Boon Choul Preah Vossa - A Buddhist Lent
By: L.Angkor. Picture by: Jon Bugge ( July, 2002 Volume 2 No.7 )

he familiar sights of swathes of saffron and bright orange robes will be less common vista. While the rains establish their ancient routine the Sangha (the monastic community) prepare to retreat within the confines of their pagodas. This self-imposed isolation will last three months and gives a chance for monks to pray and contemplate. Vossa is adopted from the Pali language: "Vossak" means rain or rainy season. Originally, Choul Preah Vossa would last for four months: from 1 Roch of Asarth to 15 Koert of Kadeukk (25 of July to 19 of November), nowadays they shorten it to three months: from 1 Roch of Arsath to 15 Koert of Aksuch (25 of July to 21 of October).

The Lesser Vehicle?

Translated as Hinayana. This school is also known as theravada, which means the "Teaching of the Elders". This is the form of Buddhism practiced in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Mynamar.
Thus it also goes under the title The Southern School. The other form is Mahayana - The Greater Vehicle. They can also be more roughly divided geographically, the Mahayana being dubbed the Northern School and visa versa. This type of Buddhism spread northward - and thus is found in Nepal, Tibet, Vietnam, Korea, Mongolia, China and Japan. This split within Buddhism occurred shortly after the death of the Buddha. The "lesser" and "greater" refer to the amount of teachings which each school holds sacred. The Hinayana holds only the core teachings of the Buddha: those canonical texts recognized during early Buddhist history. The Mahayana holds these sacred but also texts and interpretations that occurred after the death of the Buddha. This was allegedly a move to be able to answer the needs of the normal people, essentially to make it more accessible. The Northern School christened Theravada with the pejorative name Hinayana - while this referred to the Lesser Vehicle it also implied theirs was the Greater Vehicle. Thus nowadays, more often than not, the two school are known as Mahayana and Theravada. Whilst now subscribing to Hinayana, Cambodia used to practice Mahayana, between 9th and 13th century. Whilst the two school differ on many aspects it is still the cessation of suffering and Nirvana that unties them as common goals.
Through Buddhist custom and tradition, all monks, from every pagoda must attend Bonn Choul Preah Vossa and then stay in the pagoda for the following three months. During this period all of these pagodas always keep Tean Preah Vossa: the candle of Bonn Choul Preah Vossa, alight for the full three months. Tean Preah Vossa, which is one of the most important things in Bonn Choul Preah Vossa, is made of honey beeswax. The sheath of the candle is made of wood. The candle measures 2 Chabs (a circle of two palms together) in width and 2 Harth (about one meter) in height with many kinds of artistic adornments on the surface. Inside the wooden sheath there is a cotton thread as a candlewick. Honey beeswax is scarce, therefore people have adapted a new idea and often use kerosene instead of beeswax to put in the wooden sheath and cover with beeswax on top. But now there are many Tean Choul Preah Vossa on the market, which are produced by factories for Buddhist countries. The king, or members of the royal family always light Tean Preah Vossa in the Royal Palace during this ceremony.

A day before Bonn Choul Preah Vossa, Buddhist devotees go to pagoda with food. Then the monks salute the Buddha and pray for the souls of all Khmers; devotees offer food to the monks at lunchtime and the monks preach in the afternoon. This is in preparation for the actual day of the ceremony. In the afternoon of the first day of Bonn Choul Preah Vossa, they ceremoniously circle around the temple three times with Tean Preah Vossa and other daily necessities such as clothes, toothbrushes, soap, etc and then place the items together inside the temple to be divided among them. During this time a senior monk (one who has been a monk longest) announces that this is the first day of the three months of Bonn Choul Preah Vossa. During this period, we are not allowed to go anywhere and all monks who are seated with him repeat the pledge after him.
If they have any special things to do: such as if their mother or father falls sick they can leave the pagoda by seeking permission from the Abbot. Even when granted, this leave of absence cannot exceed seven days.
If for some valid reasons that a monk is not able to attend the opening ceremony, the absentee monk can attend Bonn Choul Preah Vossa later: on 1 Roch of Srarp (24 of August) and stay in pagoda for three months, just like the other monks. This concept of the monks retreating from public is one that harks back to bygone eras. However, even if taken from antiquity, it forms part of the rich variety of rituals and ceremonies within the year, which play an important role in defining modern day Cambodia.