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Incense and Pali prayers continue ancient tradition

Incense and Pali prayers continue ancient tradition

On a dust-strewn Phnom Penh street with few distinguishing features, a monk in

orange robes rattles along on the back of a motorbike. It is approaching 3 p.m. on

the afternoon of June 26, the most auspicious time for him to visit the newly built

riverside home of Teng Kylong.

The Supreme Patriarch of the Thommayut Order, Ven. Bou Kry: Monks play an important role in teaching people good behavior.

Inside the house Kylong's family has been preparing most of the day for Tim Vesna's

arrival. Kylong's Acchar, who is attached to Vesna's pagoda, denoted the most propitious

day and the hour. He is preparing the traditional offerings of seven types of fruit

wrapped in gold and silver paper.

The Acchar lights the candles, which flicker slowly under a revolving ceiling fan

struggling to overcome the sticky afternoon heat. Incense burns near the bowls of

fruit, which are offerings to the family's ancestors, and also for the spirits of

the house and the earth on which it has been built.

Vesna's blessings, says Kylong as the family awaits the monk's arrival, will bring

happiness, good luck, prosperity and success to the family. It should also have more

obvious effects, such as ensuring that his children pass their examinations and get

good jobs.

"I feel very happy today and my head is free from troubles," he says. "This

ceremony will also ensure good health and perhaps a promotion at work."

With Vesna's arrival the ceremony can begin. Kylong, his wife Soy Chansrey and their

elderly neighbors are seated on the floor, hands clasped in prayer and their legs

tucked away respectfully to one side.

The Acchar initiates proceedings, chanting in Khmer on a microphone to end the family's

suffering and drive away the bad spirits. Then Vesna takes over, continuing the prayers

in Pali.

He dips a bunch of twigs into a silver bowl, sprinkling perfumed water over the family

and the house. When the water hits any bad spirits still in the vicinity, they run

from its magic powers.

Curious children gather on the street to watch the proceedings, standing against

a stack of huge black speakers that send the prayers rolling down the street, past

the wood-fronted houses and into the path of the passing trucks and motodups.

The leader of Buddhism's Thommayut branch, Samdech Patriarch Bou Kry, explains the

belief that prayers bring prosperity, an end to illness and the banishment of troubles.

Monk Tim Vesna leads prayers for Kylong's family at the ceremony.

Bou Kry says that in the same way as educated people who are ill go to hospital for

treatment, those who believe in spirits ask for a monk's prayers when they have difficulties

or want to secure a decent future for themselves and their families.

This particular house blessing ceremony is one of hundreds the country sees each

day, and which are regarded as fundamental to success and a good life. Bou Kry estimates

that around 1,000 monks from the country's 4,000 wats are invited to take care of

the spiritual needs of the people each day. After the ceremonies are over the monks

often stay behind to dispense advice on other issues.

"In the rural areas education standards are very low, so the monks play an important

role in teaching people to adhere to good behavior in their families," he says.

"Their wisdom allows families to live in peace."

Gaining the knowledge, says Bou Kry, is a slow process. It can take monks upwards

of ten years to learn both the concepts and prayers such ceremonies demand. With

the knowledge gained comes the respect of the people.

He says a good quality of life depends on many things, including financial security

and a lack of strife. Some wealthy people don't gain from success in money matters,

and so depend more upon the spiritual dimension.

"People depend on spirits to ensure good behavior within the family. Traditional

ceremonies such as this are regarded as essential for generating good luck and prosperity,"

says Bou Kry in the peaceful surrounds of Wat Botum Vaddei. "When people listen

to the prayers of the monks and their advice, their minds are rescued from their


"The most important thing for believers is traditional ceremonies," he

concludes. "These are easy to understand, and they trust the advice monks give


Back at Kylong's house an hour of chanting and prayers is drawing to a close. Once

it is finished, Vesna speaks to the Post. He says it took him ten years to learn

the Pali prayers to the required standard. The ceremony which he is leading today,

he says, is a mixture of Buddhist and Hindu beliefs that stretches back 5,000 years.

The first set of prayers drove out the bad spirits that lived in the earth and which

then occupied Kylong's house, says Vesna. The Acchar then called on the ancestors

to come to the offering table and collect the food and fruit and take them back to

where they came from. Vesna's second set of prayers is for happiness and increased


The job of the house owner, says Vesna, is to buy candles, incense, seven kinds of

fruits, sugar, milk and tea, which the Acchar arranges in Khmer style before the

ceremony begins.

Preparing perfumed water to chase out bad spirits.

Once prayers are finished the people offer the monk the tea, milk and sugar. Payment

for his services, he says, depends on what the individual families can offer. That

will be accepted by the Acchar - monks are forbidden to handle money - and will go

to the temple fund.

"We accept whatever the people offer us. Monks are not allowed to earn an income,

and the Buddhist discipline does not allow us to charge money from others,"

says Vesna. "The four principles of Buddhism teach us that all should practice

forgiveness, compassion, sympathy and impartiality."

Then as the music starts and guests begin to arrive, Kylong explains what many feel

is the best part of the day: the after-party.

"It is our custom that when the celebration is over, we throw a party to ensure

success and happiness," says Kylong. "We provide beer and other alcohol,

as much as we can afford for our friends, and they wish us good luck. We believe

that the better the party, the better our future income will be."

And so as the evening draws in, it is time for Vesna to leave such earthly pursuits.

He climbs back on the motorbike, adjusts his robes, and is driven home to his pagoda,

leaving Kylong to a loud, late night party for his friends and neighbors, and a promising

future for his family.


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