Yeay Mao at Kep

Yeay Mao at Kep

Yeay Mao at Kep

Yeay Mao is the guardian of the Cambodian coast from the Vietnamese border to Sihanoukville and beyond. She was once the goddess Durga (Kali), but under Buddhism she’s been demoted to a neak ta, the equivalent of a guardian angel. She protects fishermen at sea, but sometimes kills them if they displease her. She brings blessings of children, and for this reason carved wooden phalluses and bananas (phallic symbols) are given as offerings. This shrine at Kep seems very new and has no offerings at all. I was surprised to find it, and also intrigued – it’s obviously very expensive, and I wonder who paid for it. Usually donors pay for Buddha images, as these bring the most merit, so this must be the gift of someone who thinks very highly of the Black Lady.

Some more photos from Kep:

_DSF4731 _DSF4725 _DSF4733 _DSF4678

The Third Ghost’s Tale


When someone dies the monks invite the soul to go to “the peaceful place,” the only place from which it can be reborn. “I think my father is reborn already, because I don’t feel him with me,” I was told by a young man who lost both parents early. “But I don’t think my mother is reborn yet. I feel her with me all the time.”

A delay in rebirth can be explained in many ways. Perhaps, like this mother, the soul wants to stay and watch over her child. They are a presence, not a haunting. Or perhaps it has become a praet, a hungry ghost. The praets are not so fortunate as those who go to the peaceful world, but they’re not feared. They’ve gone to the underground world of hell, where they can slowly accumulate merit and work their way to rebirth, with help from the living. They don’t haunt people.

The kmouch are a different case. Instead of going to the heavenly peaceful world or to the praets’ hell world they linger on earth and become vicious. Humans who see them are afraid, fear causes them to make offerings, an the offerings merely develop the kmouch’s appetite for more offerings, and so the haunting worsens.

When my friend Socheat’s wife’s sister was about nineteen years old and first moved to Phnom Penh she rented a house at Black River. The real name is Steung Meanchey, the River of Victory, and it runs through the city rubbish dump. As the name suggests, it’s a stinking open sewer, but houses along it are cheap.

This particular house was not only next to a sewerage canal, it was known to be haunted.  Socheat’s wife’s sister knew this, but this made it even cheaper, she had several people to support, and she believed she had sufficient reasey (fortune) to protect herself and those who lived with her.

There were five people in her household, the other four being her two sisters and an aunt and uncle. Perhaps the ghost decided to attack the head of the house first, or perhaps she was simply more susceptible. At any event, soon after they all moved in she was in the kitchen one day when she saw somebody coming down the hall toward her, although the front door was closed. The figure vanished as she looked. She cried out “Kmouch! Kouch!” Everyone came running, but the kmouch was gone. After that she constantly felt someone watching, especially as she was drifting off to sleep. Nobody else saw felt these things.

Then her hair started falling out.

She went to the doctor and had tests done, but medical science could find no physical cause. Her mother told her she was possessed by the kmouch.

Her mother, Socheat’s mother-in-law, called in the monks of Wat Botum near the Royal Palace. This monastery, favoured by the royal family, is renowned for its ability with the exorcism ceremony. The purpose of this is not to chase the ghost away, although people think it is, but to bless the house and ask the spirit to leave and stop causing fear in living beings. (All living beings, not just humans: dogs see ghosts when humans cannot, as their night-time howling testifies).

But the ghost remained. This sometimes happens, as the monks are simply asking the ghost to leave, not forcing it to do so. There is another ceremony that “burns” the ghost, meaning destroys it, but monks cannot do this as their rules prohibit them from harming even ghosts. There was no option left but to go to a kru boramey, as only the boramey, a high and powerful spiritual being, has sufficient power to deal with another supernatural being.

Socheat’s mother-in-law one of the very best kru boramey available to burn the ghost. The boramey, speaking through the kru, advised that it was not wise to destroy the ghost – the sin would be very great, equivalent to taking life, and it did not wish to take this responsibility upon itself. It would remove the ghost without committing murder.


It was all over quite quickly. The boramy entered the kru, searched Socheat’s wife’s sister’s body for the location of the ghost, seized it, and wrenched it out. The kru then sent her home with amulets and holy water to be sprinkled through the house while asking the kmouch to go to the proper world of ghosts. Her hair grew back, and the house remained free of haunting so long as the family lived there.

(The lady in the photo above is a kru possessed by her boramey, but not the one visited by Socheat’s mother-in-law).

The Cosmic Mountain


 01Mount Meru surrounded by heavens and hells

Meru stood at the centre of the world, square, vast, and so high that the sun and moon and stars circled round it. In the gardens and palaces on its summit lived the gods, including Indra their king, Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma, together with the divine apsara dancers and gandharvas musicians and the innumerable devada handmaidens, nagas, garudas, and many others. Spread out below Meru was Jambudvipa, the world-continent, home of humans, which they shared with animals, and also with spirits and ghosts and demons, and beneath Jambudvipa were the many worlds of hell, and surrounding it was the boundless cosmic ocean.

