Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat in Cambodia
the world's largest religious monument built in the 12th century
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Bon Pchum Ben

'Ancestors Festival'

"Whatever karma I create, whether good or evil, I shall inherit"
The Buddha, Anguttara Nikaya v.57 - Upajjhatthan Sutta

          Buddhist Monks accepting the offerings

This is a Khmer annual Buddhist festival. It takes place during the tenth month of the lunar calendar - around mid September to early October, and lasts for fifteen days. This religious festival has been practised in Cambodia since the arrival of Buddhism in the fifth century during the reign of King Kuandinya Jayavarman. It has since become the root of Khmer culture. It is considered to be a very important cultural event for the Khmer people who genuinely respect and worship their ancestors.

Meaning of ‘Bon Pchum Ben’
‘Bon Pchum Ben’ may be literally translated as ‘gathering together to give offerings’. People gather together at pagodas around the country to offer food to their ancestors and to the monks. The monks and the elders of the pagodas act as vehicles for this transaction between the living relatives and the dead. Being Buddhist, most Khmers believe that all living creatures are re-incarnated at death. However, due to bad‘karma(a)', some souls remain trapped in the spirit world where they are tormented and punished. Those trapped souls are calledPrêt’. According to Buddhist teaching, this festival time is when thePrêt’ are released from the spirit world for fifteen days. During these days, they will search for their living relatives to get food and to spend time to meditate, to repent and to receive blessings from the monks. Together with benefitting from the good deeds done by their relatives, this is the time when the Prêt’ could escape the spirit world and become re-incarnated. 

Festival Ceremonies
There are two ceremonies which form part of this festival. The first is called Kann Ben’ or ‘holding the offerings’ which lasts for 14 days. The second ceremony being the main and final ceremony is called ‘Pchum Ben’ or ‘Ancestors Day’ takes place on the fifteenth day. 

Prior to the event, one of the necessary preparations for the festival is for the elders of each pagoda to inform relatives and friends of the dead about their allocated day when they should present their offerings.  So, each day leading up to the fifteenth day, families will take turns to bring offerings to the monks and perform the rituals which will be discussed below. It is also important that everyone gives the names of their ancestors to the pagoda elders beforehand so that an invitation list will be compiled. This list will be used by the pagoda elders to call out the name of the ancestors one by one before burning away the paper lists. This ritual is necessary because the spirits cannot receive offerings unless they are first invited to do so by their living relatives. 

Order of the ‘Kann Ben’ Day
Special food - Bai Ben’ or ‘multi-coloured balls of steamed sticky rice’ is prepared for the hungry souls of the ancestors. Every morning of the fourteen days before sunrise , the rice balls are thrown into the dark and shaded areas around the temple ground for the spirits to enjoy. The reason for carrying out this ritual at this time in the morning is because the spirits cannot bear to see sun or moon light. 

Just before noon, candles and incenses are lit and food is offered to the monks. After the meal, the monks and the pagoda elders would perform a chanting ritual, giving blessing by sprinkling holy water onto the families and their 'visiting' ancestral spirits. This is how they commemorate the lives of their ancestors. 

Then, the evening ritual begins at around 6pm. The relatives will join the monks in the 'viheara, a separate hall traditionally used by the participants to listen to the monks chanting and teaching, to receive blessings and guidance, and especially to meditate and pray in order to convey all the good deeds to their ancestral spirits. The ‘Kann Ben’ ritual continues in the same manner for fourteen days. 

‘Pchum Ben’ Day
This takes place during the darkest day of the lunar cycle of the month.  The reason for choosing this darkest day is that, as already mentioned, the Prêt’ are afraid of sun or moon light and can only receive food and prayers when it is dark. All the rituals during this day are more or less the same as those of the ‘Kann Ben’ days, but on a much bigger scale with much larger gatherings of people. This is because everyone including those who have not been able to do the ‘Kann Ben’ can now join in to do good deeds for their ancestors. There are lengthy prayers and meditations to offer good ‘karma’ to those souls trapped in the spirit world, to help relieve their suffering and misery, and to guide them back into the cycle of re-incarnation. 

Apart from playing a vital role in the Khmer belief system, this festival is also an important aspect of Cambodian culture. The festival offers the living families and friends an opportunity for a reunion, commemoration and reflection as well as a time to remind themselves to do good, to think about ‘Karma’, to express love and appreciation, and to show gratitude and respect towards their ancestors. 

(a) Karma – means ‘intentional action’. Karma is created not only by physical action but also by thoughts and words. We bear the consequences of the karma we create.  Karma keeps one entangled in the cycle of death and rebirth.