With every piercing jab from the long, bamboo needle, a Buddhist Monk brought me closer to the 2000-year-old tradition of Sak Yant. Deriving from the heart of Thailand, Sak Yant tattoos are etched and engraved into the body using a bamboo needle and then blessed with a Buddhist mantra by an ordained monk. Sak means "To Tattoo" in Thai, and Yant means Magical Design or Mystical Insignia. It is a common practice for warriors, fighters, and monks and are said to give the wearer magic powers associated with healing, luck, strength, and protection against evil.
I traveled with a translator about 45 minutes outside the city of Chiang Mai, Thailand to a rural temple and had the honor and privilege of being part of this age-old tradition. Buddhist monks originally engraved Sak Yant designs into warriors seeking protection and strength in battle. Often covering their entire bodies from head to toe in magic symbols to prevent knives and arrows from piecing their skin. Having been a soldier and a warrior that has endured battle, I knew this tattoo and experience would mean more to me than the everyday tattoo enthusiast.
The tattoo itself didn’t cost me anything for monks tend to stay away from capitalism but a few donations is highly encouraged. A brief stop at the local market for some flowers, candles and incense for the temple and a pack of cigarettes for the monk is all that is needed.
It is said that you are not allowed to pick out your Sak Yant design. The monk picks a holy and magical design he believes will best suit you based on your energy and aura upon meeting but this is not necessarily true. This is usually due to translation issues and usually does not apply to Thai people. I took off my shoes before entering the temple, sat on my knees and bowed my head in respect to the monk. He told my translator that I may pick out any yantra design I would like but recommended I receive “Yant Kao Yod.” This Yant is typically the first Sak Yant a warrior is supposed to receive. It represents the 9 peaks of Buddhism and is believed to give protective powers against black magic and paranormal powers. Protecting the wearer from curses and giving them protection and good luck.
As he began to draw “Yant Kao Yod” on the back of my neck, I put my mind into meditation. Why was I here, what this means to me, how blessed I feel to be a part of this warrior tradition, and having going through combat both on the battlefield and within myself I knew this would be a metaphysical experience. After the design was drawn, a quick blessing and the long, bamboo needle began to pierce my skin like the pain of a giant wasp penetrating and piercing me repeatedly. Having this long, piercing needle constantly penetrating my skin over and over was definitely a pain I haven’t felt before. As a tattoo collector, having sat in tattoo chairs for hundreds of hours, completely covered in ink, I can honestly say it hurt more than any tattoo machine or any piece of work I have ever received.
Regarding the pain, I knew this was a perfect time to focus my mind on my meditation practice, ignoring the displeasure and removing myself from that place of physical discomfort. It was a perfect time to use my practice to be present and be in the moment with the monk. It was through the power of the pain, the spiritual blessing, and the needle tipped with ink piercing through a shallow, physical surface and penetrating to leave a permanent, everlasting, magical mark on the body and the spirit. I was able to learn a lot about myself through this manifestation and experience. I have strength and I am mentally strong. I can overcome this physical world and find peace through continuous practice outside of myself. And now, with my Sak Yant tattoo, I have good luck and protection along the way.
The final blessing of my Sak Yant was to give the tattoo its powers. To help guide me with strength and security as I leave the temple and enter back into the physical world. It was a holy and divine experience that left a permanent reminder of protection. For Your Blessing, Kob-Kun-Kap!
For your consideration: It goes without saying that with a 2000-year-old tradition in a country where hygiene and sanitary standards aren’t the same to western society, there poses some health risks when receiving a traditional Sak Yant tattoo. Much of it depends on the temple and monk you are receiving your tattoo from but many monks and temples are known for re-using needles (typically sanitizing in between) and dipping into the same ink jar. This can lead to the possibility of an infection and or the transmission of a blood borne illness/pathogen. When I received my Sak Yant this was a concern of mine, however I watched the monk open a package and use a new needle. My only concern was his lack of glove use during the process (only using one glove about halfway through the tattoo) but it was a chance I took.
I felt as though I only have one life to live and I have definitely done things that are way more reckless in my lifetime that could have led to even worse outcomes. The chances of you contracting any illness is very low but it is a chance you take. Use your common sense as with any tattoo. Make sure he is using a new needle (or thoroughly sanitized) and use your instincts. Remember, there are plenty of clean and professional tattoo shops throughout Thailand. It is possible to get a Sak Yant tattoo by a professional tattooist with proper equipment and then later on have your ink blessed by a monk.