Meak Bochea, an annual Buddhist festival observed by followers in Cambodia and around the world, commemorates the spontaneous gathering of monks to receive teachings from the Buddha.

The festival – the second most important after Vesak and celebrated on the full moon day of the third lunar month – honours moral discipline and spiritual practice to end dukkha, or suffering. 

The event marks a significant historical event when 1,250 of the Buddha’s first disciples assembled without prior notice to listen to his sermon, emphasising the importance of practising mindfulness and ethical conduct in life. This year, the holiday is scheduled to take place from February 24-25.

Meak Bochea, internationally known as either Magha Puja or Sangha Day, is a major event in Cambodian pagodas, celebrated by monks and Buddhist followers across the country. Despite no longer being a public holiday, the celebration endures, highlighting its cultural and spiritual significance.

Addressing the festival’s proceedings, Kong Sam Ol, chairman of the National Committee for Organising National and International Festivals, has issued instructions to ministries and institutions, capital and provincial administrations to mark the event in accordance with solemn Buddhist traditions.

Pagodas host celebrations without incorporating dances or concerts, distinguishing Meak Bochea as a purely religious occasion.

Venerable Thou Thorn, chief monk of Kampong Thmor Pagoda in Kampong Thom province’s Santuk district, affirms this distinction.

Annual Buddhist tradition

Thorn tells The Post that the annual Meak Bochea festival ceremony conducted at his pagoda strictly follows Buddhist traditions. 

The festival, he says, commemorates three significant historical events. The first event celebrated is the formation of the fourfold assembly, symbolising the union of the four groups within the Buddha’s followers. 

Secondly, the festival involves the sharing of Dharma, where monks recite Pali precepts for prayer, reflecting a key aspect of the Buddha’s teachings. 

The third event commemorated is the Buddha’s foretelling of his own passing, which he revealed would be in the month of Vesak, indicating that only three months remained before he reached pariirvana.

“Meak Bochea, being a religious occasion, does not include dancing, as the event is not associated with entertainment. It is in contrast to other major events like the Water Festival, Pchum Ben or Khmer New Year, which incorporate lively music and dancing,” he says.

Venerable Thorn says that in the evening, candles will be lit from the pagoda gate to the inner compound. Throughout the night, parishioners will gather for prayer, worship and Dharma teachings – guiding ethical and moral conduct towards spiritual enlightenment and liberation from suffering.

Venerable Pov Soth from Thann Pagoda in Phnom Penh notes that the holiday, observed not only in Cambodia but also by Buddhists worldwide, is celebrated on the 15th day of the full moon in the third month of the traditional Khmer calendar.

“The celebration of Meak Bochea holds many significant meanings, but the most important thing to keep in mind is this event marks the spontaneous assembly of 1,250 enlightened disciples. The Buddha conveyed the Dharma, appointed disciples and foresaw his impending parinirvana – final nirvana achieved on death, which is not followed by a rebirth or reincarnation – during this event. This is the religion of the Buddha,” he says.

Cultivating virtuous conduct

Sambo Manara, a Cambodian history professor, shares that Meak Bochea affirms Buddha’s significance through his assembly of monks, guiding people towards peace, virtuous deeds and the pursuit of nirvana.

He says the festival’s essence is to guide people on ethical conduct and preserve fundamental Buddhists precepts. It signifies cultivating thoughts, self-determination and doing good deeds to eliminate evil actions. People must lead a meaningful life, striving for goodness, engaging in positive deeds and upholding virtuous behaviour.

“The teachings offer essential guidance for people to understand the importance of incorporating Buddhism into their daily lives. Grasping the principles and essence of Buddhism empowers individuals to nurture greater generosity and attentiveness, enhancing the value of the Dharma. Meak Bochea stands as a reminder to actively engage with, understand and contribute to the perpetuity of these ideals, for a lasting impact,” he says.

Manara highlights the festival’s role in fortifying mental resilience, overcoming greed, harmful desires and self-destructive tendencies. Celebrating it is like standing before a mirror, allowing individuals to recognise and affirm their Buddhist identity.

He says the observance of Meak Bochea urges reflection on actions aligning with righteous conduct. This collective observance is a shared reflection for Buddhists, including monks, nuns and laypeople, underscoring the importance of cultivating merit.

Guiding young minds

Chhon Chhem, a 50-year-old resident of Kor Dauntey village in Kampong Speu province’s Oral district, expresses his devout commitment to the religion.

He consistently observes Meak Bochea, considering it a significant religious celebration for Cambodian Buddhists.

“The occasion, commemorated by Cambodians since ancient times, holds a strong traditional value for me. When the day arrives, I prepare and bring food to the pagoda,” he says. 

He adds that his focus is on making an effort to help young people comprehend the significance of the festival. While the younger generation often listens to monk’s teachings in the pagoda, he believes additional guidance from the elderly can also provide them with a clear understanding.

Thong Hong, the 70-year-old chief of Prey Moul commune in Kampong Chhnang province’s Rolea Ba’ier district, acknowledges a limited understanding of Meak Bochea’s meaning.

Despite this, being a follower of Buddhism inherited from her ancestors, she annually celebrates the festival and attends monk-led teachings to enhance her comprehension.

“As a religious festival in our state, it’s crucial for us to follow our government’s principles,” she says. 

The government organises the festival at Preah Sakyamoni Chedi, which houses Buddha relics, on Phnom Preah Reach-Trop, commonly known as Oudong Mountain, in Kandal province’s Ponhea Leu district. 

The annual event involves senior Senate and National Assembly members, government officials, scholars, students and other Buddhist devotees.

The gathering aims to accumulate merit, in alignment with the Constitution, which designates Buddhism as the state religion.