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Submitted to the graduate faculty of The University of Alabama at Birmingham,
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts.
Copyright by
Angela Marie May
Officially, Thailand is dominated by the state-sponsored Theravada Buddhist
tradition, which has essentially been practiced in Thailand since 1902 when the sangha
bureaucracy was established. However, within the last couple of decades a hybrid form of
Thai Buddhism has emerged. The contemporary, hybridic Thai religion emphasizes
Buddhism—placing it at the top of its hierarchal pyramid—even while it includes
elements of Animism and Hinduism.
This thesis explores the hybridization of popular religions in contemporary
Thailand as reflected in the art form of Sak Yant. Thai Buddhist magical tattoos called
Sak Yant are based on ancient Indic yantras that are considered powerful forms meant to
ward off negative influences. These tattoos incorporate elements of Hindu, Animist, and
Buddhist traditions. In this way, the ideas behind, and practices of, Sak Yant mirror
broader changes in the modern religious context of Thailand. The transformation of Sak
Yant over time likewise reflects the transformations of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand
as it is converged with Animist and Hindu forms. This transformation is revealed by an
analysis of the social and religious atmosphere of modern Thailand, a comparative
analysis of Indic yantras and their transformation into Sak Yant (including the “Buddhaization” of the Ramayana into a Southeast Asian “magical text” and Thai Buddhist epic),
an analysis of the function of Sak Yant within the needs of modern Thai Buddhists, and
how Sak Yant unites the division between rural and state sponsored Buddhism. By
deconstructing Sak Yant’s form and function, the construction of a modern Thai hybrid
Buddhist religion takes shape.
In general, I refrain from participating in the overuse of the metaphorical journey
as a means to convey a life changing experience. However, I think it would be apropos to
relate the writing of this thesis to the arduous journey of a pilgrim making their way
through harsh landscapes in order for a glimmer of the sacred. There seems to be a direct
relationship between the difficulty of the journey and the amount of spiritual reward
received at the destination. For me, the road was rough and I have never felt as vulnerable
as I have during this writing process. But, this vulnerability opened me up and allowed
me to take in what my research was trying to give me. The reward is great, as I completed
something that I never thought I could.
Throughout this writing pilgrimage, my advisor, Dr. Cummings encouraged me
and surprised me on a multitude of occasions with her ability to practically read my mind.
A “thank you” does not even begin to articulate the endless amount of appreciation and
gratitude I have for the guidance and extreme, Buddha-like, patience she showed me
during this exhausting endeavor. I will forever be indebted to her willingness to let me
explore the road less traveled in Asian art. There really are no words for the significance
of the impact her mentorship has had on me.
I would like to express my appreciation of Dr. Dallow for being on my thesis
committee and for always making herself available to me and my infinite questions. Her
suggestions, guidance, and sense of humor provided me with the fuel I needed to finish.
Dr. Pagani has been such a huge inspiration for me and an invaluable member of
my thesis committee. Her insight and thoughtfulness has never gone unnoticed and her
encouragement is greatly appreciated. Her energy is contagious.
A huge thank you goes to Tao. His willingness to show me his magnificent Sak
Yant tattoos, his openness about the reasons why he believes in these tattoos and, above
all, his positive personality not only endeared him to me, but has provided me with an
intimate view into the Sak Yant culture. His generous contribution can never be repaid.
Prak Sokdaren is the ajar that gave me my Sak Yant. He was not only caring and
perceptive, but he provided me with the tattoo that “keeps on giving.” The experience of
receiving a Sak Yant tattoo is one of the most precious of my life; it was the time where
three of my favorite things (tattoos, art, and Buddhism) joined together permanently on
my body.
A huge thanks is in order for my travel partner, Christy Green. Not only was she
willing to be tattooed in the name of “my” research, but was open to every experience our
“Wild East” trip presented us with. This thesis is enriched by her participation.
I am incredibly indebted to Jake Terrell. Not only is he a great friend, but he was
my interpreter in Chiang Rai and introduced me to Tao, who plays such a huge role in
this thesis.
I would also like to express my gratitude to Caroline Ireland and her endowment
of the Ireland Research Travel Award. This award enabled me to travel to Southeast Asia
and perform field research, for which I gained invaluable experience and insight.
ABSTRACT .......................................................................................................................iii
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS ................................................................................................ v
LIST OF FIGURES ............................................................................................................ ix
1. INTRODUCTION .......................................................................................................... 1
Sak Yant Overview ................................................................................................. 4
Methodology ........................................................................................................... 7
Historiography ......................................................................................................... 7
Organization of Thesis ............................................................................................ 9
Contribution of this Study ..................................................................................... 10
2. RELIGIOUS THAILAND .......................................................................................... 11
Animism ................................................................................................................ 11
The Introduction of Indic religions in Thailand .................................................... 13
Modern State Buddhism: the Separation between Bangkok and the Meuang ...... 17
Contemporary “Thai Buddhism:” a Mix of Magic and Merit ............................... 21
3. YANTRAS AND YANTS ........................................................................................... 25
Indic Yantra .......................................................................................................... 25
Incorporation of Indic Yantra in Contemporary Sak Yant Designs and Function . 33
Parallels to Lakshanas in Sak Yant Designs and Rituals ....................................... 43
4. RAMAYANA............................................................................................................... 51
5. MERIT GAINING........................................................................................................ 60
Sak Yant and Merit ................................................................................................ 61
Sak Yant and Pilgrimage ........................................................................................ 64
6. CONCLUSION ............................................................................................................ 72
FIGURES .......................................................................................................................... 75
NOTES ............................................................................................................................ 112
BIBLIOGRAPHY ........................................................................................................... 120
All photographs are the author’s except as noted on figures
1. Suea yant ...................................................................................................................... 76
2. Circle yantra shape ........................................................................................................ 77
3. Radiating Circle yantra shape ...................................................................................... 77
4. Square yantra shape ..................................................................................................... 78
5. Square, en pointe, yantra shape .................................................................................... 78
6. Square with diagonals yantra shape ............................................................................. 78
7. Square, en pointe, with diagonals yantra shape ........................................................... 78
8. Triangle yantra shape ................................................................................................... 79
9. Lotus with petal in north position yantra design .......................................................... 80
10. Lotus with petal in intercardinal position yantra design ............................................ 80
11. Ganesha yantra ........................................................................................................... 81
12. Sixteen petal lotus yant ............................................................................................... 82
13. Ganesha Sak Yant ....................................................................................................... 83
14. Unalom above the meditating Buddha ....................................................................... 84
15. Tao’s circle yant ......................................................................................................... 85
16. Yant Yod Mongkut ...................................................................................................... 86
17. Yant Baramee Phra Buddha Chao ............................................................................. 87
18. Tao’s Yant Pad Tad .................................................................................................... 88
19. Yant Pad Tad .............................................................................................................. 89
20. Dharmachakra ............................................................................................................ 90
21. The basic square in Tao’s Sak Yant ............................................................................ 91
22. The square with diagnonals in Tao’s Sak Yant ........................................................... 92
23. The square en pointe with diagonals in Tao’s Sak Yant ............................................. 93
24. Yant Phokasap ............................................................................................................ 94
25. Yant 5 Taew with square yant design in center .......................................................... 95
26. Tao’s Yant Gao Yord .................................................................................................. 96
27. Yant Dok Bua .............................................................................................................. 97
28. Buddha on lotus from Sokdaren’s yoan manuscript................................................... 98
29. Buddha on lotus .......................................................................................................... 99
30. Shiva Indic yantra ................................................................................................... 100
31. Yant Maha Sa Wang ................................................................................................. 100
32. Lan Na style urna and ushnisha ............................................................................... 101
33. Monk in cauldron from 2012 Chiang Rai Wai Khru ................................................ 102
34. Yants on leaves from 2012 Chiang Rai Wai Khru .................................................... 103
35. Monk in cauldron connected to devotees by a web from 2012 Chiang Rai Wai Khru
......................................................................................................................................... 104
36. Practitioners, web, and yants from 2012 Chiang Rai Wai Khru .............................. 105
37. Yant Reusi ................................................................................................................. 106
38. Yant Hanuman Tua Kao ........................................................................................... 107
39. Example of a Hanuman Sak Yant ............................................................................. 108
40. Yant Hanuman Song Lit............................................................................................ 109
41. Manuscript on display in Wat Phra Kaew in Chiang Rai, Thailand ........................ 110
42. Manuscript on display in Wat Phra Kaew in Chiang Rai, Thailand ........................ 111
Within the last couple of decades the religious atmosphere in Thailand has
undergone subtle changes. Officially, Thailand is dominated by the state-sponsored
Theravada Buddhist tradition, which has essentially been practiced in Thailand since
1902 when the sangha bureaucracy was established. The nature of Thai Theravada
Buddhism, however, has always been inclusive and syncretic, incorporating indigenous
Animist spirit worship, Mahayana, and Tantric traditions, as well as Brahmanism and
Hinduism. In contemporary Thailand, the popular religious landscape seems to have
become even more hybridic, incorporating aspects of Thailand’s Animistic and Hindu
pasts. Indeed, as Pattana Kitiarsa points out, Buddhism, Animism, and Brahmanist
traditions have never existed as completely separate entities in Thailand.1 It is evident
from the visual culture of contemporary Thailand that the three religions have melded
into a uniquely Thai Buddhist tradition. This new definition has, in part, emerged in the
wake of the resurgence in the popularity of Animist cults (previously associated with
rural Thailand), which appears to have subtly subverted the reigning popularity of
Buddhism and Buddhist needs in Thailand. As Thailand continues to become more
globalized and a middle class emerges from the countryside, the division between statesponsored Theravada Buddhism and rural Animist beliefs dissolves.
The recent resurgence in popularity of Animism and Hindu cults certainly lends
credence to the hybridization theory; how is this hybrid religion practiced? Kitiarsa
provides one example—the incorporation of Buddhist and Hindu deity icons within
Animist spirit shrines. He sees this as a demonstration of a burgeoning hybrid religion in
which the three source traditions, Buddhism, Animism, and Hinduism, relate to each
other in a hierarchized schema. In his example of a spirit altar, the image of a Buddha is
most important and receives the most veneration; next in importance are Buddhist saints,
followed by Hindu deities, and royal spirits.2 The “ranking” of multiple deities on the
altar of Kitiarsa’s spirit shrine represents the hierarchy of the new hybrid religion, but
how is this hybridization represented in a singular art form?
Sak Yant—tattoos based on ancient Indic yantras that are considered powerful
symbols meant to ward off negative influences—incorporate elements of Hindu, Animist,
and Buddhist traditions. Although typically identified as a Buddhist practice, the
application and display of Sak Yant incorporates aspects of the reemerging Animist cult.
This is especially so since these tattoos are dependent on “magic” (esoteric apotropaism
used to control spirits and supernatural powers). Indeed, at first they do not seem to
function at all within the Buddhist context. Some of the most popular Sak Yant tattoos are
sought for protection, good fortune, love and monetary wealth, motives that appear
contradictory to the Buddhist goal of renunciation of objects of desire. Aside from the
elements of Animist magic, deities from the Hindu pantheon are also included in Sak
Yant design, further complicating the intention, meaning, and function of the tattoos as
forms of “Buddhist” visual culture.
Sak Yants are becoming more and more popular with non-Buddhist Western
tourists. That, combined with the fact that the practice of Sak Yant is considered to be
“magic” by the majority of Thai people, means that the Sak Yant tradition is often
regarded as “gimmicky.”3 However, practitioners’ motives for making or receiving a Sak
Yant tattoo are sincere, and to most Thais, Sak Yant tattoos are considered sacred. And
while Sak Yant incorporate Animist and Hindu influences, I argue that they continue to
serve Buddhist needs. The contemporary, hybridic Thai religion emphasizes Buddhism—
placing it at the top of its hierarchal pyramid—even while it includes elements of
Animism and Hindusim. In this way, the ideas behind, and practices of, Sak Yant mirror
broader changes in the modern religious context of Thailand. The transformation of Sak
Yant over time likewise reflects the transformations of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand
as it is converged with Animist and Hindu forms. This transformation is revealed by an
analysis of the social and religious atmosphere of modern Thailand, a comparative
analysis of Indic yantras and their transformation into Sak Yant (including the “Buddhaization” of the Ramayana into a Southeast Asian “magical text” and Thai Buddhist epic),
an analysis of the function of Sak Yant within the needs of modern Thai Buddhists, and
how Sak Yant unites the division between rural and state sponsored Buddhism. By
deconstructing Sak Yant’s form and function, the construction of a modern Thai hybrid
Buddhist religion takes shape.
Sak Yant Overview
The practice of Sak Yant is difficult to trace in the historical record. Aside from
the fact that tattoos are placed on skin—an inherently ephemeral material—there are
variations in the practice of Sak Yant in different parts of Thailand and Southeast Asia.
Nevertheless, there are a few facts that are evident, including the source of Sak Yant
concepts and designs from Indic yantras, and the significant influence of Animistic
beliefs in the notion of a tattoo’s power and effectiveness.
Sak Yant derives from a mixture of Indic yantras, Animist magic, and Buddhist
beliefs and practices. Sak Yant are powerful tattoos that stem from sacred yantras.4
Yantra is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as “instrument of thought.”5 Yantras were
typically used in Indic culture in the context of religious ritual and meditative practice.
They could be drawn on the ground using ephemeral materials such as colored powder,
or constructed or visualized through more durable materials such as metal plates. In
Thailand, they are referred to as yants or yan.6 It is generally accepted that yantras first
came from India to Southeast Asia within manuscripts carried by Indian merchants and
missionaries. While it is not known where in Southeast Asia the yantras were first
tattooed on the skin, it is widely accepted that the practice began during the Khmer
Empire (eighth through thirteenth centuries). Figural forms have long been integrated
into the Sak Yant art form in Thailand, including representations of deities, sacred
animals, or mythical creatures from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of India.7
In contemporary Thai practice, a practitioner’s desire for a Sak Yant may vary, but
the underlying notion is always that a Sak Yant tattoo can improve one’s future. They
may provide protection, power, or wealth, or ensure good business sense or guarantee a
successful love match between couples. In Southeast Asia yants also serve as a support
for sacred syllables known as mantras.8 Mantras are sacred sounds, phrases, or prayers
that aid in meditation or ritual practice, and they are included within Sak Yant to aid in
activating the tattoo’s power.9 When mantras are included in Sak Yant tattoos they are
generally short in length, but tattoos may also include a longer verse known as a kaathaa.
Kaathaa is derived from the Pali-Sanskrit term gatha (spoken word) and in Thailand is
thought of as a sacred Pali incantation.10
These tattoos may be given by a Buddhist monk or by an ajarn or reusi who has
been indoctrinated into the practice. Ajarns and reusis are lay members of the Buddhist
community, ones considered to have a heightened sense of spiritualism and connection to
the magic arts. An ajarn is usually a non-celibate, urban householder, and wears white
when applying Sak Yant to a disciple, while a reusi is associated with a hermetic lifestyle
outside of cities and is identified by the faux tiger fabric he wears.11 Monks wear their
traditional robes. A lay practitioner who becomes a reusi or ajarn, as with Thai Buddhist
monks, is usually from a lineage of Sak Yant masters, and like a Buddhist monk receives
his master’s weechaa (from the Pali-Sanskrit term vijja “knowledge”).12 Joe Cummings
states that within the Sak Yant tradition, “weechaa is the tattoo’s main source of power,
constituting not only a range of designs and techniques, but more importantly a set of
sacred spells and verses to control spirits and supernatural powers.”13 Cummings’ goes
on to say that, “the concept of weechaa is rather analogous with the concept of “magic”
in the West.”14 There are instances where a lay practitioner has been indoctrinated into
Sak Yant practice without coming from a lineage, and in those instances the practitioner
must be accepted by a Sak Yant master for a five year training period. During the training
period the apprentice may not tattoo, but first must intensely study kaathaa and devote
his time to meditation.15 Some Sak Yant masters claim that tattoos are only as powerful as
the nature of the person making them and therefore meditation is important to
maintaining the energy and mindset for Sak Yant.16
A Sak Yant master is made to learn Khom script, an ancient Khmer lettering
system that is only permitted to be used for sacred or magical texts.17 (The use of Khom
script is one of the reasons it is believed the practice of tattooing yantras originated with
the Khmer empire.)18 Because Sak Yant masters can read Khom, and thus possess the
power to decode another master’s yant, Sak Yant masters tend to jumble the script within
the tattoo they are creating so that the mantra cannot be read.19 Kaathaa and mantra are
passed down orally to the apprentice.20 There usually is no mention of the meaning of the
mantra, only its purported effect.21 The practitioner is told to recite the mantra while
receiving the tattoo.22
The upper back is the most common location of the body to receive a Sak Yant,
followed by chest and lower back, and on occasion the thighs, hands, throat, or top of the
head.23 The tattoo is applied by the Sak Yant master using a mai sak (bamboo rod) or a
khem sak (metal rod) to rapidly tap ink or clear oil into the skin of the devotee. Once the
tattoo is applied, the master then consecrates the tattoo. This is done through incantations
and by blowing on the tattoo. The blowing of the tattoo is symbolic of the Sak Yant
master blowing his weechaa into the tattoo. Sak Yant masters “plant” spiritual power,
pluuk sehk, into tattoos through ritual and kaathaa.24 It is the combination of the master’s
weechaa, the yant design, and the mantra or kaathaa that make these tattoos efficacious,
and thus, magical.
