“The Teachings of the Elders”: Precept Day in Cambodia by Nathan Thompson

An Expat Joins ‘Precept Day’ in Cambodia

By Nathan Thompson

Article obtained from Khmer440.com.

I first became aware of Precept Day when I was awoken from sleep by the sound of 20 ancient Khmers chanting outside my bedroom door. The old people were sat on the tiled floor of the head monk’s residence chanting some mystical language.

The males sat on one side and the females on the other while the head monk sat fanning himself on a throne-like wooden chair. It took me seven months to work out what they were doing and one more month to try it myself.

In Cambodia religion is inextricably tied to everyday life. Most people practice Theravaden Buddhism which means “The Teachings of the Elders,” and is the oldest version of the Buddhist faith dating back 2300 years.

It is has lasted so long because of a sacred agreement between the monks and the lay people. The lay people support the monks and in return the monks preserve the Buddha’s teachings and work to free themselves of imperfections such as selfishness and desire so they can be of service to the community.

In order to be of maximum benefit Cambodian monks observe 227 rules. Indeed, one of their first tasks after ordaining is to learn all of them by heart. Buddhist laypeople are expected to keep five rules also known as precepts. They are: no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct and no taking of intoxicants.

If you are wondering why not many Cambodian’s stick to them it is because that, in Buddhism, there is no God, no permanent “you” and no afterlife. The absence of a vengeful deity idly twirling the keys to the gates of Hell waiting for you when you die seems to make the necessity of living an ethical life lose its force.

Precept Day falls on new, half and quarter moons. On this day laypeople can choose to follow an upgraded precept system and take eight precepts. As well as the usual five three more are added. They are: no eating between 12pm and 6am, no entertainments and no sitting or sleeping on comfy beds and chairs.

I class myself as a practicing Buddhist having begun in the Western Vipassana movement which is purely based on meditation and then learning the sacred practices of Cambodian and Thai Buddhism while living here.

So there I was on Precept Day sitting on the floor with the old people having twisted myself into the traditional posture with both feet swept to one side just about tolerating the pain it was causing in my right hip. In my hands was my Kindle with the relevant religious chants showing in romanised form.

I joined in with two chants in Pali – the ancient language of the Buddha. The first was the “Three Refuges” which is something like the Christian profession of faith. It confirms you are a Buddhist by “going for refuge in the teaching of the Buddha”. The second chant involved vowing to observe the eight precepts for the day. Then I handed over 1000Riel, did various bows and received approving nods and smiles from the old people who were sat around me.

Cambodian people love their religion and I have found my own attempts to practice it have been met with encouragement and pleasure. Indeed, when a woman in the village found out I would be joining in on Precept Day she walked 3km barefoot to deliver lunch to me to make sure I ate enough given that I would be observing the precept not to eat between 12pm and 6am. By supporting my spiritual practice the woman was practising generosity which one of Buddhism cardinal virtues. She was also making merit for herself.

The idea of making merit has to do with the concept of rebirth. There is a debate about whether or not the Buddha taught rebirth. Those who believe he did preach the concept of merit: that if you give gifts (especially gifts to the monks) you will get a good rebirth in the next life. While those reformists of the 20th Century argued that the Buddha never taught reincarnation and the idea of “making merit” was something of a racket. They raised the question that if people began to believe that their gifts got them no reward in a future life would they still give them?

Leaving aside the ability of my actions to affect any future rebirth, there was plenty of benefit to be found practicing the eight precepts on this day. It gave me an excuse to turn off my phone, laptop and Kindle and free myself from the glittering screens of the internet with its exciting stories and videos. I didn’t find myself bored in their absence; instead a mellow feeling of relaxation pervaded. In this respect, Precept Day is similar to the Jewish Sabbath, when Orthodox Jews will not allow themselves to drive or even operate a light switch.

Giving myself this respite from the trappings of modernity resulted in a kind of psychic renewal of the kind you might feel after returning from a relaxing beach break.

The effect of all this was to bring myself more into the present moment which, as anyone with who has had the vaguest brush with Eastern spirituality will tell you, is an important part of realizing the sacredness of life.

I felt more connected to my village community. The Cambodian’s have such a great affection for their religion that by practicing it with them I was able to more to integrate my Barang self.

The hunger of not eating past 12pm was not as bad as you would expect but I did find it difficult to sleep, thinking as I was, of those delicious dumplings served by Chinese Noodle on Monivong.

And now, as the temple gears up for the latest in what seems like weekly religious festivals, I find myself looking forward to sitting again with the ancient Khmers on Precept Day so I can remove myself from the pressures of work and modernity and experience a more idle and peaceful life.

If you want to join in Precept Day talk to your local temple. Relevant chants can be found here: http://www.suanmokkh-idh.org/talks/chanting-book-ver1-02.pdf


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