Coffee, Cigarettes & Tattoos with Buddhist Monks: Part II
By Guest Blogger Adam Baird
Trav had become a celebrity at the Buddhist temple…and for good reason. Being a blond-haired, blue-eyed, 6’4 Viking in board shorts and a tank top, walking around a Thai village temple will certainly drew a crowd.
But it wasn’t just that. Trav has a way of attracting people through his exuberance in expressing what is on his mind. If something hurts, he says “OW!” If something is funny, people are rewarded with a bright, hearty laugh. If something stupid is said, Trav will give a genuinely astonished look, and ask “ Wow, are you really that dumb?” followed by a bright, hearty laugh.
Trav was a traveler. He had a willingness to try things outside of his comfort-zone, speak his mind honestly but respectfully, and allow for the adventure of uncertainty to mold and shape him.
Now, Trav was about to get his first tattoo. By a Buddhist monk. With a tattooing instrument that looked like a warrior-monkey spear. He waded through the crowd of amassing villagers, and knelt before the master monk.
Trav received the “9 spires (to heaven) of Buddhism” on the nape of his neck. I’m not clear on the direct meaning behind it, but it seems to have to do with paths leading to enlightenment. The master monk chose it for him, as he did my “8 directions” tattoo, that was still burning with a painful, but energizing electric force on my back. I have already had received two tattoos back in the states, so I was a bit more prepared for the post-tattoo period.
Trav was not. I couldn’t even imagine what it must be like, as the difference between this and a tattoo gun were dramatic, and this being his first….
Bewildered pain, with a dash of ecstasy. That was Travs face. Several of the people sitting around giggled and joked, not out of a mean spirit, but out of a culturally Thai-way of looking at certain things, in which everyone has a turn at making others laugh. Have a good attitude about it, and understand that you aren’t losing face, you are allowing for and adding to, the force of laughter. Losing face in Thailand would be more akin to huffing, puffing, yelling, screaming, and any other ostentatious displays of aggression and anger.
Thailand is known as the “Land of Smiles” for good reason.
A half-hour later, Trav was done. He came up to me.
“Holy shit…..shiiit….,” were his words for the next five minutes, walking around the temple with a glowing, sweaty smile on his face, a trail of Thai villagers behind him.
“Well, how was it, feel good?” I asked, “ You want to get another still…? We had said we were getting two, at least. I think you said you wanted five, hahaha!!!”
“Dude, that shit was crazy…I’ve never felt that kind of pain…shit…does it look good?”, Trav said as he turned to show me.
“Dude, yeah, it looks cool. I like how it goes up your neck a bit. How’s mine?”
“Yeah, that shit looks awesome…whew…Hahaha….I feel high, like hella awake…did you see the monks eyes? Never seen someone look at me like that before. He smiled at me like I was in for some shit, haha….but I trusted him. Damn though….that shit hurt.”
I smiled. “ You ready for another? I’m feeling pretty good.”
“Whew….ok yeah, I can do it…I want the 8 directions one too, I think…”
We wandered around for a bit. After the tattoo, everything looked a shade more vibrant to me. The green of the trees was green. The blue sky was blue. The people looking, talking, and smiling to us were people. Certain kinds of pain, certain kinds of uncertainty and unfamiliarity can sharpen the senses, and place one in the undeniable now.
Trav and I were in that moment.
Our “tour-guide/translator” from the previous night, Om, approached us.
“Is he ok?” she asked to me, pointing to the jovial Viking who was wandering about laughing at the sky.
“Yeah, he’s great!” I beamed, “We can get another, yeah?”
“Yes, yes, come this way.”
Om and I gathered Trav and proceeded to the inner temple. We entered a large, modestly cluttered room that smelled strongly of incense, and felt like the personal study room of a professor of eastern religion. Three monks in saffron robes sat on the floor, cross-legged, and smiled up at us as we entered. We sat before them while Om discussed matters with them.
Eventually, a stack of black folders were presented to us, and I realized as I opened them that they were portfolio’s of tattoo designs.
Om explained, “ You will pick what you want, and apprentice monks upstairs will tattoo you.”
