Bon P'chum Ben is the remarkable ceremony of Cambodian annual gathering. On the 15th day of the waning moon (Ronouch) during the tenth month of the Khmer calendar, called Pheaktrobotr, Cambodian Buddhists celebrate this auspicious P'chum Ben event (the Ceremony of the Dead or Feast Ceremony for Ancestors). This ceremony usually falls in the first half of September in the Western calendar. This year it falls on September 22. It is called P'chum Thom (big ceremony). Actually, the celebration has begun since the waxing moon (K'nert) day falling in September 7; and this is called P'chum Touch (small ceremony). During the period between small ceremony and big ceremony, people always commit to take turn in offering food to the monks who are staying in door of three months of rainy retreat. This is called Kan Ben (food offering turn).
The history, meaning and objectives
According to the Vinaya (discipline) of Bhikkhu Monks (Sangha); they have to stay in door or rainy season hibernate for three months starting from the first waning moon of Srab (July) to the fifteenth waxing moon of Assoj (October) annually. These three months period reasonably recommended by the Sangha assembly presided by Lord Buddha to amend this law in order to benefit for the Bhikkhu monk community such as:
– monks have to spend this full time three month to study and practice the Dhamma,
- teachers, students and laypeople can make acquaintance with each other in one place to bolster their unity,
- and it is the rainy season which is hard for the monks to go outside as it is wet, muddy and easily to step on the crops of farmers.
But monks are able to go outside the door of temple during the rain-retreat unless they have sufficient excuses such as to preach the Dhamma, to visit ill relatives, to participate or preside over functions or to get away from some disasters etc. However, if any monks have offended the rules, they would be sentenced by a weak probation decided by the Sangha's assembly and they can be uncharged when they confess and follow accordingly in front of the assembly.
Through this important three months of strict practicing of Dhamma makes laypeople further their commitment and generosity to feed and take care all monks Sangha. So each family and village will take turn to offer food and other four necessities to monks daily. And there are two specific days which laypeople join together to make the ceremony more crowded and significant. They are the P'chum Touch (min ceremony) and the P'chum Thom (large ceremony). Especially, P'chum Thom is recognized as the most important day for all citizens regardless of ethnic background, color, race or faith should be attend, pay gratitude to their relatives and enjoy the ceremony.
P'chum Thom has happened since the Sakymuni Buddha period. When king Bhibisara felt sad about his absence to pay back gratitude to his ancestries and heard the crying voice every night in his palace, he went to ask some advices from the Buddha and he got insight that he has to celebrate the food offering ceremony annually. We don't know that when this cult of celebration was being celebrated by Cambodian Buddhists, but following our chronology observation, it must be arrived Cambodia in the same time of the arrival of Buddhism. It has become the root of Khmer culture and unique identity. This celebration has coincidently combined with the genuine religious cult of Cambodia that dominantly respects and worships their ancestors. This religious cult is called the Religion of Neakta.
The full outcomes of P'chum Ben day signifies many different aspects to bond Cambodia together in both material and spiritual, social value and unique identity, harmony and prosperity. It is not different from the Choul Chnam day or Cambodian New Year Day that these two celebrations are remarkable event and the most auspicious day.
We can outline some of these prospects relating P'chum Ben day.
1. To offer the chance to everybody to stay away from all evils, to cultivate the good and to purify their mind.
2. To provide the opportunity for everybody to empower their peaceful mind and spiritual adherence.
3. To pay gratitude to their dead ancestors as well as their living seniors.
4. To share their kindness and compassion by exchanging of their food, snacks and money with each others and especially to the poor people. Remarkably, this period is considered as the hardest time for low income or poor conditioned people to find food to eat in Cambodia.
5. To bond everybody together through their spiritual practices, gratefulness, social networking and local stylizing.
6. To increase the sense of multiculturalism, fraternity, compassion, respect, unity and righteousness.
7. To unify the interests, concerns and identity roots of the national or international distinctions and stratifications.
Factual accounts of P'chum Ben Day
There is the reality and legendary about P'chum Ben Day.
- Buddha taught and explained that our ancestors who died and reborn as angels, animals, human beings or in hell cannot receive our meritorious dedication. But if any of our ancestors or relatives who were born as the hungry ghost (Praet); they need food a to eat and they cannot eat like us; they eat only through our goodness, generosity and offering to dedicate to them by naming those relatives respectively. Doing this, all those relatives of hungry ghost can receive all the delicate food and offerings. So it is possible for us to gain merits as our ancestors can receive our offerings as well as through our own hearted generosity and gratefulness.
