Last Saturday, on the 13th of September, Cambodians in Holland were celebrating ‘Pchum Ben’ which can be loosely translated into ‘Ancestor’s Day’ or more literally ‘Gathering Offering’. It is believed that during this festival, which normally takes 15 days, the restless spirits of the dead (sometimes called ‘hungry spirits’, ‘insatiable spirits’, or ‘preta’) leave the underworld in order to make contact with their relatives that are still alive. These spirits have become restless due to their accumulation of too much ‘bad volitional energy’ (‘karma’) in their earthly lives, and have therefore fallen into a cycle of perpetual spiritual suffering. We, the living relatives, can relieve them from their hunger or even purge their beings by offering them food. It is believed that the hungry spirits can only nibble at their living relatives’ food which effectively gives an extra urgency for those relatives to participate in the ritual.
There is no uniformal practice of food offering throughout Cambodia. The ritual of food offering can happen in two ways: (a) offering food to the Buddhist monks and thereby generating merits that mystically benefit these hungry spirits, or (b) directly offering food to the hungry spirits by putting or throwing the food on the ground. Some temples practice (a) and some practice (b). What would happen if the living relatives would not offer food? According to Cambodians, these hungry spirits would curse these living relatives.
What would Gautama Buddha have thought of ‘Pchum Ben’ – would he condemn it, would he approve of it, or would it leave him indifferent? Since nearly all Cambodian Buddhist monks are participating in the ‘Pchum Ben’ rituals, would that not be sufficient reason to believe that Gautama Buddha himself would approve of the festival? Although this argument seems attractive, we should not forget that Gautama Buddha encouraged us to not blindly follow any scripture or tradition. He strongly argued that we should subject every practice, ritual, and even Buddha to our personal rational judgement. He said:
“Be lamps unto yourselves. Those who, either now or after I am dead, shall rely upon themselves only and not look for assistance to anyone besides themselves, it is they who shall reach the topmost height” (Smith & Novak, 2003, p. 25).
You could count on no one, not even the Gods, priests, or Buddhas. Gautama Buddha himself had asserted that
“Buddhas only point the way. Work out your own salvation with diligence” (Smith & Novak, 2003, p. 28).
As Gautama Buddha is not among us anymore, we can only speculate what he would have thought of ‘Pchum Ben’. My personal interpretation of Buddhist thought is that Gautama Buddha would have decried it as he believed that there are no short-cuts to spiritual salvation. Just like any human being is incapable of becoming enlightened without intense self-effort, so too can the spirit not attain purity and enlightenment through the efforts of the living. He believed that the attainment of enlightenment is ultimately dependent upon one’s personal endeavours. He therefore challenged the individual to become self-reliant in his search for spiritual enlightenment.
A second reason why Gautama Buddha would have probably condemned the festival is that he rebelled against the perverse irrational obsessions of the people with mystification, miracles, and the occult that had permeated all layers of the Hindu society. If one acknowledges that ‘Pchum Ben’ is also a highly superstitious festival whose practices are devoid of rational inquiries into the nature of ‘dukkha’ (often translated as ‘suffering’), then one should also conclude that Gautama Buddha would have condemned it.
A final reason is that Buddha himself had urged his followers to avoid immersion into speculations on death and the after-life as it would detach them from an experiential base. The monk Malunkyaputta, once troubled by Gautama Buddha’s silence on metaphysical speculations, said:
whether the world is eternal or not eternal, whether the world is finite or not, whether the soul is the same as the body, or whether the soul is one thing and the body another, whether a Buddha exists after death or does not exist after death, whether a Buddha both exists and does not exist after death, and whether a Buddha is non-existent and not non-existent after death, these things the Lord does not explain to me, and that he does not explain them to me does not please me, it does not suit me (Kyimo, 2007, p. 206).
As ‘Pchum Ben’ is all about mystifications, speculative spirits, metaphysical speculations on what happens with these spirits after their earthly lives, and the experienceless hells and heavens, I believe that Gautama Buddha would have certainly condemned the Cambodian festival ‘Pchum Ben’.
Kyimo. (2007). The Easy Buddha. London: Prospect House Publishing.
Novak, P., & Smith, H. (2003). Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. New York: HarperOne.