I climbed slowly down the short ladder from the corner of the ring, the cool air washing over the water soaked clothes, Vaseline and oil on my skin, while the warmth of blood streamed down from my forehead, along the bridge of my nose and down my chin. Because I was smiling, blood trickled into my mouth and crept into my mouthpiece; I could taste it. And I felt so happy.
Straight from my 108th fight, a victory and 6 stitches in my forehead, we drove through the dark highways with only a few other cars on the road to a room just outside of Rangsit and got a few hours of sleep before getting back into the car and heading over to Ajarn Pi Bangkrating’s Bangkok office where I would convince him of the sincerity of my desire to receive an enormous sak yant on my back. The third sak yant I’ve received from him and a triptych of yants at that.
A little background: the first time I came to see Arjan Pi I was very nervous. My Thai wasn’t great, but he had an assistant whose English was somewhat helpful in bridging the difference in understanding. I told him I was a Muay Thai fighter and that I wanted a yant on my elbow, but there wasn’t one that looked like what I had in mind in his book. Within a few minutes he’d searched through his phone and found a photo of a man he’d tattooed (a real “Illustrated Man,” totally covered in sak yant) and who happened to have an elbow tattoo. That was the one I wanted, that was the one Arjan Pi thought was right, and that’s what we did. From the start, our relationship has been grounded in his recognition of me as a nakmuay.
After the elbow tattoo my journey into sak yant has deepened and become more meaningful. Arjan Pi’s responses to my requests for larger, more masculine yants have been first immediate shock, then a few moments of making sure I know what I’m asking for, and then wholehearted commitment from both sides to getting the immense work done. You can read about my Sangwan Rahu chest tattoo experience in my blogpost from last year, which was a very intense experience. I thought getting my back done would be similar. It wasn’t.
When I first sent Arjan Pi an image of the tigers I wanted on my back, this was the image he sent in response:
That has been pretty much his immediate response twice now, this time by emoticon, last time in person. His reaction seems two fold: first, I’m asking for a lot of work. Arjan Pi isn’t lazy, he actually clocks an incredible number of hours sitting in his various offices around the world, which I reckon is how he’s managed to become so immensely fast and skilled in his artwork. Being an Arjan of sak yant is one’s Dharma, so whether or not his tattoos are beautiful is secondary to his ability to create the magic that they offer – I’ve seen some not-so-beautiful yant around, but they still do the job. Yants are devices. Arjan Pi has certainly has achieved his “10,000 Hours” despite his relative youth – he is a master. The second reason Arjan Pi’s face looks like that emoticon every time I ask for a yant from him is that I ask for things that women simply don’t want. sak yant aren’t gendered by rule but they are divided by gender in practice. If you want a tattoo that will curry favor, influence, or attractiveness, there are designs that women choose and designs that they don’t. If I were to be very general about it, I’d say that men can get pretty much any design and women’s selections are more limited – by their own choice. The design I was asking for is favored by high-ranking military or police, real manly men who have authority over others or whose jobs might be dangerous. Not really common for even a nakmuay (who by the way in Thailand are not commonly tattooed), but reasonable for one… if I were a man.
Expecting Similarity With My Last Sak Yant
When I’d thoroughly convinced Arjan Pi that I was not only certain that I wanted this yant, but that I was willing to sit for the hours that a piece of this size would require, he invited me to sit down and we got to it.
When I got my chest piece done part of the difficulty was that I was facing Arjan Pi and his face was very close to mine, so I couldn’t wince and pull faces or do anything to betray my discomfort. I had to be real stoic-like. I thought that was hard, at the time. In fact, I’d thought that my back would be less painful and also less awkward – for my chest I’d had to lean against a Good Samaritan who propped me up for hours during the tattooing process. Surely hugging against a pillow would be more comfortable.
I was wrong about all of it. The areas of my upper back that the tattoo covers all hurt immensely, every part of it, although some areas were far more difficult than others. That was one thing. But not being able to see Arjan was also difficult. Straight across from me was darkened glass that enclosed the room we were in, the doors slide closed so that the air-con only had to fill a small space. I could look into the dark glass and see myself and Arjan reflected, so I could see what he was doing and I could check every time he paused if he was cleaning the needle, getting more ink, stuffing toilet paper into his nose (he had a cold at the time) or putting the long rod for the needle down to start cleaning the skin or drawing with his marker again. So I kind of knew what he was doing, but I couldn’t see any of the work. I had no idea how much was or wasn’t done. It became an uncharted eternity.
