By: May Titthara.Photo by:Touch Sinath ( October, 2002 Volume 2 No.10 )

October is the month when Cambodian people celebrate the festival of Phchum Ben. Together with Khmer New Year in April, Phchum Ben is the most important festival in the Khmer religious calendar. Cambodians have faithfully observed the festival every year for as long as anyone can remember. The word 'Ben' in Khmer means to collect; 'Ben' also means to cup or mould cooked rice into portions. To 'Ben Baht' means to collect food to give to monks. The word 'Phchum' means to congregate or to meet together. Regardless how busy they may be during the fifteen days of Phchum Ben, Cambodian people try not to miss a visit to the pagoda to dedicate food and offerings to the dead. The festival's final day, October 6th, is the actual day of Phchum Ben, when people traditionally meet together at the pagoda, said the Venerable Ly Sovy of Lang Ka pagoda.
By doing this, Cambodians show respect for their ancestors. Everyone goes to the pagoda every year to honor this tradition, and nobody complains. "According to [Buddhist] belief, people feel sorry for and remember their relatives who have passed away," Ly Sovy said. "They may be their parents, grandparents, a sister, a brother, daughter or son."

Om Sam Ol, a monk at Steung Meanchey pagoda, explained more about the beliefs behind the festival: "During Phchum Ben, souls and spirits come to receive offerings from their living relatives," he said. "It is believed that some of the dead receive punishment for their sins and burn in hell - they suffer a lot and are tortured there," he added. "Hell is far from people; those souls and spirits cannot see the sun; they have no clothes to wear, no food to eat," Om Sam Ol continued. "Phchum Ben is the period when those spirits receive offerings from their living relatives and perhaps gain some relief. Relatives consecrate and dedicate food and other offerings to them."

"Everyone goes to the pagoda because they don't want the spirits of dead members of their family to come to seek offerings at pagodas in vain. It is believed that wondering spirits will go to look in seven different pagodas and if those spirits can not find their living relatives' offering in any of those pagodas, they will curse them, because they cannot eat food offered by other people," the monk said. "When the living relatives offer the food to the spirit, the spirit will bless them with happiness", he added.
According to the monk, legend has it that Phchum Ben came about because relatives of King Bath Pempeksa defied religious customs and ate rice before the monks did during a religious ritual. After their death, they became evil spirits. He explained that later when a monk known as Kokak Sonthor gained enlightenment and became a Buddha on earth, all those evil spirits went to ask him "when can we eat?"
The Buddha said "you have to wait for the next Buddha in the Kathakot Buddhist realm. In this realm, evil spirits cannot eat." When the next monk, Kamanou, achieved enlightenment and became a Buddha, all the evil spirits came again to ask the same question, and he gave the same answer as the previous Buddha. Later another monk, Kasakbour, achieved enlightenment and became a Buddha, and the hungry evil spirits again asked him the same question. The Buddha told them the same thing - to wait for the next Buddha.

The final Buddha, Preah Samphot - also known also as Samanakkodom - said to the evil spirits, "Wait for your relative, King Bath Pempeksa, to offer merits and dedication. When the dedication is made, the food will be yours to eat." King Pempeksa finally made an offering, but he did not dedicate the offering to the spirits of his relatives. All the spirits that were related to him cried that night. And when King Bath Pempeksa went to the Valovan pagoda to visit the Buddha, he was told by the Buddha that, "All the spirits of your relatives are crying, demanding food. The spirits should get food in the realm of Kathakot. Although you offered food and did good deeds, you did not dedicate the food and good deeds to them." So King Bath Pempeksa made another dedication and offering, and this time he dedicated the food and merits to his relatives. The evil spirits received the dedication and were finally reborn into paradise.