I sat there, watching Ajarn Keng’s quick lips recite prayer indecipherably, breathing in the peace of the room, the warm light. I held Jenn’s hand as he tattooed her back meticulously with a steal rod, one point at a time, more focused and simultaneously relaxed than ever, a picture of prayer. I thought: If I were to pray for one thing – if one blessing were to be granted – what would this be?
I found a journal entry from October 12, 2017. I wrote only this: “What do I care about MOST? Non-harming.”
It’s largely debated as to whether or not Sak Yant is an original Buddhist tradition, or whether previously held traditions like Sak Yant in Thailand and across Asia became associated with Buddhism as its influence spread. Regardless, most Thai Monks accept the validity of Sak Yant tattoos whether or not this tradition has been incorporated into their particular school of thought.
“Sak” means “to tap” or “to tattoo” and “Yant” is derived from the Sanskrit word Yantra, also an English term today, meaning “a geometric design used as a meditation aid in tantric worship.”
Each Sak Yant’s design holds meaning for a specific prayer. The most common type of Sak Yant, a Master Yant incorporating many blessings into one design, is the Hah Taew represeting 5 yants, including: protection, good luck, charisma, manifestation of your goals and financial security.
Thai Monks with an interest in the Talismans magic of Sak Yant will externally learn the art and operate from a Sunnak, a room separate from the temple. If the Thai Monk is very practiced in the art of Sak Yant, they are called an Ajarn, and their Sunnak will be filled over time with decorative “Ruesi” masks to represent skill progression from student to master. The better the master, the more masks you will see in his Sunnak.
Even in the small space of Ajarn Keng’s Sunnak, his Ruesi masks were almost too many to count.
You might remember that Jenn has been wanting to experience a Sak Yant tattoo for a while now – in Chiang Mai, her plan to receive one did not pan out. A friend of ours, Ashley, reminded Jenn, “If it did not work out this time, there’s a probably a reason. Maybe this was not the right time for you to get your Sak Yant.” How right she was.
Buddhist monks practice celibacy and strictly avoid any potential temptation, resulting in very serious rules regarding interaction between male Buddhist monks and females. Monks are never supposed to touch the skin of a female. In fact, male Monks are not even allowed to hand something to a female – the object must be placed down by the first individual and then picked up by the second. Thus, Sak Yant for females is much more restrictive. Women are only allowed to receive Sak Yants on their backs, and the Ajarns must make an effort to keep a cloth between the skin of the female’s back and his hand while tattooing.
*Side note: for those of you wondering, there are female Buddhist Monks in Thailand, though Jenn and I can probably count on two hands the number we have seen. It is more common when we travel throughout Thailand than in our small town. The women wear all white robes, compared to the various orange shades of male Monk robes. Just like the men, the women keep their heads shaved. I have never heard of a female Ajarn.
Teachers in Thailand are expected to be very conservative in appearance. Jenn must wear long sleeves to school every day – even in the hot, non-air-conditioned classrooms – to keep her tattoos covered. Teachers are “not allowed” to have tattoos, but because Sak Yants can be easily hidden, many teachers receive Sak Yants anyway.
One day, while meeting with one of my co-teachers, Pee Nilamai, she bent over to pick up a stack of papers and her shirt gapped near the neck. I saw the tip of a Sak Yant tattoo and, knowing that Pee Nilamai is fairly easy-going, started a conversation with her about it. After explaining that Jenn and I had been looking for a trust-worthy Ajarn and an authentic experience, Pee Nilamai offered her assistance in connecting us with the master who performed her Sak Yant.
As it turns out, this master happens to be the famous Ajarn Keng – the same master who tattooed Angelina Jolie.
“You girls are lucky,” said Pee Nilamai. “Ajarn Keng travels the world practicing Sak Yant, but he will be at home in Lomkao this weekend.”
That Saturday evening, Pee Nilamai drove us through Lomkao, past the temple, the infamous 7/11, through gorgeous rice fields and mountainous sights we had yet to see, admiring a nearby peak called Phu Thap Boek.
The most stunning sight of all turned out to be Ajarn Keng’s home. Nestled in the perfect distance from town – not too far, but away from most traffic – with a breathtaking view of Phu Thap Boek, the impressive home was adorned with wood carvings on almost every door or staircase, with engraved intricate designs of dragons and monks on each window. The kitchen seemed built for a viewpoint with an entire wall of glass looking out on green giants.
We followed a spectacularly-carved wooden staircase up to Ajarn Keng’s Sunnak. He sat on his meditation pillow, surrounded by magnificently gold-adorned Reusi masks, in a small, rectangular nook that looked like it was built for this exact purpose. A middle-aged white man and a younger-looking Thai woman were just finishing with Ajarn Keng. Pee Nilamai told Jenn and I that it was incredibly lucky for us to be next in line. “People wait for hours to receive Sak Yant from him!”
**Side note: Any time we are in a larger city in Thailand, the pairs of older white men and younger Thai women seem to multiply by the minute – they’re everywhere. It’s a hush-hush type of knowledge that in many of these arrangements, the men financially support the women in exchange for the relationship.
Jenn asked Ajarn Keng for a Sak Yant focused on gratitude and faith. On her right shoulder, Ajarn Keng tattooed a type of Hah Taew – five vertical designs parallel to one another in columns – dedicated to a prayer for gratitude and faith.
