Getting Accustomed to the Customs

Posted on: September 24, 2009 Posted by: Manin Oem Comments: 0

Getting Accustomed to the Customs

By: Eric Lewis, PEPY intern

It was not two weeks ago that I joined the PEPY family as their newest intern, and already this sojourn has proved edifying. Cambodia is a school—the smiling Khmer people its teachers, the rich culture its subject matter—and I am fortunate to be a student here. I arrived in the midst of Prachum Benda, a fifteen day Theravada Buddhist holiday in honor of the dead. For fourteen days the faithful carry out rituals intended to alleviate the suffering of their ancestors, and on the fifteenth day the festival culminates in Pchum Ben, a day of feasting and commemoration.

The festival and its rituals are fascinating for several reasons, but one aspect struck me in particular: the entire process is a service to those who died in a state of grievous karma. Most Cambodians (95% are Theravada Buddhists) believe in reincarnation, thus it is only the worst karmic offenders who would become trapped in the limbo of non-incarnation. And it is to these restless souls that the fifteen days are dedicated, so that the spirits might meditate and repent. What’s more, the festival is unique to Cambodia.

We can learn much about a culture by studying its holidays. What do the people celebrate? How do they celebrate? These are questions of values. People celebrate what they value, and in a manner that is sacred to them. Clearly, then, the Khmer people value reconciliation—a second chance for everyone. And how do they celebrate? By leaving the city in favor of the homeland, by spending time with family and praying for the forgiveness of others, by helping those who can no longer help themselves. A culture so benevolent and centered has a rich wisdom all its own, and I am eager for the lessons that the coming months will bring.