This thesis is based primarily on fieldwork in Cambodia and Thailand I conducted
in June and July 2013. During my time in Southeast Asia, I drew upon observation and
first-hand experiences of places, peoples, and practices for much of my evidence and
examples. This includes interviews I conducted with ajarns, other tattoo artists, and a
variety of tattoo recipients.
I use this fieldwork in conjunction with an examination of the iconography of
contemporary Sak Yant and compare it to the iconography of Indic yantra, upon which
most Sak Yant designs are based. I make extensive use of recent studies of Sak Yant
culture, as well as studies on the religious changes taking place in Thailand.
Because so little work has been done on the Sak Yant tradition as a form of
Buddhist art or relic, there are few art historical sources to ground my work. Instead, I
will draw from analyses of yantra and their functions in South and Southeast Asia;
historical surveys of Buddhism in Thailand and Cambodia; analyses of tattooing in
Southeast Asia; and works on pilgrimage traditions in Buddhism, particularly in the
context of physical endurance or sacrifice. Three specific books that have been helpful to
my work, and upon which my work builds, include: Isabel Azevedo Drouyer’s Thai
Magic Tattoos: The Art and Influence of Sak Yant25 (2013); Tom Vater and Aroon
Thaewchatturat’s Sacred Skin: Thailand's Spirit Tattoos26 (2011); and Joe Cummings and
Dan White’s Sacred Tattoos of Thailand: Exploring the Magic, Masters and Mystery of
Sak Yan27 (2012). All three of these books consist of several interviews with monks,
ajarns, reusis, and Sak Yant devotees.
In Thai Magic Tattoos: The Art and Influence of Sak Yant published in 2013,
Isabel Azevedo Drouyer is one of the first to write about Sak Yant in a way that provides
an understanding of the mechanisms by which a tattoo may actually change the life of the
bearer. Her research has provided an invaluable insight into the influence of Sak Yant on
the individual’s mind and health.
In Sacred Skin: Thailand's Spirit Tattoos published in 2011, Tom Vater writes
about these tattoos as the essence of the bearers’ individual identity. This is illustrated
through a large catalogue of photographs by Aroon Thaewchatturat. Vater underwent the
colossal task of identifying every Sak Yant received by the devotees in these
photographs. His work is incredibly helpful to this research, as he has provided a large
database of possible Sak Yant designs and meanings and related them to the bearer.
In Sacred Tattoos of Thailand: Exploring the Magic, Masters and Mystery of Sak
Yan published in 2012, Joe Cummings has provided the most inclusive study of the Sak
Yant tradition published to date. Instead of focusing solely on Thailand, which is the
center of the tradition’s conservation and development, he researches similar traditions
that exist today in Cambodia, Laos, parts of Vietnam, China, and Burma. He focuses on
the general practice of Sak Yant and has provided a fantastic resource for future studies.
Not only does he include interviews, but also he has conducted a great deal of research
into the transmission of Sak Yant into Southeast Asia. He discusses Sak Yant’s spiritual
roots and how it combines Buddhism, Brahmanism, and Animism. However, his
discussion falls short as to how this combination actually functions in the Buddhist
context or how it outlines the broader changes in the modern religious context of
Thailand. His research has provided a great deal of information that previously has been
glossed over or simply accepted as a mystery.
These three works have laid much of the groundwork for the study of Sak Yant
culture. They have provided several examples of the varying designs in this art form.
However, none of these authors have been able to fully explain Sak Yant’s function
within the Buddhist context. Sak Yant is simply accepted as a Buddhist practice because
so many Buddhist receive these tattoos. My research endeavors to uncover in which ways
the design and practice of Sak Yant reflects the hybridization of Buddhism in Thailand.
Organization of Thesis
The structure of this thesis is as follows. The first chapter provides a basic
overview of the practice of Sak Yant in Thailand. Chapter Two expresses the problem in
generalizing all of Thailand as practicing orthodox Theravada Buddhism. Here I provide
a brief history of the multilayered religious landscape of Thailand, as well as outline the
division between the Buddhism of Bangkok and that of rural Thailand. Chapter Three
analyzes the transformation in iconography and meaning of Indic yantra into Sak Yant,
along with how the lakshanas of the Buddha have been incorporated into Sak Yant design
and practice. Chapter Four considers the incorporation of figural forms from the
Ramayana epic in Sak Yant and how this Indian epic eventually was regarded as magic in
Southeast Asia. Chapter Five theorizes as to how Sak Yant is integral in providing
Buddhist needs and how providing these needs outlines the changes taking place in
modern Thailand. Chapter Six concludes this thesis with a look at how Sak Yant provides
a sense of community for the international Buddhist community.
Contribution of this Study
I anticipate that the study of the transformation of Indic yantra into magical
Buddhist tattoos will provide insight into the hybridization of Buddhism taking place in
contemporary Thailand. In understanding how these eclectic tattoos fulfill modern
Buddhist needs, I hope that the misinterpretation of a static, doctrinal Theravada
Buddhism in Thailand will be clarified and that this newly forming hybrid Buddhism will
be embraced and appreciated, as it opens the door for more research in Buddhist studies.
It is difficult to generalize about Buddhism in Thailand or to define it as pure
Theravada Buddhism. Thailand’s past is plural, with multiple religious and cultural
influences. Although Theravada is sanctioned by the state, centuries of religious plurality
remain. A brief history and analysis of the convoluted and multilayered religious
landscape of Thailand will be presented in this chapter. This is necessary for
understanding the religious transformations that are reflected in the contemporary Thai
religious landscape, and sets the stage for discussions in subsequent chapters. Before the
transformation from Indic yantras to Sak Yant tattoos can be revealed, past and present
Thailand must be addressed.
Animism, commonly referred to as spirit worship in Thailand, is considered the
original religion of Southeast Asia, and indeed is still very much present there. Animism
is the belief that all objects, including trees, fields, and other natural objects, possess a
conscious life, or are inhabited by spirits.28 These spirits will either protect and serve
those who properly placate or petition them, or will harm those who neglect or
improperly treat them.29 There are several types of spirits in Thai Animism. One type
consists of guardian spirits (phii) who maintain the honored status of an ancestor or
father.30 Phii are guardians in the interest of the community and moral values, who act as
disciplinarians and punish transgressors. Phii are also associated with agricultural
prosperity because they are associated with agricultural cycles.31 Another type are
malevolent spirits who are vengeful and attack humans if they step into their domain.32
These spirits are to be left alone and nothing should be asked of them.33 However, it is
believed that even guardian spirits may attack and punish individuals for no apparent
reason. In some cases individuals may be possessed by a spirit and need to be
Nature spirits that reside in outdoor locations form a third category of spirit. For
instance, field spirits usually guard the fields and farmers must be diligent in making
offerings to them.35 Some nature spirits perform specific functions and are believed to
have powers and influence over the environment, such as rice spirits who need to be
appeased during the planting and harvesting of rice.36 The most unpredictable type of
spirits are the ghosts of the dead who have failed to be reborn.37 They are considered
dangerous because of their anxiety and impatience to be reborn. They are also territorial
and, although considered good, may be quite protective of their sphere. Even today in
Thailand, every building has its own protective spirit who resides there as a matter of
natural right.38
Homes are made for many of these various spirits. Such dwellings are referred to
as Thai Spirit Houses and are placed in front of both businesses and private homes.
Spirits are thought to reside within and prayers and offerings are made to these spirits in
order to please them as well as receive forgiveness for possible wrong doings and
protection.39 Such spirits are considered to have great power and control over people. It
is believed the powers of harmful spirits can be neutralized by invoking the powers of
magically charged amulets, tattoos, chants, spells, and, most recently, protective
Buddhists texts.40 In this way, Buddhism has been incorporated into indigenous Thai
spirit worship.
The Introduction of Indic religions in Thailand
Because Thailand is a young nation, it can be difficult to identify the date and
manner in which Buddhism was first introduced there. Prior to its unification and the
creation of the modern political state in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
the region was made of coexisting petty states, each with its own Buddhist tradition. In
Bangkok (and previously in Ayutthaya), Sinhalese Theravada Buddhism was the official
religion, but in the outlying kingdoms less orthodox forms of Theravada Buddhism
reflecting the various influences of indigenous Animism, Brahmanism, and Mahayana
Buddhism that existed in the area prior to the fourteenth century was practiced.
Nevertheless, it is a form of Sinhalese Theravada Buddhism that remains most commonly
associated with Thailand today. A general overview of the introduction of Buddhism and
other Indic religions into Thailand, and the manner of their subsequent intermingling, is
important to understand Sak Yant—with its multiple religious strands—in the
contemporary context. The presence of different Buddhist and Hindu traditions in Sak
Yant reinforces the concept of the hybridization of Buddhism in Thailand.
It was in the third century BCE, most likely through the missionary activities of
the Mauryan king, Ashoka, that Indic religion first entered Southeast Asia. Evidence for
this is found in the Sinhalese chronicle Mahavamsa, as well as the Ashokan Rock Edict
XIII, which states that King Ashoka dispatched nine groups of Buddhist missionaries.41
Three of these missionaries, Theras, Sona, and Uttara, went to a place called
Suvarnabhumi.42 The location of Suvarnabhumi has been greatly debated, but scholars
such as H. R. H. Prince and Damrong Rajanubhab argue that the archaeological remains
unearthed at Nakon Pathom in Western Thailand indicate Thailand as the location of
Suvarnabhumi.43 The dharmachakra (Wheel of the Law), the Buddha’s footprints, and
Pali inscriptions were carved into rocks found there.44 The images carved into these
stones are similar to imagery in India from the last two to three centuries BCE. However,
it is the Pathama Chetiya, which is a large stupa purported to have been built in
commemoration of King Ashoka’s missionaries’ visit around the third or fourth century
BCE, that solidifies the date and location for most scholars. This stupa bore a close
resemblance to the Great Stupa at Sanchi, which was founded during the reign of King
Ashoka in India.45 However, in 1853 King Mongkut restored the stupa and covered the
original stupa with a larger chedi in veneration of and protection for the ancient
monument.46 The third century BCE is also around the time that Indian merchants and
missionaries introduced Brahmanism to Southeast Asia. Indic culture and Hindu beliefs
and practices became especially important in Cambodia, Thailand’s neighbor to the East.
A second wave of Buddhism entered Southeast Asia during the second half of the
first century CE. It is probable that Buddhism arrived in Burma and Dvaravati (now
Nakon Pathom) from Magadha, in Bihar, India. However, it is not until the fifth century
that Mahayana Buddhist missionaries from Northern India went to Southeast Asia.47
Archaeological evidence in South Thailand indicates that Mahayana was prevalent there
at this time, visible in stupas and votive tablets incorporating images of Buddhas and
bodhisattavas (Phra Phim). Similar examples have been discovered in Java from the
same time period.48
However, by the sixth century Hindu kings had assumed power in Southeast
Asia.49 Hinduism is considered the philosophical and religious building block of the
Khmer empire (eighth to thirteenth centuries) in Angkor (in modern day Cambodia),
which ruled over a large portion of Southeast Asia, including the area that is now
Thailand.50 During the Khmer empire Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism were both
practiced in Angkor. But what is particularly interesting to this thesis is a stone
inscription preserved in the National Museum at Bangkok, which states that in around the
year 1017 in Lopburi of central Thailand there was a king who traced his lineage to the
Suryavarman dynasty of Cambodia (1002–1182).51 This Thai king had a son who later
became the king of Cambodia; in this way, central Thailand came to be under Khmer
territory. During the time there was much exchange and amalgamation between the two
areas religions and cultures.52
From the inscription on that stone we also learn that Theravada Buddhism was
prevalent in Lopburi and that Mahayana Buddhism became popularized in central
Thailand once Thailand came under the sway of the Khmer empire.53 However, there
are no indications that the Mahayana sect superseded Theravada in central Thailand.
Indeed, another stone inscription in Khmer script, found in a Brahmanic Temple in
Lopburi, indicates that monks of both the Theravada and Mahayana sect resided there
during the period of Khmer rule.54 The fact that this Buddhist information was found in a
Brahmanic temple again shows the multiple layers of religious practice in Thailand,
which sets the stage for the transformation of Buddhism in Thailand today. In modern
Thailand, it appears that Hinduism, Mahayana, and Theravada have merged into one
hybrid religion.
During the Khmer period, particularly in the eleventh century, increased trade
links between the Theravada-dominated land of Sri Lanka and Burma (Myanmar) and
Thailand expanded Theravada Buddhism’s reach in Southeast Asia.55 These links also
allowed for Thai monks to travel to Sri Lanka and study Pali canonical texts in their
monasteries.56 This led to a resurgence in Theravada Buddhism in Thailand and by the
thirteenth century Theravada Buddhism had also made its way to Cambodia. While
Theravada was already present in central and northern Thailand, Theravada’s expansion
to Cambodia and stronger connections between Thailand and Sri Lanka more firmly
established Theravada in Thailand. The impact of Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia and
its effect on magic will be explored more full in Chapter Four.
Following the demise of Khmer power in central Thailand, the Sukhothai
kingdom (1238-1448) was established. The Sukhothais maintained close religious
association with Sinhalese Theravada Buddhism,57 even when they were subsumed into
the Ayutthaya kingdom (1351-1767) of central and southern Thailand. By the fifteenth
century the Ayutthayas had overwhelmed the whole of the Angkor empire, and in the
process borrowed major features from the Khmer royal court, importing Cambodian
Brahman priests in their capital in Thailand.58 Even today in Thailand, Theravada is the
religion of the king, his court, and his people, yet Brahmans also officiate at court.59
In 1767 the Burmese sacked the capital of Ayutthaya, destroying Buddhist art and
texts.60 With their capital destroyed, the Thai people decided to move south and by 1782
established a new capital, Bangkok.61
Modern State Buddhism: the Separation between Bangkok and the Meuang
While modern Thailand may consider itself a Theravada Buddhist nation, the
form of Buddhism practiced in rural areas of Thailand reflects a mixture of multiple
Buddhist sects and other religious traditions. Indeed, there are two distinct strata of
religious practice in Thailand: that of the elite in Bangkok, and that of the rural
population. (Sak Yant plays a role in unifying this division between Bangkok and rural
Buddhism, as will be explored in Chapter Five.)
In the early nineteenth century the region now called Thailand consisted of
several kingdoms or petty states called meuang, each ruled by a hereditary local lord.62
The meuang considered themselves autonomous, yet sent tribute to Bangkok, the most
powerful of the kingdoms.63 By paying tribute (taxes) the meuang were left alone to
govern as they pleased as long as there were no wars between lords of the region.64
Bangkok had no control of local courts, currencies, writings systems, or the meuangs’
religious customs and practices.65 The populations of the meuangs was extremely diverse,
ranging from the Shan (from the area now known as Myanmar) along the western border,
the Mon (also from Myanmar) scattered through the central plains and northern region,
the Yuan (of Chinese decent) in the North, the Lao in the Northeast, the Siamese in the
Central Plains, and the Khmer in the southern tier of the northeastern region as well as on
the Cambodian border.66 Due to the diverse populations of the region, each of these
meuang had their own Buddhist traditions that were differently influenced by the
indigenous Animist spirit worship, Brahmanic practice, and Mahayana traditions of
Buddhism that had flourished in the region prior to the fourteenth century.67 Therefore,
even in the early nineteenth century, each meuang followed its own unique Buddhist
In the third decade of the nineteenth century, however, another form of Buddhism
emerged as a reform movement in Bangkok. The founder of the movement was the
Siamese prince Mongkut who established the Thammayut sect, which translates as “the
order adhering to the dhamma” (Buddhist teachings and doctrines).68 Prince Mongkut
placed a greater emphasis on the Pali cannon and less on meditation, which he found
mystical. Mongkut believed his sect to be more “authentic,” and regarded members of
other sects that did not convert to be blindly following the Buddhism of their fathers and
grandfathers.69 This schism caused resentment in Bangkok, as it conflicted with the
traditions of Bangkok monasteries.70 Mongkut did not approve of local stories and
traditions that involved folklore, miracles, and most importantly to this thesis, magic.
