My friend Tevijjo Yogi is a frequent visitor to Chiang Mai with no fixed abode of his own. But he’s quite unlike the many travel bloggers and digital nomads who often pass through these parts. Rather he belongs to an ancient Thai tradition of Buddhist hermit sages known as ฤาษี ruesi (also sometimes spelled reusi or lersi).
Ruesi is actually the Thai pronunciation of the Sanskrit word rishi. In ancient Indian tradition, the rishi are immortal sages who cultivate yoga and were the first to perceive the Vedas—from which all Hindu spiritual knowledge is derived. In Thailand, the ruesi of legend are thought of as wizardly recluses, practicing meditation in forests and caves. They’re depicted in temple murals with long grey beards and wearing tiger or leopard skins.
The ruesi are also closely associated with magic and ancient spiritual knowledge. Traditional Thai massage and herbalism are their special areas, as well as crafting magical amulets and tattoos. The interest in sacred tattoo art in particular has increased the profile of some masters associated with the ruesi tradition in recent years. But their numbers are still few, and much like the ngakpa tradition in Tibetan Buddhism, the ruesi of Thai Buddhism are the guardians of a spiritual science that is in danger of dying out.
But unlike the Tibetan tradition, which now has a growing legion of Western supporters and dedicated students, the Thai ruesi tradition remains largely unknown and almost totally inaccessible to outsiders. In fact, to my knowledge Tevijjo Yogi is the only Westerner to train fully in the tradition—an accomplishment that probably would have been impossible had he not—as a teenager growing up in New York State—gone down the unlikely path of living at a Thai Buddhist temple, where he immersed himself in Thai language and Buddhist practice.
All too often, Westerners who engage in an Eastern spiritual discipline fall victim to subtle ego traps and romanticize the Asian culture they’re studying from. But I’ve never gotten this impression from Tevijjo Yogi. Even though he speaks Thai fluently, he often chooses not to use it when in Thailand, figuring that Thais in the service industry should be encouraged to use English. And though he dresses in simple white robes with long hair and an uncut beard as dictated by tradition and the vows that he’s taken, he makes no attempt to draw any extra attention to himself.
Tevijjo Yogi splits his time between Thailand, Nepal, the US and other countries, mostly going wherever he is invited—either to teach about Thai traditional massage and herbal medicine or to accompany and assist his various teachers. He lives off donations without soliciting for any. A digital-age hermit, Tevijjo Yogi carries an iPhone to stay connected and yet doesn’t have a Facebook account.
Since he’s one of the most unique people that I’ve had the joy to know, I thought it would be a good idea to ask him a few questions over dinner so that I might be able to share some of his perspective and insight with a wider audience:
A lot of Westerners are interested in Buddhism from a philosophical point of view, but they shy away from anything that seems religious, ritualistic, or superstitious. What are your thoughts on that?
If one is going to study Buddhism, then that person has to take the whole thing. One can’t just separate the parts that make sense to them and discard those that they don’t understand. Doing it like this means we are trying to change the Dharma to fit within our own confused mind. If everything were fine with us, then we wouldn’t need the Dharma. But since we have confusion and suffering, the Dharma is there to shape us, not for us to shape it.
The way people treat science as if it were a dogmatic religion has been very harmful. True scientists always consider everything as a set of theories or hypothesis that have the potential to change as their understanding evolves. But most people think of science as a set of unchanging facts that say that the world is either this way or that way. This reliance on a scientific point of view has caused people to distance themselves from their direct experience of phenomena and the natural world.
Technology also plays a part. If we took away everyone’s smart phones right now, they would go crazy. They suddenly wouldn’t know what to do.
I was going to ask you about that. In the last 5-10 years it has become very easy for people using a laptop and WiFi to make a living by running an online business or doing freelance work from anywhere in the world. Since you also make use of modern technology yourself, where do you draw the line?
It’s very useful. I can stay in touch with my teachers no matter where I am in the world. And one can store many texts on an iPad or computer rather than having to carry a bunch of heavy books around when traveling. It gets to be a problem, however, when the first thing one does in the morning is pick up their phone to check their messages or email, before even getting out of bed or kissing one’s partner. People get addicted to it. They forget how to relate to people in the real world.
When the Walkman first came out, I thought it was bad because people were cutting themselves off from their surroundings. But now it’s even worse. Some people always have their face in their phone and they don’t even look where they are walking.
It’s also led to a lot of developmental problems for young children, especially the ones who are using computers and phones all the time. There is an increase in ADHD and other problems.
The ability to collect information about anything is one of beneficial aspect about the Internet. But there is a problem when people confuse information for understanding and wisdom. These days, one can search for information on any topic and think they have knowledge about that subject. But without direct experience then there is no real understanding of what one thinks they know. Direct experience is very important.
How did you end up staying at a temple when you were 15?
I was first interested in martial arts and various spiritual traditions. This was back in the early 90’s and there weren’t many Buddhist groups in the US yet. I went to see a Tibetan Buddhist group but they were more of a practice group following a particular teacher, rather than a group to study and learn with. Then I went to a New Year’s celebration at a Thai temple with someone I was training in Muay Thai with. It was one of the first Thai temples in the US. While they were having the main countdown celebrations, there were monks upstairs doing some chanting and blessing ceremonies. So I went to see the monks. And then after that I just kept going back on my own. My parents were open so they didn’t mind that I went to stay at the temple. I’d go to school during the day and sometimes stay at my parent’s house during the week. But mostly, I stayed at the temple. The weekends I was always there, learning from the monks.
Was there any single experience that convinced you that there was more to the world than our regular experience of it?
