This post is split into two parts. The first is my own opinion on the matter of cultural appropriation versus appreciation, and the second is my experience with my Yantra tattoo. If you just want to read how painful the tattoo was, feel free to skip ahead to the section marked The Story of My Sak Yant.
Sensitivity is…for lack of a better word, a sensitive subject. Especially when it comes to the topic of culture and when it is being appropriated by a mainstream source. Cultural appropriation is a good thing when it stays true to its definition. Cultural appropriation is when elements of a culture are adopted by a foreigner because that individual finds so much admiration in the observed culture that they wish to imitate it, with no intent to harm them.
But, social justice warriors are everywhere, or as my heterosexual life partner Anya likes to refer to them “Tumblrina’s”. We all know them, the ones who feel personally attacked and victimized (not necessarily because they fit the cultural or ethnic archetype being described) but because they have taken intro to anthropology at their community college and now feel ready for war whenever they feel someone is being inappropriate in any way, even if they don’t fully understand either culture being represented. I’m all for knowing when to push boundaries, and when to pay homage and respect to another’s culture but Jesus Christ Debra, get ahold of yourself.
Some of you may look at the photo of my tattoo and be outraged that a white man is tattooed with sacred Buddhist designs but allow me to explain to you the difference between appropriation and appreciation.
Cultural appropriation is only fucked up when the traditions and mores of a culture are stolen with no reference to the original culture. Here are some examples:
- Miley Cyrus did not invent twerking, it came from black culture and bounce music. So when white girls up in the club start twatting (their best attempt at twerking) and scream “YAS MILEY”. No bitch, that’s not cool.
- Using white women in magazines / runways donning quintessential “African” hairstyles: Senegalese twists, dreads, Bantu knots, cornrows (just to name a few), and having the media lose their GOD DAMN minds over how “edgy” it is. I’m looking at you Kardashians.
- Buying that sweet “Navajo” print t-shirt from Urban Outfitters, because Native is so IN right now, plus it would look so great at COACHELLA. When in reality it could be a Cherokee, Apache, or Sioux design, OR it could be none of them.
I have spent a good amount of time in Thailand, not nearly as long as I would like, but I will return in the future. The time I have spent here has cultivated an intense appreciation of the Thai culture, and the kindnesses I have been shown by the people have been enough to move me to tears. I wear this tattoo as a promise. I have an understanding of basic Buddhist principles and literature, but I want to learn as much as possible. I see this tattoo as a responsibility, if someone were to ask me about it I would never say, “I thought it was pretty, and I was in Thailand so I got it.”
The Story of My Sak Yant
The tattoo on my back is a Sak Yant or Yantra tattoo. “Sak” means “to tap” or “tattoo”, and Yant or Yantra is a Sanskrit word that refers to the sacred inscription. I received my Sak Yant from Ajarn Tor in Koh Samui. Ajarn means “teacher” or “master” and most are former monks. Monks are typically the ones who administer the Sak Yant, but we opted to go Ajarn Tor because of his reputation, and because monks are bound by principle to not touch women, and since Anya wanted to receive a Sak Yant as well, we decided our best opportunity was going to be Ajarn Tor.
- The ceremony
We walked into a blue building to see three people awaiting our entrance, Ajarn Tor, and two women. The altar was extremely crowded, the entire surface area was covered in various offerings and tools of spiritual assistance: candles, bowls of water, incense, flowers, bells, prayer tapestries, there was so much to look at I could have been there for a week and still noticed something new with every exploratory glance. I was to go first. One of the women introduced herself to me as Yun and asked me if I had any questions about the ceremony or about the Yantra I was about to receive. I asked her some questions about the design, and the appropriateness of a westerner wearing a Yantra. She smiled and said Sak Yant can help anybody.
I turned to Ajarn Tor, who spoke no English, but guided me with body language through the ceremony. We first lit a bundle of five incense sticks and put intention and thanks into the ceremony before bringing them outside and planting them into a bowl incense burner. He held up an offering bowl, which we placed our contribution in. Sak Yant are typically by donation only, but there was a base fee with ours that would be used to fund Buddhist temples and for basic necessities of the monks. We then held the contribution bowl together while Ajarn Tor whispered a prayer. Kneeling down, sitting on my heels, and my hands placed together in the typical Anjali mudra, we meditated. It was completely silent except for a light breeze that was ruffling a few prayer tapestries on the wall. I felt Ajarn Tor motion to me, it was time to begin.