About a thousand years ago, in the land of the Khmers on the continent of Jambudvipa, a king built a temple in the shape of the universe.

As a visitor to Angkor Wat you start at a moat, representing the cosmic ocean. Crossing a causeway lined with naga-serpents, you pass through a colonnaded boundary wall representing the circling mountain ranges of Jambudvipa and enter the outermost sacred area. When Angor Wat was first built it would not have been permitted for ordinary people to go further than this. Nor would they have wanted to: their gods were family and village spirits, the ancestors who protected them from ghosts and demons. But they would know that at the top of the temple there was a chamber, that this chamber was visited by the god Vishnu, and that important rituals took place there involving the kings and priests.

Time passed, Buddhist monasteries and monks replaced Hindu gods and Brahman priests, and the spirits, the gods and the Buddha became the faith of the modern Khmer people.

Buddhism introduced only a few changes the Brahmanic cosmology. Extra heavens were added above Meru, divided into three realms of Desire, Form, and Formlessness. Beings in the Realm of Desire are governed by the senses and are therefore subject to illusion, even the gods on Meru, who take pleasure in music and dance and sweet scents. The beings of the higher heavens of form and formlessness above Meru are not subject to the senses but are still the victims of illusion. They live for immensely long periods, but even they eventually die and are reborn.

The Roots of Buddhism

 Buddha04.0Buddha in meditation

 Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was a man, not a god. He lived in the foothills of the Himalayas some two and a half thousand years ago, and through inquiry and meditation he came to understand the nature of things. For this reason he is called the Buddha, the Enlightened One, and because he came from the tribe of the Sakyas he is called Sakyamuni, the Sage of the Sakyas.

The Buddha’s teaching was a reaction to Hinduism, the religion of India at his time. The historical Siddhartha would not have been aware that he lived in India. India in his time was called Bharat; our modern name comes from the word Sindhu, meaning simply “the river,” the modern Indus River in Pakistan.

In ancient times the Persians, close neighbours to the Indians, changed Sindhu to Hindush, and the Greeks adopted this as Indos (for the river) and India (the land). The Romans inherited the name from the Greeks, and Europe inherited it from the Romans. The Arabs called the country, its people and its religion al-Hind, and 19th century European scholars, wishing to discuss the religions of India, invented the term Hinduism.

In Buddha’s time religion was dharma. Dharma was not then, and is not now, a single belief. It encompasses the role and teachings of the Brahmans, the insights of philosophers, the visions of hermits and ascetics, the spirits of nature and the ancestors  worshiped by the villagers, and much else. There was no such concept as Hinduism until scholars tried to draw all this together. For this reason modern scholars talk about Brahmanical religion, a term that includes “Hinduism”, (the inverted commas are because of the difficulty of defining the term), cults such as Vaishnavism and Shaivism, which come close to being religions in their own right, Jainism, and many other traditions of which Buddhism is only one.

Three Gems, Four Truths, and the Eightfold Path

 buddha1Buddha teaching

Buddhism begins with the Three Gems:

  • Buddha: The aim of human life is enlightenment, as was reached and taught by the historic Buddha;
  • Dharma: Enlightenment can be attained through understanding dharma, the law of cause and effect that propels the world forward; and
  • Sangha: Dharma can be learned through the sangha, the monkhood.

Having grasped the Three Gems, the student moves on to the Four Noble Truths:

  • Human life is dukkha;
  • The cause of dukkha is craving;
  • There is a way to end dukkha;
  • That way lies through the Noble Eightfold Path.

Dukkha is often translated as suffering. It does refer to the ordinary sufferings of life, but dukkha is also latent in pleasure, because pleasure is transitory. So long as we crave pleasure, we suffer. It is therefore desirable to end craving through the Eightfold Path, whose eight steps, grouped into three categories of wisdom, virtue and awareness, are:

  • Right understanding (wisdom)
  • Right intention (wisdom)
  • Right speech (virtue)
  • Right action (virtue)
  • Right livelihood (virtue)
  • Right effort (concentration)
  • Right mindfulness (awareness)
  • Right concentration (awareness)

Wisdom is found in the Pali scriptures, which must be studied under a teacher, and meditation is also best done under the direction of a teacher. Both are best followed within the monkhood, but virtue is open to all. The essence of virtue is set out in the Ten Precepts.