As the hours progressed (and he works incredibly fast – like, truly mind-blowingly fast – which just goes to show how much work he puts in) the pain just got amplified. It’s not that it’s more painful, it’s just more difficult to tolerate as the skin becomes more tender and the needle starts going over the same areas, between lines already etched into the skin. It’s not that the volume gets turned up but rather that the space becomes an echo chamber, every sound bouncing around and clashing and becoming incoherent. That’s the kind of pain – it’s not greater pain, there’s just no reprieve between and it starts to clamor on top of itself. The pain gets kind of “shouty.”
And this is where the transformation happens. Sak Yant are not like design tattoos. You can’t stop a yant and book another session; you have to finish the yant, like every movie you’ve seen where the spell has to be cast and said precisely even while the storm rages. In my case, each tiger is a yant, as is the Takroh at the center – so it’s three main pieces with tons of text in between. I was given the option to stop by Arjan when the tigers were complete, but I didn’t want to stop. So we kept going. And there’s something in the process of knowing that you just have to endure, that you can’t stop it, that is a very keen lesson for life, for Muay Thai, for existence in general. It’s hard because part of what makes pain tolerable is the knowledge that it will stop. A “this too shall pass,” kind of thing. But you’re sitting there with this pain that makes the whole body quake involuntarily and it’s not passing; there’s no end. So I breathe and try to just be in the moment, but the moment is filled with pain and so it’s becoming this eternity of pain and I can’t think or distract my mind until it ends, because I don’t know when it will end. I just have to breathe and accept it. My pain tolerance is considered high – but this was different, even compared to the Sangwan I received across my chest. Near the end, Arjan just kept adding and adding to the middle – the most painful parts. He was putting in the spells – that part is the magic, a syllable here, two syllables there. He would stop for a moment, wipe down the whole piece and there would be this fleeting feeling a kind of tender care of the damp cloth cleaning off the sting. I’d look into the reflection of the doors and see him pick up the marker; and he’d pick up the needle again… all I could do was shake my head and accept. I could not make it stop. It stops only when it’s finished.
above: a few minutes of video of the process
I did cry, involuntarily. Only near the end, only for a few minutes, and Arjan “tsk-ed” me, quietly chiding me for losing control and would ask gently but firmly, “Sin-wee-uh, wai mai?” (“Can you endure?”) And I’d calm myself, breathe and carry on. I know that for sak yant in general you cannot, or simply do not, stop even if someone is breaking down. The Arjan gives you the chance to recollect yourself but they don’t stop to do it. What’s amazing about Arjan Pi – and I’ve never been tattooed by another Arjan, so I don’t know if this is unique to him or not – is that he actually seems to go a bit harder when you betray your struggle. It’s like, “if you want to let your mind break down then it will be worse; get your shit together, that’s how you make it easier.” He doesn’t say that, of course, but that’s the way the pain teaches you… or directs you. My trainer at Petchrungruang, Pi Nu, does something similar. He’ll put more pressure on you when you start to struggle, to see where your breaking point is. He’s stretching limits – or giving you the opportunity to do so, really – and if you figure out how to relax and just keep answering then he’s happy and you’ve grown. If you break, if you give up, he’ll take into account whether it’s a bad day for you or whether your limits are just too rigid, if they’re “set,” so to speak. Pi Nu guides young boys to become Lumpinee fighters and champions this same tacit, “find the solution within yourself,” manner that Arjan Pi practices with the tattooing of yant.
And that’s what’s so transformative about this experience. Have you heard folks talk about using psychedelics as a “shortcut,” to glimpse the shores and open the mind to islands of consciousness it may not have known, but then you have to do the hard work through meditation and living to get back to those shores for real… to actually touch them? That’s what being tattooed by Ajarn Pi is like. He’s a teacher and a guide. Pain is this river and it’s moving and you can kind of work around within its limits but you just have to let it carry you to wherever it’s going. This last experience was the most intense ever. I realized, very early on in the process, that most of the physical pain we experience in life is incredibly short – it’s very intense but temporally very short – a burn, banging your toe on a table, a cut, a fall, even a broken bone will fade into an ache after a pretty short time. Most of us are lucky to not live with chronic pain. So to sit here, voluntarily, and endure nearly 4 hours of constant pain is something unlike anything else. You have to sit in it; you have to realize you’ve chosen this.