Uh-oh. Apprentice monks. They would have stencils, but damn. I wasn’t so worried as to the quality, but, well…the last guy was a famous master monk. He had years of experience, and knew “the touch,” to be as gentle and skillful as possible while still getting the job done.
These apprentice monks were learning how to develop that touch. Key word being “learning”. As in, not “mastered,” as of yet. Our skin would be part of this learning process for them.
Apprentice Monk administering the tattoo.
I was thinking that this most likely would hurt a bit more than the last one, as I looked over to Trav. He seemed unconcerned, leaving through the pictures, so I decided not to point out this fact. There were hundreds of pictures to choose from. Mysterious lines of script arranged to form patterns and designs, and animals both real and imagined; tigers, dragons, birds, snakes, monkeys, you name it. I pointed a dragon to one of the monks, and he smiled back, explaining to Om that I wasn’t ready for that.
“He said that is the Water-Dragon. It makes it that when you speak, it is like water. It’s a power that you must treat with respect, it can be used for bad things,” Om explained.
I forgot to mention something. There is a strong belief among many in Thailand that these tattoos are magic. Almost everyone I talked to on this discussed it in a serious matter. For example, my “8 directions” tattoo would literally protect my back while I travel. One man I talked to said he had a drawing of the “8 directions” in his car, got into a terrible accident, and emerged unscathed. Other stories I’ve heard were about people getting, say, a tiger, and during certain moments in life would channel the spirit of and become a tiger…again, literally.
Each power derived from a tattoo has a neutral characteristic; neither good nor evil. The outcome of how the power was manifest would be dependent on the recipient. Also, certain conditions must be upheld, taboo’s of sorts, that must be followed and never broken, which I will get into in a bit. Alas, I was not old enough, nor wise enough to handle the power of the Water Dragon.
I turned to Om. “What should I get then, can you ask?” They were all beautiful, but I wanted something I…..needed, or should have, rather than what I wanted. I was beginning to like the idea of submitting to this.
Om and the monk chatted back and forth for a bit, and finally she turned back to me.
“ I told him you do Muay Thai, and he said Hanuman would be good. You know the story of Hanuman?”
I had heard that name before from studying Hinduism and Indian culture, but never in a Buddhist/Thai context, so I told her no.
Om smiled, and began to tell me the story of Hanuman, a monkey “deity,” :
The Story of Hanuman
A long time ago, a village was being attacked by a giant. All of the best warriors went to battle him, but were all easily defeated. Not knowing what to do, or how to defend themselves, the village had almost given up hope.
Then, a small monkey emerged from the jungle. He said he would defeat the giant for them, but in return they would respect and honor his kind from now on. The villagers gladly accepted his help and conditions, and so Hanuman the monkey set forth to confront the giant.
The giant was monstrous, towering over the trees, houses, and the monkey who stood before him. The lumborous giant hammered his fist down to crush the little monkey, but Hanuman was too fast. Lightning-quick, he leaps up the arm of the giant. Using every part of his body; fists, feet, knees, and elbows, he attacks the giant with such a ferocity, dodging and countering the slow, bulky attacks.
The giant, with a bruised and injured body and ego, thunders away, never to be seen again. The villagers rejoice and lavish Hanuman with reverence, admiration, and praise. However, Hanuman is not finished. To ensure that giant monsters never threaten the village again, he teaches them the way of Muay Thai, and reminds them that even the biggest of threats are not insurmountable to overcome.
“The monk say that you will fight like the monkey, move like a monkey, and Hanuman will watch your back so no one catches you off-guard,” Om explains, while the monk beams at me, looking quite satisfied with his decision. Now I’m not sure if the story is of the scholarly-canon type, but I loved it. I was set.
Trav was hell bent on getting the “8 directions,” so we were both ready. We went upstairs to an airy, white room, with several people getting tattooed already, others sitting quietly watching, and puppies hopping about to-and-fro. I sat before a stoic teenage-monk, with Trav sitting a little across from me. It was a very relaxed atmosphere, which was great, because the moment the tattooing began, I could tell that my intuition was spot on.
It wasn’t excruciating, but definitely a pain of a much higher volume. It was also on my lower-back, where the skin was thinner, but I could feel a difference in technique. Instead of a tiny monkey with a tiny knife stabbing my back a thousand times, it was a pissed-off monkey stabbing my back.
