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Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

The Spiritual Problematic of the Holy Tiger Ruesi and Tiger Energy in Muay Thai

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On our visit to Wat Khao Aor in Phatthalung, a 900 year old temple that was built around a sacred cave that likely featured worship for a much longer time. There are stories about the elephant-like shapes in the stone of the cave walls for instance. In that cave now are a host of spiritual figures/statuary as the cave has been a place of organized ceremonial retreat, mediation & merit-making for centuries. Among these figures is a Tiger Ruesi, something that has long captured my imagination, especially as I try to figure out the affective/spiritual path of the Nakmuay in Thailand, the particular way in which Muay Thai mitigates, translates, hones & even amplifies violence, alchemizing it into a artform, and a possibly a minor practice of transcendence. The Tiger Ruesi - and there are many differing tales, and likely differing Ruesi with a Tiger head, is a spiritual (magical) hermit who advanced in his (dark?) arts so thoroughly his head transformed into one of a tiger. One such tale of this event involved dualing Ruesi testing their magic upon each other, but whatever the stories, the figure itself expresses the incredible harmony/dichotomy of a holy man holding both the ferocity of a Tiger's Truth (energy), and the Buddhist epitome of equanimity. He, like the figure itself, feels like a living contradiction...or, a reconciliation of opposites. Below are two photos I took of the figure:





It's the second of these photos that I'm really interested in, but the first captures some of that flaming, gold-encrusted (there is leaf on his fangs, etc), eruptive energy in the Tiger. The genuine terror of what a Tiger is. I think for us in the West we have domesticated the Tiger in our minds, a sleek, sexy, dynamic beautiful energy, but that is because we are not connected, historically, to environments where if you walked out alone into the forest or the jungle you might not come back, due to a Tiger. The Tiger is perhaps close to the image we have had of a Great White Shark, which might mercilessly snatch you while swimming, or maybe the uncompromising hunt energy of a wolf. That is the energy that has become magical. The synthesis/tension of the Tiger Ruesi proposes a Thymotic energy resolution. (link divergence: Thymos is this. How Homer treated Thymos. And some of thymos is this. Thymotics and anger. But this is maybe the best treatment of what Thymos is). It is the surging dignity/pride/rage that comes from what feels like an animal core. The Tiger Ruesi, especially this one, seems to have come to hold in one hand both the terrifying ferocity of thymotic rage and Buddhistic repose...like a carefully balanced flame that burns calmly and unwavering in a breezeless room. Most Tiger Ruesi figures show him much more in repose. But this figure is practically erupting with the energy in his face.

But...what is very cool is his up-turned clawed palm, an aspect of his meditative posture. This small detail of the statue is just enormous. The claws, the weapons and expressions of his seemingly very nature, are open and relaxed. Anyone who has spread the claws of a cat's paw knows the natural tension that closes them back up. The figure must be so relaxed to have his clawed palm upon up so much. And that one thumb claw that really hangs down drives home the meaning. It's truly spectacular, the poles of the spectrum of experience.

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Now, the history of high level Muay Thai is not filled with "Tiger Energy" fighters. In fact we've filmed with almost a 100 legends and ex-fighters and only come upon it in a few times. Notably, when in the ring with Sagat Petchyindee, you can just feel it emanate off of him. You can see it in this slow motion we took of his shadow:

(link divergence: You can see it more in particular in the Muay Thai Library sessions we filmed with him: #69 Sagat Petchyindee 3 - Muay Maat Tigers & Snakes (67 min) watch it here , #60 Sagat Petchindee Session 2 - All the Strikes Tuned and Dangerous (101 min) watch it here , #38 Sagat Petchyindee (part 2) - Maximum Damage (61 min) watch it here , #26 Sagat Petchyindee - Explosive Power (57 min) watch it here )

This is to say, the higher level affect dynamics of Thailand's traditional Muay Thai is not fundamentally a synthesis of Tiger Energy, per se, but Tiger Energy does propose a kind of extreme (thymotic) energy what indeed needs to be given a vehicle of artful expression. And, at least to my eyes, the figure of the Tiger Ruesi holy man, brings this alchemy of thymotic anger and rage into close view.

In the west we have synthetic/dichotomous figures which talk to that problematic.


The Minotaur of Ancient Greece


The Gothic Werewolf


Contemporary Hulk


It is as if Western Civilization has been trying to process this rage/pride/thymos synthesis for 2,500 years. That is what make the art and tradition of Muay Thai so very interesting to the western problematic. And, suggestively, the Thai Buddhistic tradition of magical synthesis, which aim to generate this resolution at the highest level. In the larger scope, it is the way in which Thailand's Muay Thai processes and redirects typified western affects of rage and anger (and the host of emotions expressed by aggro-fighting in western oriented promotions) into an art form of spatial and personal control, maintaining their edge and sharpness, but held more close to the vest, honed liked a Japanese sword...perhaps, that proves the value of Thailand's historical Muay Thai, a martial combat sport that has been closely braided to long standing principles of Buddhism. That a Tiger Ruesi can exist as an acme holy figure in Thailand's Buddhism points the way toward the resolutions and expressions of ferocity by the Nak Muay that make Thailand's Muay Thai like no other fighting art.