Only the Beginning – The Nature of Amnat
These particular yant are so much more than I imagined. They serve as a reminder of where I went during that experience and I’m confident I can go there again, wear the paths into something I can revisit more readily. Sak Yant and amulets don’t imbue charisma or power out of nothing – they amplify qualities you already have, the values you want to strengthen. And these yant have been an incredible test for me, even after the trial of actually receiving them. In wearing this on my body, I’m forced to accept the messages they convey outwardly all the time. I hate being looked at, which as a westerner in the performance world of Muay Thai isn’t something I get to avoid all the time, but the tattoos make the stares more intense. Some days my mind and heart are cool with it, like “yeah, get a fuckin’ eye full!” And sometimes it feels horrid and I shrink. That’s me working against my own magic, that shrinking. And that’s part of my new lesson.
When I first put up an Instagram of the new tattoo, my friend Zippy said something like, “I hope you have what it takes to carry that Sak Yant.” He immediately softened it with a “I’m sure you do,” kind of statement, but I took the initial post to heart. I don’t know that I’m “benching my max,” so to speak. I feel very much like the intensity and weight of the tattoos is going to transform me into what it takes to carry the powerful yant. After my most recent fight, a loss that was an incredibly close fight and one in which I had significant disadvantages, I thought to myself that the yant is still bigger than I am – it’s still teaching me, but it’s pulling me up.
Part of the burden is the meaning of the yant. The Sua Kru (pair of tigers) is a power of influence and authority yant. It confers amnat, which is power associated with command – there is very little about amnat that is feminine. Amnat is military, it has rank and status over others. I did not know this when I choose the yant, but now that I know I feel it has chosen me. The Tigers also connect you to an animal energy known for its savagery – in some cases literal possession by the animal – a man was possessed during the Wai Kru ceremony in May and I could feel my own Tigers itching. In Thailand, iconically Tigers are seen as killers, perhaps more how we in the west view Great White sharks or wolves, and not simply as cool or sleek animals. The amnat power of command is therefore brutal, untamed. Though the Yant have other associative powers, the power of ittiphon (charismatic influence), and ittiroot (aura of magical invulnerability) and metta (charmed love/compassion) to temper the Tigers, but the force is still there.
Significantly, most Sak Yant in Thailand are kept hidden from public view, like a card up your sleeve. They are literally under your shirt ending at the sleeve or neck line and often only privately known. Even Sak Yant masters like Arjan Pi might look completely unmarked while wearing a T-shirt and long pants. The bank teller may be covered in sak yant and you would not know it. Some of this privacy is that sak yant are part of a magic/spiritual protection and warfare people conduct against potential enemies, some of it is that sak yant are associated with the poorer, or criminal classes; but I’ve chosen one that goes on display – you know what I’m packing – Thais can see these yant as very bold signatures, very real powers. Climbing into the ring may seem like entering with an axe. This is something no female fighter does at all, and really almost no male fighter. I don’t do it in order to be purposefully transgressive, but I understand that it is. Even before I had my Tigers I saw how my Sangwan Rahu changed people’s faces at a venue when walking through a crowd. With these yants, while wearing my fight top the burden becomes more acute. I am often the only farang at the rings where I fight. Their meanings become a public crucible. The magic doesn’t give you charm or luck or attractiveness or persuasion out of nothing. It asks it of you, forces you to connect to things above and beyond you, to become more than yourself. Since receiving these yant a number of the fights I’ve lost – albeit against some of the very best fighters in Thailand – have been very, very close and some I might have actually won on points but the decision went the other way because my opponent out-performed me, which is important in Muay Thai. My yant offer the power of persuasion, and these losses are sending me the message to be more persuasive. I’m holding a gun, but the magic doesn’t make you use it – I have to lean into the power. I thought to myself today that we have this phrase, “like water off a duck’s back.” There’s something physical that actually makes water roll off a duck’s back, just as a sak yant might very literally, physically offer protection – there are believers who test the magic of their yant by asking to be stabbed, for example. That’s not a belief in the theoretical power of yant; that’s very literal. But “water off a duck’s back” is also conceptual and I argue that we don’t think of it literally; none of us thinks that a duck cannot get wet. So it is with my yant. Rather than believing that the protection and power of “impenetrability” means that a knife will not pierce my skin, or that I will never be cut in a fight again, what I do believe is what it would look like to be impenetrable, which is unaffected, like The Hulk walking through a hail of bullets. “Water off a duck’s back” doesn’t mean you can’t get wet. It means you appear to be unaffected by whatever it is that’s “soaking” you.
