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Buddhism in the News


Sunday, June 05, 2011

Getting a Buddhist Tattoo.

I've written on this subject before but seeing how it's in the news again, I figured it was time to revisit the topic:

As our ancestors emerged from the ancient mists of the Neolithic age, they carried with them a deep reverence for spirituality. It was as beneficial to their survival as their closely guarded fire. Even to their rudimentary brains, they understood that the universe around them was special, and radiated with a spiritual energy. All of nature seemed to be pulsating with a vibrant glow that echoed a timeless message of divine power. In reverence of that energy, they began marking their bodies with tattoos. These also served as messages before the time of written texts and languages. Tales of their history and spiritual beliefs were laid out upon their bodies as a sort of semi-permanent record.

It is a tradition that is carried forth by modern humans who mark their bodies to honor ancestors and their spiritual beliefs. They often carry inspirational meanings for those who wear them. Some believe that tattoos are a sign of disrespect for a body that is considered a sacred temple. However, for those who believe in the power of tattoos, they see it a bit differently; those with tattoos often agree that the body is a sacred temple, and that they are honoring that temple by adorning it with sacred and personal symbols of spiritual inspiration.

The belief by some Buddhists that tattoos are disrespectful of our bodies is odd given that Buddha spoke of not attaching too much importance upon the body due to it's impermanent nature. Despite this, some Buddhists in Thailand are decrying Buddha tattoos done in their country as insensitive; which puzzles me a bit because Buddha didn't even want his image to be used at all!! So, if getting a Buddha tattoo is disrespectful than so is adorning Buddhist temples with gilded Buddha statues (as is common in Thai Buddhist temples). The bigger lesson here, in my view, is to not get so attached to an image that we become angry, distressed or otherwise thrown into suffering over an image that is nothing but a symbol.

So, if you want a Buddha tattoo, I say, go for it. Just don't expect that tattoo to bring you long term happiness, or forever stay beautiful. Just like all things of this world, it will one day fade and completely disappear with the death of your body. I personally feel it's also important not to get a tattoo with the intention to "impress" people. Then it becomes purely about the ego. In addition, seeing it as something that protects you from suffering is a misguided view within the Buddhist teachings; as there is no magic in this world to help us avoid doing the work to over-come suffering. There are no short-cuts in samsara. No symbol, chant, ritual or prayer will take the place diligently following stepping stones of the Dharma toward ultimate liberation from suffering. No one can do the work for us. No symbol has the power to help us avoid the process of personal refinement.

A tattoo is no different than any of the helpful symbols in life; they are fingers pointing at the moon. In other words, they are helpful but only as guide posts pointing the way. The guide posts can't transform your suffering into the pure freedom of Nirvana. But, still, tattoos aren't any less disrespectful than a bird pooping on a Buddha statue in the temple garden!! Or, the ornate carvings that add to the beauty of most Buddhist temples. I don't believe that we shouldn't have a little fun in this life, either. We shouldn't take ourselves so seriously all the time.

~Peace to all Beings~

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BD said...

I have for thought about getting one for the last year, I agree about it not providing satori or a kensho moment, but it is a nice reminder in my opinion to maybe keep you focused, (providing you can see where you get tattooed)

L.B. said...

I've been on the fence about getting a tattoo, as they can be pricey. These days, it's all about image rather than reverence or a search for understanding.
Peace upon your path always, James. Have a great day.

Jayarava said...

I still think tattoos are a waste of time and money, for all the same reasons. My thinking is in this vein: they're either personal decoration, i.e. vanity; or magical thinking, and therefore in vain. One doesn't need a weather vane to see which way the wind is blowing ;-)

Vain: from Latin vānus 'empty, without substance'. Ultimately from PIE eu- and related to the Sanskrit ūna 'deficient, insufficient; defective'; synonymous with hīna 'abandoned, inferior, defective'.

viktorygin said...

