The scene of monks chanting in return for alms plays out daily throughout the country.
It's 3:30am as the crowds of devout Buddhists begin to stream through the pagoda
gates. Monks stoop before the altar reciting a monotone chant of Buddhist teachings
as women carry home-cooked offerings for deceased loved ones.
On cue the crowd stands and begins three circuits of the pagoda, throwing handfuls
of food and murmuring traditional words to call the dead to come and eat in return
for favors to the living.
This event reoccurs in more than 4,000 pagodas throughout Cambodia during the 15
days of P'chum Ben, which culminates this year on October 10, 11, and 12.
But at anytime of the year, you don't need to go far to find a ceremony of some kind
where monks are chanting devotions. The chanting may strike the uninitiated as a
jumble of incoherent sounds, but to monks and theologists, the chants all have special
Prayers are usually offered in the ancient language of Pali, which is similar to
Sanskrit and dates back to the early Buddhist writings. They are often followed by
a Khmer translation.
Monks interviewed by the Post at Wat Botum said translations into Khmer are made
during public ceremonies when there is time and if the meaning is of special significance.
Venerable Chamrong, a monk for 13 years, used the example of the Bon Chamroeun Preah
Chun, a ritual for a family's aging relative.
"Its purpose is to remind older people that death, disease, and old age are
part of nature's way," Chamrong said. "It is a ceremony to calm their mind
so it is important that they understand the chants that are being offered."
For the younger generation it can be difficult to understand even the Khmer translation.
Chou Someth, attending a P'chum Ben ceremony at Wat Ounalom this week, said that
although they were using Khmer words, it was difficult for him to catch the real
"Cambodian monks chant very quickly," he said, "and some of these
words are just used in Buddhist ceremonies. We don't use them for normal speech."
For monks, chanting is part of daily life. Chamrong begins his day at 4 am for recitals
of Buddhist teachings at the pagoda. After breakfast, he has university studies followed
by a nap and then back to the pagoda for more Buddhists devotions from 5:30 to 7:00
Venerable Saron, who has also been a monk at Wat Botum for 13 years, explained that
Buddhist chants serve different purposes.
"First we learn the chant of how a monk should act. There are eight precepts
for monks," Saron said. "Then we learn chants that we use everyday. We
recite these before we put on our robes, before we eat, when receiving food, and
when we leave our homes."
It is not always necessary to recite these aloud, as they serve as reminders and
personal requests. Before eating a monk recites a chant to remind him that food is
only taken in order to gain power to live properly, Saron explained. Before leaving
the house a chant is said to ask for protection.
The book "Daily Buddhist Devotions" by Venerable K Sri Dhammananda translates
that verse into English as follows:
By the protective power of all the Buddhas, Pecceka Buddhas and all Arahants I secure
my protection in every way.
Saron explained that appropriate verses are chosen by the head monk for each ceremony.
Sometimes those hosting the ceremony will ask for a particular recital, for example
for protection or forgiveness.
All blessings express the need to be grateful to Buddha and help people understand
how to do good works. The need to honor parents, a mother's responsibility to care
and protect her child and a warning regarding the dangers of bad associations are
Live in Peace
Daily Buddhist Devotions translates two of the most common verses this way:
May all misfortunes be warded off. May all ailments cease. May no calamities befall
you. May you live long in peace.
May all blessings be upon you. May all deities protect you. By the protective power
of all the Buddhas may safety ever be yours.
During P'chum Ben, traditional funeral chants are often used, said Saron.
One such verse is translated as follows:
- All component things are indeed transient.
- They are of the nature of arising and decaying.
- Having come into being, they cease to be.
- The cessation of this process is bliss.
- Uninvited he has come hither.
- He has departed hence without approval.
- Even as he came, just so he went.
- What lamentation then could there be?
Pali is used in study and traditional chants throughout South East Asia by the Buddhist
sect Theravada. According to the latest International Religious Freedom Report, 93%
of the Cambodian population belongs to the Theravada Buddhism sect.
Laymen who go to the temple to pray do not need to learn the chants, although many
Saron said life for Theravada monks is very strict, unlike the Mahayana branch of
"Unlike their monks we must give up everything. We cannot have a wife, children
or conduct business," he said. "Our life consists of meditation and study.
But of course when we tire of the monastic life we can leave and return to a normal