Life gets interesting where the sidewalk ends. You’d be hard pressed to find a brochure or tour guide offering a peek into the world of Sak Yant tattooing, yet the sacred geometry is everywhere. Searching for an authentic source – a Sak Yant monk – was no easy feat; many leads evaporated just as soon as they appeared. But after two months of inquiring around town, a casual conversation at Mr. Long’s Bar over yet another tequila shake culminated in a visit with Ajarn Bunsong, a Buddhist monk/Sak Yant master residing in a temple in Ao Na Mao. Mr. Long and family became acquainted with Ajarn Bunsong not long ago when they sought a monk to bless his business. They invited me to come meet him and low and behold, the adventure that I hoped this search would become finally came to fruition.
Sak Yant, or Yantra tattooing, is a Buddhist/animist-adjacent tattoo practice believed to protect the bearer from such evils. It is also believed to promote good fortune or bestow certain powers, dependent on the design received. The belief dates back thousands of years, and although laymen may imprint designs, these tattoos are traditionally given by monks.
One fine Sunday, myself and Mr. Long Bar crew – Mr. Long’s wife whom we only know as Mama; Mr. Long’s son, Zeph; Zeph’s best friend Spy; Zeph’s sister Parisa and baby girl; and token tourists Swedish Erik and English Jethro – happily set off to have our spiritual shifts/physical manifestations imprinted onto our back real estate, whilst making offerings for the continued blessings of life on earth.
Unbeknownst to us, this venture would require Thai-ime. What began as one o’clock became five o’clock became tomorrow became in a few hours after we all drive to Krabi Town to ordain another monk first. The ordination ceremony detour was actually quite an honor to witness, so we didn’t mind.
Returning to Ao Na Mao, it was finally time to catch a stabbing several of them. Tattoos are for anyone but not for everyone. I have an affinity to the art but not the commitment, so myself and Parisa opted for the oil versions, in which sesame oil is used in place of ink. The rest of the procedure is the same: a steel needle is attached to a long bamboo stick (called a khem sak) and the Sak Yant is pierced into the skin in pulses, resulting in the appearance of hundreds of dot-like markings to culminate in an intricately patterned design of ancient Pali incantations in Khmer script.
As Ajarn Bunsong tattooed the design, he chanted a blessing, finished by blowing on the Sak Yak and rubbing the area. I would classify myself as someone with a high pain tolerance, and Parisa had already given birth once so, there’s that. Nonetheless, it is quite painful and may send you into a serotonin/endorphin-induced sweat overload, but it is short-lived. The ordeal was over in less than ten minutes. It is recommended that if you can accessorize with fat then do so; the nape of the neck and upper back are very sensitive and the skinnier you are, the worse.
Traditionally, all seekers of a Sak Yant must receive the same Nine Spire (called the Kao Yord) tattoo first, below the nape of the neck. For this reason, it is also known as Yant Kroo, meaning ‘master,’ or ‘teacher yant.’ This tattoo essentially permits the bearer to enter into the lineage, after which they become a disciple and are entitled to receive further yant. There are several different versions of Kao Yord, and the incantations, symbols and other unique marks differ widely among masters.
Ajarn Bunsong has studied the scripts – often referred to as a bible – and the art of Sak Yant for over 20 years, so we were surprised yet not surprised when he tattooed Erik’s ink Sak Yant free-hand. Because Erik’s was a true imprint, the ritual was followed by Ajarn Bunsong chanting another blessing while hitting his back three times with an unsheathed sword, as proof of its power that now resides within Erik.
For some, Sak yant is merely a memento, for both foreigners and Thais alike. But surely it is disrespectful to receive a religious symbol without understanding its meaning or worse, not believing in what it represents. In the short two months I’ve spent delving into this subject my understanding is as deep as the scratches on my back, but I’ve come to appreciate the raw poetry of this spiritual world that means much more than ink. Like medicine, it is an ongoing practice. At a basic level, intention is king, and at a minimum the bearer of any Sak Yant should strive to follow the Five precepts: do not kill, steal, lie, commit adultery, and control consumption of intoxicants. These are common to almost any belief system, but as we all know, obedience is the challenge.
Zeph and Spy are avid believers. Spy lived and studied in a monastery for over four years and I often find them praying their daily prayers together. They have a wealth of knowledge to share on the Buddhist subjects of striving for a pure heart, rectifying past mistakes, giving gratitude and understanding that what we do in this life affects the next – reincarnation is a strong Buddhist belief.
As with any practice comes both risk and gray areas. The first is safety. As of now, none of us have contracted the Hepatitis alphabet. These are protective tattoos after all, and the irony of receiving harm from the tattoo itself would likely cause the universe to implode. Precautions are taken to sterilize the needle and some temples allow you to bring your own, but in our case we were tattooed with Ajarn Bunsong’s own instruments. The spread of STDs and disease as a result of Sak Yant are inconclusive. You must decide the level of risk you are willing to accept, but more importantly, do your research.
The second, more controversial issue regards humans with lady bits. Forsaking sensual pleasures – asceticism – is one of many important monastic vows. At its core, asceticism acknowledges that people are weak, emotional, and desirous. Monks abstain from touching women (and vice versa for nuns) as a means to avoid distraction and stay true to their brand of abstinence. Thus, it is not an insult to women, but perceiving it as an insult is in and of itself, an insult. As such, a barricade of toilet paper was placed on my back in the area where Ajarn Bunsong would need to rest his hand, as is common for monks who perform Sak yant on women. The debate about Sak Yant and women is a hefty one, and not all monks will tattoo a woman. I can only advise you to do your homework, proceed with caution and as always, remain respectful and cognizant of your body.
At the intersection of this world and the spiritual one, we should continually look into our inner section. While Sak Yant is believed to protect and provide good fortune in this life, you need to take a big swim in Lake You to get to the core of why you seek the power of Sak Yant, and whether you are committed in heart to follow the teachings. Its true essence lies more in guidance and assistance towards becoming a better person; the blessings and protection come from goodness and selflessness, coupled with generosity and loving-kindness. This is Metta.
Buddha says there is nothing in all the dimensions of space and time that is not born first of your mind. And Yant Metta starts with the mind and thoughts first, of which actions follow. Like a mirror, it reflects back at you what you think, and eventually what you throw into the world. And if what you give is dark, selfish and cruel, then how can the Sak Yant be true to its intention? It can’t. These beliefs are things even a simpleton knows, but the practice is the greatest challenge, and undoubtedly we have all failed at some point, and are likely to fail again. We are vulnerable, but we are human, so we must learn to forgive ourselves, love ourselves, and try again to radiate this into our world, unwaveringly.
There is not enough carbon space in this discussion to scratch the surface of Thai Buddhism and Sak Yant; this is the first of many layers to uncover and the education is far from over. But we are wholeheartedly welcomed into this philosophy, and it was a beautiful snapshot of a way of life, indeed. So yes, that happened.