BOMBOUS NEAK - The Ordained Dragon
By: M. Veasna..Picture Courtesy of Mr. Heng Sarin. ( November, 2002 Volume 2 No.11 )

Cambodian people who live in the countryside often like their sons to become monks when they reach adult hood. This is because people think that a Buddhist monk knows much more than an ordinary man - he knows what is right and what is wrong. When a man is ordained as a monk, the process is called the "BomBous Neak Session." BomBous Neak is a traditional ceremony that Buddhists have held for centuries. Khmer people have great respect for this ceremony, as Buddhism is considered Cambodia's national religion. The Reverent Toy Song, Achar (Priest) at Pour Chan Tong pagoda in Phnom Penh, explained more about ordination. "Buddhism teaches literature and other knowledge. People respect a man who used to be a monk more than an ordinary person," he said. "People who live in the countryside think that a person who used to be a monk knows the difference between a good deed and bad deed. Khmer people believe that if a monk is ordained before the age of twenty, it will bring merits to his mother." If he is ordained after the age of 20, it will bring merits for his father," Toy Song continued.

Khmer people still believe this, so when their daughters get married, they prefer to choose a man who used to be a monk. In the past, people who lived in the countryside got an education by entering the monk hood. But this is changing now, as there are more and more schools in Cambodia's provinces. Cambodians call a man who wants to be ordained "Neak," which means dragon. An elephant that has large tusks or a huge snake is also called "Neak," because the word denotes goodness. BomBous Neak means ordained dragon, which implies a process of finding goodness. "The ceremony of BomBous Neak is related to an ancient Khmer legend." Achar Toy Song explained.

The legend says that there was once a Buddha called Preah Samma Sampot, who lived in Chet Poun pagoda. One day, a supremely powerful dragon that practiced Buddhism arrived at the pagoda. The dragon wanted to become a monk, and so it metamorphosised into a man. The man went to the Buddha who was then only a Preah Mahatisstay (one who has yet to fully attained enlightenment) and said to him "I want to be ordained by you." So the Preah Mahatisstay ordained the dragon, not knowing he was actually a dragon in disguise. One day, when the dragon monk was taking a midday nap in a room in the pagoda, his body transformed itself back to a large dragon. Just then, another monk came to the room to call dragon monk to lunch.

When the monk opened the door he saw the large dragon in the room, and shouted to all the other monks in the pagoda to come and look. When the Preah Mahatisstay heard of this he said, "From this day on, no animal or spirit will be ordained." But the dragon monk pleaded with the Preah, saying "Although I am an animal and can't be ordained, I am honest and faithful to Buddhism. So I beg you in future, when a man wants to become a monk, to first call him 'Neak,' in remembrance of me, faithful to Buddhism but not lucky enough to be a person." And so the Preah commanded it: When a man wants to become a monk, let him be called 'Neak.'
"A man who is to be ordained has to study prayers for the Bombous Neak ceremony. And if several families have sons who are getting ordained at the same time, they will plan a ceremony together to save expenses. Bombous Neak is not traditionally held at any particular time, but it cannot happen during the three-month Buddhist lent period," Toy Song said.
Before the day of the ceremony, the man who is getting ordained carries candles and incense to his relatives, and formally tells them he is to be ordained. The family prepares the things their son will need for his life as a monk: his monk's robes, a sarong for washing in and a mat and pillow to sleep on. The Bombous Neak ceremony is always held in the afternoon. The ordainee has to sit near the monk who is blessing the ceremony, so he can listen to the monk blessing his family and friends. The 'dragon' must shave his head for the ceremony - it doesn't matter when, but it must be done before the BomBous Neak ceremony takes place, Toy Song said.
During the ceremony, the Achar carries a palm tree with two or three leaves tied to it like a beak of bird. He moves it round and round, calling on 19 spirits to come and stay with the body of the 'dragon.' In the 'Teeth of the Dragon' ceremony, a kind of wood is mixed with coconut water, and boiled with various leaves and fruit to make a paste that is painted on the ordainee's teeth. This ceremony is meant to weaken any poison in the 'dragon,' and cleanse him of his sins. In the 'Giving Food to the Dragon' ceremony, the Achar takes some special rice and mixes it with coconut milk. He then puts the food in the young man's mouth. This is meant to bring the 'dragon' good luck and a long life.
On the morning of the ceremony, all the ordainee's relatives accompany him to the pagoda. When the ceremony is over, his family walks around the pagoda with him three times, accompanied by the beat of the Chai Yam, a kind of Khmer drum. The monk's relatives carry the things he will use at the pagoda, such as his new robes. Then everyone goes inside the pagoda, lights a candle and some incense and prays to a Buddha statue. The ordainee sits with the things that he will use as a monk in front of him. After this, the ordained man carries his new monk's things and puts them in front of the chief of monk, then prays three times. Finally, the 'dragon' carries a candle and incense to pray to the chief monk, and ask him for a place to stay in the pagoda.