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It is worth noting that the Nak Muay in Thailand existed positioned in a kind of Tiger Ruesi place. He (she) embodies characteristics of both the monk, and the Nakleng (gangster). The Nak Muay is a kind of were-hybrid figure, in terms of powers and expressed affects. He (she) is both holy and unholy, in the art and violence of Muay Thai:


The above graphic is from the article Thai Masculinity: Positioning Nak Muay Between Monkhood and Nak Leng – Peter Vail which examines academic Peter Vail's argument that Nak Muay are a kind of hybrid figure in Thailand. You can read the original excerpt of his dissertation here: ad hoc title: Thai Masculinity: Positioning Nakmuay Between Monkhood and Nakleng PDF

In this comparison Peter Vail draws on the Tiger, but in a differing way. He argues that in the way that forest monks used spending a night in a Tiger-prawled forest, creating a calmness before that potential ferocity, that is facing Tiger Energy to produce thudong, in this way Nak Muay are like them. In a certain regard one might say that facing the Tiger Energy before you, and within you, and creating a synthesis, is the spiritual (affective) challenge of the Muay Thai fighter in Thailand. The Tiger Ruesi epitomizes and heightens just what the Nak Muay is.

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Just as a point of context, this is an Internet story of how the Tiger Ruesi got his Tiger head. I suspect there is much diverse lore about these figures, and I'd imagine that this is not a definitive story. I've seen other tales. This one was found here:



The Legend of how these three Lersi Hermits got their Animal Heads

About Animal headed Lersi;

There are many different types and classifications of Lersi Thai Hermits, who are believed to exist on differing levels/worlds. The most animal headed Lersi are classified as “Lersi Chan Taep”, meaning “Angelic” or “Divine” level Lersi Hermit. The three Lersi Hermits in the picture below are (from left to right; Lersi Na Ling (monkey), Lersi Na Nuea (deer) and Lersi Na Suea (tiger). There is a legend about these three animal faced Lersi Hermits, as to how they got their Animal faces.

Lersi Na Suea

This Lersi Hermit Sage, is also known as Boromakroo Phu Jao Samingpray. In Thai, his real name and title is ‘Tan Taw Himawat’ (ท่านท้าวหิมวัต).

The language used to communicate this Kata with the Lersi Hermit is ‘Pasa Gubodte’ which is a language of the Deities.

Both Lersi Naa Suea and Lersi Naa Kwang were loyal friends long before they became Lersi. They studied under the same Ajarn, Lersi Wasit. When they have improved their skills considerably, they separated from the ashram of their master, Lersi Wasit. They journeyed further into the forest and form their own ashram nearby to the foot of Mount Krailash, where they continued to develop in their practices. Each of the Hermit Sages took off in separate paths, and found a peaceful place in order to practice Dhamma in an undisturbed manner.

The two Lersi Hermits, were, of course, still with human heads, and had other names as Naa Suea and Naa Kwang (this comes later in the story); They were named “Pra Lersi Kala Siddhi”, and “Pra Lersi Batapaa”. Lersi Kala Siddhi practiced in the Southern quarter of the Ashram, and Lersi Batapaa practiced in the Northern quarter. They both devoted all their time to Samadhi (concentration meditation), for a very long period of time, practicing with the utmost diligence. Once every period of time, they would visit each other, but sometimes, very long periods of time would pass between the visits.The time came when both Lersi Hermits had practiced long enough to have attained a multitude of abilities and Kata, and were even able to change their shape into the shape of another animal.

One day, Lersi Kala Siddhi was missing Batapaa, so decided to pay a visit. Apart from this, he was in the mood to show off his most recently acquired skills and put his comrade to the test in a battle of wits and spells, to see who is the best. As they were chatting, they discussed who had discovered the best Magick Katas, and who had attained the most merits to perform miracles. Each of the two Hermits maintained that it was their own self who was the most powerful.

As a test, they decided to both do their trick at the same moment, without warning, and see who had the best idea. Pra Lersi Batapaa (otherwise called “Pra Lersi Bpiidton”), cast a spell using a Kata into the “Nam Montr” (holy water), and gave it to Kala Siddhi as prevention and cure for any unfortunate incidents that might occur from their magick. Lersi Kala Siddhi performed a similar ceremony, and gave the prayer water to Batapaa in exchange for the gesture.

Suddenly, with the power of the Nam Montr, Lersi Batapaa mutated, and converted his head into the likeness of a golden deer, so beautiful, that his friend Kala Siddhi was forced to admire the feat with wide open eyes – Upon which, Lersi Kala Siddhi invoked the sacred power of his Nam Montr, and suddenly, appeared with the head of “Suea Kroeng” (Bengal Tiger) , with beautiful yellow fur shiny and golden. Both friends were please to encounter their synchronicity and likeness in their attainments, feeling each other to be peers and equals.

