Traditionalists Vs Modern Views about Sak Yant Tattoo in Thailand

Why does information and views about Sak Yant differ among different Sak Yant Masters, Forums and Online Groups?

Traditionalist’s Vs Modernist

One of the other major reasons that someone who deeply investigates Thai Tattoo’s can get confused from the different opinions and information is due to the Traditionalists Vs Modernist views of the Sak Yant.  This is further complicated as Ajarns are people, and bring their own bias into the situation, sometimes choosing elements of both Traditional and Modern although claiming to follow just one ‘true’ way.

It is important to note that in the history of the Sak Yant Tradition, many different schools, each with their own designs and philosophies have emerged.  Like any religious or spiritual practice their is no ‘true’ path (unless you are a strict follower of what you think is the only correct way). Rather there are variations of thought within the main structure of the Sak Yant Traditions; which is largely geographically based.

In this situation the major difference of opinion comes from two key aspects

  1. The Sak Yant Master

Generally this boils down to the individual Ajarn.  In the traditional approach the Ajarn feels that they should stick to the teachings of their ‘linage’ and follow their masters instructions.  The modernist is open to learning from other schools of Sak Yant teaching, and when presented with differing opinions has to form their own.

  1. Students (Those who have received a Sak Yant)

This opinion is mostly expressed by the Ex-Pat community who have varying degrees of knowledge, but tend to have 100% belief that their opinion is the only correct one.  Here the traditionalist view is primarily concerned with ‘who’ qualifies for a Sak Yant, how it should be done and following the Sak Yant Rules.  Westerners with an traditional interest in Sak Yant do tend to have a opinion of what makes a genuine Ajarn based around their opinions of how that Sak Yant Master should do things.

Traditionalist Approach

This approach (as do the modernists) believes that the Sak Yant is a magical symbol of traditional Thai belief systems.  The Traditionalists (and almost all traditionalist are Expat Westerners and not the Monks or Ajarns themselves) feel that anyone getting a Sak Yant should have already made a commitment to this belief system and be prepared to abide by all it’s rules.

This includes aspects such as allowing the Sak Yant Master to choose a design for you, finding a remote Ajarn (the name given to a Sak Yant Master) who uses the poke needle method, using traditional inks, traditional hygiene, and following the rules of the Ajarn and the Sak Yant.

Modern Approach

Ajarns have moved from remote villages where the community supported them (and they worked for donations) to the cities taking the tradition with them. Here the Sak Yant Master has been influenced by certain factors (such as rent and other bills) where working by donation is no longer possible.  Many have also adopted the western hygiene practices of new ink and needles for each customer, and use the internet, both to learn other traditions of Sak Yant lineage and promote themselves.

As such, with the influence of changing times, the Sak Yant Master believes that the power and beauty of the Sak Yant tattoo can be given to anyone prepared to want to use it to improve their lives.

It is important to know that differences in this area boil down to a personal choice. In fact their are no clear lines of disquisition. A Traditionalist Sak Yant Master might use a tattoo machine and advertise in local publications (clearly a modern approach) while also working alone in a remote location.  There are some modernists who have stricter guidelines of who is able to get a Sak Yant; do not seek self promotion and work within a local co-operative of other Ajarns.

The bottom line is there is no bottom line: Each Sak Yant Master is an individual and some students are so invested they have a psychological need to believe (and sometimes promote) that their experience was real. Any ‘other’ way threatens this personal investment belief.

However there are core and central issues that both approaches firmly agree on.  The Sak Yant is a magical and spiritual tradition and must be created by a trained Sak Yant Master.  No Sak Yant should be received from an unqualified tattoo artist in a tattoo shop for example.

A Closer look at the main differences in Sak Yant Beliefs between Traditionalists and Modernist

Who can get a Sak Yant Tattoo?

Traditionalist Approach
A Sak Yant should only be given to someone who truly believes in the magic and power of the Sak Yant tattoo.  Restrictions are placed on what Designs are appropriate.

Modern Approach
Anyone with an interest in the Sak Yant Tattoo will benefit from the magic and tradition even if this is not their own personal philosophy

The main concerns here are about the sharing the traditions of Thai Culture.  For many Traditionalist’s the Sak Yant Magical tradition should only be available to those who are true believers. They feel in order to receive this special aspect of Thai tradition, you need to have a complete understanding of the history and magical aspects of the tradition. A Monk or Ajarn is a magical and spiritual practitioner. Sak Yant Tattooing is only a small part of what they do and who they are, and you should appreciate (or even believe) in everything they do.

For the modernist they will point out that this does not apply to anyone wishing to learn other Thai traditions such as Muay Thai boxing, Thai dance or Thai Massage. Nor does it apply to other countries traditions such as Yoga, Martial Arts, or other esoteric belief systems.  Most Sak Yant Masters themselves have very little concern about who comes to see them, as they believe the Sak Yant works even if the recipient does not believe in all their power.