Western and Christian influences may have enhanced or shaped Mongkut’s desire to
regulate Buddhism.71 He, along with other members of the Siamese elite, accepted the
opinion of Christian missionaries that “traditional” Buddhism was too superstitious.
During the latter half of the nineteenth century, while Siam’s neighbors were
falling under the control of Western colonial powers, the Siamese King Chulalongkorn
(1868-1910) began to form a centralized state with a fixed border.72 Because of this, the
independence and autonomy of the meuangs were restricted and their multiple languages
and various Buddhist traditions had to be unified. The Bangkok regime made the
Bangkok Thai spoken by the educated elite in Bangkok (and previously in Ayutthaya) the
official national language of Thailand. In addition to this, the king passed the Sangha Act
of 1902 that created a sangha bureaucracy that integrated monks of all Buddhist
traditions into one. This act formed the Buddhism most people refer to as “Thai
Buddhism” and is what Kamala Tiyavanich refers to as “modern state Buddhism.”73
When referring the divisions between Bangkok and rural practices, I will use the terms
“Bangkok Buddhism” and “Rural Buddhism.”
During this time of unification sangha officials first travelled to other regions of
Thailand as government representatives to inspect wats (Thai word for a monastery and
temple complex), and from these inspections the officials found that local monks and lay
people had customs foreign to Bangkok.74 For example, local monks were heavily
involved in the daily life of the rural laity, organizing festivals, working the fields, or
teaching martial arts.75 In Bangkok, monks maintained a separation from the laity and
community life while in rural Thailand, the wat was the center of lay Buddhism, serving
many functions, such as school, town hall, and hospital.76 Village and town monks
devoted their energies to community work that benefited the laity. In the early twentieth
century, the sangha officials of Bangkok found this interaction to be inappropriate, and
especially discouraged monks from performing hard, manual labor, likening monks who
did to commoners.77
In the rural Buddhism of the early twentieth century monks were expected not
only to perform religious ceremonies but to be the first to plow the fields during the
sowing season. This was in order to chase away any bad spirits in the field, or spirits
who might guard the field and punish villagers for disturbing the land.78 This represented
an acknowledgment of Animist beliefs, folklore, and superstition that Mongkut and the
elites of Bangkok Buddhism wished to eliminate from Buddhism in Thailand. Instead, it
was felt that these monks should spend less time performing manual labor and more time
devoted to studying and teaching the Pali cannon and especially the Tripitaka and
Traibhumi, the first official Thai Buddhist text.79
Today, monks who perform the laborious task of Sak Yant application to benefit
the laity continue the type of rural Buddhism that upset the elite of the Bangkok Buddhist
communities. Instead of chasing bad spirits from the fields to ensure the community’s
good fortune, monks and other Sak Yant masters applying Sak Yant tattoo to prevent bad
spirits from causing calamities and also to create good fortune for the laity.
Instead of teaching Bangkok texts, rural monks would teach Animist folklore,80
such as myths about the sun, the moon, the power of the earth goddess, and beliefs
surrounding the rice goddess.81 They would also teach jatakas (stories of the Buddha’s
past incarnations), as these stories were more identifiable to the laity, as well as being
entertaining. The sangha officials did not approve of the teaching of jatakas because they
regarded them as nonsense and an ineffective way to teach dhamma.82 One of the most
popular jataka tales was the Westadon Chadok (Vessantara Jataka in Pali).83 Many rural
communities celebrated a festival dedicated to the reading of this jataka; rural monks
vied with each other for the honor of preaching the jataka during the festival. Mastering
the preaching style of the Westadon Chadok was demanding and required great
discipline, and few monks achieved the level of skill required for the festival.84 As a
result, monks who mastered the Westadon Chadok were highly respected. Many were
also thought to achieve their skill in the recitation of the Westadon Chadok through
magic. Kamala Tiyavanich cites a former preacher who explained, “Often monks of
lesser skill are jealous and seek to ruin the preacher by using black magic [khun sai]. So a
good preacher must possess magical knowledge for self-protection. (1) He must learn to
recite sacred mantra for self-defense as well as to attract goodwill. (2) He must tattoo
protective amulets on his body for the same reason. (3) He must always keep certain
kinds of amulets or magic cloth [pha yan] to make him invulnerable.”85
This suggests that Buddhist monks were also bearing Sak Yant around the turn of
the century, and that these monks were believed to use magic to protect themselves from
negative forces. Not only does this demonstrate the incorporation of magic into rural
Thai Buddhism, it indicates that the power of the tattoo and of a monk’s magical abilities
were perceived as necessities; as the monk said, “a good” Buddhist preacher must have
magical skills.
The reference to Sak Yant’s existence around the turn of the twentieth century
reinforces its importance to Rural Buddhism, which in turn aligns Sak Yant with the
“traditional” superstitious Buddhism that Mongkut found problematic. Indeed, there is
much superstition involved in the Sak Yant tradition, as it includes Animist magic that
was incorporated into varying Buddhist traditions across the countryside. However, at
least since the twentieth century and certainly within the last two decades Sak Yant has
also been embraced by the Bangkok Buddhist tradition, as it now incorporates Thai
Buddhist doctrine (such as the Traibhumi text from the fourteenth c.) as well as merit
making evidenced by wealth. This reinforces a hybrid Thai Buddhism that forms a sort of
“prosperity religion.”
Contemporary “Thai Buddhism:” a Mix of Magic and Merit
The division between rural Thailand and the Bangkok elite highlights the diverse
nature of Buddhism in Thailand and the difficulty in defining it succinctly and uniformly.
If one asks what Buddhism looks like in contemporary Thailand, the answer would vary
from person to person, but a main theme of a mix of magic and merit emerges.
Merit (actions that accumulate and may determine a better rebirth) is integral to
many forms of Buddhism, including the modern state Buddhism of Thailand.86 There are
several different ways to gain merit, such as the construction or repair of any religious
structure, a monetary donation to the construction or repair of a religious structure,
sponsorship of an ordination ceremony, presentations of food or other items to monks,
copying Buddhist texts, reading or listening to Buddhist texts, and the consecration of
Buddhist images.87 Another way to make merit is through veneration (namatsakan) of
the Three Jewels of Buddhism (the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha), and many
rituals and ceremonies in Thailand begin with the recitation of a Pali chant that expresses
veneration for the Three Jewels.88 Veneration can also be directed toward sacred objects
such as images of the Buddha or the relics of the Buddha or another great teacher. In
contrast to the Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism, in which the Buddha is not considered
to be immanent within his images or relics, in modern Thai state Buddhism the Buddha is
regarded as present and active in such objects.89 Stanly Tambiah, in his study of Thai
magic amulets, suggests that images and relics possess the radiance of the Buddha
present in a form so that devotees can understand the truth that he no longer has form.90
In modern state Buddhism, the power stored in the objects being venerated is believed to
provide favorable benefits to the devotee.91 This coincides with the magic effects of
amulets and Sak Yant. In fact, the Buddha images that pilgrims go to see are often
considered magical; favors, such as protection, recovery from an illness, or a successful
childbirth, are asked of—and received from—the image.92
In Thailand, pilgrimage is another means to gain merit. In fact, the majority of
Thai pilgrims claim that journeys to sacred places are undertaken in order to “make
merit” (tham bun).93 In Thailand there are two expressions used for pilgrimage: “going
forth to bow the head in veneration” (kanpainamatsakan) and “going forth in search of
merit” (kanpaisawaengbun).94 Chapter Five of this thesis will explore the connection
between merit, wealth, pilgrimage, and Sak Yant; however, it is important to understand
merit and pilgrimage’s place in modern Thailand because the connections made will
reinforce the concept of a hybridization of Buddhism in Thailand.
Aside from merit-gaining, magic is now a huge component of the visual and
mental landscape of modern Thai Buddhism. Taxis have amulets and flower garlands
hanging from their mirrors and yants drawn on their ceilings. It is common to see magical
protective amulets hanging from the neck of a Thai Buddhists in rural and cosmopolitan
cities alike. There are as many Thai Spirit Houses as there are actual residences. These
magical implements populate the Thai scenery as a means to propitiate the phii and for
protection against harmful spirits that can only be neutralized by invoking the powers of
magically-charged amulets, chants, spells, and protective Buddhists texts. Sak Yant, of
course fits into the visual field of Thai Buddhist magical practices. From an outside
perspective, this resurgence of magic and Animism would appear to have overshadowed
Buddhism in Thailand. However, journalist Ben Barber states that, “Everywhere there are
signs that Thai Buddhism remains incredibly alive, even if it has increasingly reverted to
its magical, pre-Buddhist roots.”95 This reinforces the notion that Buddhism has become a
hybrid religion in Thailand, as Barber, despite using the term “pre-Buddhist roots” still
conflates Thai Buddhism with magic by relating the practice to magical roots.
But why has Animist magic resurfaced recently with such fervor within
Buddhism? Perhaps it is due to the unstable political atmosphere of Thailand within the
last few decades. In Duncan McCargo’s article “Thailand: State of Anxiety,” he points
out that since 2007, Thais have been deeply uneasy about the economy, politics, and the
royal succession and that Thais bought millions of amulets to protect them from
adversity.96 In fact, as recently as February 25, 2014, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck
Shinawatra was accused of failing to heed warnings of possible corruption in a rice
subsidy program whose recent problems caused anger among farmers.97 As Thai anxiety
rises, it would seem the desire for magical elements and Sak Yant tattoos that can
instantly provide protection and better one’s future rises as well. A monk Barber
interviewed in Thailand claims that in regards to merit, “younger kids don’t have the old
mindset anymore,” and that the younger generation of Thais do not want to invest in the
future by making merit, but want instant gratification.98
In Chapter Five I will discuss Sak Yant’s use in uniting merit with instant
gratification and will suggest that, in this way, it reinforces the hybridization of
Buddhism in Thailand as a “prosperity religion.” The convoluted and multilayered
religious landscape of Thailand that I have discussed here reflects the religious
transformations that have taken place in Thailand.
In this chapter I explore forms and functions of Indic yantras and introduce key
yantra designs. I consider the introduction of yantras into Southeast Asia, including
ultimately Thailand. I also provide an overview of contemporary Sak Yant in Thailand
and identify and analyze the yantras that have been incorporated into Sak Yant designs. I
reveal a relationship between the lakshanas of the Buddha and design and ritual elements
associated with Sak Yant. This reveals the adaptation of Indic yantras within
contemporary, rural Thai Buddhist practice, reiterating the hybridic nature of Buddhism
in modern Thailand.
Indic Yantra
For thousands of years, yantras have been used in India.99 Yantras are geometric,
symbolic diagrams employed for protection or to harness the mind. Yantra appear to date
from a pre-literate period in South Asia. Susan Huntington suggests that the common
abstract motifs found on Indic Neolithic pottery could be considered the predecessor of
yantras and other geometric patterns used in religious art.100 Yantras have a wide variety
of uses and forms, reflecting Hinduism’s multitude of Hindu deities and diversity of
It is not clear when Indic yantras made their way into Southeast Asia, or when
they were first tattooed onto human skin. Some scholars, such as Joe Cummings, suggest
that Brahman priests brought the Indic yantra tradition to Thailand in the third or fourth
century101 and that the tattooing of yants began around the same time. Many historians
are of the opinion that the tattooing of yants began in Cambodia possibly during the
Khmer empire. Khmer warriors are said to have had yants applied to their skin to protect
them102 in battle against neighboring Siamese and Cham.103 These tattoos served as a
form of armor and were possibly based on Suea Yants—linen vests adorned with yants
and worn over the chest (Fig. 1). However, there are pre-Funan references to sacred
tattoos in the area that is now Northern Thailand. In fact, the Khmer word sak
(tattoo/tap) is actually of Thai origin. Because of this some scholars suggest that the early
tattooing tradition of Northern Thailand inspired the tattoo tradition in Cambodia.104
Cummings suggests that people have assumed that the Sak Yant tradition came from
Cambodia because the majority of Sak Yant from central Thailand use Khmer script; but
it is actually more likely that the Khmer script was not used in tattoos until after the
Angkor empire was conquered by the Ayutthaya in the fifteenth century CE.105
Regardless of when and how yantra became incorporated into the Southeast
Asian tattooing tradition, Indic yantra roots are evident in Sak Yant designs. I will
provide here a basic overview of Indic yantras and the forms and desired outcomes that
are incorporated into the Sak Yant tradition.
Yantras may combine a variety of geometric forms and shapes, and may also
incorporate Sanskrit numbers and letters into their design.106 Yantras are generally small
in size and therefore, in most cases, are mobile if they are not inscribed on a permanent
object at a location.107 Yantras do not generally contain colors, although the mantra
(sacred sounds, phrases, or prayers that aid in meditation or ritual practice) inscribed in
them may be traced in a specific color.108 A yantra may be used to represent a Hindu
deity in an abstract form.109 It is uncommon for figural forms to be included in a yantra,
although this is not the case in Sak Yant. As well as being employed to call down a deity
to a certain place, yantras are also used to fulfill a devotee’s desire or request.110 For
example, in the Pancharatra tradition, yantras may bestow anything one wishes, such as
elimination of sorrow, diseases, and obstacles, attainment of friends, children, kingship,
and wealth.111 This aspect of the Indic yantra is particularly interesting since Sak Yant
devotees acquire the tattoos to bring about a specific desired effect, such as protection or
good fortune. The creation of a yantra is a holy task, the commissioning of which
provides merit in addition to providing the desired outcome for which it was made.112
Indic yantras require elaborate preparation and execution, which necessitates that the
artist is schooled in intricate and arcane processes of yantra creation.113 The drawing or
other creation of a yantra is accompanied by the recitation of mantras that are applicable
to the deity or to the desired outcome of the yantra.114
There are distinct parallels between the ritual of creating a yantra and the
application and consecration of Sak Yant. Sak Yant masters must be indoctrinated into
the practice and mantras are recited during the application process (as well incorporated
into the tattoo design). Sak Yant, as with some Indic yantras, are motivated by the desire
for merit.
Within the Hindu tradition there are six categories of yantra usage:115 1) Vashi
Karan is used to bring any being under one’s influence; 2) Shanti Karam is employed to
ward off diseases as well as other negative influences; 3) Stambhan yantra are used to
neutralize the negative undertakings of one’s enemies; 4) Videshan are used in order to
create conflicts between people; 5) Uchattan are used to divert adversaries from their
duties; and 6) Maran yantra are composed to cause the death of any being.116 Categories
two and three in particular correspond with the desired effects of many Sak Yant tattoos.
For example, Yant Maha Sa Wang is believed to protect the wearer from sickness,
diseases, and dangers, which I suggest would fall into the second category of Indic
Aside from the six categories of yantra usage, there are also said to be seven types
of yantras, one of which is especially relevant here. This is the Dharna yantra, which is
worn on various parts of the body.117 This is interesting, as it sets precedence for yantras
being worn. This may be the predecessor for suea yants (cloth shirts adorned with yants)
and even tattoos.
Gudrun Bühnemann suggests an alternate classification system for grouping
yantras. She divides yantra into three types. First are yantras that establish a foundation
and feature simple, geometric shapes.118 Second are yantras used in regular worship,
made up of basic shapes and usually without incorporating mantras into the design;
however, deities are invoked into this type of yantra by the use of mantra.119 Yantras of
this second type are typically fashioned from durable materials, such as metal.
The third type of yantras are associated with optional, desire-oriented rites. These are
yantras employed for mundane purposes, such as keeping snakes away, countering
poison, or lowering a fever.120 The types of mundane effects sought through the creation
or display of these yantras have a parallel in many some Sak Yant designs, which promise
similar results or likewise counter negative elements. Bühnemann notes that this third
type of yantra is typically made of perishable materials, such as birch-bark or paper.121
The yantra is drawn with special writing materials and substances such as animal or
human blood, or even ashes from the cremation ground. According to Hélèn Brunner,
the ink used can sometimes contain the bile of a corpse when black magic is involved.122
Such corporeal and ephemeral materials are considered important to the success of the
ritual and correspond to the nature of the rite.123 Putrid fluids, such as human bile, are
used in the making of yantras for “cruel” rites, while wheat flour or rice paste will be
used as ink for yantras associated with “positive” rites.
