*This post was written for Cambodian Living Arts and first appeared on their website September 2020
At our foundations, Cambodian Living Arts was created to reconnect surviving master artists with their craft in the wake of the Khmer Rouge regime as a form of healing. During the brutal years of the regime, they infamously tried to reset the clock of Cambodian civilization to year zero. Consequently, intellectuals and artists were targeted because they became representations of a way of life the Khmer Rouge wanted to wipe out. Buddhism – and any other form of religion – too became an enemy of the state that ignited the mass defrocking and execution of monks as well as destruction of places of worship and sacred texts. Even though the expanses of genocide all but decimated culture and social bonds in Cambodia, piece by piece, Cambodian society has been reassembling and healing itself.
By 1989 – a decade after the end of the reign of Angkar, the colloquial name of the Khmer Rouge – the fabric of society was still reweaving and Buddhism was reestablished as the state religion. Not unlike how our master artists connected the threads of musical heritage to the young, surviving monks taught the next generation of spiritual leaders from memories in the absence of Buddhist texts. Today, 95 percent of Cambodia’s 16.7 million people, and thousands more abroad, are interwoven through shared Buddhist rituals.
At the start of this month – corresponding with the waning crescent moon of the lunar calendar – Cambodian Buddhists around the world began celebrating one of largest cultural-social-religious holidays of the year: Pchum Ben. Sometimes described as the festival of hungry ghosts or ancestors’ day, the first 14 days of the 15-day celebration are called Kan Benand the last day, Pchum Ben.The entire celebration commemorates the 15 days of the year when it’s said the gates of hell open for ghosts to be among us, searching for food. A core practice of Pchum Ben is to visit not just a family’s local pagoda, but many pagodas to make offerings of food to the monks, relatives-passed and ghosts without family to attend to their spirits. Pchum Ben is a living moment for many Cambodians across the world to collaboratively connect to our ancestral heritage.
Here, in Phnom Penh, pagodas are buzzing. People of all ages can be seen darting around the city on the back of mopeds and unloading from cars, rickshaws and tuktuks wearing the counterpart of a person’s “Sunday-best.” At this same time, many of us are preparing to return to the provinces to reconnect with family and friends as Pchum Ben also includes a long holiday weekend.
Amidst this moment of togetherness, giving and remembrance, we at Cambodian Living Arts want to share with you some of personal memories and reflections from our team as an act of resilience and appreciation for the vitality of cultural heritage.
THOUCH Savang, KMMB Band Member
“My earliest memory of Pchum Ben is preparing food and going to the pagoda with my whole family and eating together after the monks. Second thing I remember is making a Khmer cake together and having fun. In my village, every Pchum Ben day, we would invite the monks to come to our house and hold a small ceremony and bless us with good luck. At the end of Pchum Ben, my extended family would join, and we would always eat together. In my village, people would go to the temple at 3:30, 4:00 in the morning, to feed the ghosts. I don’t believe that the ghosts come to eat the food, but I think it is important we keep practicing this cultural heritage.”
THORN Seyma, Khmer Magic Music Bus Co-Founder
“For me, I remember being around 15 years old, I was so happy because I could go to the temple. Because I am a girl, my father never wanted me to go out of the home but for Pchum Ben days, I was so happy, he wouldn’t care. I could go at any time, in the morning or at night. For me, I loved that I could go outside the home. I would see people wearing white and holding little candle in their hands. When I would go to the temple, I felt so different. I felt like I had my own life, my own independent life. I would go in the early morning and then listen to the monks. I wouldn’t talk too much. I would just go and watch. I would see people that I never saw. My mom impressed on me that it’s very important to go to the temple, and for me, I believe [that that spirits come].”
CHORN-POND Arn, Founder
“When I was a little boy, before the Khmer Rouge, I was a temple boy. Pchum Ben was one of the scariest times of the year. People would go on and talk too much about ghosts. They would talk about your family members who died a long time ago and might’ve become bad ghosts because they didn’t do well when they were living, and they would become hungry ghosts. That’s the reason why the living should go to the temple and give a little rice ball to the ghosts at 4:00 in the morning. I was scared but you know, you would hear a lot of music; you saw a lot of food. Sometimes I didn’t like it because there was a lot of waste. You know, in that time, people weren’t as hungry as after Pol Pot. Now, I think a lot more about the waste of food…
In Cambodia we probably have something like 8000 temples, some rich some poor… When I was young, I think like everybody else, but for me now, the most important thing is not to emphasize the dead… [The Buddha’s] teaching emphasized the living. And the people who died, it’s normal. [You live your life] and then you die. That’s ultimate reality. The point is that, why are you inflicting suffering toward each other… if everyone of you will die?…
It’s about the ethical teaching for the living. The main principle of the monks chanting is for the living… So, to have people, young people, children, it’s the act of giving food to the dead… the act of your giving, your thinking, of being kind to your deceased relatives and emphasize on acting, giving to others who are living. Be kind to each other. To me that’s the ultimate take on this… It’s good to have children witnessing people wearing traditional clothing, the act of offering, doing the good deeds… whatever you see more, you do more.”