When I got my Sangwan Rahu on my chest, my life changed. My path in Muay Thai shifted radically, I moved to Pattaya, my training changed and I got much better. It was a catalyst. I thought a lot about and meditated on the dark deity Rahu who became a patron and protector, as well as a pole star. When I got that tattoo, I felt like I was wearing armor. I felt and trusted and loved the transformation. With my Sua Ku Takroh on my back the change will be just as radical, if not greater, but it is surprisingly very different. Unlike with Rahu, I did not have an external force and principle to focus on. Instead it is the development of something within me. I have to keep working on it. It’s building me and in the process tearing me down. A few months ago I got my Mongkol blessed by Arjan Pi, which felt amazing and meant a lot to me – and I subsequently lost 3 fights, beginning with the one I fought the very same night I had it blessed. When I got my back yant, I got cut in 3 subsequent fights, more frequently than ever before, which my coach teases me about because the Takroh at the center protects against this. But I don’t think these are accidents or coincidences or signs of failure. I feel them to be processes, or trials. I embrace them. When I went to the Wai Kru ceremony at Arjan Pi’s the morning of my last fight in Chiang Mai, I prepared myself for the next trial. I don’t go to Arjan Pi with the belief that I will walk away healed, or invincible. I’m not looking for a genie in a lamp to grant me wishes. Instead, I feel strongly that these trials of 3 are shaping and enforcing my beliefs. If I walked away from receiving a sak yant with the belief that now I will never be cut again, I wouldn’t really believe it – especially when I get cut again. To me, I have a belief in the power; when it doesn’t “work” it isn’t a failure, it is exactly like when I ask Arjan for a particular yant and his immediate response is shock; then “are you sure?”; then one more test in receiving the tattoo itself, when the pain becomes so much that I’m “tsk-ed” and asked whether or not I can endure. That’s the process. And, indeed, I had six stitches in my face while I was receiving the Takroh yant, so the wound is woven into the process itself. I find that very meaningful.
Wai Kru – Arjan Pi in Chiang Mai
I received my Tigers and Takroh Sak Yant in February. May 1st was Arjan Pi Bangkating’s annual Wai Kru ceremony in Chiang Mai. I had about a month and half of experiencing the yant, and it would be the second Wai Kru for Arjan Pi I’ve attended. At the ceremony we arrived a bit late, which isn’t my style at all. Long story short, we had driven a ways out of Chiang Mai looking for what we thought was a new location for the ceremony; we finally figured out it was just at his old house and doubled back. When we arrived all the chairs were already filled up and a few folks in front of us were shuffling around, adding seats at the edges underneath the strings that hang down from a grid that covered everyone. The ceremony was just about to begin. From across these long rows of seated devotees, Arjan Pi sees me from where he’s seated in front of the giant shrine and into his microphone he says, “aah, Sin-wee-uh maa laeo.” (Ah, Sylvie has arrived.) Shout out to me through the loud speakers so everyone can turn and stare at me; my favorite, thanks.
We then were invited, over the loud speakers by Arjan, to take seats up near him in the front of the group. So we shuffled through the narrow lane in front of all his followers and someone added some seats under the strings, which Kevin unwound and we tied around our heads. This is a very cool thing and last year, at my first Wai Kru ceremony, I was totally lost. But this year I understood what was happening, knew how to conduct myself, and could actually repeat the chants along with the group. The strings come down from this huge grid and are used like a spiderweb to connect us all to the power source, which is the monk or Arjan Pi, who are chanting. It’s like we’re all connected to this merit battery. There’s a part in blessings where you pour water, which is a conductor. If you don’t have water you can touch the person who is pouring it – or if they’re giving an offering to the temple you can touch them and it’s from both of you because of this connection. That’s the same with these strings. And then you can rip the strings off the grid and take them home as these supercharged luck charms. I love it.
above: video of the group blessing and charging. Music is used to replace the actual chants, which may be private formula.