What Design of Sak Yant can I get?

Some Sak Yant designs are strict and can not be changed in placement or design.  Some however can be modified.

Traditionalist Approach
The Sak Yant is a powerful force that has special powers that are bestowed to the user.  The first few Sak Yant Tattoo designs should be one of the 3 Master Yants.  Sak Yant Masters who follow just one lineage will only use the designs from this lineage or ones they created themselves.

Modern Approach
The Sak Yant has 3 components, all of which can be mixed and matched.  The design is one aspect, the Kata (magical prayers and script) is another and the final blessing is the last component.  Less powerful Kata can be applied (and often are) to reduce or modify the power of the Sak Yant design if the Sak Yant Master feels the full power Sak Yant will be too much for the user.   

This is one of the easiest ways to see the difference between a Traditional Vs a Modern approach. If a Sak Yant Master follows just one teaching, then the scope of designs resides within that school.

Find your own Ajarn or Monk Vs Using a guide or service

Traditionalist Approach
A Sak Yant is part of a spiritual quest. Any quest requires difficulty and sacrifice, and part of that should include the effort in finding a Sak Yant Master that the universe makes available to you.

Modern Approach
Not many Ajarns still live in remote locations anymore. While being an Ajarn is a spiritual calling, it is also now days a business.  Many Sak Yant Ajarns do not speak English and prefer that the person getting the Sak Yant has a clear understanding of what they are getting and why.  Ajarns will sometimes have a girlfriend or assistant help them, others prefer the person wanting a Sak Yant has shown enough interest to bring an translator with them.

The main reasons here is that most traditionalist are long term expats.  In the past it may have taken them years to learn enough Thai language to be able to find and communicate with a Monk or Ajarn.   For many Traditionalist’s the Sak Yant took them a long time to obtain and holds a special place as it reflects a great deal of personal effort.

For the modernist view, just because you are a tourist in another country, is no reason why you can not have a personal interest in the Sak Yant Tradition.  Almost all Monks and Ajarns do not speak English and actually prefer having a guide accompany a person getting a Sak Yant.  For them there is nothing worse than someone with no knowledge or ability to communicate turning up on their doorstep.  They want a guide who can communicate to them the desires, and show the person getting the Sak Yant how to follow correct protocols when being in their presence.

Ink and Needles

Traditionalist Approach
The Sak Yant Master is not to be questioned.  This is a tradition and you accept how the Master works.  If you are concerned you can bring as an offering fresh Ink

Modern Approach
A Sak Yant is an open wound. As knowledge is gained by the Sak Yant Master they can incorporate it.  Modern hygiene is no exception

Here there should be no debate.  Almost all Ajarns in private practice will use new ink and needles, and this is built into the pricing structure of their service.  Sharing Ink and Needles is tradition, only because in the past HIV did not exist and the Sak Yant Master worked in small rural villages where they knew who was sick and who was healthy.  This situation does not exist any longer.

Donation Vs a Set Price?

Traditionalist Approach
Many traditional Sak Yant Masters will say they do by donation but have a sliding scale fee price.  If the person has knowledge of the Thai Language or the traditional of the Sak Yant they are quoted a lower fee or donation.

Modern Approach
Generally like a tattoo shop, there are set prices for the size and complexity of the Sak Yant Design itself and the time taken.

Pricing is not really a difference in Traditionalist vs Modern approach, as much as it is a myth created by tourists who did not understand the experience.  In Bangkok the dynasty of Sak Yant Tattoo’s is Wat Bang Phra.  At this Temple, there is a minimum donation required, which consist of a package of cigarettes and some flowers, which is purchased at entry.

This is the basic essentials of your donation.  You then pay the Monk and Sak Yant Ajarns for their time, based on what you can afford.  No Thai person, or long term Expat would show a lack of respect for this time by not offering in addition some cash for the upkeep of the Temple and the expertise of the Ajarn.  Tourists who do not understand this, will not, then write Blog-posts about their experience and (sadly) explain how cheap it was.  Often without the donation you are told by bloggers “The Monk Decides.  This tends to happen when a person does not show the respect to the Masters skill and the master gives them something standard.

Also found, that an ex-pat with knowledge of the tradition who has received a Sak Yant for a lower fee, mistakenly believes that their Ajarn of choice charges everyone this price. Sometimes they will go as far as claiming anyone charging more than they paid is not genuine or commercializing the Sak Yant tradition.   This often happens when the person has only received a Sak Yant from one Ajarn in one geographic location and mistakenly feels this is what the situation is across Thailand.