- Buddha encouraged King Bhimpisara to celebrate this ceremony as well as everybody has to celebrate this too. Nobody in this world has never had relatives or ancestors who have been passed away. More than this, this auspicious celebration also inspires us to pay gratitude with our living parents, grandparents or seniors too.
- As the season is remarkable for its darkness during the night time makes Cambodian people think that their dead ancestors could be released from the abysses of woeful realms and wander around all over seven temples. If they don't see any of their children or relatives have offered any food or gain merits to dedicate to them; they will be sad, upset and sorrowful in their heart. This sadness echoes badly to their living relatives which can bring along with bad Kamma, bad luck and sufferings.
How to practice during ceremony?
During this time everybody prepares their body and mind, and sacrifice both materials, time and mind to join this day. All villagers and all different stratifications of people prepare their food and sweet, four necessities, offerings, special traditional dressing clothes; and they obligate to undertake the five commandments during this auspicious occasion.
For the food comprises of:
- Ordinary meal such as rice, soups, salted grilled fish, fresh grilled fish with mango sauce, spring roles, salad and fermented fish (prohok) etc.
- Some seasonal snacks or bakes such as Num Onsam and Num Korm (steamed cakes wrapped in banana leaves). Num Onsam is a kind of cylindrical cake of glutinous rice wrapped around a mixture of pork, salt and other ingredients. Num Korm and Nom Thmey is shaped like pyramid and made of rice-flour and filled with coconut and palm sugar mixture.
Some other distinctive fruits and snacks are also included.
For the four necessities include:
1. Saffron robes or clothes
2. Food and other storable foods
3. Umbrella, raincoats or shelters
4. Medicine, shampoo, toothpaste and tooth brash etc.
These four necessities always packed with brightly, pyramid wrap.
Some other Offerings includes
Garland or leis
Clothing is very colorful and delicate which include:
Sompot Hol or Sompot Phamoung which is the silk skirt of Cambodian women. It is dressed for national important day and Buddhist ceremonies. These delicate skirts always dress with short sleeve blouse (Aov Pak) made in Cambodia and put with tiny scarf. Men also wear neat dresses and polite.
Five commandments or precepts:
The five precepts in which every Cambodian Buddhist is aware about it and practice them in their daily life. Importantly, in this occasion they have to observe it to re-affirm their obligation and purification.
1. Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.
2. Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.
3. Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.
4. Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech such as lying, malicious words, harsh words and talk in vain.
5. Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.
Overview the appropriate practices during the celebration
When food, dressing and other necessities are already prepared; individuals have to be aware when they are stepping into the monasteries compound or ceremonial spaces. They should keep quiet, modesty and polite. Wearing hats are not allowed. They should take off shoes before stepping into the hall or ceremonial space. People will go in front of the Buddha statues and sit with a right position calmly, bow down three times, lit the candles and incense sticks, offer flowers and perfume. After listening attentively to the monk's preaching, chanting or other blessing; they should prepare food which is ready to offer to the monks. Most of the time, all participants will put their rice into the rice bowl collected by the long procession of monks. During offering the food into alms bowl, they have to take off shoe and concentrate on merits and dedicate to their dead ancestors by naming with good wishing.
All of these good-deed activities must be attentive, silent, peaceful, mindful and compassionate. When our mind is peaceful during the cession; we can feel the great merits growing in our heart and the blissful sense we should receive from this paying gratitude to our ancestors.
More than this, when the application of our mind access deeply, subtle and insightful to the Dhamma; we can get into the Dhamma stream which is the stream of Enlightenment.
There are many other things symbolizing Cambodian culture and identity, but Pchum Ben Day is considered as the most important one. In this day, people will not only attend because of their faith, their generosity, tradition or habit, but to survive their daily life and strengthen the "family society system/tradition of Cambodia". Distinctively, to develop their individuality of right thought and right understanding; and strive persistently toward individual's goal follows the eightfold path of ethics awareness, peaceful meditation and insightful wisdom.
This is rigorous for everybody to come, participate and enjoy this solemn day.
By Preah Bhikkhu Vodano Sophan S.
August 22, 2006
Labels: Bon P'chum Ben