But I could do this. Before I went into a focused state, I looked up to Trav. Or rather, heard a moaning and looked up to see where the sound was coming from.
Travs face was now in a state of submissive delirium, drenched in sweat (it was quite hot and humid, to give him credit), transitioning from laughter to shock. But he was hanging in there.
Periodically, Trav had to get up and walk around for a bit. Many people came to his side and helped reassure him, with a knowing smile of course. It is exhausting on the body, and mind, to get two of these in one day. But part of an adventure is enduring through the pain that comes along with transformative experiences. This one happened to be very intense and in-your-face, and before I knew it, I was being cleaned and wiped off.
“YEAH MAN!!!! DUDE, I’m on FIRE!!! Wait, I think I’m gonna throw up…” Trav’s eyes were wild, laughing, hugging and patting the backs of whoever happened to be around, while I rode behind him in the wake of his energy.
Despite the endorphins coursing through our bodies, we were blissfully exhausted. It was getting into the late afternoon by now, and so the three of us were led back to the inner temple to the three monks, and we sat before them.
“They have necklaces for you, that have a (pendant) of the founder of this temple on it,” Om told us. It portrayed a monk on the back of a tiger, flying down from the heavens. “ He rescued a village from a monster, and created this temple.”
I don’t know about any of you, but these stories were awesome. I might have paid much more attention in Sunday school if I heard a story about Jesus riding around on his pet Lion, monkey-warriors standing by his side battling demons and stuff. Just saying. 🙂
The monks were very interested in Trav, who was emitting all kinds of energy, and answering questions he had the best they could about the tattoos, temple, and Buddhism in general. Trav was in turn, enamored with them, and watching the interaction of a blue-eyed Viking with two old Buddhist monks was captivating.
Oh, the title of this story. Coffee, Cigarettes etc….yup. They smoked like chimneys, kicking back with their canned ice-coffees, talking to us in a limited, but engaging manner, like we were old friends. Simple words, phrases, and gestures can get anyone decently far, like I mentioned before.
The monks seemed as interested in us as we were of them, and we gladly told them a few stories and experiences of our own.
One monk was particularly curious about our forays with women. I found this incredulous. Aren’t these guys like….priests, or something? I asked Om, and she shrugged and smiled.
“He wants to give you something, and says to hold out your tongue…” I second-glanced to Trav.
With a wild, crazy look, he shrugged and laughed, “We’ve come this far,” and held out his tongue.
I shrugged to myself and followed suit. The monk placed a thin piece of gold foil on each of our tongues, and motioned for us to swallow. It tasted how one would expect…gold foil. The monk was particularly excited, and said something to Om, which caused her to cover her mouth and shake with laughter.
“He say that now when you talk to girls, you will be irresistible…” she laughs, along with the other monks, “ and good with…” she points, “down there.”
Me and Trav exchange knowing glances.
“Hell yeah buddy,” I say.
“Dude, these monks are awesome. I want to come back and hang out with them,” Trav exclaims, “This guy said that he is my kru (teacher) now, and I can come back anytime.”
We chatted up with them for a bit, and eventually our time at the temple was up. We were swimming in exhaustion by then, and had a bit of a drive back to Bangkok, so with bittersweet goodbyes, bid farewell to our place of learning and transformation.
It was tranquil in the taxi on the way back, everyone lost in their own thoughts or the scenery. My thoughts wandered, thinking of the day past, what was in store next, and having brief moments of feeling awake, realizing where I was at that moment. A lot of my prior conceptions on how things “were,” well, they were shattered, revealing the vivid truth of experience, and gaining a level of understanding and fulfillment that I hadn’t had before.
Watching the sunset over the growing skyline of Bangkok that we were approaching, I thought that while the sun is set for this day, tomorrow will hold another sunrise, with which this day had begun with. Who knows what we would get into that night, our last night in Bangkok, or tomorrow, but I took great solace in the fact that all days begin with a sunrise like the one today, and that any and all experiences, especially when traveling, have the potential to transform anyone.
For a traveler, like myself and many others, this is life.