Sak Yant and Invulnerability in Muay Thai – A Constellation of 8 Yant
Sak Yant, My Belief and Muay Thai Invulnerability
There are, to me, significant differences between the invulnerability of those who deflect bullets, and the invulnerability of those who absorb bullets but keep moving forward. The second is scarier. I picture the the Hulk raging forward while bullets bounce off of him, just getting more pissed off from the onslaught (one of my fight nicknames is dahaknoi, which is ‘Little Hulk’ in Thai. That’s cool. But more dangerous, to me, is the creature that comes after you despite the pain and despite the damage.
Invulnerability, the one by definition, is not the one I romanticize. In fact, what I find so frightening and inspiring about the latter kind is that strength comes through in spite of vulnerability. One is capable of harm, whereas the other is impregnable. In the world of Sak Yant, the impregnable, unable to harm, un-damageable effect is the goal. When Yant masters tattoo these sacred symbols and letters onto their subjects, the reality of purpose is that the skin will not break when a knife slashes at it, a bullet is shot, etc. In fact, one would think that the Ajarn would have to do an incantation to remove the magic temporarily in order to ever tattoo the subject again, as the needles would not pierce the skin.
I believe that this greater magical state is possible. But I think it’s very extreme and some hooligan dropping into an Ajarn’s office to get an invulnerability tattoo can’t just walk out with some ink that acts as a shell. There are monks who can accomplish incredible feats – seemingly miraculous – like heating one hand enough to melt snow while the other remains regular body temperature. The powers of the mind are incredible and the degrees of invulnerability are, to my understanding, almost completely mental. With my Sak Yant, I have found myself to be more emotionally, spiritually, mentally invulnerable. The Yant I have on my back at the center is for impenetrability and my trainer Pi Nu teases me because I’ve been cut since receiving the Yant. But here’s the thing: I feel invulnerable. I feel like I’m wearing fucking armor and when I am cut in the ring I don’t bat an eyelid at it. You shoot the monster and it bleeds, but it keeps walking… that shit is scary. It’s maybe the difference between a scratched up Jaeger and a sparkling, new Transformer. I prefer the former.
Sak Yant, Aesthetics and Pain Brings Faith
For many monks and Ajarns who give Sak Yant, the “client” does not choose the tattoo – this is traditional. Arjan Pi Bangkating is more open-minded. I’ve chosen my first three session Yants, on my elbow, my Sangwan Rahu on my chest, and the Tigers and Takroh on my back. I don’t choose the incantations. But I’ve written before that my Yant aren’t decorative. They are aesthetic to a degree, in that I was attracted to them by the power of their design first. Perhaps the images were “speaking to me” but I’m not versed enough in sacred tattooing to be completely severed from the aesthetic appeal. In the end Yants do something, they are devices, much more than they “mean” something. The purpose of each Yant is important to me, and I researched as best I could the general objectives behind each of my sak yants before and then after I got them.
Some time after receiving my last large back tattoo (two tigers and takroh pictured above) I went to see Ajarn Pi for a kind of consultation because I’d been cut perhaps more than ever since my sak yant – the takroh confers invulnerability. I did not expect external “invulnerability” – I take these paths as paths of spiritual learning, not just powers gained. The onslaught of cuts felt like a lesson I was going through though, a lesson, a test in what invulnerability is. Our conversation was in Thai and was much longer, but the short version is that I wasn’t claiming the Yant weren’t “working,” but felt I needed something, an understanding, an approach; he told me that as a Nak Muay the risks are high. I loved this answer from him because it was embracing of my lifestyle. When Thai men make comments about my scars I can usually shut them up by telling them my number of fights. If you’re a race car driver, your number of crashes is going to be proportionate to your time speeding around in a car; whereas a college student with 10 crashes on his ledger would seem like a problem. He also gave me a kata to chant, which I did not have before. Sak Yant are processes. And receiving one begins a process.
After that back tattoo, which took 4 hours and was one of the most intensely painful and transformative experiences I’ve endured, I felt that I was probably not going to get another tattoo (of any kind) for a long time. I wrote in a previous post about receiving Yant that the pain is a catalyst; it also transports you to states of mind and body that are hard to achieve otherwise. You can glimpse shores of realization from the windows of the pain-vehicle that you have to use lots of effort to revisit in a more normal state of being. Because of this kind of experience, Ajarn Pi Bangkating is someone I consider a guide, a teacher. The word Ajarn means “professor” in Thai and these Sak Yant practitioners are called this precisely because they are spiritual instructors through the Darma of their Yant. Ajarn Pi says, “pain brings faith,” and that’s very much how I would qualify my experiences of being tattooed by him and how I’ve grown from them. Knowing that it was going to be some time before I had another tattoo, I also felt that when I did consider getting another Yant, whenever that might be, I’d do so by telling Ajarn, “whatever you think I need,” and having him choose. He’s been remarkably flexible in the Yant he’s done so far for me – the last two times I asked him he’s been shocked by the size and intensity of what I’m asking for, but he always understands. He refers to me as his Nak Muay to some of the folks I’ve witnessed him talking about me with. I am a weird one.