The entire tattoo experience was more of a ceremony than an application of body art, beginning with multiple prayers and chants. Ajarn Keng presented Jenn with 1 Baht that he engraved with a good luck prayer and asked her to keep the coin with her. He did not stop chanting prayer throughout the entire tattoo, while at the same time listening to a recording tape of Buddhist Monk chants. His precision was immaculate, even with how quickly he seemed to be exercising his steel rod.
Ajarn Keng’s wife served as his assistant, and throughout Jenn’s tattoo she repeatedly asked me if I wanted one myself. I wasn’t initially planning on getting a Sak Yant with Jenn in Chiang Mai, as we found most companies to be catering to tourists, but the experience with Ajarn Keng was genuinely authentic. I was in a private environment with people who care about me and I had a chance to ask for a truly meaningful prayer. I asked for some time to think.
My mind eventually found its way to the October 12th journal entry – non-harming.
It’s funny – I work with many teachers in the foreign language department at my school who teach English, but yet their ability to communicate English fluently remains subpar. Attempting to communicate the concept of non-harming and love toward all beings to the Ajarn and his wife (who both speak zero English) was not made any easier by Pee Nilamai. I’ve mostly been paraphrasing quotes of hers throughout this post… piecing together broken English, that is.
As soon as they read “love” on the translator, they understood a far different definition of love than what I was attempting to translate.
“Oh, you want to pray for love! So, you want people to like you, to be attracted to you?”
“You want to find a husband?”
“You want everyone you meet to be enchanted by you, right? You want to come across as charming to everyone?”
After countless failed attempts, all ending in the same result, it seemed almost a lost cause trying to convey that I didn’t wish to pray for romantic love, and I didn’t wish for the prayer to be only for myself – I wanted my prayer to extend to all beings and with a completely different understanding of love.
Through the use of hand gestures and Google Translate, certainly with no shortage of confusion, the Ajarn and his wife were kind enough to agree with my request – I would go home and consult my boss, Pee Som, for help with more accurate translation and meet back at their home the next morning.
I meditated when I got home to contemplate the true meaning of my prayer, to put it into words for Pee Som.
Love, in a sense not limited to romance. Love as a simple religion. Love, compassion and nonviolence toward all living beings, and for one’s own self. Love as the language that crosses all boundaries, as a force for miracles, for synchronicities. Love for oneself to accept and enjoy that everything in this moment is exactly how it is meant to be. Love, expansive love, for all beings everywhere to be happy and free.
Adding, at the end, “Remember that non-coincidental coincidence when you and Khao Noi met me at the bus station the day she passed?”
The only other time I remember working in an environment like this is the too-short few months I was fortunate to work at Eco-Bean Organic Coffee House. My boss treats me like her family and is always there to help me, no matter for what I come to her. Pee Som translated the whole passage to Thai for me and sent it to me via messaging so that I could show the translation to the Ajarn and his wife. When we still were not on the same page the next morning, Pee Som spent about half an hour on the phone with the Ajarn to help him understand. Without her, my Sak Yant – the way I wanted it, at least – would not have been possible.
What I didn’t realize before coming to Thailand is how extremely different the languages are at a structural level, and how this makes things not only much harder for me to learn Thai and for my students to learn English than I expected, but also much harder than I anticipated to communicate through translation. While translation from English to Spanish is sometimes off, mostly due to idioms or differing word order, the main message still translates fairly accurately the majority of the time. In this country across the globe from English, the alphabet is completely different, the word order is complexly foreign, and some words that we use in English don’t exist in the Thai language at all- that, and many English words translate to the same word in Thai. Basically, I can use Google Translate all I want, but unless the meaning I’m trying to communicate is extremely simple, there’s a fat chance I’m going to be understood.
Thanks to Pee Som, we made it past this hurdle. The Ajarn and his wife finally understood and the Ajarn agreed to draw a custom prayer design for my meaning – no one else will ever have an identical Sak Yant.
Jenn also decided to get a second Sak Yant that day. The experience was so meaningful that she asked Ajarn Keng for a prayer for manifestation of one’s goals and desires.
I will never forget the ceremony. Before we started, I was given some numbing cream on my back, but after the lengthy translation session, it had mostly worn off by the time Ajarn Keng began my tattoo. Even so, it hurt much less than I expected, and listening to his melodic prayers provided a welcome distraction.
I held stones in my hand, Jenn’s hand in my other. I closed my eyes, I thought about Swayze, I thought about my pain, the pain of my loved ones, the burdens I needlessly carry, the sticky rejections. I thought about hope, about magic, presence, connection. My Sak Yant was a vow to love myself, to choose love.
I accomplished something with this vow. I had always been scared to get a tattoo – scared that I would regret it, that later on, I would change yet again as an individual, look back and wish I had not gotten it. And I realized that this mindset is what makes it so hard to love myself. I am constantly analyzing myself, critiquing, even though I know that I am always doing my best, and my best is enough. Even though I know that I should never be ashamed or embarrassed, because all I’m ever doing is being myself in that moment. This tattoo carries a meaning that I want to manifest as a constant throughout my life – so I loved myself enough to get it.
I brought my thumbs to my third eye in prayer as Ajarn Keng rested his hands on my head and chanted, prayed. He blessed my tattoo, sprinkled me with holy water, engraved my good luck coin and left a gold foil seal on my tattoo, a symbol of respect for the Buddha commonly placed on Buddhist statues in temples.
I’m proud of myself. I’m grateful for our authentic, special experience, for the beautiful reminder I’m fortunate enough to have on my back: Choose love.
By the way, I really appreciate your time and energy. Thank you all for reading my words.