The Way of Virtue

Monks-in-front-of-the-Royal-PalaceMonks at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

The Ten Precepts are divided into three groups, of which the first, the Five Precepts and their converse the Five Virtues, form the basic moral code for every Buddhist. The Precepts are formulated as undertakings (“I undertake to…”):

  1. Refrain from destroying living creatures;
  2. Refrain from taking that which is not given;
  3. Refrain from sexual misconduct;
  4. Refrain from incorrect speech;
  5. Refrain from intoxication;

Like the Ten Commandments, the Five Precepts are easy to grasp but difficult to follow. The First Precept forbids the taking of life – not just human life, but any life at all. Yet fish is the national dish, chicken runs a close second, and every villager keeps cows. How are the facts of life to be reconciled with religion? Sin lies in the act of killing, and to eat meat is not itself against religion. City people buy their fish and chicken in the market, which exempts them from guilt; villagers, closer to the realities of life, will say if asked that the fish that swims into the net has not been killed by the fisherman, that the little boys who wring the necks of chickens are too young to be held morally accountable, and that pigs and cows are slaughtered by non-Buddhists such as Chinese and Cham Muslims Despite the casuistry, there is widespread respect for life and for the welfare of animals.

The second and fourth precepts prohibit stealing and lying, and this raises major problems in a country where teachers expect daily “tea money” from even the youngest pupils and firemen will not begin to put out fires until they’ve been paid. This is endured but not approved. A young food vendor who was interviewed in the course of a study into Cambodian social values said that a good man is one who neither lies nor cheats and takes only good and legal employment, but that there were not many good men in Cambodia.

Precepts three and five prohibiting sexual misconduct and alcohol are widely broken, but as with the second and fourth there is a general recognition that this is not good behaviour.

Corresponding to the five precepts (undertakings to avoid) are five virtues (undertakings to practice). These are:

  1. Practice compassion towards living creatures;
  2. Practice patience in right means of livelihood;
  3. Practice contentment in married life;
  4. Practice truthfulness in speech;
  5. Practice watchfulness (intoxication prevents the mind from being watchful).

The Five Precepts plus the following three are mandatory for monks and are followed voluntarily by many religiously-minded lay people, making a list of the Eight Precepts:

  1. To refrain from eating between midday and morning;
  2. To refrain from dancing, music, singing, and other such pursuits;
  3. To refrain from using high or luxurious seats and beds. (The last can be interpreted as the avoidance of luxury in general).

Monks observe two additional precepts, making up the Ten Precepts:

  1. To refrain from the use of garlands, perfumes, ointments, and other things used to beautify and adorn the person;
  2. To avoid handling money.

Karma & Reincarnation

 _DSF4124Coffin at Wat Lanka, Phnom Penh

In the opening verses of the Book of Job we find the upright Job blessed with sons and daughters, possessing sheep, camels, oxen, donkeys and servants, “the greatest man among all the people of the East.” His friends take his blessings as the outward sign that God has rewarded him because he is a righteous man. God puts Job’s righteousness to the test, killing his sons and daughters, robbing him of his wealth, and afflicting him with loathsome diseases, and his friends now advise him to look into his heart and discover what evil he has committed that has caused God to replace blessings with suffering. The assumption, in short, is that good fortune is the divine reward for good deeds, while suffering is the outward sign of inner corruption.

The concept of karma is similar, up to a point. Karma means the way actions determine outcomes – good deeds lead to happiness, bad deeds to suffering. Where karma differs from the Old Testament is in the absence of God or gods – karma is as impersonal as the law of gravity.

Reincarnation is the idea that there exists a kernel of individual existence – a “soul” – that survives death and is reborn. When this concept is linked to the workings of karma, it becomes clear, or at least plausible, that the good and bad deeds of this life will have their rewards and punishments in the next.

Enlightenment and Nirvana

Nirvana-BuddhaDeath and Nirvana of the Buddha

The Buddha taught that the conscious mind forms an an impression of its existence as a unique self, but this is based on a misapprehension. This misapprehension is the cause of craving, and thereby of the endless cycle of suffering, death and rebirth. This cycle, called samsara, is what the Buddha’s teaching promises to end.

Even the gods are not immortal, although their lives are immensely long, millions and millions of years, but they too are subject to the workings of karma and rebirth. The ultimate goal is not to be reborn as a god, but to move beyond rebirth and the three realms and reach the state of nirvana.

In Pali nirvana is called nibbana. The word means “blowing out”, as in extinguishing a candle, and fire imagery is frequently used when the scriptures describe nibbana. The fires to be extinguished are those of attachment, lust, and ignorance. We are attached to the things of this world through our senses; because we are attached to them we lust after them, wanting those things we don’t have, fearing to lose the things we possess; being ignorant of the means of escape we remain attached, and the world continues to be dukkha.

Dukkha is the result of attachment to things which are not-self, attachment arises from the illusion that self and not-self are separate. Dukkha can be overcome by understanding the nature of the illusion.

Every act, good or bad, will sow a seed in the mind, and this seed will bring its appropriate crop. Most karma will keep the individual bound to the wheel of rebirth, but some will accumulate merit and lead to nibbana. The monk, and indeed the religiously awakened layperson, will therefore strive to accumulate merit.