My Sak Yant Experience – Arjan Pi Calls Me In
This week we’d just arrived in Chiang Mai and I had a two days before my next fight. In the evening I received a text from Ajarn, asking if I was in Chiang Mai. It was sheer providence that I was, in fact I would not have been there if I had not taken an additional fight at the last minute that landed me in the city a few days earlier. He told me to come see him because he wanted to “try something” for invulnerability. This is something he’s never done with me, spontaneously asking me to visit him, and is probably very unusual. We decided I should come in the next morning because I was fighting the day after that. I assumed it would be something like the last time I’d gone to see him, which involved putting clay inscriptions on my forehead and writing Yant letters with a wooden stick on my scalp, then lots of incantations and chanting before sending me off with a new Kata to recite. (A Kata is syllables, which represent words rather than saying the words themselves, and you chant it as a way to charge your Yant.)
When I arrived at Ajarn Pi’s house/office the front door was still locked and I had to call through the gate. Talk about overcoming my limitations – I’m painfully shy about these types of things; I can barely order food for myself at a restaurant if I haven’t already been there a bunch of times. But Ajarn appeared from the back and unlocked the gate and we walked into his work space, where he seated himself on the pillow where he tattoos and went about finishing a video he was watching on his phone. It sounded like a seminar of some kind. When he was finished with that he talked to me for a few minutes about how to make the magic against cuts stronger, noting that I fight bigger opponents very frequently and how this would help in those situations. He mentioned that he had been talking to another master, perhaps someone higher than him, someone he seemed to have great respect for. And he actually took a few photos of the scars on my forehead and sent them them to the sak yant master, as part of an ongoing chat. He pulled out a small plastic box that was separate from the larger one that holds the bulk of his stencils he usually works from. In it were two pieces of paper, one with a kind of elaborate bow-and-arrow design and the other looking just like the Yant I have on my elbow, something Ricky of Muay Tea has told me is the disc of Vishnu. He showed them to me and fitted the arrow one to my right hand. He kept talking about this whole series of Yant, pointing to his hands, then the top of his head, his shins and the back of his knee. I didn’t fully understand, but I mostly understood. Finally he said, “wai mai?” This means something between “do you want this?” and “can you endure this?” I nodded and he started stacking pillows up on my lap to get the right angle on my hands.
For a moment, literally just a fleeting thought, I considered the consequences of having tattoos on my hands. I get enough unwanted and sometimes negative attention for the tattoos I already have in Thailand and they’re mostly able to be covered. Hands are hard to cover without the fact of their being covered seeming notable in itself. Nobody wears tea gloves anymore. But the thought was quickly released because I felt far more strongly this thought: saying no to this present experience because of some possible future experience seemed foolish. I trust Ajarn and being called in and sat down with this explanation felt enormous; the learned-worry about what someone might think about me later felt small. I came in expecting to be chanted over, and instead I was sitting down for several hours of sak yant, an unexpected transformation.
The order went like this: outline of the Yant on my right hand, full Yant on my left hand, then back to fill in the script on my right hand; top of my head, with my hair being parted by Ajarn Pi’s assistant, Wanchai, who was possessed by his Tiger Yant at the first wai kru ceremony we attended; a single line of script on the cap of each shoulder; arrows on each shin; three lines and an addendum on the back of my left knee. A constellation of 8 Yant (you can see a video clip below). I laughed because when Ajarn Pi was about to tattoo my skull he warned me that this spot hurts; yeah, it all hurts. But as Ajarn Pi says, “pain brings faith.” There was something different about this process from my other Yant experiences; on the one hand it was similar in that the pain and the process just keeps going and I don’t have control over that, I can only control my response to it, my internal experience. But in another way these Yant actually feel like a different thing, perhaps because they are a constellation toward a single purpose rather than a single, large piece. They were strategically placed on points of my body. While I was receiving them, I thought about these guys I’ve seen who are covered in Yant. They cease to be tattoos at that point and become a whole system. That’s what this felt like; I wasn’t “getting a tattoo” but submitting myself to a process. And truthfully, my Yant thus far have felt protective – I liken it to wearing armor – whereas these, the two on my hands, feel more offensive… like someone added a mace to each hand.
Looking at them afterward, and for a few days now, I’m struck by how much Yant are a visual cue for meditative points. Like a visual reminder of what kind of being you want to be, and the more you’re reminded of it, the more you think about it and meditate on it, the more you become it. A very strange point about the bow-and-arrow Yant on my right hand is that when I was a kid, maybe aged 10-13, for a couple of years straight I would draw three arrowheads on my middle three fingers on my right hand. Only those fingers, only the right hand, and virtually every day for three years. My mom teased me by calling them my “retractable claws.” I don’t know why I did so other than that I liked it; it felt better to have them there. It is a remarkable coincidence that my right hand yant now has three arrows pointed down those same three fingers. Twenty years later these arrows have returned.
