What is a Sak Yant Tattoo?
Bamboo Sak Yant the Thai name for the Tattooing of Sacred geometrical designs on the skin. Yant (or Yantra, as they are call them in the west), are normally tattooed by Buddhist monks, or Brahmin Holy men . The Yant tattoos have developed over the centuries under the influence of several different religious philosophies. The Yantra designs that already existed in Hindu India were adapted by the Thais as Buddhism arrived from neighboring India.
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Traditional Thai Tattoo
Thai Tattoo and Buddhism
The Sak Yant is strictly not part of the original Buddhist traditions. As Buddhism influence expanded and spread across Asia and the world, local and pre-existing traditions and religions that had no direct contradiction with Buddhism were integrated into the style of local Buddhist teachings. Sak Yants came from these previously held traditions in Thai (and other Asian) cultures as part of the Shamanistic traditions that already existed.
In today’s Thailand, not all sects of Thai Buddhism incorporate the ancient art of mystical Sak Yant tradition and Monks from these schools of thought will seek out an Ajarn or Sak Yant Monk to obtain one for themselves. Generally almost all Thai Monks accept the validity of Sak Yants even if the tradition is not part of their particular school of thought. Monks with an interest in the Talismans magic of Sak Yant will externally learn the art and operate from a Sunnak (Sak Yant room) off location to the Temple and order they belong.
In city areas, the Sak Yant began to lose favor with the influx of Christian Missionaries and the social elite adapting to Western influence in the late 19th century. While still popular among the rural communities, and with people in dangerous jobs; the resurgence of the Sak Yant really took off when Angelina Jolie received her Sak Yant Tattoo. On very rare occasions you may run across a Monk from this era who has a personal opinion that the Sak Yant is not part of Buddhism.
The Ruesi Connection
In Thailand, before Buddhism became the predominate religion, the locals practiced a form of animism religion, that worshiped (and feared) the role of animal spirits and ghosts. Ruesi legend has it, was a hermit sage that was a master magician and held power and control over this world.
Ruesi lived in the jungle, and since this animal worship has remained a part of the Thai culture and belief system was integrated into the magical side of Buddhism. When a Monk becomes an Ajarn, Ruesi often becomes the primary influence and teachings in relation to the Sak Yant Tattoo.
Background of Bamboo Tattoo History
The Four Elements
All across the world in the past, cultures have developed magical systems based on the four elements they thought made up the physical properties of the world. They are, earth, air, fire and water.
Cultures such as the ancient Greeks, Romans and Incas, and later the Wiccans, and mystics of the West, the idea that these four elements – earth, water, air, and fire – made up all matter was the cornerstone of philosophy, science, and medicine. The elements were “pure” but could not be found in that state on earth.
Everything was made up of some combination of earth, water, air, and fire. Indian tradition follows this belief before the ancient Greeks and later influenced the Khmer empire. The empire was dissolved into what is now known as Thailand and Cambodia. As Buddhism made its way into the Khmer empire, a fifth element was added that of spirit or Buddha.
For hundreds of years, Thai and Khmer warriors where renowned and feared for the magical markings tattooed on their skin. These markings were a mix of Buddhist psalms and prayers, and shamanistic spells and sorcery that had survived the Religious transition from the pre-Buddhist, Hindu era and had been incorporated in the belief system of the newly born Buddhist countries.
Since the days of King Nareswon, in the golden era of Ayuttaya, Thai soldiers not only sought protection in the power of Sak Yant and also the wearing and praying of amulets. In World World 2, Korean and Vietnam war, Thai soldiers were nicknamed “Taharn Phee” (ghost soldiers) by the allied forces because of their Sak Yant tattoos and amulets. Many Muay Thai Boxers (”Nak Muay”) seek the magical powers said to be afforded them by Sak Yant tattoos.
What is a Sak Yant Tattoo in Today's World
A Yant is a Sacred geometrical design that provide powers of protection and various blessings through Buddhist psalms and magical formulas. The Buddhist psalms written in Thai or Khmer script around the yant are know as “Khata”. A Khata is also known as “Mantra” in other meaning, the word Mantra is a Sanskrit word meaning “Prayer”.
The Sak Yant Tattoo has become ingrained in the Thai culture as a way to provide protection and gain good luck through the mystical side of traditional philosophies and the Buddhist influence. Usually the Monk or Ajarn who preforms the Sak Yant has studied the magical side of the ancient traditions and incorporates charms and magical blessings in addition to the design of the Sak Yant itself.
The most common first Sak Yants to receive, and the ones the Monks will select for you .. are the
1) Hah Taew
2) Gao Yord
3) Paed Tidt
Other, more complex and complicated Sak Yant designs such as animals and sacred geometry are seen as advanced talismans for more serious and dedicated believers. If you are a westerner who is looking for your first Sak Yant, 95% of the time it will be one of these designs.
What is a Sak Yant Tattoo in Thailand?
Learning the Art of Sak Yant
In Thailand the Sak Yant is associated with Buddhist Monks in Temples and Ajarns (learned Masters) who have usually served their time as a Sak Yant Monk before leaving to pursue the scared hermit magical life. There is years of training to become a Sak Yant practitioner and in-depth study of the magical arts is required.
The Sak Yant Master must learn Pali, the sacred Buddhist language, the ancient Khmer alphabet, the yantra designs and the Blessing chants that go with each. In northern Thailand many also learn and use the ancient Lanna language and script, and many Sak Yant Tattoos in this region use this script over the Khmer.
In addition they power of the Sak Yant is drawn from the Sak Yant Master and they must learn and practice throughout their lives meditation techniques, to harness the magic that is used in the scared blessing. Only after their masters feel they are ready, are they given the Ruesi mask, signifying they have gone from being a student to being a Master
The years of study it requires to become an authentic Ajarn of Sak Yant Monk means that each Sak Yant Design can be altered especially for the individual. It is also the reason a Tattoo Shop, is not the best place to obtain one as they are copying the text of a scared blessing meant for someone else. It is also the reason we at Sak Yant Chiang Mai, can not 100% tell you what a photograph of a Sak Yant means. While the designs used are similar, the ancient text and blessing is a deeply held trade secret among the Sak Yant Masters.
The Sak Yant Temples and Monks
Sak Yant magic and influence has always been a part of country aspects of life. So most of the Sak Yant Temples are located outside of the city. Wat Bang Phra in Bangkok is some 50 kilometers from Bangkok central, and the Temples used by us here at Sak Yant Chiang Mai are all 30 kilometers (and more) away. This also makes it easier for the Monks to go on jungle meditation retreats to increase their magical power.
Usually a country Temple will call out for help to a Monk preforming Sak Yant Tattoos when they require funds to build and extend their Temple grounds. The Monk will relocate and provide Sak Yants until funds have been raised and extensions built. While this is wonderful for remote country Temples, it makes it somewhat difficult for a person unfamiliar with local knowledge, as Monks move on and blog-posts or internet resources of where to get a Sak Yant … soon become irrelevant.