I don’t know about any one particular incident. But I remember when I was about 3 years old watching a horror movie with the sound turned low so my parents wouldn’t know I was watching TV. From a young age I was always playing around with the idea of summoning spirits and the like…
Did you ever have an experience where one of your teachers said something or did something that wouldn’t have been possible if they didn’t have some sort of extra-sensory perception?
Oh, yes. That happens all the time. I might have some question on my mind and they would give the answer to what I was thinking about before I even got the chance to ask. This happened many times.
I met my first teacher through one of the monks at the temple in New York. This monk was from Lampang, and he introduced me to a teacher in Chiang Mai. And after that I actively sought them out. If I’d hear people talking about some teacher, I’d go looking for him or her.
Would it be difficult to study with your teachers without speaking Thai?
Yes, it would probably be impossible. Many of them don’t speak English. And some don’t even speak Thai—they just speak the Lanna language. Thai people will come from Bangkok to study with them and they can’t understand what my teachers are saying. So it was very necessary to learn to speak Thai and the Lanna dialect.
How do magic tattoos and amulets work?
It’s through the power of the speech of the Buddha. Actually, there are two types of tattoos. Some come from the Buddhist tradition and there are others that come from an older—you could say animist—magical tradition. The Buddhist ones get their power from the speech of the Buddha and the line of masters that have passed them down. If it is going to be for attraction, for example, the words will come from the Buddha’s talks on metta (loving kindness) and karuna (compassion). Or if it’s for wealth, it will come from Buddha’s teachings related to material success.
So the writing in the tattoos actually comes from the Suttas?
Yes, from the Suttas or sometimes from the Abhidharma.
Does the attitude of the person wearing the tattoo or amulet make a difference?
Yes, it is quite important. Actually when getting a magical tattoo there are lots of rules that one is supposed to follow, such as not speaking ill about one’s parents or teacher, keeping clean and bathing with certain herbs, doing practices on the full moon and new moon Buddha days. Actually it’s a practice in itself to maintain all the rules that go with having a Buddhist tattoo. And one must have faith. If one were to just wear an amulet for fashion, its not going to do much. But if one has faith in its power, then it can be effective.
How much of it do you think is a placebo effect?
I think it is a great injustice to dismiss beneficial results as a “placebo effect.” For example, if one goes to see a healer who gives that person some water to drink and then that person’s symptoms go away—can we say that the healer didn’t do anything? Was it just the water? We don’t know if there were any medicinal herbs mixed in with the water. In any case, it takes away the credit that should go to that healer by saying the water was just a placebo.
This is part of the problem with the division in the modern age between science and spirituality. In the past, there was no division. Astronomy and astrology were not two different things. Same with chemistry and alchemy. Actually, alchemists discovered most of what we know about chemicals. Then slowly, the two were divided and much of what was alchemy became modern chemistry. Modern science suffers from not recognizing the benefits of the old sacred knowledge.
This knowledge is still very useful in knowing about sacred substances. For example, that is why the Jatukham amulets because such a big deal. The master who made these amulets followed the texts, gathered all the substance and combined the ingredients in the right way. I think this is why the amulets were so popular and what gave them some of their power. But then of course there were many copies being made afterwards that diluted the beneficial effects. That is also one of the reasons for the increased interest in the ruesi tradition. According to the texts, one needs ruesi to bless and make these amulets and substances. For example, the texts say there must be nine monks and four ruesi present when making the amulets. This master helped to promote the resurgence of the ruesi tradition and some people saw it as another option for their life that they could follow.
Real ruesi? Or people who are just calling themselves ruesi?
I would say there are maybe 10-20 real ruesi in Thailand. By real I mean those who really work at it and are following all the teachings from a master who is passing on an authentic lineage. Then in total, I would say there’s between 50 to 100 people who call themselves ruesi, that dress like a ruesi, but don’t really take the practice seriously enough. They may be in it for money or to gain followers or fame, etc.
I know you believe that there are lots of fortune tellers in Thailand who are basically scam artists, but also that you think there are some who have a real talent or gift for seeing the unseen. How can you tell who is legit besides your gut instinct?
Well, there are some who have a talent or they have studied and practiced with a teacher to develop some ability to give insights into one’s future. But usually the ones who are very charismatic seem to be fakes. If they are actively seeking out customers, that is one indication. Real seers will let people come to them. Also, the legitimate fortunetellers won’t pressure people to take a specific action. They will just put something out there like, “You might want to avoid driving.” But a scam fortune teller would say something like, “If you don’t preform this ceremony, you will die in a car crash for sure.”
I’ve started reading the book “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill. It’s a book that seems to be very highly regarded in the entrepreneur community. Hill wrote it in the 1920’s after interviewing Andrew Carnegie and a bunch of other millionaires of the time. And he wanted to find out what their secret to success was. He alludes to this secret in the book, but never comes out directly and says what it is. But he says that when you’re mentally ready to know it, you’ll realize it. But it seems what he’s talking about is a kind of ability to visualize a desired result and make it happen.
You mean like positive thinking?
Maybe more than just positive thinking. I get the sense that he means you focus and visualize something so strongly that it comes out from the power of your thoughts to manifest as a physical reality. How similar does that sound to the magic traditions?
Actually there is some similarity. There needs to be a really strong experience of visualization. When doing magic for attraction, for example, one has to start by visualizing the couple coming together. One visualizes how that will feel, generate that strong feeling of attraction, and even visualizing them coming together and copulating. Then when one has that strong feeling and image in mind, that energy is transferred into the object, like an amulet. Without that strong focus and concentration—such as just doing some recitation—it won’t have any power.
Some people think that Carnegie and Rockefeller and all those guys were doing something very similar to magic. They believe that they were harnessing mental energy through certain practices or perhaps were even following some real tradition of the occult.