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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 “Buddha-

ization” 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

Figure Page
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 state-

sponsored 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 “Buddha-

ization” 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 never-

ending 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 re-

consecration 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 “Buddha-

ization” 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 de-

emphasized 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 self-

reflection 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 like-

minded 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 5: Square, en pointe, yantra shape.

Figure 6: Square with diagonals 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. http://thailand-charms-

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
Kitiarsa, 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.
Subhadradis Diskul, "The Difference between Valmiki Ramayana and the Thai
Version of Ramayana (Ramakirti) of King Rama I of Thailand," Indologica Taurinensia
19-20 (1993-1994): 113,
"Cambodia," Cambodia, accessed February 26, 2014,
Subhadradis Diskul, "The Difference between Valmiki Ramayana and the Thai
Version of Ramayana (Ramakirti) of King Rama I of Thailand," Indologica Taurinensia
19-20 (1993-1994): 119,
Subhadradis Diskul, "The Difference between Valmiki Ramayana and the Thai
Version of Ramayana (Ramakirti) of King Rama I of Thailand," Indologica Taurinensia
19-20 (1993-1994): 119,
"Cambodia," Cambodia, accessed February 26, 2014,
Saveros Pou, "Indigenization of Rāmāyaṇa in Cambodia," Asian Folklore Studies 51,
no. 1 (1992): 93.

Saveros Pou, "From Valmiki to Theravada Buddhism: The Example of the Khmer
Classical Ramakerti," Indologica Taurinensia 19-20 (1993-1994): 281,
Pou, 94.
"Cambodia," Cambodia, accessed February 26, 2014,
Pou, 94.
Pou, 95.
Cummings, 100.
Cummings, 101.
Vater, 153.
Pou, 91;100.
Pou, 100.
Pou, 100.
Pou, 99.
Vater, 123.
Tattoo Thailand, yant-kongkrapan, accessed April 29, 2013,
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.
"Thai Tattoo Tradition Draws Worldwide Devotees"
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Pilgrimage," Sacred Journeys, 1992, 5.
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Pilgrimage," Sacred Journeys, 1992, 36.
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