There’s a lot of chanting, first by Arjan Pi (the Kru to whom we are all paying respect in today’s Wai Kru) and then by a group of monks who all chant together. This lasts perhaps for an hour all together. Then food is distributed to everyone, soup, fruit and sweets. The way that people eat seems to be as if in eating you are achieving luck or merit – I’ll tell you, Thais are champions at eating in large groups. After everyone has eaten the students all line up and go in 5 at a time to offer Arjan Pi a gift plate (incense, candle and flowers wrapped together in a banana leaf). This is where your yants will be re-imbued, a big reason why his students return each year to pay respect. It’s a powerful ceremony and some devotees are known to be possessed by the spirits of their animal yant (you can find videos of this at the big temple in Bangkok that has an annual Wai Kru day), very often the tiger. It’s the power of the re-charging of the yant that causes this. I’m actually advised against having Tigers because, having been born in the year of the pig, I’m susceptible to the possession of tigers over the pig. I wasn’t possessed, but I do feel the energies of the Wai Kru ceremony and this year, as a man who last year also became possessed by his Tiger yant, I felt my own tigers itching. I read a book in which a Thai man says he feels his yants itching when he speeds in his car, as if they’re warning him. My own physical sensation felt a bit like that – not so much a warning, but a kind of strong suggestion to take note. It was momentary. I did not feel them itching at the moment that all my yant were actually being recharged, when I’m kneeled before the big Reusi shrine and Arjan Pi. He puts an inscription on your forehead with this scented clay while he chants, then puts the mask of Pra Reusi (wise man, hermit and father of Sak Yant) over your head and blesses you, blows on your head and hands you an amulet as a gift. Men got Pra Khun Paen, who’s pretty much the fucking coolest, and women received Pra Nang Paya, the “Queen of Amulets” and historically the mother of King Narsuan (who is connected to Pra Rahu).
The “male” gift set with the Pra Khun Paen amulet. You can see what monk made what here. (It’s in Thai, so just use a translator and the names are the last part of each item.)
The man in front of me took his amulet, wai-ed to Arjan Pi and then turned off to the right to be blessed by the monk sitting to the side. I took my offering plate in my hands and shuffled forward on my knees, keeping my head low as I approached Arjan Pi, who was seated on just a simple white cloth in front of his enormous shrine of Pra Reusi masks.
Again when I approached him he announced me, kind of to the monk and kind of to his helpers to the sides, “Ah, Sin-wee-uh, nakmuay.” (Ah, Sylvie, my fighter.) As he dipped a small wooden stick into the scented clay and began inscribing on my scarred up forehead, he smiled and asked me, “Sin-wee-uh, chanah mai?” (You win, right?) He was teasing me somewhat, implying that I win all the time now that I’m enchanted. I smiled and softly, barely loud enough for the monk behind me to hear me, answered that I do sometimes win. In my head I wanted to correct the question, to explain that I don’t have to win every fight, I just have to grow every fight and I believe that the guidance and processes I’m put through under Arjan’s Sak Yant are giving me uncanny abilities to do that. My belief in following Pra Rahu, the demigod of chaos, is like that also. It allows me to trust that “shit is fertile,” so to speak – there’s growth in misfortune or bad luck or failure. And that belief means a great deal to me. Believing I’ll only win would be like believing the sak yant won’t hurt – it has to hurt. The pain is the process, but not being broken by it or controlled by it, that’s the real triumph.
So as I stepped back out and slipped through the line of people waiting to go pay respects to our teacher, I could smell the clay on my forehead. And I knew that this event was meant to give respect to a man who I believe is teaching me, not simply giving me transformation. I knew that my fight that night would be the continuation of my lessons, another trial of 3’s. And what I learned that night in the ring was this lesson I mentioned about being persuasive, even when the disadvantages are stacked on my head. To me, the power of my tattoos is not that obstacles won’t be placed in front of me; it’s that I’ll see them and know that my power is greater than whatever power is against me. That I’ve chosen this, that I can endure. The first step is authority over and persuasion of myself. Then it goes outward.
My Vlog Update When Coming Out of the Ceremony
If you found this interesting you may like the other sak yant articles on 8limbs.us
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