Bühnemann states that after their use yantras used for magical rites may be
disposed of in a variety of ways: they may be ritually destroyed, inserted into a statue, or
concealed in one’s home, for example. They may also be enclosed in an amulet and worn
on the body. In a similar manner, Thai yants are sometimes placed in amulets and worn
on the body.124 In other cases yantras may be attached to protective dolls and hung near
an entrance to buildings, recalling the similar practice in Thailand of painting yants above
Yantras that are employed in desire-oriented rites often have mantras inscribed in
them. The mantras used may be seed syllables or may be a longer mantra or even a
hymn.126 According to Bühnemann, over time hymns came to be regarded as powerful
magical formulas in India.127 These hymns were recited numerous times; the more
recitations, the more powerful they became. Such hymns—whose title incorporate terms
such as “armor,” “protection,” or “cage”—were often used for protection. In them, a
deity was called upon to protect each part of the practitioner’s body. The deity’s names
were assigned to and deposited on the body parts of the practitioner and were believed to
protect them like armor. For those who could not recite hymns themselves, hymns
arranged in the form of a yantra, or a yantra with a hymn inscribed in it, was thought to
be just as efficacious.
Sak Yants have many parallel properties. The incorporation of mantras in Sak
Yant design is considered necessary in making the yant efficacious. In Thailand there are
Sak Yant designs that are only kaathaa, which is Thai for a long mantra or hymn. The
protective of Sak Yant is especially important; indeed, Sak Yant was first used during the
Khmer empire as form of armor. Even today in Thailand, certain Sak Yant designs are
worn specifically by soldiers and police officers.
Before comparing Indic yantra forms to Sak Yant designs, the key forms of Indic
yantra need to be viewed. Fredrick Bunce explores the connection between certain
yantras and the Indic deities they represent. While those specific deity connections are
not relevant to this research, the basic forms that he details are quite useful in
understanding how the designs function in Sak Yant and in a Buddhist context. Four basic
patterns are prevalent in Indic yantras; the circle, the square, the triangle, and the lotus.
These four core elements may be found singly, in combination with each other, or with
additional patterns and designs. The bindu—the locus of power and the center of
supreme consciousness—is said to exist within the configuration or combination of these
four shapes. The bindu, represented by a dot, may not always be represented, but its
presence is implied. In Indic yantras the bindu is where the main deity is worshipped,
while the deity’s retinue is worshipped in various parts of the yantra, such as angles and
corners.128 In the Sak Yant tradition, the bindu is most commonly represented as an
akkhara (letter).
The Circle: Circles are emblematic of the energy of water.129 There are two main
circle designs. The basic round circle (Fig. 2) and the radiating circle (Fig. 3). The basic
circle represents space and a never-ending process.130 The radiating circle has lines that
radiate from the center to the cardinal and intercardinal directions. This represents
expansion.131 The radiating circle takes on a larger meaning in the Buddhist context and
will be discussed later in this chapter.
The Square: Squares are emblematic of earth.132 There are four square designs
that seem to cross over into the Sak Yant tradition. The basic square (Fig. 4) is the most
sacred Hindu form and it represents The Absolute One.133 The square that is turned at an
angle (en pointe) and suggests a diamond shape (Fig. 5) represents the dynamic elements
of this form.134 It is power and considered feminine.135 Vertical, horizontal, and diagonal
lines within a square (Fig. 6) represent the earth in a static condition.136 However,
vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines within a square en pointe (Fig. 7) represent the
earth as a dynamic element.137
The Triangle: The triangle is emblematic of the cosmic energies of fire.138 There
are ten distinct formations of triangles in yantras, only one of which is significant here, as
it translates into Sak Yant. This form (Fig. 8) is the basic triangle sitting on its base (vahni
kona). This form represents the male, the sun, the linga of the Hindu god Shiva, and the
triple principles of creation.139 In Indic yantras an inverted triangle represents the
female, is the place from which everything originates, and symbolizes water. I have
found no examples of an inverted triangle in Sak Yant; perhaps this is because women are
considered impure and are not allowed to be indoctrinated into the process of giving Sak
Yant, nor can a woman receive Sak Yant if she is menstruating.
The Lotus: There are two ways to present the lotus. When the tip of a lotus petal
is pointing north (Fig. 9) it represents divine manifestation and expression.140 If the space
between two petals it pointed north (Fig. 10) then it represents the dynamic element of
this form, and is considered feminine.141 However, as with the inverted triangle, this
feminine aspect is not common, or at least it is quite hard to distinguish the placement of
the lotus petals on Sak Yant designs.
In addition to these core shapes, numbers play an important role in the yantra
tradition, reflecting the sides of a shape. Because of this, the circle and dot (bindu) are
thought of as the number one, as each is made of one “line.”142 The significance of one
denotes the source, The Absolute One, the Primordial One. It signifies spiritual
balance.143 This number is neither considered odd nor even; it is absolute, beyond all, and
therefore divine.144 The number three is reflected in the triangle. Three denotes perfection
and the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva as well as the Three Jewels of Buddhism.145
Four is reflected in the square or a lotus with four petals. This number denotes worldly
balance and completeness. This number is considered the perfect number for a higher
plane, which is exemplified as the creative fluid that is the soul of the universe.146 The
number eight is represented by an eight-petaled lotus or two interlocking squares.147
Eight denotes good fortune and perfection.148 On the divine plane it denotes justice and
balance between attraction and repulsion.149 This number is considered auspicious.150
These core shapes may be combined together to form a yantra design. A popular
example is the Ganesha yantra (Fig. 11). Here, the bindu is represented at the center of
the yantra as the locus of power, and the representation of the area where Ganesha should
be worshipped. Surrounding the bindu are two interlocking triangles, one sitting on its
base (male and fire) and the other inverted (female and water). The combination of these
two triangles represents creation and the dynamic energy generated by the two
correspondent forces. The two triangles are inside of another larger triangle on its base,
which in turn is inside of an eight-petaled lotus with the petal pointed to the north. This
represents divine manifestation and expression, while the eight petals represent good
fortune. The lotus is surrounded by a basic circle representing space, water, and the
never-ending process. All of these forms are enclosed in a basic square with “gates”
pointing in the cardinal directions which is called bhupura (sacred enclosure) and its
function is to maintain and prevent the loss of the magical force of the shapes that make
up the core structure of the yantra.151
Incorporation of Indic Yantra in Contemporary Sak Yant Designs and Function
Today, the Sak Yant culture in Thailand reflects a Buddhist-origin, hybridic Thai
religion described earlier. Sak Yant is a practice that enables perhaps a more diverse array
of needs and desires—including modern ones—to be fulfilled while still satisfying
Buddhist requirements as well. This new hybrid form of Buddhism allows for multiple
religious influences to navigate the ever-growing, multicultural population of modern
Modern Thai Sak Yant consists of abstract and geometric yantra forms, such as
the lotus yant (Fig. 12).152 The geometric Sak Yant designs tend to stay basic to the core
Indic forms and are not always found in large combinations as in Indic yantras.
Although sources ranging from Sak Yant websites to books specifically on Sak
Yant claim that Sak Yant derive from Indic yantras, I have not found any attempt to
compare the visual forms of Indic yantras with Sak Yant forms. Here I will provide these
visual comparisons to demonstrate Sak Yant’s connection to Indic yantras. The example
provided by the Sak Yant tradition reflects the melding of Indic practice, Animism, and
Theravada Buddhism into modern hybridic Thai religion. As discussed earlier, this
hybrid Thai tradition is hierarchical in nature, with Buddhism as the dominant influence,
and with Buddhist design and thought as the catalyst for the changes in Sak Yant design.
The four basic shapes of Indic yantras explored above have been incorporated
into Sak Yant designs. Here I provide examples of Sak Yant that mimic the geometric
shapes of Indic yantras. This provides evidence of their transformations in shape but also
shows how the desired effects of these tattoos have altered from the original meanings of
the Indic yantras. These geometric shapes will be shown through an analysis of the Sak
Yant on the body of Tao, a tattoo artist and devout Sak Yant devotee who I interviewed in
Chiang Rai, as well as examples of Sak Yant designs and photos of tattoos on other Sak
Yant devotees. I will use Tao’s tattoos as a guide for other designs, as he is an excellent
example of how one devotee can have several Sak Yant tattoos, even if the tattoos would
seem to be conflicting.
While the core shapes of Indic yantras are found in Sak Yant designs, they do not
carry as much weight or possess the same meaning in the Thai tradition as they do in the
Indic one, and definitions of any individual design element in Sak Yant can vary widely.
By some accounts, the interpretation of core elements of Sak Yant mimic those of the
core Indic yantras: the circle represents water, the square represents earth, the triangle
represents fire and the lotus represents divine manifestation.153 However, other accounts
in contemporary Sak Yant offer different meanings for the same forms: for example, the
circle stands for the face of the Buddha or Brahma, the square represents the four
elements (earth, wind, water, and fire), and the triangle stands for the Triple Gem of
Buddhism or the three Lords of Brahmanism: Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu.154 Further, in
Sak Yant, not only might the meanings of core shapes differ from their yantra
counterparts, but the desired outcomes of the tattoos may also differ. In addition to
abstract, geometric designs, figural forms have also been incorporated into Sak Yant, a
dramatic change from the forms of Indic yantras. Representations of deities, sacred
animals, or mythical creatures from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of India have all
been integrated into the Sak Yant art form.155 An example is a Ganesh Sak Yant, Yant
Phra Pik Kaned (Fig. 13). This image was posted by Japanese Sak Yant devotee and
looks quite different from the Ganesha Indic yantra (Fig. 11) discussed earlier. This
figural form of Ganesha represents the deity sitting on a lotus with kaathaa below him
and unaloms (individual yants representing enlightenment) surrounding him above. As
early as the seventh century, Ganesha may have been considered a major deity in
Southeast Asia.156 In contemporary Buddhist Thailand, Ganesha is considered the god of
success.157 The inclusion of a Hindu deity in what is supposedly a Buddhist art form
mirrors the hybridization of popular religions taking place in Thailand.
In addition, two Sak Yant core shapes have emerged that do not have a source in
the Indic yantra traditions. These are the unalom, a squiggly line that resembles an
upside down question mark and symbolizes enlightenment, and the “meditating Buddha,”
made up of three oblong circles staked to form a pyramid and meant to represent the
Buddha. Both are represented in Figure 14. These two yants are often combined to form
the design of a Thai chedi (stupa). The unalom can stand as a Sak Yant on its own, with
no need for mantra or kaathaa to accompany it. As will be shown below, these two forms
are present in the majority of Sak Yant designs. They seem to have become a staple, and I
suggest these not only represent Buddhist thought and intention, but are also used to
validate figural forms and less obvious Buddhist designs, such as core shapes in Indic
yantras. This addition not only reveals the precedence for Buddhism in these tattoos, but
also serves as a model for the transformation from differing religious iconography into
one hybrid religion.
It is important to note that Sak Yant shapes change over time. Some remain stable,
like Yant Gao Yord (Nine Spired Temple), which always stays the same shape and is
always placed at the base of the back of the neck; while other Sak Yant designs change
depending on where on the body or from what master the bearer receives the tattoo. It is
typical for tattoos to change according to the hand of the Sak Yant master who applies the
tattoo and the spiritual level of the practitioner. Cummings states that a “master can
choose to limit the power of a tattoo by shortening the tail of an animal, or omitting one
of the akkhara [letters], if he feels the disciple may not be capable of handling the full
power of the tattoo.”158 So, slight changes are very common in the Sak Yant tradition. I
will provide visual evidence of these changes by comparing Tao’s tattoos to examples of
common yantras.159
The Circle: Both circle designs that occur in Indic yantras are found in yants on
Tao’s back. He has the basic circle (Fig. 15). Inside this circle are several tiny square
niches known as “eyes” that form the border of the circle and a cross shape dissecting the
center of the circle.160 Tao did not provide the name of this yant, but it is quite similar to
Yant Yod Mongkut (Fig. 16); the only differences in design are the four “meditating
Buddha” shapes placed in the negative space of the circle that do not appear in relation to
Tao’s tattoo. Tao’s circle Sak Yant tattoo is also similar to Yant Baramee Phra Buddha
Chao (Fig. 17), however there is no “negative” space in this yant. The area that is
negative in Tao’s circle design is dissected into triangular forms and contains akkhara
(term for letters used in katthaa). The slight differences in design in regards to the
“negative” space suggests that this area is where a Sak Yant master may make changes to
a design in order to conform to the needs of the practitioner or to keep the mantra or
kaathaa from being read.
Tao informed me that this yant protects him from harm, an outcome similar to
that associated with Yant Yod Mongkut, which protects wearers from hazards, and also to
Yant Baramee Phra Buddha Chao, which protects wearers from devils, ghosts, and all
hazards.161 In the context of Indic yantras a circle conveys water, or space as a neverending process, but its relationship to protection is unclear. I suggest that the notion of
“the never-ending process” is indicative of the power of the yant being set in motion, a
concept that will be explored further in Chapter Five. Since, theoretically, Hindu deities
are not being invited to embody these yants the way they may be in the Indic context, it
seems that the meaning of the yant shape is able to vary over time, even while the basic
yantra shape remains integral to the yant.
Tao also has the radiating circle design (Fig. 18) tattooed on his back. This Sak
Yant is called Yant Pad Tad (Eight Directions yant). The design resembles a wheel with
kaathaa written in the “spokes” and along the rim. Outside of the circle are 16 unaloms in
conjunction with sixteen “meditating Buddha” shapes. This is an example of the two Sak
Yant core shapes combined in one design. This yant can also be represented in another
form (Fig. 19), in which the “spokes” inside the circle have been removed and replaced
with kaathaa. This form is true to its name and has only eight directions marked but still
contains the same “meditating Buddha” form as well as the unalom above it. Tao’s
version of this yant closely resembles the Buddhist dharmachakra, or wheel of the
Dharma (Fig. 20), which is represented in the shape of an actual wheel.
The dharmachakra represents the spreading of Buddhism in all directions.162 In
fact, Yant Pad Tid is believed to protect the wearer from hazards from all directions no
matter where they are.163 And since circles are associated with the number one, I suggest
this tattoo also is conflated with the divine. The original Indic meaning of the radiating
circle shape, conveying expansion, remains in the Sak Yant version. Since this Sak Yant
form claims that it protects one in all directions, which is a large expanse of space, the
connection to the radiating circle as emblematic of expansion is clear. Further, the
unalom placed above the “meditating Buddha” resembles the enlightenment of the
Buddha and the spreading of his teachings; therefore, I suggest that Yant Pad Tad is the
Thai version of the dharmachakra. This yant is a combination of Indic influence that
became a Buddhist yant with magical protection.
The Square: The square Sak Yant tattoo on Tao’s right shoulder (Fig. 21) is
complicated, with multiple square shapes and diagonals incorporated into one larger
square. Not only is the bindu incorporated into this design, but three of the four square
designs found in Indic yantra iconography are included as well. Tao’s yant includes the
basic square as highlighted in red in Fig. 21; vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines
within the square also outlined in red in Fig. 22; and vertical, horizontal, and diagonal
lines within a square en pointe, with its diamond shape highlighted in red on Fig. 23.
Inside the negative space in the design is where the akkhara is placed. Although Tao’s
square tattoo is complicated, there are other Sak Yant designs that are simpler in form, but
still convey the same design. A very common yant that is similar to, but simpler than
Tao’s is Yant Phokasap. Figure 24 is an illustration of this yant design. The basic square
is present and serves as a container for a second shape. Inside of the square is the square
en pointe (the diamond shape). As in Tao’s square yant, akkhara is placed in the negative
space. It actually looks like the bindu is represented here as well in the form of akkhara.
Another form in which the square design is present is when it is represented inside of
multiple lines of kaathaa, as in Figure 25. In this image there are five lines of kaathaa
and when five lines are placed together to form a yant it is called Yant 5 Taew (Five
Rows). The outer square in this yant is the square en pointe (the diamond shape), with the
basic square inside of it. Inside of the basic square is the triangular stupa form. The
square is a very common shape in Sak Yant, probably because of the varying ways it can
accommodate akkhara, mantra, or kaathaa.
