Guest Post By Thomas of Amidtheruins.com
I woke up far earlier than I’m used to, and I was so excited last night I’ve barely gotten any sleep. The seemingly endless cityscape of Bangkok has in fact ended, and now it’s farms as far as the eye can see, interspersed with the occasional building or giant Buddha in the distance. After another hour of this, we get to a small town with a few signs that I can’t read, being only in Thai. My driver, Pak, seems to find them just as confusing, and he stops to ask directions from a street vendor, who manages to give them in the most circuitous way possible. Yet more driving, and then all of a sudden we’re there: Wat Bang Phra, the largest Sak Yant temple in the world.
Sak Yant is the ancient Buddhist practice of magical tattooing. There are dozens of designs, set down and codified over the centuries, with the occasional master monk innovating customizations or making up new ones. The tattoos consist of visual designs depicting various creatures or mythological figures, such as (very abstracted forms of) the Buddha, or a mountain, or tigers, or Ganesh, and dozens more. These are surrounded and interspersed with magical spells written either in Pali Sanskrit or the ancient Khmer language.
We go inside the temple complex, and Pak insists on guidng me around. He talks with the many monks and lay people lounging about, but as the conversations are entirely in Thai, I’m lost in them. I make the appropriate, respectful wai, and then am better able to communicate with the many dogs roaming the temple grounds and lounging in the sun. There are “no photo” signs all over the place, hence why this article is so unadorned.
Pak leads me to the third floor of a building that seems more ecumenical than the rest. We pass a table where a monk is selling temple offerings, and don’t buy one, which confuses me, and then head up past a man getting a tattoo by another man, not dressed as a monk, and with a modern tattoo machine, not the traditional bamboo needle, which confuses me more. We reach the top floor, where a woman shows us a large book filled with sak yant designs, and instructs me to pick one out.
Pak, who himself has a back covered in Sak Yant, is adamant that I need to get a full back piece of Hanuman, the legendary monkey king from Journey to the West, because he will bring me prosperity in business. I disagree; I’m not looking for a full back piece, and besides, the traditional ritual that I’m here looking for involves the monk picking one out for me. Plus the lady soon informs me that the price is two orders of magnitude more than I expected! The whole thing is very strange, and different from what I was expecting. Was I misled? Has the temple gone commercial in the last few years?
No, it finally turns out. After Pak and the lady finish their extended argument over the proper placement of an eight direction warding tattoo, he finally translates my questions to her. She promptly laughs and directs me to the “monk tattoo” section of the temple.
Pak, disappointed that I’m refusing to get the full back Hanuman piece, decides to wait by his taxi. I buy a temple offering for 75 baht, which consists of flowers, incense, and cigarettes, and head over to the “monk tattoo” area.
Now this is what I was looking for! A master monk, clothed in orange, and covered neck to ankles in Sak Yant, sits next to an apprentice monk, covered more sparsely in tattoos and wearing all white. Each is tattooing a gentleman leaning over a pillow in front of them, using a long, split piece of bamboo.
They greet me and gesture for me to sit, and so I watch for a while, anxiously anticipating my turn. The apprentice monk finishes first, and so his canvas stands up and I present him with my offering: the temple supplies, 25 baht for the ink, plus 100 baht as alms. The total cost is about $5.50 American. He takes it, mutters a brief prayer, and then I sit down in front of him.
He selects the design without even showing it to me, and transfers it onto my back quickly. His previous supplicant holds me down by my left shoulder and neck, a gesture which is appreciated but unnecessary: I’ve been tattooed before, I know not to wiggle.
The bamboo needle (a fresh one, fortunately) pierces my skin, pushing the first double-drop of ink inside me. The end of the needle is split in twain, so each press pushes two drops into me, and I can feel both heads piercing with each thrust. The ink inside is a secret blend, not known to any but the monks who make it, but two of the known ingredients are bamboo ash and snake venom.
I was told that this would be much more painful than a modern, machine tattoo, but it’s honestly not that bad. I’d say it’s a 4 out of 10 on the pain scale, except when it’s directly above my spine, when it jumps up to a 6. I’ve felt a 9 before, though, and this is a walk in the park compared to that.
It’s an excellent opportunity to practice my meditation. Paying close, mindful attention to the needle brings me into a calm awareness of everything around me, and forces my attention into the moment. Whenever my mind starts to wander, the next pierce of the needle brings it back. The boundary between myself and the outside world is literally being torn asunder, and I feel that with each drop of ink that enters me, the teachings of the Buddha are made more clear and obvious. Think of it as koan by stabbing.
I don’t know this at the moment, but the design being permanently imprinted on my upper back is the Gao Yord. This is the most common first Sak Yant, and considered the most powerful. All others are supplementary to it. It is a nine pointed spire, representing Meru, the world mountain at the center of the multiverse, and each spire is topped with a meditating Buddha. The mountain is divided into twenty boxes, each of which contains a letter in the Khmer script, representing the first syllable of a magic spell that, at the conclusion of the process, Sovom will chant and blow into the tattoo, imbuing it with power. The spells cover a range of attributes: most are defensive, against swords and bullets, black magic, bad fortune, and natural disasters, and there are also ones to bring good fortune, make me more charismatic, make me more well liked, and more successful in business (the Hanuman tattoo would have further emphasized this last point).
And before I know it, it’s done. The whole process has taken less than twenty minutes, much faster than a traditional tattoo. Sovom blows the spells into my back, and then I stand up, wai respectfully, put my shoes back on (but carry my shirt), and make my way woozily back to Pak’s car. We return to Bangkok, with me leaning forward so as not to get any blood or ink on his car seat, and then I return to my hostel room, too sore and excited to sleep. I finally get a chance to look at my tattoo in the mirror, and it’s better than I could ever have hoped.