On many occasions this author, while visiting ‘traditional’ Ajarns across the country, who are cited as being the ‘only’ Sak Yant Master you should visit. Has seen these Ajarns preform Sak Yant on clearly hungover tourists with zero knowledge of the Sak Yant Tradition at a price many times what their students claim they charge.

Obeying the Rules that come with the Sak Yant

Traditionalist Approach
If you dedicate yourself to a Sak Yant Master you need to also follow ALL the Sak Yant Rules given to you by your master.  Failure to do so decreases the power of the Sak Yant.

Modern Approach
Attempt to follow the five basic precepts of Buddhism.  Failure to do so should be used as a reinforcement of personal dedication to be a better person in the future.

This is one of the biggest concerns of a traditionalist view point is the dedication required to obey your Sak Yant Master and the rules they give you for your Sak Yant.  They maintain a tourist simply can not make this commitment.

For the modernist they will point out that each linage of Sak Yant tradition has their own rules.  The most commonly quoted come from Wat Bang Phra which include some very strange rules of behavior such as not sitting on broken urns or crossing streams on wooden planks.  Traditionalist (of any belief system) will blindly follow the commandments of their faith as part of their dedication to that faith. A modernist (like a cultural Jew vs a traditional Jew) will look a little deeper.  In the case of the Sak Yant, if you know that Wat bang Phra is a school and has lot’s of energy packed kids running around without much life experience.  School rules such as not running over streams on planks, or sitting on pots instead of furniture make perfect sense.  They make no sense at all for a Sak Yant lineage that comes from another area (or did not have children running around) and are not included.

In the same way many of the rules were made for Monks, and not western tourists and simply do not apply.  Most Sak Yant Masters simply state follow the precepts of Buddhism which are ….

Do not kill
Do not steal
Do not desire another persons lover or spouse or be unfaithful to your own
Do not lie
Do not get Intoxicated
Do Not speak ill of your Mother

The Geographic Influence of getting a Sak Yant

Thailand is made up of many previously separate countries, which now form regions that have different and distinct traditions, language and characteristics. For the purpose of the Sak Yant the main geographical areas are, North, Central and South.

Generally those Sak Yant Masters in the North have been closer to the various influences and history of the Sak Yant Tradition.  In the North in addition to the Pali language (The ancient language of Buddhist Teachings), Sak Yant Masters also created texts and wrote knowledge in the Northern Lanna Language.  As an Ajarn learnt the tradition of the school they went too, Sak Yant teachers were more included to suggest they visit another Temple to gain knowledge of that lineage teachings and knowledge. As a result, Sak Yant Masters in the North have a heritage of sharing knowledge and skills, and developed a more co-operative system where the Sak Yant is the key importance. It is very common to see many other Sak Yant Masters attending the special ceremonies held by each Sak Yant Ajarn.

As Schools were created in the Central and Southern regions, the ability to travel, share and learn was not as readily available.  The different influences were thousands of kilometers away and required additional years of study and travel.

While travel and learning is now much easier, the Central and particularly the South of Thailand have had a tradition of independent Ajarns who focus more on their personal power within the lineage of their teachings.  Very few Ajarns in this region of Thailand have any knowledge of the Lanna scripts that are used in the North, or have ever meet each other despite living within a 20 minute travel distance.

While this aspect is not strictly within the Traditional VS the Modern approach to Sak Yant, it can help explain the some of the traditional (especially westerners) attitude that their can ‘be only one’ real and authentic Sak Yant Master and way of doing things.  If the Ajarns themselves do not have a social network with each other outside of their lineage then they are less likely to suggest another Ajarn for their expertise as is often done in the North of Thailand.  In Chiang Mai province many Sak Yant Masters, have Sak Yants from other Ajarns they know and admire at a considerably higher rate than other regions of Thailand

Which is right? Traditionalists or Modern way of getting a Sak Yant

There is no correct way, it all depends on your personal view.  Typically the traditionalist approach is held by believers in Thai magic and expats that first received their Sak Yant after years of desiring one.  The feeling is, that anything worth getting should be part of a quest for self improvement, and done within the philosophy and framework of the belief systems of the tradition.

Many magical/religious and cultural traditions have people in both camps and this is not exclusive to Traditional Thai Tattoos. A modernist will point out that so long as the heart of the student is in the right place, there is no problem.  They might point out that anyone can learn Muay Thai, Thai cooking, or even traditions from other cultures such as Yoga, Karate, without having to adopt the culture totally.

If you have a personal attraction to one point of view over the other, then you are free to obtain your Sak Yant in that manner.  In many forums and Sak Yant groups, you will find that a few people state their personal preference as if it is the ONLY way Sak Yant is done.  This is not part of how Thai people, Thai tradition or Buddhist culture does things – more it is a western influence the commentator brings with them