It is possible that the combination of these square Indic yantra shapes on Tao’s
shoulder is done to balance out the opposing meanings of the other square shapes. The
diamond shape makes the yant feminine and therefore embodies power and dynamism,
while the squares containing diagonals are considered static. In addition to these
combinations, the number four is associated with the square, representing worldly
balance, so perhaps the many square shapes are used to balance each other out. However,
since it seems as if the Indic meaning of the square yantra is somewhat muddled in Sak
Yant design, I suggest that the combination of these forms also provide a multitude of
ways to incorporate mantra into the design, as well as insuring that the mantra cannot be
decoded by another Sak Yant master.
Tao informed me that the square yant on his shoulder is to ensure good fortune.
Yant Phokasap is believed to aid wearers in “multiplying” money, that is, it is a way to
gain wealth.164 While the specific kaathaa of Yant Five Taew can vary, it generally is
believed to bring the wearer good fortune and success. These outcomes are quite different
from those associated with circle yants, which are for protection and fall under the first
category of Yant, Kongkrapan. That is because yants thus far associated with the square
belong to the newer, second category of Yant, Metta Maha Saneh. This category
emphasizes prosperity in business and career, and overall is for good fortune. So, despite
the square yant being linked to an earlier Indic form, it is also associated with the newer
category of yant that deviates from apotropaic magic to incorporate magic generated for
good fortune. This is an example of how Indic yantras have altered and evolved over
time and have gained new meanings in the modern, hybridic Thai Buddhism. In this
instance the change indicates that Theravada Buddhism, considered to be conservative,
especially in Sri Lanka, is changing form to accommodate the needs of the modern
Buddhist practitioner. This in turn is what is becoming this Thai hybrid religion.
The Triangle: the triangle is popular in Sak Yant, although it is rarely seen in its
basic shape. The triangle is often displayed in the Yant Gao Yord (Nine Spired Temple),
which is depicted on the back of Tao’s neck (Fig. 26). This tattoo is usually the first Sak
Yant a devotee receives, which may be why the form is so popular; the practitioner has no
choice but to wear it. This design is made up of several small square niches referred to as
“eyes” that cluster into nine columns. These ascend in a pyramidal form so that the center
is the tallest point and has the most “eyes” below it in its column. Akkhara is placed
inside of the niches and the “meditating Buddha” shape topped by an unalom is placed
above each column. The “meditating Buddha” form is also considered a triangle.
The Yant Gao Yord is meant to make the practitioner invulnerable. It also is
meant to represent Mt. Meru (the mountain considered to be the center of all physical,
metaphysical and spiritual universes in Buddhist cosmology).165 In Indic yantra forms the
triangle is associated with the number three, which in Buddhist context represents the
triratna, (three jewels) of Buddhism, that is, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the sangha. In
addition, Drouyer states that since Yant Gao Yord means Nine Peaks it therefore
represents the “nine sacred peaks of the mountain containing the nine symbolic images of
the Buddha.”166 The conflation between temple and mountain relates to my suggestion
that Sak Yant tattoos not only are symbolic of these temple structures, but can also serve
as surrogates for these structures. This idea will be explored in Chapter Five. This
conflation of temple and mountain, as well as the number three representing the triratna,
again shows the changes from the Indic yantra design into Thai Buddhist Sak Yant. In
Indic yantra the triangle represents fiery cosmic energy, in Thailand the triangle is
closely associated with Buddhist thought and cosmology. Triangles in Sak Yant are
abstract representations of figural forms, such as a mountain, a temple, or a stupa.
The Lotus: The lotus yantra, when expressed in its Sak Yant version, tends to be
represented more as a figural than geometric form. An example of the geometric version
of the lotus yant is Yant Dok Bua (lotus yant) (Fig.27).167 It is similar in form to the circle
Yant Yod Mongkut, except that the circle is bordered by sixteen lotus petals. This, in turn,
is similar to Tao’s Yant Pad Tad, as it has sixteen “meditating Buddha” shapes and
unaloms pointing in multiple directions. The lotus Indic yantra represents divine
manifestation, and in this case the Thai yant does as well.
A drawing of a Buddha meditating upon a lotus (Fig. 28) is an example of the
more popular, figural form of the lotus yant. This image is included in a yant manuscript
in the possession of Prok Sokdaren, the arjan in Cambodia who gave me my Sak Yant
tattoo.168 A similar Sak Yant, with only a few slight differences from Sokdaren’s
manuscript illustration, is shown in Figure 29. Prok Sokdaren’s design has seven
unaloms surrounding the Buddha, where Figure 29 has six and in addition has more
akkhara incorporated into its design. There is script on the lotus petals, on the Buddha’s
body, as well as the kaathaa written below the lotus. Although this yant has completely
deviated from the Indic yantra format, the incorporation of figural forms reinforces the
idea that Sak Yant are reflections of the transformation taking place in “Theravada” Thai
One Sak Yant design mimics almost in full an Indic yantra. The Shiva yantra
(Fig. 30) and Yant Maha Sa Wang (Fig. 31) are almost identical in design. They both
have the multiple block “eye” format creating a checkerboard design. Each “eye” is filled
with script—Sanskrit in the Shiva yantra and Khom in Yant Maha Sa. The differences
between the yantra and the yant lie in the iconography bordering the outside of each
square shape. The Shiva yantra uses tridents—one of Shiva’s key emblems—as a border
design, while the Yant Maha Sa Wang employs a unalom/“meditating Buddha”
combination. This replacement of one deity’s iconography with that of another is a clear
example of Sak Yant’s transformation of Indic yantra designs. Yant Maha Sa Wang is
believed to protect the wearer from sickness and danger, while Shiva’s yantra serves to
focus thought, but also works for protection as well. There are definite similarities in
meaning between the two forms.
However, this blatant mimicking is not common. Sak Yant tattoos are not
combined in the same manner as typical Indic yantras, such as the Ganesha yantra with
its core shapes enclosed in a square. That is not say that Sak Yant designs are not equally
as dynamic as their Indic counterparts or generate any less power or magic. The
combination of Animist apotropaic magic, Indic Hindu/Brahman core designs, and
Buddhist iconography convey this hybrid pyramidal hierarchy.
Relationship to Lakshanas in Sak Yant Designs and Rituals
My research reveals parallels between Sak Yant forms and the lakshanas169 of the
Buddha as Mahapurusha (the universal being); parallels that have not previously been
noticed by scholars. Mahapursha translates to the Supreme Spirit (maha, great; purusha,
spirit.) These parallels represent another way in which Buddhist ideology is incorporated
into what was in India a primarily Brahmanic yantra form, indicating another aspect of
the transformation from yantra to yant. The lakshanas of the Buddha that parallel designs
and rituals in Sak Yant are the urna, ushnisha, (mainly its indication of the cosmic axis)
and jala.
The urna is typically represented as a coil of hair between the Buddha’s
eyebrows, although often it is simply shown as a dot. The place between the eyebrows is
called Avimukta, which, according to the Jabali Upanishad, lies where the eyebrows are
united with the organ of smell.170 At this juncture is the union of the celestial world and
of the higher world.171 The coil of hair turns in a clockwise direction, just as the
Pradakshina path leads in a clockwise direction around the stupa. The Buddha’s urna
flashes forth light that illuminates the universe and so this hair is symbolic of a ray of
light. This is the light of the Buddha, which is his ultimate knowledge. Therefore, the
manifest power of divinity is shown through hair growth. “The whole extent of the
Buddha power is rolled into his round locks.”172
In Thailand the urna of the Buddha has transformed from a tiny coil to a larger
strand that resembles a jagged, inverted question mark (Fig. 26). This is called unalom in
Thailand and is associated with the Lan Na (Lanna) style.173 The classification of Lan Na
style derives from the particular style of Buddhist art that flourished during the Lan Na
period (thirteenth–sixteenth centuries) in the area that is now Northern Thailand.174 I
suggest that the Lan Na-style urna is the same figure as the unalom found in geometrical
and figural Sak Yant. As mentioned previously, the unalom has been incorporated into
almost every Sak Yant design and indeed seems to have become a staple of Sak Yant. For
example, Tao has a singular unalom on the back of his neck right above his Yant Gao
Yord. The unalom also symbolizes enlightenment and the end of all desires.175 It is also
symbolic of the arhat.176 I suggest that the urna and unalom are identical in Sak Yant, and
that the urna was initially incorporated into Sak Yant to mark individuals as people in
pursuit of a higher state of being. The incorporation of the urna as unalom in Sak Yant is
not only a reflection of Buddhist influence on the yant design, but also an indication that
these yants at some point in time were adopted into Buddhism to aid in a Buddhist need;
to guide the practitioner on the path to enlightenment.
The next lakshana of the Buddha cannot fully be depicted in a figural form, but is
an indication of his immeasurable height. Mahapurusa stretches the earth on all
directions. He is a being beyond the limits. The ushnisha (the top knot on the Buddha’s
head) is emblematic of the Buddha’s enlightenment and that he is a being beyond
physical limits.177 The ushnisha is placed on the top of the Buddha’s head and marks the
cosmic axis.178 It relates to the idea that the Buddha’s spine is like a channel that goes
upward and from there expands into selflessness and he obtains “Oneness.” This
“Oneness” is similar to the universal truth (the idea of One discussed in the Indic yantra
section in Chapter One). The ushnisha marks the point of limitless.
The cosmic axis is also represented as a pillar in the center of a stupa (reliquary,
creation monument and symbol of Mt. Meru). In Thailand, the ushnisha resembles a
stupa (Fig. 32). In this respect, one can infer that the conflation of the stupa with the
ushnisha reveals that both are considered emblems of enlightenment and the center of the
As mentioned earlier, the unalom on top of the “meditating Buddha” form
resembles a Thai-style chedi or stupa. They form a triangular shape and represent the
triratna, the three jewels of Buddhism.179 These yant combinations can be seen as
references to the Buddha’s enlightenment. This also creates an axis point on the
practitioner’s body. Sak Yant, in this way, reifies the concept of the tattoo as an axis to
the divine nature of being, since they are emblematic of the Buddha. However, the tattoo
also creates a sacred space on the body that is to be respected for its connection to an
unseen power, in this case, magic.
In the ritual application of Sak Yant a bamboo rod (mai sak) is used. This is
interesting because when referencing the immeasurable size of Mahapurusa, legend states
that, “a brahman who doubted the body of the Buddha to be sixteen feet high and wanted
to measure it with a bamboo rod sixteen feet high. But then it [the body] constantly rose
above the end of the rod.”180 In this legend, the bamboo rod serves a means to attempt to
measure the size of the Buddha. In a sense, the bamboo rod is attempting to measure the
cosmic axis.
In Sak Yant bamboo has been used to apply these sacred designs for centuries.
The bamboo rod itself can be viewed as the cosmic axis, as through this rod energy is
channeled from the Sak Yant master into the yant and therefore into the devotee. It is
connecting the unseen with the seen. This is perhaps one of the reasons why, despite the
availability of modern tattooing implements, bamboo rods (and sometimes metal rods,
khem sak) have remained the primary mode for applying these sacred tattoos. There is
another reason that the rods are still used. This will be addressed further in Chapter Five.
Another lakshana found on the Buddha is webbing between his fingers and toes,
referred to as jala, which translates to “net” or latticework.” This physical trait is
emblematic of the universe being understood as a woven fabric, a cosmos in which
everything is interconnected.181 It also reinforces the notion that the Buddha’s spine is
conflated with the cosmic axis, which is also considered a thread. The Buddha threads
this world and other worlds, stringing all beings, all worlds, together. Again, this is a
reference to the concept that we are all One. “The net as a whole is not visible on the
image of the Buddha. He carries its vestiges, pars pro toto, attached to or on his fingers
and toes.”182 The Saddharmapundarika states that people will behold his Buddha field,
which forms a checkerboard of eight compartments with gold threads.183 This jala is also
represented in the railing of a stupa. “The railing of a Buddhist stupa or around a sacred
tree has the appearance of, and its primary shape actually has been, a trellis.”184 Its
crossbeams are called suchi that translates as “needle.” This reiterates the idea of the
thread creating a web that connects all of the universe.
Again, we see a conflation of a lakshana with a stupa, and this again has parallels
with Sak Yant designs and rituals. Yants are often squares (often formatted in multiples of
eight), like the checkerboard the Buddha said people will behold. There are many
checkered designs in Sak Yant. These checkered images allow for multiple variations of
kaathaa to be incorporated into the design. Such mantras aid in the effectiveness of the
tattoo. There is also a yant called Yant Takai Phet, which translates as “diamond net
yant.”185 This yant has diagonal thatching with the mantra inside the multiple diamond
forms that are shaped from the crisscross of lines. The yant as a whole resembles a
webbed net and provides protection.
The web shape of the yantra allows the devotee to be connected with the
universe. The web serves as a connecting principle and is incorporated into Sak Yant reconsecration rituals and festivals. These festivals are called Wai Khru. Wai is a
devotional gesture, where one raises their hands with palms together.186 Wai Khru is
paying respects to one’ s master or teacher.187 These festivals happen once a year at
places like Wat Bang Phra outside of Bangkok, in central Thailand, and also in Chiang
Rai in northern Thailand. Tao, the tattoo artist I interviewed, provided me photos from
the Wai Khru in Chiang Rai, which took place between April 19 and April 21, 2012. The
photos provide evidence of the similarities between the tools of Sak Yant re-consecration
and the jala lakshana. At the Chiang Rai Wai Khru a large number of the people at the
festival are folks who go down to Bangkok to work dangerous jobs. The monk that
presides over this festival rejuvenates the disciples’ Sak Yant so that they will be
protected and prosperous in the coming year of work. During this ritual the Sak Yant
master sits in a hot cauldron filled with oils, herbs, and other plant forms that are
associated with the ingredients that are used in Sak Yant ink, meuk.188 (Fig. 33) Yants are
inscribed on materials varying from the cloth, phaa yan, the leaves that are placed inside
the cauldron the monk is sitting in, and the cauldron itself. (Fig. 34)
The monk sits in the hot oil for approximately twenty to thirty minutes. This is for
purification and to show that his yants are working: they are protecting him from the heat.
The herbs and leaves within the mixture create a barrier between the monk and the hot
metal cauldron. Although it appears that the monk is uncomfortable, nevertheless he
endures the heat of the cauldron because of his great compassion for his disciples. The
disciples are linked together by blessed white strings, bai see, that wrap around their
heads and connect to one another like a spider’s web (Figures 35 and 36). Webbing is, in
fact, how Tao describes the white strings. I have not found any literature that describes
the white linking strings of the festival as a web, although linking devotes with white
strings is practiced in other Sak Yant rituals. The strings are linked in the air spanning a
large yard where the devotees sit. The white string web is squared off and actually
resembles the checkered design of a yant, as well as the trellis of a stupa railing. Bai see
are also used in the consecration of Buddhist images in Thailand. During the eye opening
ceremony of Buddhist images, a web of cotton cords form a yantric canopy of one
hundred and eight small squares, and this yantric form is connected to the image being
consecrated.189 These cords form a sort of electrical current that enlivens the Buddha
image through the chanting of the monks. I suggest the yantra form of the web is
significant to the efficaciousness of the ritual and the Buddha image. This, in turn,
resembles the checkered design of the Buddha field. The white threads reiterate the white
color worn by ajarns when applying and consecrating Sak Yant.
Cotton strings are also used during the Parn Yak Rites, where evil spirits are
expelled and misfortunes are caste away and replaced with good health and prosperity.190
In this ceremony, which is held in late February or early March of each year, monks
begin by chanting mantras called Ardamatiya Sutra and then call practitioners to hold on
to sacred cotton strings.191 The participants believe that the supernatural powers of the
chants pass through the string and force the evil within their bodies out.192 This shows the
inclusion of animist spirit beliefs, fused with Buddhist practice and serves as another
example of the fusion of beliefs in Thailand.
I suggest that the combination of the Sak Yant Master sitting in a concoction that
resembles the ink used in a Sak Yant, with the master connected by a web to all the
devotees at once, is not only a means to re-consecrate multiple tattoos at once, but is also
symbolic of the unifying principle of the Sak Yant community. Not only are they
connected by the web, they are connected by the ink. This alludes to the principle of the
web and that we are all One.
I suggest that these parallels to lakshanas indicate that Buddhist iconography has
been incorporated into Sak Yant designs. The unalom especially is not present in early
Indic yantras and is a significant addition to Sak Yant designs. These variations in design
reflect how unique Thai Buddhist practice has become, as it encompasses various
religious forms and embraces them into the Buddhist fold, essentially forming a hybrid
Thai religion. As Thailand changes, so does Buddhism and in that way it is able to keep
Buddhist practice and art incorporated into daily life, while still fulfilling the needs of a
modern culture.
