Today is the Buddhist festival of Māgha Pūjā (also written as Makha Bucha Day), called Meak Bochea មាឃបូជា (veneration of the third lunar month) in Cambodia. It is the third most important Buddhist festival, celebrated on the full moon day of the third lunar month in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Sri Lanka and on the full moon day of Tabaung in Myanmar. It celebrates a gathering that was held between the Buddha and 1,250 of his first disciples, which, according to tradition, preceded the custom of periodic recitation of discipline by monks. On this day, Buddhists celebrate the creation of an ideal and exemplary community, which is why it is sometimes called Saṅgha Day, the Saṅgha referring to the Buddhist community, and for some Buddhist schools this is specifically the monastic community. In Thailand, the Pāli term Māgha-pūraṇamī is also used for the celebration, meaning ‘to honor on the full moon of the third lunar month’ (same as the Khmer phrase).
In pre-modern times, Māgha Pūjā was celebrated in some Southeast Asian communities, but it became widely popular in the modern period, when it was instituted in Thailand by King Rama IV in the mid-19th century. From Thailand, it spread to other South and Southeast Asian countries. Presently, it is a public holiday in some of these countries. It is an occasion when Buddhists go to the temple to perform meritorious activities, such as alms giving, meditation and listening to teachings.
Māgha Pūjā day marks an event occurring at the Veḷuvana grove, near Rājagaha (present Rajgir) in northern India, ten months after the enlightenment of the Buddha. The traditional story goes that a meeting was held in the afternoon, that had four characteristics, known as the cāturaṅgasannipāta
1,250 disciples came to see the Buddha that evening without being summoned. They were mostly pupils from the Buddha’s recently converted disciples, such as the three Kassapa brothers, and the monks Sāriputta and Mogallāna.
All of them were Arahants, enlightened disciples.
All had been ordained by the Buddha himself, and therefore were his direct spiritual descendants.
It was the full-moon day of the third lunar month.
On this occasion, the Buddha taught those arahants a summary of Buddhism, called the Ovādapātimokkha. In these, three principles were given:
- Not doing evil / Being fully wholesome / The total purification of the mind.
- “Patience (and) forbearance are the highest austerity. The awakened ones say nibbāna (escape from reincarnation) is the highest. One is certainly not a wanderer if one injures others; one is not an ascetic if one harms another.”
- “Not abusing, not injuring, and restraint under the rules of discipline, and knowing moderation in eating, and secluded lodgings, and exertion in respect of higher thought, this is the teaching of the awakened ones.”
According to the traditional Pāli commentaries, the Buddha continued to teach this summary for a period of twenty years, after which the custom was replaced by the recitation of the monastic code of discipline by the Saṅgha themselves. On Māgha Pūjā today, Buddhists celebrate the creation of an ideal and exemplary community.
Māgha Pūjā is also the day that the Buddha is believed to have announced in Vesālī that he would die (parinibbāna) in three months, and after the announcement a supernatural earthquake followed. Moreover, In Sri Lanka, it is considered the day that the Buddha appointed his two main disciples, the monks Sāriputta and Moggallāna.
Little is known concerning how traditional Buddhist societies celebrated this event in pre-modern times, but Māgha Pūjā was recognized and celebrated in Lan Na, Lan Xang and Northeastern Thailand. Practices of worship probably varied considerably. The first known instance in modern times was during the reign of the Thai king Rama IV (1804–68) who instituted it as a ceremony in 1851.
In Cambodia, various celebrations are held on this day. Ceremonies are held at Preah Reach Trop Mountain, for example, joined by 30,000 to 50,000 people, as of 2020. There are also alms offerings on Oudong Hill, participated in yearly by thousands of people. On the day, devotees make merit, cook meals for elderly people or their parents, and clean up their houses. Since the late 2010s, the day has become more popular among youth, and more pagodas are organizing ceremonies. Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Ministry of Cults and Religion have promoted activities on the day, and education for youths about it. However, in August 2019, local media reported the Cambodian government removed Meak Bochea from the list of national holidays to increase the country’s competitiveness, because the number of holidays had become too high (cutting them from 29 to 22 per year – in total).
Here is a video on making a traditional Cambodian dessert of taro and rice (with coconut milk and sugar). The commentary is in Khmer, but the directions are easy to follow, and the video will give you the sense of living here (a little). It was actually made in Canada.