prey kabbas district, Takeo province – In the midst of the silk-weaving village of Trapaing Tea, a concrete structure rises to the sky, but with no proper roof or decorations. Construction work on Wat Sleng’s new temple started three years ago, but still hasn’t been completed.
The slow progress is because of a lack of money. So Wat Sleng worshippers, like thousands of other Buddhists around Cambodia, recently gathered for the traditional fund-raising ceremony of Kathen to help quicken the progress of work on the pagoda.
One of the major annual religious festivals, Kathen is a time for more than 3,500 pagodas nationwide to collect money for temples, schools and other necessities.
The Kathen season began Oct 14, just 15 days after Pchum Ben, the Festival of the Dead, ended. It starts on the day in October when the moon is smallest, and ends on the evening of the full moon during the Water Festival (Nov 11).
During this period, supporters of a pagoda agree on one day for their Kathen festival. On that day, worshippers march in a procession to the pagoda, where monks are awaiting to change their old saffron robes for new ones offered as part of Kathen.
As taught by Buddha some 3,000 years ago, Kathen’s main function was to offer new robes to the monks, who had finished a three-month period of retreat during the rainy season.
Buddha ordered this to take place after seeing a group of 30 monks coming toward him in soaked and ugly robes as he sat in a place of enlightenment beneath a Bodhi tree in India. According to Buddhist scholars, it was raining and the monks were wearing old clothes taken from dead bodies abandoned in the forest.
“A set of saffron robes is enough for the Kathen making,” said Sou Sea, a Buddhist intellectual and former monk. A set consists of a robe, sarong, belt and rice bowl. He said that money and other materials collected, such as furniture and items for personal use, are considered in Buddhist terms as less important.
The robes are never forgotten in the ceremony. But the original Buddhist ceremony is often marginalized by materialistic Cambodian Buddhists more impressed with the power of money, officials and religious scholars said. Many believe that the more you give, the merit you receive.
“People just ask each other about how much money this or that pagoda gains from the Kathen, rather than about the amount of saffron robes,” said In Visal Oum, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Religion and Cult Affairs.
He traces the materialism to the aftermath of the brutal Pol Pot regime, which banned all religious beliefs and destroyed many temples. He says people see Kathen as the main tool for developing pagodas.
In each pagoda, a committee is made up of priests and monks. Sometimes there are internal disputes and priests are accused of pocketing pagoda property offered from merit seekers. In Buddhist teaching, people who take belongings of the pagoda for themselves go to hell.
During the government installed after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, money raised during Kathen was controlled by the state and used for public development rather than pagodas. But as full freedom of religion began to return in early 1990s, the pagoda committees were allowed to do more building in the pagodas.
For the colorful Kathen ceremony at Wat Sleng, more than 3,000 people, the old and the young, arrived at the pagoda in dozens of trucks.
Inside, organizers carried packages of saffron robes and other donations. One held a “Trai Thom” which is the biggest package, for the pagoda’s chief monk. Two other organizers delivered “Trai Leang” or smaller packages for two deputy chief monks.
Others brought donations for the rest of the monks and novices. Before they were handed over to the monks, the people walked three times around the temple with the gifts, accompanied by traditional band dancers, before entering the half-built temple for a ceremony in which a senior monk thanked the givers.
After that ceremony, worshippers moved to a nearby dining hall, where three senior monks were seated. “Both givers and receivers of these things receive the same spiritual merit, whether it is a small or big amount,” the chief monk told the audience.
Um Sam An, a 56-year-old Phnom Penh resident, returned here to her home village for the fund-raiser. “We do the Kathen to raise money for construction,” she said. “Buddhism won’t look healthy unless all worship places like temples are visible.”
Some 10 million riel (approximately $2,560) were raised at Wat Sleng on Oct 14. That’s much lower than the 61 million riel (approximately $15,640) raised for one pagoda in Kompong Speu province by royal family members, including King Norodom Sihanouk and top government officials.
While the money is a welcome help, the 10 million riel raised at Wat Sleng is not enough to pay debts the pagoda already owes to businessmen for the cost of construction materials such as cement and structure iron.