So far in this thesis, I have primarily focused on geometric or abstract designs
used in Sak Yant. Here, I will consider the incorporation of figural forms from the
Ramayana epic in Sak Yant. This inclusion of characters from the Hindu epic, the
Ramayana, in Buddhist Sak Yant may seem at odds with the largely Buddhist content of
most Sak Yant designs. However, the Ramayana, known as Ramakerti or Reamker in
Cambodia and Ramakian in Thailand, has been incorporated into Theravada Buddhism
for hundreds of years in parts of Southeast Asia. In Thailand, the word “Rama” was
known as early as the Sukhothai period (c. 1250–1450) and the Ramayana is referenced
several times during the Ayutthaya period (1350–1767).193 In fact, Ayutthaya is Thai for
Ayodha, the name of Rama’s kingdom, and kings in Thailand are given the name Rama.
Murals of scenes from the Ramayana are painted on the walls of the Emerald Buddha
Temple, which is located within the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Thus, the
Ramayana is integrated into Thai Buddhist culture in a variety of ways. This
incorporation serves as another example of how Indic and Hindu art forms merged with
Buddhism in Southeast Asia, providing another example of the hybridization of popular
religions in Thailand.
In this chapter I discuss the way in which Rama, considered in India an avatar of
the Hindu god Vishnu, is conflated in Thai Buddhism with the Buddha. I show how the
text of the Ramayana was believed to be magical and how it was used in Thailand to
create desired effects, such as relieving drought. The use of the “magical” Ramayana to
bring about a desired effect serves as a precedent for the use of magical tattoos to bring
about a desired effect. Finally, I provide examples of, and analyze Ramakian yants, to
show how belief in the Ramayana as a Buddhist text possessing magical attributes
explains the inclusions of figures from the Ramayana into Sak Yant.
The story of Rama, whose wife, Sita, is abducted by the demon king of Lanka,
Ravana, explores human values and the concept of dharma. In India, the Ramayana is a
sacred text that functions as an example of the proper conduct of a Hindu king. Rama is
the perfect, virtuous son (and eventual ruler) and serves as the ideal Hindu man, while
Sita is the loyal, chaste wife of Rama and represents the ideal Hindu woman. Rama is
worshiped as a Hindu deity, since he is an avatar of Vishnu. In a brief summary, Rama,
the eldest son of the king of Koshala is next in line to rule when he is banished to live a
hermit’s life in the woods for fourteen years. Rama, his wife Sita, and his brother
Lakshmana live a happy life in exile until Sita is abducted by Ravana and taken to Lanka
where she waits for Rama to save her. Rama is aided by Hanuman and by Sugriva, the
king of the monkeys. Rama defeats Ravana and saves Sita, but eventually begins to doubt
Sita’s purity, since she had lived in the household of another man. As a result, Sita puts
herself through a trial by fire to prove her chastity. Sita’s purity is called into question
again, and she is ultimately exiled from the kingdom while pregnant with Rama’s twin
sons. She raises the sons in the woods, but is then again found by Rama, who asks his
sons to return to the kingdom to rule with him. Sita, however, is not invited to return.
Rama then offers to let her do another trial by fire. She then calls on her mother, the earth
goddess, to witness her purity and returns forever into the earth.
Saveros Pou has discussed several interesting differences in the way the
Ramayana functioned in Cambodia as compared to its role in Indic culture. These
differences in Cambodia are important to incorporate in this discussion, as they are also
present in Thai culture. There are iconographic differences that are identifiable between
Indian depictions of the Ramayana epic and images from Cambodian, such as those
found in relief sculpture on the walls of Angkor Wat. For example, Agni, the Fire God,
rides on a rhinoceros rather than a ram as in Indic versions.194 There are also character
differences; for instance, in Thailand Hanuman is a great lover and eventually gets
married, where as in the Indian version Hanuman observes celibacy.195 Also, in the Thai
version, Hanuman is burned alive, whereas in the Indian version only his tail is caught on
Along with the changes in iconography, there were changes in the perception of
the characters of the Ramayana in Southeast Asia, as compared to India. The Khmer
people merged Rama, the protagonist of the Ramayana, with the Buddha. Rama, the
prince of Ayodha, was made to resemble Prince Siddhartha.197 He was called, “he who
possesses a supernatural knowledge.”198 On account of his parami (knowledge) Rama,
like the Buddha, is able to perform great miracles, such as relieving pain and suffering for
all beings.199 Rama began to be presented as more of compassionate being and less of the
skilled fighter he is in the original Ramayana. In fact, when Rama needed to defeat
demons, he “reluctantly accepted the battle in a kind, non-violent way, for the ‘fiery
power’ of his glorious merits produced small miracles that neutralized fighting
devices.”200 When more aggressive action was needed, Lak (Lakshmana, Rama's
brother), or the monkey soldiers would intervene, so that Rama did not have to be
violent.201 The Khmer people replaced Rama’s martial character and with characteristics
appropriate to Theravada Buddhism, characteristics that would lead to the goal of
In Southeast Asia, notions of celibacy and the ascetic lifestyle prominent in
Buddhism are conflated with the Rama narrative. The Buddha left his wife and children,
despite his love for them, to become a celibate ascetic. The concept of celibacy
subsequently became prominent in many forms of Buddhism and remains a staple of
monastic life. Likewise, when Rama rejected Sita, despite his love for her, it was
because he was conforming with the requirements of dharma. By choosing to remain
apart from his wife, the notion of celibacy is introduced into Rama’s story, and this is
emphasized in Southeast Asia. Moreover, Rama’s fourteen-year exile in the forest is
emphasized in Southeast Asian traditions for its parallel to the hermetic or ascetic life
important in Buddhist traditions. In Khmer culture, the forest dwelling hermit was
considered to be an observer of a Buddhist lifestyle.202 In Cambodia and Thailand the
reusi (rishi) is a sort of lay Buddhist monk (theoretically, a contradiction in terms), and is
very similar to the Thudong monks of Thailand. In Khmer thought, the reusi’s
contemplative lifestyle brought out supernatural power (riddhi).203 The supernatural
power that the reusi can cultivate is one component of the magic in Buddhist tattoos. As
we will recall, reusis, as well as monks and ajarns, have the ability to apply and activate
Sak Yant. Indeed, in Thailand, Sak Yant devotees often claim that the sacred tattoo
tradition originated among hermit sages.204 Cummings notes that, “the Indian connection
with the reusee [reusi] is almost entirely lost in Thailand” and that the “…the lineage [of
the reusi tattooing] began with Pho Kae (Old Father), a wizened old sage with white hair
and white beard.”205 The concept of the reusi is so popular in Sak Yant culture that there
are even tattoos of hermits, which will be explored later in this chapter.206
The text of the Ramayana took on a sacred status in Southeast Asia, in a manner
similar to Buddhist texts. Indeed, by the Middle Khmer (fifteenth–eighteenth centuries)
period copies of the Ramayana began to be stored for safekeeping in Buddhist
monasteries and even became a vehicle for gaining merit.207 Just as copies of Buddhist
texts are commissioned in order for the patron to gain merit, one might also commission
the copying of a Ramayana for the same reason.208 If individuals experienced problems to
which they could not find solutions, they might go to the monastery to seek answers from
sacred texts (kambi), which included not only Buddhist texts but copies of the Ramayana.
When a monk was called upon to aid an individual he might invoke the text, then give a
stick to the individual seeking help. That individual would place the stick in between any
two pages in the text; wherever the stick landed, this section of text was considered to
hold the solution to his problem. For example, if the person lands on an episode of the
Ramayana in which Rama is successful in battle, that portends success for the
This heightened status of the Ramayana text within the context of Thai Buddhism
eventually lead to a conflation of Rama’s superhuman actions with magical powers. The
magic of the Ramayana was emphasized further when villagers began to perform sections
of the Ramayana as a means to produce desired effects. For example, when the seasonal
rains failed or there was a possibility of drought, villagers would enact the “release of
waters” scene from the battle of Lanka, where Hanuman performed what was perceived
as a magic trick to free river water from Kumbhakar.210 The “magical power” possessed
by Rama, Hanuman, and other characters in the Ramayana in Southeast Asia led to the
incorporation of these figures in Sak Yant. However, as I will show through an analysis of
some typical Ramakian Sak Yant, these magical figures are depicted with elements of
more traditional, geometric or abstract yant forms.
For example, the reusi yant may not seem at first to be related to the Thai
Ramakian, but since the notion of the celibate ascetic is an integral component of the
Ramayana and its magical status in Thailand, this particular type of yant bears further
exploration in the context of the Ramakian. Yant Reusi is believed to bring about
knowledge, kindness, and a calm state of mind (Fig. 37).211 In this design the reusi is
sitting in a meditative position; he holds a walking stick in one hand to suggest the
wandering ascetic lifestyle associated with the mountain hermits of Thailand. He wears a
tiger skin robe, a typical attribute of the reusis who tattoo Sak Yant. There is kaathaa
underneath the image of the reusi and unaloms surround the rest of his body. The reusi is
considered the conduit of magic and therefore the magic of the reusi translates into the
tattoo design. Although the inclusion of the unalom, which can stand as a yant in itself,
does suggest a sort of dependence on a more accepted form of yant, it is interesting to
note that the unalom did not exist as a yant in its own right until it was appropriated by
Sak Yant from the lakshanas of the Buddha. The figure of the reusi, unknown in the
context of Indic yantras, is common in Thai Sak Yant design and is an indication of the
unique transformation of the Indic yantra form into Sak Yant Buddhist tattoos These
changes in yant design and the changes in the function of the Ramayana serve as a mirror
reflecting the transformation of Buddhism in Thailand.
Hanuman is the most popular Ramakian Sak Yant. Hanuman Sak Yant designs
fall under the category of Kongkrapan, which means they are generally used for
protection and good luck, although Hanuman tattoos are often associated with love as
well. There are several ways in which he might be depicted in a yant; here I will analyze
two types that represent the most common yant designs of this character. Yant Hanuman
Tua Kao (Fig. 38) is considered to allow the bearer to overcome all enemies, become
immortal, and succeed in one’s life and work.212 In this rendering, Hanuman is shown on
the back of a lion. He is marching in Rama’s army to fight. In the Ramayana in
Southeast Asia Hanuman takes on a larger role as a warrior, as compared to the Indian
version of the epic. By casting Hanuman in the role of primary warrior, Rama is free to
behave non-violently—to be more “Buddha-like,” an aspect of the “Buddha-ization” of
the narrative in Southeast Asia. Moreover, in this yant Hanuman himself is rendered to
suggest that he bears Sak Yant tattoos, or at least that he has yants placed on his clothing.
In particular, there appear to be square designs on his hands. The representation of
Hanuman with Sak Yant is visible in Figure 39, in which not only is there script on
Hanuman’s hands, but there also a definite visible yant on his kneecap. The possible
necklace around his neck resembles lotus petals with script. This is interesting as it not
only emphasizes the importance and effectiveness of Sak Yant as a sort of protective
armor, but it also suggests how deeply-rooted Sak Yant is in Thailand. The fact that a Sak
Yant design that would be placed on one’s body includes a sacred figure that also has a
Sak Yant tattoo on its body is a means to connect Sak Yant practice to the sacred
Ramayana text and to lay claim to the text as Thai, since Hanuman would not have worn
a yantra as a tattoo in the Indic version.
Yant Hanuman Song Lit is worn by those who want to be brave and to be lucky in
love.213 As depicted in Figure 40, this yant design shows Hanuman with multiple arms,
bearing weapons in each hand. As in the previous example, here too Hanuman’s arms
actually appear to be covered tattoos; in this case, however, they are a circular design
similar to the bottom portion of the unalom. Kaathaa surrounds the Hanuman figure,
forming an oval frame. Inside of the oval and surrounding Hanuman are smaller yant
designs that belong to the group of Yant called Na, which generally provide protection
and immortality.214 As yet, I have been unable to identify each individual yant but their
inclusion into the overall Hanuman yant design suggests, I believe, that figural forms of
Sak Yant require their own yants to ensure their functionality.
The yant above Hanuman’s head is identifiable as Yant Maha Oot, which is very
popular among Thai men. It is believed that whoever wears this yant cannot be killed by
any weapons.215 This yant, although made up of separate abstract, fluid lines, resolves
into the form of the Buddha sitting in lotus position. There are eight unaloms breaking up
the kaathaa, and as mentioned in the previous chapter, the number eight in Indic yantras
denotes good fortune and perfection. I suggest the combination of the eight unaloms and
the abstracted Buddha form found in Yant Maha Oot not only includes Buddhist elements
in the seemingly Hindu subject matter, but also signifies the unique transformation of
Buddhism in Thailand. The Ramayana came to be considered Thailand’s own national
epic, despite its Indian origin; and because Thailand considers itself to be a Theravada
Buddhist country, so too, then, is the Ramayana. The fact that there are murals of scenes
from the Ramayana in the Emerald Buddha Temple in Bangkok is evidence of the
adoption of Hindu or Indic influences in modern state Buddhism. It is not that Hinduism
and Buddhism exist side-by-side here as they do in Nepal, but that the remaining Hindu
elements in Thailand are not considered Hindu, but Buddhist; and in contemporary
Thailand, these elements are transforming into a hybrid religion.
In this chapter we have seen how the Ramayana was modified in Thailand to
become a type of Buddhist text, how it came to be considered magical, and how
individuals used the Ramayana to produce a variety desired effects. The belief that the
Ramayana is both Buddhist and magic explains why figures of the Ramayana are often
incorporated into Sak Yant. The continued inclusion of Ramayana figures within Sak
Yant tattoos serves as a means to keep Buddhist practice alive in an ever-changing,
modern Thailand. Sak Yant’s incorporation of Ramakian designs and the “Buddhaization” of the Ramayana underline the hybridization of popular religions in
contemporary Thailand.
Previous scholarship on Sak Yant has focused on the Sak Yant community and the
desired magical outcomes of the tattoos. However, there has yet to be in-depth
scholarship on how Sak Yant functions within the context of Buddhism in Thailand.
Understanding how Sak Yant fulfills local Buddhist needs reveals that Buddhism takes
precedence over the other Animist and Hindu elements incorporated in Sak Yant,
reinforcing the pyramidal hierarchy of the three religious traditions within the hybrid
religion of contemporary Thailand.
Merit-gaining is integral to Buddhism, including the modern state Buddhism of
Thailand. However, there is a perception that many among the younger generation of
Thais do not want to invest in the future by making merit, seeking instead instant
gratification. In this chapter I suggest the contemporary popularity of Sak Yant has arisen
because it offers instant gratification as well as the opportunity to gain merit. The instant
gratification comes from the magical outcomes provided by the tattoos, while the merit
derives from the commissioning of a sacred Buddhist object, the physical tattoo.
Pilgrimage is also associated with merit-making, but pilgrimage practices in
modern Thailand—as in many other pilgrimage contexts in the modern world—has lost
much of its physical component, the physical sacrifice made by the pilgrim during
pilgrimage through which much of the merit is gained. Here, I will demonstrate that Sak
Yant provides a means to reclaim the component of physical sacrifice lost in modern
pilgrimage. Further, Sak Yant reconciles the division that was made in pilgrimage when
rural Buddhism was overshadowed by Bangkok Buddhism. The Bangkok sangha deemphasized meditation and discouraged pilgrimage; as discussed earlier, Mongkut
thought of meditation as too mystical. In rural Thailand, pilgrimage was more of a
meditative experience, like that of the wandering Thudong monks. This discouragement
of meditative pilgrimage contributed to the decline of the asceticism that was once so
important to rural monastic and lay Buddhist practitioners and was replaced with
pilgrimage for the sake of merit. This reconciliation is a reflection of the transformation
of religious practice taking place in contemporary Thailand.
Sak Yant and Merit
Merit is rarely mentioned in the Sak Yant community and the art form itself is not
heralded as a means of providing merit. However, when Joe Cummings interviewed
Ajahn Nuad, an arjan who volunteers at the temple Wat Bang Phra in Thailand, what the
wat charges for giving tattoos, Nuad responded, “We don’t sell Sak Yant here, we make
merit.”216 Indeed, Buddhist monks do not charge a fee for tattoos.217 Instead, if one
wants to receive a Sak Yant tattoo at Wat Bang Phra, he or she need only to offer the
master a pack of cigarettes, a flower, incense, and a 200 Thai bhat donation to the
monastery (equivalent to approximately six US dollars in 2013).
