Sok Mean has been doing it since he was 14, but the ritual is age-old: Channeling the spirit of Chinese Buddhist gods to help people ward off evil for the year.
With blood flowing from their mouths down past their chins, ethnic Chinese holy men this week celebrated the annual “march of spirits” which the faithful hope will bring them good luck.
The annual ritual, which lasts for three days, begins 15 days after the Lunar New Year festival ends. The holy men spend a week praying to the deity Lok Ta, asking it to take their bodies and bring good fortune for true believers.
Once the celebrations begin, holy men go into a trance, which they believe is the possession by Lok Ta, and then slash their tongues with broad swords.
They take yellow strips of paper and wipe crimson blood upon it, handing it out to the faithful. Believers say it helps bring good fortune throughout the year.
At Kung Pheng temple Tuesday, celebrants began the morning offering rice, fruits and drinks, including wine. It was very still as the holy men waited for Lok Ta to manifest itself in several different forms.
The holy men pray first to Buddha and then to goddess Preah Neang Kung Siim and gods Kung Kong, Chea Sang and Kung Pheng, said 63-year-old Sok Mean. “Kung Pheng, son of Kung Kong, always enters my body,” he said.
Still waiting for the possession, Sok Mean pointed to a series of nearby photos. Taken in 1998, the pictures show Sok Mean slicing his tongue in stages.
For believers, the blood is a sacrifice of the correct color, said Cambodian-Chinese Association of Cambodia administrative chief Ly Kan. “The blood is red. It scares off evils and bad luck.”
With dozens of people carrying banners, beating drums and doing the “lion dance” trailing behind the possessed holy men, the march begins every day around 2 pm.
“The previous god will let us know in advance there will be a substitute during the march, so we can prepare clothes for him or her,” Sok Mean’s daughter Sok Heng said, adding there are usually only two gods present at any given time.
Just before the march, the holy men bless the temple-goers, spraying perfume on them. The holy men then rest up for the next god’s visit.
There are about a dozen ethnic Chinese temples around Phnom Penh. All the holy men in the “march of spirits” met Wednesday, the last day of the festival, at the temple in Chbar Ampou commune.
When Lok Ta finally arrives each day, two boys envelop him in black flags so no one can see him cutting his tongue. The ritual is not meant to have witnesses, especially the faint of heart, Sok Heng said.
“We do not want women to see this act, especially pregnant women,” she said.