Getting Inked the Thai Way: The True Meaning of a Buddhist Sak Yant Tattoo
I love tattoos and the way they decorate the body, male or female. For years, I contemplated on getting inked but never really braved up to the challenge. Add to that my indecisive nature, and at forty-two years old my body was still like a blank page desperately waiting for a story to be told. That is, until Buddhism and the magic of traditional Thai Sak Yant tattoos fluttered my way.
What is a Sak Yant tattoo?
In Thai ‘Sak’ means ‘tattoo’, and ‘Yant’ is Thai for ‘yantra’. The art of yantra tattooing goes back to the symbolism and writings of the ancient Khmer people who origin from what is now known as Cambodia. The majority of the Khmer are followers of the Khmer style of Buddhism, a blend of elements of Theravada Buddhism, Hinduism, animism, and veneration of the dead. Bits and pieces of all of these elements are found in the traditional Sak Yant tattoos today. Experts disagree of the exact origins of the Sak Yant, but known is that in 1296 the king in Ankor (Cambodia) was already been protected by tiny engraved metal cylinders inserted beneath his skin that bore prayers and mantras. Others believe that early, Indian-influenced civilizations of Southeast Asia are the most likely origin of Sak Yant. Warriors and (Muay Thai) fighters that wore these sacred tattoos are said to wear mystical powers and protection during war or fights. It gave them strength and endurance and protected them from injury, or death.
Traditional Sak Yants are mostly done by Buddhist monks and ajahns (masters), and are traditionally performed with a long metal rod, sharpened to a point.
A Sak Yant consists of three different components: the Yantra (geometrical figure), the Pali text (sacred language of some religious texts of Hinduism and all texts of Theravada Buddhism), and the associated mantra.
Living in Thailand for a few months, learning about Buddhism, and training Muay Thai, sparked my interest in the spiritual meaning of Sak Yant tattoos.
When I met Ajahn Mee, I instinctively knew he was the one I wanted to fill those blank pages and tell my story. He is one of those human beings that radiate, and can turn the darkest of rooms into a pool of lightness. Ajahn Mee is also a respected ajahn, as he was in the robes for quite some years, and trained by a well-known Thai monk, Choo Teachatummo.
Ajahn Mee’s place is a modern day shrine, a sanctuary for people from all over the world, who come to him to get inked and blessed.
I bring flowers, incenses, and fruit, to offer to Buddha, and to him.
I sit down on the floor across from him and bow three times, once for the Buddha, once for the Dhamma (the Buddha’s teachings) and once for the Sangha (the Buddhist community). I put my offerings in a bowl, close my eyes, and we pray. After, we talk about the design and the meaning of the Sak Yant of my choice.
I choose the Hah Taew yantra that represents five sacred lines, five spells, that will protect me in my life.
- The first row prevents unjust punishment, cleanses out unwanted spirits and protects the place you live in
- The second row reverses and protects against bad horoscope and bad fortune
- The third row protects from the use of black magic and anyone who tries to put a curse on you
- The fourth row energizes your good luck, success and fortune
- The fifth row is to gain charisma and attraction to the opposite sex. It also is a boost to the fourth row
I particularly love the little ‘unaalome’ (decreasing spiral) that completes each end of a sacred line. The spiral indicates the earthly distractions in our lives. As we grow older and wiser, this spiral gradually decreases until it becomes a straight line pointing upwards (path to enlightenment).
After suffering an uncomfortable pain for pretty much an hour or so, I am convinced this will be my last tattoo ever! But when he’s finally finished and he starts chanting the associated mantra’s I am deeply touched. He gently holds my head, sprinkles (holy) water over me, and encapsulates me with incense smoke. He asks me to inhale profoundly, while he continues to chant in Pali. Over and over and over again.
I had come to Ajahn Mee because I felt it was the right time to celebrate a new beginning. I had loved, and lost a man. A man I bled, and fled for. A man that eventually let me to Thailand, to Buddhism, and to the magic of Sak Yant.
I bow to Ajahn Mee one more time, and walk out the door, into the world. I am beyond excited, and I can feel a strong, new and empowered me pulsing through my veins.
Thank you, Ajahn Mee. My soul honors yours.