Here is where the where the twist in the story comes; In the trees at the edge of the Ashram, there was a Lersi Hermitby the name of Udtri watching them both display their abilities, upon seeing which, Udtri walked over and approached them, raising a hand to salute and revere them. All three Lersi sat down to chat, and talked for hours in Equanimity.

After some time, Udtri began to speak lengthily on the fact that both Lersi Hermits looked extremely handsome and beautiful at the same time with their strange looking, majestic animal heads, He mentioned that they should think that such a strange and never seen before thing, was so unusual, and had never ever happened in all history to date, and therefore should most probably never wish to return back to their normal state, rather maintain and revere this wonderful miracle.

Pra Lersi Udtri then began to talk endlessly about all kinds of topics, luring the two hermits to forget to partake of the sacred water they had prepared, and Lersi Udtri slowly, but surely approached nearer, until he was able to sit between the two bowls of prayer water, and the Lersi Batapaa and Kala Siddhi. All of a sudden, he jumped up, grabbing the Nam Montr and flinging it through the air – scattering it on the grass. Lersi Kala Siddhi and Lersi Batapaa looked onwards as the last drops of Nam Montr sank into the earth, and knew instantly that their chances of returning to normal were no more.

The two Sages were infuriated with Lersi Udtri and raised their concentration to focus and cast a Kata to curse Udtri with unhappiness. Lersi Udtri’s face was converted into that of a Monkey.

This is how the three animal faced Lersi and their legends came to be.

Lersi Na Suea (Tiger faced) is also known as “Pra Lersi Galasit” พระฤาษีหน้าเสือ – กาฬสิทธิ์, and also as ‘Tan Taw Himawat’ and ‘Phu Jao Saming Prai’ – Lersi Na Kwang Tong is Lersi Pathaapaa, or, Lersi Bpidton. Pra Lersi Na Ling (monkey faced) is none other than the Lersi Udtri himself.

After the 3 Lersi regained their calm, and accepted their fate, they forgave each other and went to their respective places of solitude and continued their practices.

The Kata (mantra) for Reusi Na Suea (tiger head Lersi) is as follows;
Oem Rue raa Mahaa Rue Raa Payakkae Payakkoe Ittirittae Ittirittoe sirae sirae kuroe kuroe Yaadoe Bpen Man Naa Ham Guu Diar Bang Giar Doer Doer

In Thai; โอม ฤ ฤา มหา ฤ ฤา พยัคเฆ พยัคโฆ อิทธิฤทธิเธ อิทธิฤทธิโธ สิเร สิเร
คุโร คุโร ยาโดร์ บัน นัมร์ นา ฮัม กู เดียร์ บัง เกียร์ โดร์ โดร์



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What does this mean for the role of rage and/or ferocity in Muay Thai, especially in the Muay Thai of Thailand? Because the Nak Muay himself/herself occupies a hybrid place in the culture, synthesizing holy and (possibly) unholy aspects of the human condition, Thailand's Muay Thai has a special offering to the Western fighter, and even viewer, who is drawn to fighting as an expression of aggression, anger, pride, frustration, rage, either as they occur in themselves or in society. When you train in Thailand you'll hear the Jai yen yen admonition, "Have a cool heart", which can work as a counterbalance to all the hot-hearted drive to the need to fight, or enjoy fights. But Thailand's Muay Thai is not just Jai yen yen. It rather creates a vehicle for sudden violence, even ferocious violence, which can erupt in only a flash, or a wave. Or, it can pulse in a Muay Khao derning. The Buddhistic take on anger and reactive passions certainly about controlling oneself, and ultimately one's mind. But the Tiger Ruesi figure gives us something more. A kind of magical balance where the two sit in repose with each other. The surging Tiger terror lays there in the figure, pulling to mind things like the original meaning of the holy idea of "awe" as it relates to "awful". The full vitality of the Tiger, all of his thymotic real power, lays almost in reserve, perhaps. If you take this meaning and look at the incredible Muay of the Yodmuay of the Golden Age, I believe you can see this simmering vitality on almost all the great fighters, whether it is Samart the Tiger who almost never has to get up from his rest in the shade, or Dieselnoi who stalks, counters and then threshes his opponent savagely, or Karuhat who silkily moves from rope to rope, and then strikes a mortal blow, decisively turning the fight. At the highest levels this seems to be the art of Muay Thai, and as we look at the yodmuay of the past we can see the infinite variety of the ways that Tiger Energy has been alchemized into personality and style.

As a western fighter coming to Thailand this is what, perhaps, the art and training has to offer. A more nuanced and pronounced way to express your thymotic energies. It is not just "Jai yen yen", it is Jai yen yen so that the Tiger can come out beautifully, expressively, in control of itself, striding and in full glory. At least that is what it seems like to me, come from the years I've spent in gyms all over Thailand, and from being in the presence of so many past great fighters. They all are Tigers.

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