If you’ve ever been to Thailand, you’ve probably noticed how prevalent tattoos are among Thai natives. These hand-poked sacred designs, called sak yant, are inked by Buddhist holy men and charged with their blessings. In recent years, they’ve become increasingly popular souvenirs for Western tourists—a quick Google search reveals scores of travel bloggers documenting their experiences, often waiting at temples for hours on end for their turn under the needle. No doubt some of the recent interest has been inspired by Western celebrities like Angelina Jolie, who sported her first sak yant in 2003, and Brad Pitt, whose sak yant supposedly bound him to his soon-to-be ex-wife Jolie. Even the New York Times published an article on sak yant in its travel section in October 2021, noting that some people “worry that, as international interest in the practice grows, sak yant’s spiritual elements are being lost, leaving only the shell of its aesthetic appeal.” What some sak yant seekers may not realize, however, is that receiving the markings is not necessarily a casual undertaking, and it can come with karmic strings attached.
Most of the tattoos follow centuries-old sacred designs called yant, the Thai form of the Sanskrit word yantra, referring to the sacred spiritual diagrams that originated in India (sak means “to tap”). Yant range from geometrically organized writing—sometimes lines from the Pali Buddhist canon, sometimes a cryptic mix of Khmer, Thai, Pali, and the Northern Thai language Lanna—to images of animals, human genitalia, spirits, and Hindu deities. Their accompanying blessings differ, too—some are geared toward spiritual or sexual endeavors, some offer physical protection or good luck, and others (like those often worn by the country’s ferocious Muay Thai fighters) bring out personal qualities like strength, bravery, and courage.
Sak yants must be inked by qualified masters called ajahns, who—unlike the Buddhist masters with the same title—can be either monk or layman. These tattoo masters need not only to be well-versed in the yants and their relevant incantations but also to possess the level of ethical and spiritual cultivation necessary to channel them. Once a tattoo is finished, the ajahn will activate the yant with the proper blessing (Pali, katha), thus imbuing the wearer with their spiritual potency.
What some sak yant seekers may not realize is that receiving the markings can come with karmic strings attached.
Here’s where things get messy—many of the blessings that are chanted incorporate taking refuge in the three jewels (the Buddha, dharma, and sangha), a rite that some consider to function as a formal conversion to Buddhism. This raises the question: are Western sak yant wearers unknowingly converting to Buddhism?
There’s no black-and-white answer. Putting aside debates about what exactly constitutes a Buddhist conversion, Thai Buddhists disagree about whether or not sak yants even belong to their Buddhist tradition. The practice of magical tattooing predates the widespread acceptance of Theravada Buddhism in many parts of Southeast Asia. While plenty of Thai Buddhist monasteries are now renowned for their resident tattoo-poking monks, sak yants are more closely tied to Thailand’s tradition of ruesi—mystical hermit-sages thought to trace back to India’s rishi—than they are to mainstream monastic Buddhism. And though sak yants draw from a mix of Buddhist and folk religious iconography and power, some still consider the esoteric art to be a mere remnant of an unsophisticated (read: “un-Buddhist”) bygone era.
There may be more at stake, however, than just reciting the refuge chant and offering the standard fare of cigarettes, incense, flowers, and cash. Ajahns are spiritual teachers first and foremost, and receiving their blessing binds you to them. Depending on the tattoo’s ajahn and design, sak yants may come charged with only a limited battery life, after which the blessing must be recharged by the ajahn. And in order for the blessings to stick at all, the wearer must adhere to various Buddhist ethics and follow certain restrictions—typically some combination of the first five Buddhist precepts; the more powerful the yant, the longer the terms of the user agreement.
Failure to uphold your end may result in a weakening or negation of the blessing’s effects, but depending on the particular blessing and level of transgression, pact breakers are purportedly liable to incur such ill fates as insanity, loss of livelihood, a slow and painful death, or rebirth in a hell realm. In other words, whereas a normal tattoo may last a lifetime, a sak yant may last longer.
Many of these details can get lost in translation for Western wearers—myself included. During a 20-hour layover in Bangkok in 2016, I met with an ajahn who agreed to bestow a sak yant on me. Although I had read about sak yants and discussed them with a Buddhist studies professor, I realize in retrospect that I should have taken more time to contemplate exactly what I was getting myself into.
At the time, I was a college student who had just studied with a weikza in Myanmar (the country’s ruesi equivalent) for a fieldwork project to cap off a semester abroad in India. I wanted to make the most of my brief stopover in Thailand—I had been warned that my weikza practices could attract the attention of malevolent spirits, and part of me (superstitious blood from my Burmese side, I think) was starting to believe it. I figured a little extra protection wouldn’t hurt.
One of my professors had several sak yants of his own and recommended that I call his ajahn. But when I did, he told me he was busy and directed me to another ajahn, who was also busy and directed me to a small Bangkok temple. I was running on very little food and even less sleep, and I was in such a rush, apparently, that I hadn’t even taken the time to remember the name of the temple or the ajahn. Still, I presented him with a pack of menthol cigarettes, some flowers, and an envelope of cash, and after an hour or two of excruciating pain and a quick blessing, I emerged, the yant freshly inked on my upper back.
I was aware that there were conditions attached. But the unidentified ajahn with whom I was now spiritually linked spoke very little English, so the exact terms of negotiation were left vague at best. When I asked the ajahn what my yant meant, the best answer I could get was “good fortune and protection.” Don’t get me wrong—who wouldn’t want either of those boons?—but I wish I had hired a translator to parse all the details. Before I left, we shared one of the menthol cigarettes I had offered him, and he left me with one very simple instruction: “Do good.”
I don’t regret my decision, but the circumstances were not ideal. I traded blood and ink and am now karmically bound to an ajahn whose name and resident temple I don’t remember. If I could go back, I would want to put a little more intention into my choice—as far as I know, laser treatment has yet to be proven effective on one’s karma.