13 May 2014
What’s happening in this photo? A Thai shaman performing an exorcism? A neck shave from a religious barber? A rustic operation, due to a lack of travel insurance, to remove a skin growth?
No, that’s me getting my first tattoo! This is obviously not your typical tattoo; I’m neither in a sterile studio nor next door to a bar after few shots. It’s 11 am and I’m in the home of a Ruesi in a residential neighborhood of Bangkok.
It all started back in Bali, on that island’s new year’s day, when the couple in the room next to us asked if I knew about Sak Yant tattooing in Thailand. We looked at pictures online and I knew that I had found the type of tattoo that I wanted.
Sak Yant, which means “to tap” a yantra, or sacred geometric symbol, seems to have originated in Cambodia at least 2000 years ago, when warriors would get these supposedly magical tattoos in order to bring good fortune and protection in battle. As with other ancient SE Asian practices, this tradition mixes symbols and rituals from Buddhism and pre-Buddhist shamanism. Today, the art is still passed down from master to student. In Thailand, where these tattoos are most popular, often the artist is a monk and the ritual is done in a temple. Otherwise, the artist is a modern-day Ruesi, one who practices the magical arts while living as a lay person (same as a Rishi in India). Ajarn Neng, who first learned the art when he was a monk, gave me my tattoo.
The 13th of May happened to be a very auspicious day to get a Buddhist tattoo. Celebrated the Buddhist world over, in Thailand, it’s called Wisakha Bucha, the Buddha’s birthday (also celebrated as the day he reached enlightenment and the day he passed into Parinirvana).
Jessica and I arrived at the inconspicuous location, stepped over the doggy-door and through the messy, foul-smelling garage. We were greeted by a woman who proceeded to sit on the floor in her pajamas and play on her cell phone next to her friend who was holding a small pet monkey. Two men assisted Ajarn Neng by holding each visitor’s skin taut during the ceremony. While I waited my turn, a young man was getting what appeared to be his 3rd and 4th Sak Yant. There was one other person waiting, too, a Malaysian man with a well-inked upper body who needed to have a tattoo finished that had been started by Ajarn Neng’s master, who had died a few days prior. The room was only about 12’x12′ and was filled on one side with buck-toothed Ruesi masks, ritual headdresses that are sometimes worn by the master, rendering him blind while giving the tattoo.
In some places where Sak Yant is practiced, the master picks out the image for you, but Ajarn Neng allows visitors to pick their own. I knew I wanted something of triangular shape and one that had more apparent Buddhist symbolism. I had spent hours online looking for the right image, and when it came down to being asked what I wanted, I still didn’t know. Ajarn Neng only offered a certain selection, and so I picked one from his photo book that corresponded most with what I was looking for. Having initially been ready for an experience where I had no say at all, I was happy with the amount of input I did have.
When it was my turn, I put 2000 baht (about $60) on a tray with flowers and incense and made the offering as Ajarn Neng recited the mantra for receiving it. Then I turned around, took a deep breath and waited for the sensations to come.
Before he began tattooing me, Ajarn Neng leaned his face close to my ear and softly told me the mantra I was to repeat to myself, and then he whispered, “More pain, more power.”
I had been planning for this moment for over six weeks, even having dreams about the tattoo, so I was determined to be with this ritual in a serious way, opening to the sensations, and silently saying the mantra to myself while also holding my personal intentions for its meaning.
I was hoping the pain would have been intense enough to get me into an altered state, but it didn’t hurt much at all. Certainly not anything close to more intense kinds of pain I’ve experienced through accidental burns and falls. It felt like a series of insect stings, some stronger than others. Each sting passed as the next arose, so the pain didn’t accumulate as it went on. Bamboo tattooing is much less harmful to the skin and heals very quickly without the need to apply any lotions or bandages. All I did was rinse off later in the shower.
When he finished, Ajarn Neng circled the tattoo with his thumb while saying a long mantra, finally blowing his breath on it to infuse the magic and signal the end of the ritual.
A Sak Yant is a spiritual endowment. For me, it’s another expression of my commitment to be ethical, to be present and to help others. Traditionally, those who receive Sak Yant are expected to adhere to the five precepts of Buddhism. I also attached more specific personal meaning to the Sak Yant related to what I have been learning on my current journey through SE Asia.
Thanks to Jessica for taking the photos!