Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Pchum Ben – Days of Gathering to Make Offerings for Those Remembered and for Those Forgotten – Sunday, 20.9.2009

Posted on 22 September 2009
The Mirror, Vol. 13, No. 630

Though the present national holidays extend only over the final period of the fifteen days of commemoration of the living for the dead, it is one of the major events of observing traditional religious observances in Cambodia. What is interesting, is that these holy days of the Cambodian Buddhist community are not observed similarly in other Buddhist countries like Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, or Thailand. It is said that there are some pre-Angkorian and pre-Buddhist Cambodian origins of the Pchum Ben observances, which formed the basis for a later Buddhist interpretation. But it seems that not many people in Cambodia are aware that other predominantly Buddhist countries do not celebrate a similar cause.

Increasing international relations – not only relations for business and politics – lead, over the years , also to new ways of self-reflection, when some unquestioned assumptions about one’s own traditions and beliefs are meeting with people in other countries oriented to the same roots – but with quite different results.

Since a number of persons who claim to be Muslim have committed acts of violence and killings in many countries, there is a trend in the public opinion in many countries that Islam is a violent religion – which is not true. In Iran, at present a famous singer of traditional meditative religious songs is giving inspiration to the opposition movement with his songs of peace and non-violence. There are many different form of Islam. And there are many different forms of Buddhism. And of Christianity.

There are Buddhist traditions pointing to the Buddha denying that there is something like a soul, something existing even beyond a human being’s death, understanding our life as an unending processes of relations and changes, where there is no permanence. And there are other traditions also claiming to be Buddhist, like in the Cambodian Pchum Ben, concerned with the fate of those who died and whose souls may be trapped in a spiritual world if nobody in this world cares for them, to get them out from the misery of a bad spiritual world.

It is interesting to see how such belief is strong even in persons where one would not easily expect it.

When Vann Nath, the painter-survivor of the Tuol Sleng prison, said as a witness at the Khmer Rouge trial in June 2009 that life was “hell” in the prison, he is obviously using figurative language. But when the former Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Thirith, the Minister of Social Affairs and Education of the Khmer Rouge government – now in detention at the Khmer Rouge trial – “cursed those who accused her of killing people, to fall into the seventh level of hell” [in The Mirror, Vol. 13, No. 602, Deum Ampil, Vol.3, #128, 1-2.3.2009] one may ask whether this is still figurative speech only, or more.

Also the Prime Minister used, recently, similar words – whether used figuratively or beyond – which are strong because of the alliterations to their meaning in religious language, when he is quoted with the following statements:

- On 8 September 2009 he was quoted to have warned his critics that they would be struck by lightning, if they dared to suggest his leadership was plunging the country into poverty. – There have been already about 100 persons killed by lightning in Cambodia in 2009 so far, while there had been only 45 deaths reported in 2008.

- And on 15 September 2009 he was quoted – maybe in response to reports about the statement of the member of the National Assembly, Mu Sochua, and what she was reported to have said in the USA, that people who go overseas to tell “lies” about Cambodia could end up in the lowest level of hell, adding that people in foreign countries now have access to television about Cambodia and they would not be tricked by “liars” [though electronic media present a wide spectrum of the Cambodian realities].

The Pchum Ben traditions want to provide an end of suffering for those is hell, not only for those who have descendants and relatives praying for them and making offerings to the religious community of monks for their liberation from hell. There are even general – anonymous – donations for the forgotten trapped souls for whom nobody cares. Maybe this spirit of calling those who failed back, can also help to heal the many painful tensions among the living.

Discussing this with Cambodian friends, it was said that this is a Cambodian tradition – probably it relates only to Cambodians – not even to all Cambodian: probably not to Cham people, because they are not Khmer. There is a lot of quiet reflection and talking in mutual trust to happen, before we seriously can try to share our different understandings of the deeper meaning of life and death, including Khmers and Cham, and even foreigners from far away. Globalization includes more than the economy and the ecology.


Because of the Pchum Ben holidays in Cambodia, the next publication planned is the normal edition for Tuesday, 22.9.2009.

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