I’ve also had a tendency to try to become more conscious of my hands. For many years I painted my fingernails black, which wasn’t so much part of my awful “Goth phase,” but I remember explaining to Kevin over a game of Chess when we were first courting that I liked having dark nails because it made me more aware of my hands – I could track them in my peripheral vision better. With these Yant on my hands, I have become more aware of how I’ve kind of lost sight of my hands in this way; like my consciousness doesn’t extend fully into them. (Which, I guess it could be argued was always the case if I needed to “keep track” of my own hands when they were in my peripheral vision zone.) Recently I’ve been working with Sifu on bringing my punches online in fights, getting more bodyweight behind them, better accuracy. One of the things that Sifu teaches as a fundamental, core ethic in his system of training is this mental concentration on your hands and getting the confidence to turn them into wrecking balls. You do this by meditating on the belief that your hands are stone and can destroy people. How fucking perfect is this combination of what Sifu has been teaching me about mental confidence in physical repetition and the physical expression of magical powers as tattoos? Putting the power in my hands, through the Yant and the practice, is taking control of my path. We use the poetic expression for controling one’s fate, “taking it into my own hands.” It feels to me that I am finally extending myself into my own hands.
Magic and Belief
Here’s the thing about magic, beliefs, mental versus physical, and my Sak Yant: I’m learning. It’s all a process of learning. My previous Yant have been at my request, and from them I’ve learned an incredible lot. With this constellation, I was called in. Sometimes in training I make a decision to change my style, or work to implement something I’d like to have in my arsenal; and sometimes those changes aren’t selected by me – I have to change or adapt due to necessity: a broken hand, bigger opponents, aesthetic preferences by judges. Some you choose, some choose you. When dealing with something as grand as Sak Yant, I believe you have very little say in the matter. I’m asking for help from powers far bigger than what I can comprehend and I don’t get to pick and choose how they work. I give offerings to Pra Rahu very frequently, the semi-demonic deity tattooed on my chest. He’s the demigod of Fate and Chaos, and from the chaotic changes and unexpected turns in my life I find lessons and growth. When I give him offerings and thank him, I’m thanking him for bringing me opportunity out of the unexpected, out of the chaos. In the same way, I might request a Sak Yant for protection and the purpose might be invulnerability. And when it’s granted, it might not be what I expected. The Takroh on my back was intended to stop cuts on my forehead – that’s quite specific. And I’ve been cut many times since receiving the Yant. I don’t believe it’s “not working,” as I explained above my understanding of invulnerability is more in a philosophical, meta+physical sense. But it’s not an entirely spiritual experience. As much as I believe that the actual, literal, physical invulnerability is an extreme state that I can aspire to but will take a long time to attain, I offer this piece of physical evidence:
In the 32 days from Nov. 2 – Dec. 3, I fought 7 times. (This was an accelerated rate for me, but as some know on average I’ve fought a great deal for 3 and a half years now, about once out of every 11 days, more than any westerner has – it’s my thing, it’s how I like to fight.) Between a few of these fights I was training at the gym and the father of one of the boys asked if I was hurt from all my fights. I said not really and showed him some bruising on my shin that was keeping me from kicking on that side. The swelling was pretty severe, but only because I didn’t treat it proactively enough early on. The dad called his son over to look – one of my clinching partners – and the whole group of boys I train with followed him, creating a little crowd around my swollen and bruised shin. Bank squatted down and poked gently at it, asking if it hurt. I pushed on it hard, moving some of the fluid around and then knocked on it with my knuckles, telling him it didn’t hurt but was just swollen. The boys all gawked and made noises, then Bank stood up and said that I was a cyborg, then went back to his iPhone while saying, “Cyborg Petchrungruang.” Pi Nu says the same thing; he calls me Terminator and a machine fairly regularly. This morning I was back at training sooner than any of the boys return to their training after a fight, getting ready for my next in two days. Pi Nu bragged about me to these two women watching me, saying how strong I am, that I could fight every day. One of the women, who happens to have been born a man (so that makes this statement somewhat more complex) said aloud, “like a man.” Pi Nu corrected her, saying, “no, a man gets hurt in fights; Sylvie never hurt.” I just accept this as part of my process, this matter of ignoring small injuries and never actually suffering big injuries. But in the boys’ reaction to me, and Pi Nu’s assessment of me, there is an actual physical invulnerability going on here. I don’t see it because it’s me, it’s the only reality I know. But from the outside there is a “how the hell does she do it?” sentiment, even among very experienced Thai trainers, one that evokes the power of magic in a concrete, physical sense.
A Video Clip of All 8 Yants
My Vlog Update After Receiving My Yant
If you enjoyed this post you can read all my Sak Yant posts here, or individually about each of my past Sak Yant experiences:
- Sak Yant Sacred Tattoo – My Experience | Chiang Mai อาจารย์พี บางกระทิง
- Life Stages – My Sangwan Rahu Experience – Sak Yant by Arjan Pi Bangkating Chiang Mai
- Transformation and Belief: Receiving my Sak Yant Sua Ku and Takroh