sok Piseth said. “The second is to cultivate one’s self, to understand more about religious rites in society and to cultivate the cranial mind. The third we call national solidarity, where the ceremony unites the nation to help us get more understanding of each other.”
The Modern World
Just as their Ankgorian ancestors did, Cambodian Buddhists file en masse to feed the monks at up to seven local pagodas from as early as 4am.
Far from fading in the face of increasing rural-urban migration, the festival is experiencing an anecdotal surge in popularity among the young. Sam Rith, a senior newspaper executive, had also noticed a fresh influx of young faces. “In the last few years, I have noticed not only that more young people are going to the pagodas, but also that they are doing more too,” he said.
Is this indicative of a rise in religious fervour?
Sok Piseth is not convinced. “I think more of them go because they see that it is what their parents did, without really understanding the spiritual meaning,” he said.
Ly, the salon owner, confirmed his suspicion. “It’s more about honouring your parents’ wishes than being religious,” she said. “We go because that is what they want us to do. I prefer to earn my good merit by helping the living, not the dead.”
Asked about the belief that failure to show face can bring a curse on your family, Abbot Khy Sovanragana lets loose a derisory snort. Such “rumours” were most likely started as a ploy to scare young folk into keeping the tradition alive, he scorns.
Alive it most certainly is — and open to anyone. Abbots welcome courtesy calls, but say don’t feel obliged, and monks graciously point out the lack of entry fee (donations are, of course, appreciated).
Pchum Ben 2010 falls between September 24 and October 9, the last three days are a public holiday and the acme of the activities. Pagodas open from 4 a.m., with some hosting boat races to “lighten up” the increasingly social event.
For a grand finale, take the road to Vihear Sour. The village, about 50km north of Phnom Penh, stages pride-fuelled buffalo races and traditional wrestling every year during the three-day climax.
This story was originally published in The FCC Newsletter, Oct 2010.