Making offerings of food and other items to a monk is a means for gaining merit.
But what does Nuad mean when, as the one who applies a tattoo, he says “we make
merit?” His statement suggests that Sak Yant provides a means for both the giver and the
receiver to attain merit. I argue that there are several ways that Sak Yant participates in
merit-gaining. On one level, the patronage of a Sak Yant tattoo is parallel to the patronage
of other religious objects, such as illuminated manuscripts or the consecration of images
of the Buddha. And on a second level, the magical power of the Sak Yant tattoo allows
the bearer to gain merit in the more traditional ways that were discussed in Chapter Two,
such as being financially able to donate to the construction and repairs of religious
An example of the one type of merit gaining is that of the commissioning copies
of manuscripts. The patron of the manuscript copy receives merit for enabling the
manuscript copy, as does the scribe who copies out the text and, if it is an illustrated
manuscript, so do the artists who provide the illustrations. Devotees receive merit for
receiving the sutras and being in the presence of the sacred images. Likewise, through the
“copying” of yants on the skin, Sak Yant provides merit in the same fashion. The Sak
Yant devotee gains merit from “commissioning” the tattoo as well as for receiving it and
therefore always being in its presence. The Sak Yant master gains merit for “copying” the
tattoo onto the skin and providing an image for others to see. The similarity between
manuscript-copying and the application of Sak Yant is reiterated by manuscripts
themselves. Figure 41 is an example of a manuscript that would have been copied for
merit. This Lan Na period manuscript is filled with kaathaa and is on display in Wat Phra
Kaew in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Figure 42 also is on display in Wat Phra Kaew and is an
example of a manuscript used for yant designs. The images on this page show the
beginnings of core Indic yantra forms with squares, the tiny squares called “eyes,” and
circles. Each of these core shapes incorporates negative space for script; in some, script
has already been incorporated. In the bottom-right of this manuscript page are what
appear to be a row of stupas increasing in size. These stupa shapes appear to have the
Buddha emerging from the top, perhaps suggesting that the stupa is the body of the
Buddha. These manuscripts reflect the interest in incorporating a figural form of the
Buddha in yants.
Another way Sak Yant provides merit is through the magic they possess. Many
devotees obtain Sak Yant because they believe such yants possess the power to effect
positive outcomes in their lives. Scott Carney, an investigative journalist and
anthropologist, interviewed several Sak Yant devotees in 2007. He noted that,
“Chakkrapad Romkaew, one of the devotees, says that his first tattoo altered his outlook
on the world, made him braver and encouraged him to become a soldier. His back is
covered in elaborate geometric patterns and Buddhist prayers. In a week, he's being sent
to the south of Thailand as part of an anti-terrorist squad. He wants to get another tattoo
so, he says, he will be more fully protected before the bullets begin to fly.”218 Carney also
interviewed tattoo masters, including Suntotn Prapagaroe who reported that, “An
unprepared person can suddenly find that their whole life is turned around after being
inked.”219 Such statements indicate the belief that these tattoos empower the wearer. This
empowerment in turn allows the wearer to gain merit through performing more
traditional Buddhist practices, such as making monetary donations, physically repairing
religious structures, and going on pilgrimages.
Tao, whom we met in the previous chapter, has gained merit from the
commissioning of his many Sak Yant. But Tao also benefits from the magical aspects of
his tattoos. Tao attributes every positive thing in his life to Sak Yant. He received his first
Sak Yant, the triangular Yant Gao Yord, at the age of 17 (Fig. 26). He attributes the tattoo
below his Yant Gao Yord, called Yant Kun Pan, to marrying his beautiful wife. The
square Sak Yant on his right shoulder (Fig. 21) is for good fortune. Because Tao is a
successful tattoo artist, he is able to donate to his local monastery as well as participate in
the upkeep of the monastery. The relationship between wealth and merit in the Thai
context is clear. Having wealth in one’s life makes it easier for the practitioner to partake
in other meritorious deeds. At the same time, wealth is viewed as a reward for
meritorious activities; being financially able to donate to the monastic community
indicates that one has attained substantial merit in a past life, and is preparing for the
next. While the magical qualities of the tattoo influence the bearer’s current incarnation
and provide the instant gratification that young Thais supposedly want, the merit accrued
from commissioning and receiving a Sak Yant tattoo (as well as performing good deeds
as a result of good fortune) influence the next incarnation.
Sak Yant and Pilgrimage
Merit and pilgrimage are associated, as one gains merit by going on a pilgrimage,
from the intensity of the journey, and from being in the presence of the place or object
that is the focus of the pilgrimage. The application of Sak Yant parallels many of these
aspects of pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage has always been an important element in Buddhism. Shakyamuni
instructed his followers that, upon his passing into nirvana, they should visit sites
associated with the main events of his life. After all, the historical Buddha wandered
around Nepal and India, at first searching for a means to ease suffering, and then once he
achieved enlightenment, he wandered spreading the Dharma. The Buddha’s life became
a model for the importance of pilgrimage. During India’s Maurya Dynasty, the emperor
Ashoka (r. 268-232 BCE) established the first pilgrimage route, marking out important
life sites of the Buddha and placing his relics in city centers and trade routes for the swift
spread of Buddhism.
The efficacy of pilgrimage is tied, in part, to the level of suffering the pilgrim
must endure on his or her journey. There is an inherent idea that the more difficult the
journey, the greater the reward once the destination is reached. To enhance the difficulty,
or the hardship of the pilgrimage, some practitioners perform prostrations on their way to
a sacred site. James Preston argues that “Some pilgrimage sites attain a high degree of
spiritual magnetism because they are so difficult to reach due to either intrinsic or
extrinsic factors.” 220 He goes on to say,
Sometimes the difficulty of a pilgrimage may be imposed through traditional
obstacles created deliberately for pilgrims to endure. These places are not
necessarily remote. Extrinsic hardships often take the form of penances.
Individuals are expected to demonstrate acts of contrition for sins or to purify
themselves through elaborate devotions, including self-flagellation, crawling on
one’s knees during a specific phase of the journey, or licking the ground while
approaching the sanctuary.221
This aspect of pilgrimage that was once an important component in rural Buddhism has
largely been eliminated in the modern context. Moreover, we may recall that in the
inception of modern state Buddhism in the early twentieth century, Tiyavanich argued
that the Bangkok sangha de-emphasized meditation and discouraged pilgrimage,
contributing to the decline of the asceticism that was once so important to rural monastic
and lay Buddhist practitioners.222 Modern modes of transportation have replaced the
pilgrimage methods of the past. The burden of climbing stairs or walking long distances
has been replaced with the convenience of auto transportation. In contemporary
Thailand, pilgrims simply drive to a temple. In Chiang Mai, for example, pilgrims no
longer climb the 306 steps up the naga staircase leading to the pilgrimage destination of
Wat Phra Thart Doi Suthep; instead, cable cars have been provided for devotees to ride
up to the wat.223 Although the cable cars are a wonderful addition for elderly or
handicapped devotees who wish to seek merit at the temple, even most healthy pilgrims
forego the stairs.224
That is not to say that arduous pilgrimage has been completely eliminated in
Thailand. In fact, in January of 2012, 1,127 monks went on a 365-kilometer barefoot
walking pilgrimage through five provinces that had been hit by floods in the previous
year.225 However, today this type of walking pilgrimage is rare. At the same time,
though, it suggests a desire for the physical aspect of the pilgrimage experience remains
among some in Thailand. As a result, pilgrims may have to devise their own means to
experience the physical hardships once typical of pilgrimage. Sak Yant tattoos are one
way to do this.
I suggest that the painful process of receiving Sak Yant parallels and can even
replace the long and arduous journey traditionally associated with Buddhist pilgrimage.
Sak Yant tattoos are applied to the body in an incredibly painful way, but this suffering is
supposed to make the receiver of the tattoo stronger, even bullet proof.226 The
practitioner’s skin is pulled tight, sometimes by one of the tattoo master’s assistants,
monks apprenticing in order to learn the rituals and esoteric chants associated with the
magic tattoos. Once the skin is taut and close to the bone, the ink is then hammered into
the skin by a long bamboo pole with the end whittled to a sharp point (mai sak). Instead
of the bamboo pole, in some instances a metal rod (khem sak) is used, and the end of the
rod is cut into several serrated points. Sak Yant tattoos may take anywhere between thirty
minutes to six hours to apply.
After the application of the tattoo is completed, and the skin begins to turn pink or
red from irritation, the monk will then demonstrate the effectiveness of the tattoo. For
example, if the tattoo is intent to prevent physical harmed, the monk will take a knife
called Meed Phii and try to stab or cut the new tattoo. Then the monk will cut other parts
of the body to show that the tattooed area is invincible, while the areas away from the
tattoo are vulnerable. When Michael McCabe was conducting research in Thailand, he
accompanied his driver, Sammy, who was receiving another Sak Yant. McCabe witnessed
the process and documented the ordeal Sammy went through.
The monk reaches into the shadows and pulls a long, antique spirit knife into
view. The Meed Phii will be used by the monk to test the spells he has recited. As
he continues to chant magical words, the monk raises the knife over the head of
my unsuspecting driver and comes down hard onto the fresh tattoo. The sword
hits with a loud thud and bounces back leaving a pronounced welt but no cut or
blood. Sammy winces but continues to sit very still with his hands to his mouth as
the monk comes down again with the long knife. There is another loud thud, a
pronounced welt, but no cut or blood. The monk rears back but this time slashes
to the side across my driver’s right biceps that has no tattoo. The sword cuts
deeply into the flesh and blood immediately flies from the large wound. Finally,
the monk pulls back and stabs at Sammy’s lower back near his kidneys,
puncturing the skin. Sammy is completely rigid now and falls over like a tree onto
his side. He is shaking violently but his hands are still together at his mouth.227
I have examined several videos of monks and lay devotees receiving tattoos in an
attempt to register the level of pain or discomfort they experience in the process. In
general, these videos show the Sak Yant recipient in an elevated mood during much of the
process, but for those receiving larger tattoos who must endure the pounding of the
needle for an extended period of time, stress and anxiety are clearly visible in their faces.
At the same time, rituals associated with receiving Sak Yant require the individual to
remain calm and respectful during the process; expressions of pain or emotion are not
tolerated. The requirement to remain stoic throughout the experience adds to the
discomfort many Sak Yant recipients feel.
For the Sak Yant master, the process is also exhausting, labor intensive, and
painful. It can take hours to complete an intricate yant and so the Sak Yant master must
have great endurance. It took several hours for Prok Sokdaren, the Cambodian ajarn who
gave me my Sak Yant tattoo, to complete it. He had to stop and take breaks because his
arm was getting so tired from the fast tapping of the rod. I suggest that this process is
purification for the devotee as well as the master. In the same way, both participants gain
merit by enduring this difficult process.
Pilgrims traditionally experienced difficulties, even great pain, to attain the
outcome they sought. There is a symbolic relationship between Sak Yant, the wat, and
pilgrimage. While modern methods of travel have alleviated the arduous nature of
pilgrimage to a wat, but the increased interest in receiving magic tattoos at key Thai
temples and monasteries has rejuvenated pilgrimages to them. This is especially so at
Wat Bang Phra, the most popular Sak Yant temple in Thailand. The pain associated with
getting the tattoo serves as a replacement for the hardship and suffering of the pilgrimage
journey, and has reignited the desire to visit this pilgrimage location. It serves both as the
replacement for the journey and the reason for the journey to Wat Bang Phra. Sak Yant’s
replacement of the physical aspect of the journey in pilgrimage demonstrates the ways
that traditional Buddhist needs are remerging in new forms.
I suggest that enduring the application of a Sak Yant tattoo can serve as a
surrogate for the purification and merit-gaining of pilgrimage. The idea of “surrogacy” in
the context of Buddhist pilgrimage is not unusual. For instance, there are several
surrogates for the Mahabodhi Temple located in various locations in Asia. The
Mahabodhi Temple is next to the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, India where the Buddha
reached enlightenment. This tree is incredibly sacred, arguably the most sacred relic in all
of Buddhism. The tree that exists today is said to be a sapling of the original tree. In Sri
Lanka there is a sacred tree that grew from a cut of a branch of the Bodhi tree from the
second century BCE. Because of the importance of the Bodhi tree, the Mahabodhi
Temple is considered the most popular pilgrimage destination in Buddhism. The spiritual
magnetism of this temple has a strong pull. The desire to be in the presence of the Bodhi
tree has increased the allure of the temple. However, despite the importance of
pilgrimage, it is just not practical for all devotees to travel to Bodhgaya. Thus surrogates
of it have been erected in Nepal, China, Myanmar, and of particular interest to this thesis,
Chiang Mai, Thailand.228 These surrogates are as ritually and spiritually efficacious as the
original in Bodhgaya in providing a mode for veneration.
When Sak Yant takes on the form of a temple, it becomes a surrogate for temples
as well. It is a consecrated design incorporated into the skin of the practitioner and
therefore incorporated into the environment of the practitioner. Sak Yant then becomes a
surrogate for the temple as well as a surrogate for pilgrimage. The painful application of
the yant replaces the long journey, the design and incorporation of mantra replaces the
structure and activities of a temple, and the consecration of Sak Yant, which makes the
tattoo efficacious, replaces the consecration of a temple.
Sacred space can be seen as an anchor between the sacred and the profane world.
Mountains, stupas, shrines, monasteries, and temples can be viewed as a conduit for selfreflection and self-realization. Sak Yant can also serve as this conduit. When one wears a
Sak Yant tattoo, they can themselves become a connection to the sacred, for themselves
and for others that view them. This allows for another means of merit-making. Creating
new forms for gaining merit is a product of the transformation taking place in Thailand.
As the needs of the Buddhist community begin to change, so must the ways that one
gains merit.
Sak Yant also unites rural and modern state Buddhism. Sak Yant functions in the
rural Thai Buddhist context as the application of the tattoo is manual labor that provides
for the lay community as well as keeping monks closely involved with that community.
As we will recall, the close relationship between rural monks and the rural communities
they served was opposed by the official form of Bangkok Buddhism advocated in the
early twentieth century, which enjoined monks to remain separate from the laity, and
were to cease from sullying themselves through physical labor. Sak Yant also functions in
modern state Buddhism because the magic of the tattoos provide wealth, which is
evidenced by good merit. The connection between wealth and merit can be found in the
Traibhumi of Phra Ruang, a text compiled in Siamese (Thai) prose from the Pali cannon
and commentaries reportedly in 1345 CE.229 Craig Reynolds, who studied the changes in
the Traibhumi to help trace changes in Thai Buddhist cosmography, states that this text
conveys that, “one’s merit level is an index of one’s self-reliance and freedom from the
earthly world and its social and spiritual corruptions.”230 The Traibhumi reveals that in
Thailand, gaining and having wealth is considered evidence of accumulating good merit
in a past life. Moreover, Sak Yant corresponds to the ascetic type of pilgrimage that has
been lost to most Thais. The pain of the application of Sak Yant parallels the arduous
journey that pilgrims and Thudong monks endured in the past.
This chapter has explored how Sak Yant allows for merit-gaining within the
contemporary religious context of Thailand. It has also investigated the relationship
between Sak Yant and rural and Bangkok pilgrimage practices. Understanding how Sak
Yant fulfills modern Buddhist needs reveals that Buddhism takes precedence over the
other the Animist and Hindu elements incorporated in Sak Yant, which reinforces the
hierarchal pyramid in the burgeoning hybrid religion forming in Thailand.
The fact that Sak Yant is one, singular art form that includes elements of rural
Buddhism and Bangkok Buddhism, merit and instant gratification, Animism and
Hinduism, reinforces Kitiarsa’s theory of the hybridization of popular religion in
Thailand today. It also underlines a theme in this hybridization of something of a
“prosperity religion” where Buddhist practices and Animist magic provide instant
gratification and wealth. This desire for wealth relates to the idea that wealth is evident
of merit and can also provide more merit for future incarnations. However, the desire for
wealth can also be related to the desire for stability in an unstable political atmosphere.