Pchum Ben – feeding the hungry ghosts


This is what happened at Wat Lanka last night, about half way through the 15-day Pchum Ben festival.

The main gate of the monastery was crowded, vendors selling plated food offerings (balls of rice, but not ordinary rice-balls), lotus-sellers, and beggars. The festival itself was taking place in the main shrine hall, which on this night was ringed with closely-spaced basins each holding a candle.Inside the hall the monks were sitting along along one long wall and the worshipers along the other, with a table of offerings in the middle. These were for the monks. The Buddha-image was brilliantly illuminated at the far end of the hall (Wat Lanka has a very handsome Buddha image), and a traditional orchestra was ready with gongs and drums at the main door facing the Buddha.


The head monk gave a sermon, and when he’d finished the people got up and went out through the side doors to gather at the main door, each carrying a candle and a food offering plate. (The number of rice balls on the plate increases from day to day, in preparation for the final day – so this initial 14 days is the “gathering” that’s mentioned in the name pchum ben, “rice-ball gathering”).

_DSF4451There they they listened to a brief sermon or instruction from the chief achar (specialist in ritual), and then filed in procession around the outside of the shrine hall, pouring water into the candle-lit basins together with hundred-riel notes.

That finished the main business of the ceremony. As people left the monastery they went to a special enclosure between the shrine hall and the main gate where a model of Mount Meru had been built in sand, and added more sand to each of the five “peaks”. At the gate they gave more hundred-riel notes to the beggars, and then home.
Pchum Ben, along with Khmer New Year and the Water Festival, is one of the three major festivals of Cambodia. The name means “rice-ball gathering”, and the rice-ball itself is made of sticky rice and sesame mixed with coconut cream.  It takes place over the first 15 days of the Cambodian lunar month of Pheakta Bot, which falls in September/October of the Western solar calendar, andl is almost invisible to foreigners, especially casual visitors, because almost everything happens in the very early hours of the morning, around 4 a.m.
The basic idea is that ghosts have been set free from hell for fifteen days, and the ghosts  are hungry – one of the worst punishments they endure is being given huge distended bellies, tiny mouths, and long narrow throats. That’s the physical version – a more sophisticated reading is that the dead were greedy for things (not just food) in life, and are now kept from rebirth by their lack of merit (not food).
Over the course of the first fourteen days (or nights), people are supposed to visit seven different monasteries, finishing up with a major and longer version on the fifteenth night. On this night the rice-balls are thrown to the ghosts gathered around the perimeter of the shrine hall.
The ghosts are not thought to eat the rice-balls, any more than the dead in a Western cemetery are expected to smell the flowers. The significant part is the act of giving. Giving is good for the soul, because it’s selfless. This “good for the soul” is what Buddhism means by “merit” – giving generates merit for the giver. Buddhists are constantly doing acts that generate merit, from giving to monks to honouring their house-gods, but Pchum Ben is special because it directs the merit to the dead, for the sake of their rebirth.
Which, of course, is not to say that a lot of people might not interpret the giving of food quite literally. There’s a polite but grim tussle going on between the monks and the laity over just how the festival should be celebrated, with the monks saying that throwing rice away is a waste of food and attracts rats and stray dogs. Some monasteries insist on a no-throwing policy, others allow it, but I doubt that any are really comfortable with it.
Pchum Ben has good roots in Buddhism, both because the theology of merit is totally Buddhist and because the Pali scriptures mention hungry ghosts.
Nevertheless, Cambodia is the only country in Southeast Asia that has a festival like it. Just why, and how it developed, is a mystery. It’s very like the Chinese hungry ghosts festival and so it’s been suggested that it might have begun in the 19th century when Phnom Penh was a Chinese city – but that doesn’t explain why it’s equally popular in the villages. Apparently it’s mentioned in Khmer inscriptions dating back to the pre-Buddhist period, which has led the senior Buddhist monks to say it’s Brahmanical and not Buddhist. The fact is, no one knows for sure. In any event, Pchum Ben is a powerful means of uniting Cambodians around the idea of the ancestors:
In the evening of the same day (the day before the fifteenth and final day), people gather around the worship their ancestors; they lay out mats covered with white color cloth and white pillows. Between both sides of the mates, they place foods, desert and Ben rice. The oldest of the families kindle the incenses and candles to invite spirit of the dead to come for dinner and to ask the spirit to bless them in return. At dawn of the next day, the descendants make the rafter make of banana tree, loaded with rice, to drift away from their ancestor to take their places. In same houses, they perform festival as the last evening to pray to the village God to bless them. They perfume the horns of the cattle to ask for forgiveness that they had uses them for their work for the whole year. Farmers scatter Ben rice in the paddy fields to ask for fruitful produces later on.