- The pain
The pain was fucking intense. The tool he used was a long metal spike called a Bpag Chalaam (I believe), which repeatedly punctured my skin like a sewing needle. I am no stranger to tattoos or pain for that matter, but this was the most painful tattoo I had ever received. It was similar to a tattoo administered with a machine, except slowed down 100X, so each quarter-second I was awaiting another puncture. I was sitting with my legs crossed and my hands still in a prayer position, so not only was the pain of the actual tattoo intense, but the strain on my body of staying in that position for an hour was difficult, to say the least. The two women were assisting Ajarn Tor by pulling the skin on my back taut to make it easier for him to make the Yant more precise.
- The meaning
The design of my Yant is called the Gao Yord. The Gao Yord is the “Yant Kru” or Master Yant and is a most sacred Buddhist tattoo with a huge range of powers, and is quite possibly the most important of all the available Yants. The Gao Yord is often the first Yant to be administered because of its universal powers and then other Yants will be added under the control of the Gao Yord.
The basic design of the Gao Yord represents the nine peaks of the mythical mountain of the Gods, Mount Meru. According to Hindu mythology, Mount Meru is the abode of the lord Brahma as well as other Deities. The Gao Yord is also known as the Nine Spires, and represents nine Buddhas, with each Buddha bestowing a special power. The inscription at the bottom is a Mantra or Katha, the script used is Khom, an ancient Khmer script, and gives the abbreviation for the names of these nine Buddhas as follows: A, Sang, Wi, Su, Loe, Pu, Sa, Pu, Pa.
In the center of the Yant are the names of all the protection spells written in Khom. My design includes:
- Maeta Ma Hah Niyom: with this blessing, you will be treated by others with great loving-kindness and compassion.
- Klaeoklad: ensures that the wearer will not suffer serious injury
- Chana Satru: the ability to defeat the enemy
- Ma Hah Amnat: This will give the wearer great power, authority, and control
- Awk Seuk: A willingness to fight battles for those who have your loyalty and the desire to fight for what is right
- Kong Kra Phan: This provides magical protection
- Oopatae: This ensures that whatever enterprise or business acticities the wearer is involved in they will have the ability to do the work to the utmost of their abilities and promotes luck.
- Ma Hah Saneh: Brings out natural charm that you already possess
- Ma Hah Lap: This will bring great fortune and luck
- Noon Chataa: These markings will greatly improve your destiny
- Pong Gan Antarai: This will give protection against accidents including natural disasters
- Nah Tee Gan Ngan Dee: This will benefit you to improve your circumstances at work
- The rules:
- Cannot eat star fruit or any other gourd vegetable
- Including pumpkin and pumpkin spice flavored items. Looks like I’m going to have to retire my Uggs.
- Don’t take a lover who is already married
- Please, I am not a home-wrecker…anymore
- Cannot eat from a wedding or funeral banquet
- Usually, my “+1” is used for all the extra plates from the catering…this will be difficult.
- Cannot eat leftovers
- I feel personally victimized by this rule
- Do not duck under a washing line
- I’m not Amish so I don’t imagine this being too much of an issue
- Do not duck under a Thaanii banana tree
- I don’t go picking for bananas…not since the accident.
- Do not let a woman lie on top of you
- I love technicalities. Bring on the men.
- Do not spit into the toilet for it is sacred
- This one is actually hard for me. I’ve gotten in such a habit of spitting every time I urinate that I now have a Pavlovian response of salivating every time I go to the toilet. This is my bio on e-harmony.
- Do not drink alcohol or take drugs
- Not a problem!
- Do not make special claims of having protective powers because of your Yant
- Cool, so don’t be dumb. Got it.
This was one of the most beautiful and raw experiences of my life. While Ajarn Tor worked the two women placed both hands on me to make it easier for Ajarn tor to have a more precise design, yet it had a second purpose, it was comforting. It’s hard to explain but this was an intensely intimate experience. Afterwards, when Ajarn Tor was rubbing oil into the completed design and whispering a prayer specific to the Gao Yord, I felt like crying. I have been through so much in my life, a lot of it painful. During the Sak Yant, I felt a flash of understanding, deep understanding.
I am an incredibly resilient person.
I’ve never thought of myself as particularly strong. But now, I’m able to see with the utmost clarity just what I am capable of, and have been capable of. I feel strong, I feel proud, I feel expansive.
Much love & many adventures,