Contemporary Sak Yant in Thailand has a large following. The spectrum of Sak
Yant practitioners range from rural farmers and elephant-tamers to government
employees, monks, and even a few members of the royal family. Online Sak Yant
communities have sprung up in order to keep devotees informed. Websites like “Tattoo
Thailand” and “The Sak Yant Foundation” provide people with information about
monasteries and ajarn and reusi tattoo parlors where they might receive tattoos.231 Such
websites also are committed to keeping the practice of Sak Yant tattooing honest and so
post warnings about tattooists who claim to be Sak Yant masters, but who have not been
indoctrinated into the practice. Sak Yant culture is so popular now that there are even
hashtags for the online photo sharing community, Instagram--such as #sakyant,
#thaitattoo, #tigersakyant, #gaoyord—that enable devotees to share their tattoos and
connect to the Sak Yant community. There are even ajarn hashtags, like #arjarnwaan and
#ajarnbin that alert devotees to specific works of trusted and respected ajarns. In my
research I have not come across any monk hashtags, but Wat Bang Phra, the largest
tattooing temple in Thailand, has its own hashtag, #watbangphra. This may contribute to
the idea that these tattoos are gimmicky, but it really provides a sense of communitas for
Sak Yant devotees. Not only are practitioners connected through the experience of
receiving a Sak Yant, but they are also connected through the magic of their Sak Yant
The international community that has formed around Sak Yant relates to a larger
desire for connection. These tattoos not only provide a service for the individual by
means of protection and prosperity, but they are also identification markers of likeminded individuals that either already practice Buddhism or are searching for their own
path in practicing Buddhism. In fact, this path is laid out for the practitioner, as when one
receives a Sak Yant tattoo, the master gives the devotee rules to live by in order for the
tattoo to remain efficacious. These rules are generally the Five Buddhist precepts: one
cannot indulge in alcohol or other intoxicants, be unchaste, kill, lie, or steal.232 Once Sak
Yant has been consecrated, the power of the yant is set into motion, like the wheel of the
dharma, and will continue on as long as the devotee adheres to the Five Precepts.
So, despite these tattoos being placed on inherently impermanent skin, they
remain permanent fixtures in the endless cycle of rebirth. Once the power has been
activated, their influence continues into the next life and so on. This parallels with Sak
Yant’s transformation from ancient Indic yantras into modern Buddhist tattoos.
There is a saying in Borneo, “A man without tattoos is invisible to the Gods.”
Although Borneo is a little over a thousand miles away from Thailand, to me, this quote
resonates with the practice of Sak Yant. Not only are these tattoos means of identification
to the phii and to multitude of deities recognized in Thailand, but these tattoos are
symbolic of the ingenuity of a people who are deeply rooted in the multitude of past
influences that make up their current religious landscape, yet seek to take charge of their
present and future incarnations. Sak Yant keeps the individual from being invisible, and
the tattoo serves as the connector between the sacred and the profane. I would suggest
that when one bares Sak Yant, they then become their own sacred space.
Figure 1: Suea Yant. http.www.5cense.com09BangTokDonsiamese_ark.htm
Figure 2: Circle yantra shape.
Figure 3: Radiating Circle yantra shape.
Figure 4: Square yantra shape.
Figure 6: Square with diagonals yantra shape.
Figure 5: Square, en pointe, yantra shape.
Figure 7: Square, en pointe, with diagonals yantra shape.
Figure 8: Triangle yantra shape.
Figure 9: Lotus with petal in north position yantra design.
Figure 10: Lotus with petal in intercardinal position yantra design.
Fig 11: Ganesha yantra.
Figure 12: Sixteen petal lotus yant. Instagram @newton_hanuman
Figure 13: Ganesha Sak Yant. Instagram @laosdanzhi
Figure 14: Unalom above the “meditating Buddha.”
Figure 15: Tao’s circle yant.
Figure 16: Yant Yod Mongkut.
Figure 17: Yant Baramee Phra Buddha Chao.
Figure 18: Tao’s Yant Pad Tad.
Figure 19: Yant Pad Tad.
Figure 20: Dharmachackra.
Figure 21: The basic square in Tao’s Sak Yant.
Figure 22: The square with diagnonals in Tao’s Sak Yant.
Figure 23: The square en pointe with diagonals in Tao’s Sak Yant.
Fig. 24: Yant Phokasap.
Fig. 25: Yant 5 Taew with square yant design in center.
Figure 26: Tao’s Yant Gao Yord.
Figure 27: Yant Dok Bua.
Figure 28: Buddha on lotus from Sokdaren’s yoan manuscript.
Figure 29: Buddha on lotus. Instagram @newton_hanuman
Figure 30: Shiva Indic yantra.
Figure 31: Yant Maha Sa Wang.
Figure 32: Lan Na style urna and ushnisha.
Figure 33: Monk in cauldron from 2012 Chiang Rai Wai Khru. Photo courtesy of Tao.
Figure 34: Yants on leaves from 2012 Chiang Rai Wai Khru. Photo courtesy of Tao.
Figure 35: Monk in cauldron connected to devotees by a web from 2012 Chiang Rai Wai
Khru. Photo courtesy of Tao.
Figure 36: Practitioners, web, and yants from 2012 Chiang Rai Wai Khru. Photo courtesy
of Tao.
Figure 37: Yant Reusi.
Figure 38: Yant Hanuman Tua Kao.
Figure 39: example of a Hanuman Sak Yant.
Figure 40: Yant Hanuman Song Lit.
Figure 41: manuscript on display in Wat Phra Kaew in Chiang Rai, Thailand.
Figure 42: manuscript on display in Wat Phra Kaew in Chiang Rai, Thailand.
Pattana Kitiarsa, "Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in
Contemporary Thailand," Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 36, no. 03 (2005): 484.
Kitiarsa, 484.
In fact, there
484.was even a request from the Thai government asking Sak Yant masters not
In fact, there was even a request from the Thai government asking Sak Yant masters not
to tattoo foreigners, as it was deemed disrespectful to their culture.
Isabel Azevedo Drouyer, René Drouyer, and Chakrabongse Narisa, Thai Magic Tattoos:
The Art and Influence of Sak Yant (Bangkok: River Books, 2013), 29.
Drouyer, 29.
Drouyer, 29.
Joe Cummings and Dan White, Sacred Tattoos of Thailand: Exploring the Magic,
Masters and Mystery of Sak Yan (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2012), 24.
Tom Vater and Aroon Thaewchatturat, Sacred Skin: Thailand's Spirit Tattoos (Hong
Kong: Visionary World, 2011), 196.
Cummings, 24.
Cummings, 5.
Cummings, 49.
Cummings, 49.
Cummings, 49.
Cummings, 106.
Cummings, 106.
Drouyer, 29.
However, in Northern Thailand it is common for the Lan Na script to also be used.
Vater, 14.
Drouyer, 29.
Drouyer, 29.
For example, when I received my Sak Yant, without being informed of its meaning, I
was given the mantra “na ma ba dha” to recite over and over again throughout the
Cummings, 25.
Cummings, 49.
Isabel Azevedo. Drouyer, René Drouyer, and Chakrabongse Narisa, Thai Magic
Tattoos: The Art and Influence of Sak Yant (Bangkok: River Books, 2013).
Tom Vater and Aroon Thaewchatturat, Sacred Skin: Thailand's Spirit Tattoos (Hong
Kong: Visionary World, 2011)
Joe Cummings and Dan White, Sacred Tattoos of Thailand: Exploring the Magic,
Masters and Mystery of Sak Yan (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2012).
Alexandra R. Kapur-Fic, Thailand: Buddhism, Society, and Women (New Delhi:
Abhinav Publications, 1998), 216.
Cummings, 17.
Kapur-Fic, 219.
Kapur-Fic, 219.
Kapur-Fic, 219.
Kapur-Fic, 219.
Kapur-Fic, 220.
Kapur-Fic, 220.
Kapur-Fic, 221.
Kapur-Fic, 221.
Kapur-Fic, 222.
Kapur-Fic, 217.
Kapur-Fic, 225.
Promsak Jermsawatdi, Thai Art with Indian Influences (New Delhi: Abhinav
Publications, 1979), 16.
Jermsawatdi, 16.
Jermsawatdi, 18.
Kusalāsai, 8.
Jermsawatdi, 21.
Jermsawatdi, 21.
Kusalāsai, 12.
Kusalāsai, 13.
Robert E. Fisher, Buddhist Art and Architecture (New York: Thames and Hudson,
1993), 186.
Vater, 12.
Kusalāsai, 13.
Kusalāsai, 13.
Kusalāsai, 14.
Kusalāsai, 14.
Barbara W. Andaya, "Localising the Universal: Women, Motherhood and the Appeal
of Early Theravāda Buddhism," Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 33, no. 1 (February
2002): 9.
Andaya, 9.
Tambiah, 89.
Cummings, 17
Tambiah, 89.
Steve Van Beek and Luca Invernizzi, The Arts of Thailand (S.l.: Periplus Editions
(HK), 1999), 165.
Beek, 165.
Kamala Tiyavanich, Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-century
Thailand (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1997), 3.
Tiyavanich, 3.
Tiyavanich, 4.
Tiyavanich, 4.
Tiyavanich, 5.
Tiyavanich, 5.
Tiyavanich, 6.
Tiyavanich, 6.
Tiyavanich, 6.
Tiyavanich, 7.
Tiyavanich, 7.
Tiyavanich, 8.
Tiyavanich, 18 & 23.
Tiyavanich, 23.
Tiyavanich, 23.
Tiyavanich, 24.
Tiyavanich, 24.
Tiyavanich, 24; Tambiah, 204.
Tiyavanich, 30.
B. J. Terwiel, "Tattooing in Thailand's History," Journal of Royal Asiatic Society of
Great Britian and Ireland, no. 2 (1979): 163.
Tiyavanich, 34.
Tiyavanich, 31.
Tiyavanich, 32.
Tiyavanich, 33.
Tiyavanich, 39.
James B. Pruess, Veneration and Merit-seeking at Sacred Places: Buddhist Pilgrimage
in Contemporary Thailand, PhD diss., University of Washington, 1974, 15; Donald K.
Swearer, Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual of Image Consecration in Thailand
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 60.
J. B. Pruess, "Merit-Seeking in Public: Buddhist Pilgrimage in Northeastern Thailand,"
Journal of the Siam Society, 1976, 172.
Swearer, 110.
Swearer, 110.
Pruess, "Merit-Seeking in Public: Buddhist Pilgrimage in Northeastern Thailand," 172.
Although some monks find this inappropriate and believe that guardian spirits of the
temple should be asked these favors. Pruess, "Merit-Seeking in Public: Buddhist
Pilgrimage in Northeastern Thailand," 187.
James B. Pruess, Veneration and Merit-seeking at Sacred Places: Buddhist Pilgrimage
in Contemporary Thailand, 16.
Pruess, "Merit-Seeking in Public: Buddhist Pilgrimage in Northeastern Thailand," 172.
Ben Barber, "Merit and Magic: Buddhism Faces Modernity in Thailand," World and I
13, no. 4 (April 1998): 216.
Duncan Mccargo, "Thailand: State of Anxiety," Southeast Asian Affairs 2008, no. 1
(2008): 333.
Kocha Olarn, Saima Mohsin, and Jethro Mullin, "Thai Prime Minister Denies
Corruption Allegations over Rice Program," CNN, February 25, 2014, accessed April 10,
Barber, 217.
Vater, 11.
Susan L. Huntington, The Art of Ancient India: Buddhist, Hindu, Jain (Boston:
Weatherhill, 2006), 8.
Vater, 12.
Vater, 12.
Vater, 12.
Cummings, 144.
Cummings, 17
Fredrick W. Bunce, The Yantras of Deities and Their Numerological Foundations: An
Iconographic Consideration (New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 2001), xiv.
Gudrun Bühnemann, Maṇḍalas and Yantras in the Hindu Traditions (Leiden: Brill,
2003), 29.
Bühnemann, 29.
Bunce, xiv.
Bunce, xiv.
Marion Rastelli, “Mandalas and Yantras in the Pancaratra Tradition,” (Leiden: Brill,
2003), 147-148.
Bunce, xv.
Bunce, xv.
Bunce, xv.
Bunce, xv.
Bunce, xv.
Bunce, xv.
Bühnemann, 33.
Bühnemann, 33.
Bühnemann, 34.
Bühnemann, 34.
Hélèn Brunner, “Maṇḍala and Yantra in Siddhānta,” in Maṇḍalas and Yantras in the
Hindu Traditions (Leiden: Brill, 2003),163.
Bühnemann, 34.
Bühnemann, 35.
Bühnemann, 36.
Bühnemann, 36.
Bühnemann, 36.
Bühnemann, 39-40.
Vater, 1.
Bunce, 27.
Bunce, 27.
Vater, 1.
Bunce, 27.
Bunce, 27.
Bunce, 27.
Bunce, 27.
Bunce, 27.
Vater, 1.
Bunce, 27.
Bunce, 28.
Bunce, 28.
Bunce, 3.
Bunce, 3.
Bunce, 3.
Bunce, 3.
Bunce. 5.
Bunce, 6.
Bunce, 6.
Bunce, 6.
Bunce, 6.
Bunce, 20, 108, 249.
This image depicts a tattoo received by a French Sak Yant devotee.
Vater, 11.
"Thailand Tattoos and Studios," Tattoo Thailand, accessed April 29, 2013,
Cummings, 24.
Robert L. Brown, Ganesh: Studies of an Asian God (Albany: State University of New
York Press, 1991), 182.
Brown, 182.
Cummings, 26; For instance, the Yant Singh my travel partner, Christy Green received
was altered to accommodate her vulnerability to such a strong yant. The ajar who
tattooed her shortened the tail of the lion and rearranged the positioning of kaathaa
incorporated in her Sak Yant design.
The common yant designs are listed on the Tattoo-Thailand website, which is
considered a great source for popular yants in Thailand.
Donald K. Swearer, Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual of Image Consecration in
Thailand (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 64.
"Thailand Tattoos and Studios," Tattoo Thailand, accessed April 29, 2013,
Tao says that this tattoo “represents the path one walks on to be safe.”
“Yant Kongkrapan,” Tattoo Thailand, accessed April 29, 2013,
“Yant Metta Maha Saneh,” Tattoo Thailand, accessed April 29, 2013,
Drouyer, 31.
Drouyer, 31.
Vater. 123.
Despite this design coming from Cambodia, I am including it because the Sak Yant
tradition almost died out in Cambodia due to the devastation of the Khmer rouge. A large
majority of the Sak Yant found in Cambodia today is because masters were interested in
reclaiming the practice and several had to be indoctrinated by masters who left Cambodia
for Thailand and then returned. Some masters are self-taught, like Prok Sokdaren and had
to study the script and kaathaa for years on his own.
Lakshanas are emblematic markings identifying the Buddha, or Mahapurusha.
Stella Kramrisch and Barbara Stoler. Miller, "Emblems of the Universal Being," in
Exploring India's Sacred Art: Selected Writings of Stella Kramrisch (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), 135.
Kramrisch, 135.
Kramrisch, 135.
Carol Stratton and Miriam McNair. Scott, Buddhist Sculpture of Northern Thailand
(Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2004), 50.
Stratton, xxii.
Vater, 197.
"Sak Yant Thai Temple Tattoos," Sak Yant Thai Temple Tattoos, accessed April 29,
Kramrisch, 131.
Kramrisch, 132.
Drouyer, 31.
Kramrisch, 131.
Kramrisch, 137.
Kramrisch, 138.
Kramrisch, 138.
Kramrisch, 138.
Vater, 123.
Cummings, 197.
Cummings, 197.
Cummings, 196.
Swearer, 80.
Alexandra R. Kapur-Fic, Thailand: Buddhism, Society, and Women (New Delhi:
Abhinav Publications, 1998), 217.
Kapur-Fic, 217.
Kapur-Fic, 218.
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Version of Ramayana (Ramakirti) of King Rama I of Thailand," Indologica Taurinensia
19-20 (1993-1994): 113,
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Version of Ramayana (Ramakirti) of King Rama I of Thailand," Indologica Taurinensia
19-20 (1993-1994): 119,
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no. 1 (1992): 93.
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Vater, 123.
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Tattoo Thailand, yant-kongkrapan, accessed April 29, 2013,
Vater, 133.
Tattoo Thailand, yant-kongkrapan, accessed April 29, 2013,
Cummings, 88.
However, with the exception of Nuad volunteering at a monastery, ajarns and reusis
charge for tattoos because they have families to support. The price of these tattoos are
still considerably less than the cost of a tattoo in the West. The cost of tattoos in the West
generally start around $100 and can range as high as a $1,000, where the cost of a tattoo
from an ajarn or reusi in Thailand range between $20 to a $100 USD.
"Thai Tattoo Tradition Draws Worldwide Devotees," interview by Scott Carney,
transcript, NPR, November 13, 2007.
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