I am what could be considered by most standards, heavily tattooed. I also happen to practice & study Buddhism. My tattoos are not an adornment of my temple, nor are they a desecration of it. They are simply the story of my life temporarily displayed on my body, as are scars, or other marks I have picked up along the way in my process of living. They are marks on a map that talk of journeys and their very existence on my skin is a constant reminder and meditative guide of the impermanence of life. They fade, they change, and they will some day be erased to dust. My body is beautiful and while I hold great respect for it, it is not my temple, for that is my mind.

They call him James Ure said...

@Jayarava...Would you say then that adorning Buddhist temples with ornate carvings, decorations and Buddhas to be vain? Of specially designed and dyed robes for monks? And, what about malas? Are they symbols of vanity and/or magical thinking?

How do you figure them to be "magical thinking?" I don't see them as having power except to remind us of the Dharma and it's lessons. It is a powerful, visual reminder for many of us when we are far away from our Dharma books and ability to meditate.

Such as when I feel stressed out in public...gazing upon my Buddha tattoo can bring me peace and help me let go of the stress in the moment. You have every right to dislike Dharma tattoos but not everyone to gets them is just "showing off."

Lon said...

I find that tattoo as being very beautiful!

Aeriki said...

As I wrote on my own blog a while ago, it is possible that the Buddha Gotama, being from the Sakya clan, a Scythian tribe (that is if the Sakya were indeed the same people as the Saka - a Scythian people) may have been tattooed himself.
The Scythians were known to be heavily tattooed - at least the nobles of the tribe were (google Pazyryk mummies).
My hypothesis is that the svastika tattoo sometimes depicted on the Buddha's chest may in fact have been a tattoo!

Jayarava said...

Hi James

In a word: yes. I do think that way. I allow for beauty to lift the our mood, and provide some inspiration. It's good to have a shelter for practice and it may as well be aesthetically pleasing. But at what cost? I've been in temples of various faiths and there's nothing to beat a Norman cathedral for awe and reverence. But they were built on the bones of the ordinary people quite literally. Mostly I see these expensive public buildings as a waste of money. Monks should wear rags stained with soil, shouldn't they? You have to ask - how did monks come to be fat, well dressed, and even rich?

It's particularly striking in a place like Bodhgaya where you have all these elegantly clothed, well fed, even fat monks, living in palatial monasteries; and yet they are surrounded by dirt poor, painfully thin Indians many of whom make a "living" from begging from pilgrims. Some of the locals are in fact Buddhists already!

I'm glad you see your tatt as a reminder. But the fact is that most people don't. They see them as magical spells - mantras to ward of illness, to protect from misfortune etc. And if you read Buddhist texts then this is what they say about them as well!

Calmness I value highly. Glad it works for you. I'm all for calmness. I don't dislike tattoos per se. I dislike piety, magical thinking, and ostentatious personal decoration. I have friends with tatts and I have actually designed tatts for Buddhists - in fact did I not design your heart sutra mantra, or did you not use it in the end? I don't think I was ever rude to you about it was I? Well not on purpose anyway! :-)

Perhaps my views are biased by the proportion of the large number of people who contact me about getting tattoos that just seem confused?

They call him James Ure said...

@Aerikia...interesting hypothesis, I'll have to look into that one. I know a lot of ancient cultures practiced the art, so anything is possible!!

@Jayarava...I like your response. I think balance is the key. Middle path attitudes always seem to bring me the least suffering. I did use your script for a tattoo and it's beautiful.

I don't want this to sound bad but I paid you, right? I just wanted to make sure that I rewarded your hard work. I can understand it must get frustrating when people are cavalier about a Buddhist tattoo based on your work.

I often recite the heart sutra mantra and seeing it on my arm helps remind me of it's teachings when I'm not always in a Buddhist mood. I really appreciate your insights and don't spare with you out of anger or ill will. Just healthy dialogue, I think.

I enjoy discussion!! Be well.

They call him James Ure said...

@Jayarava...Oops, that should read "spar" rather than the typo I posted, "spare."

Asoka said...

I am a pathologist and a true Buddhist and understand your state of mind which is an excellent expression of a nice human being with paint and colours.
I teach pigmentation and tatooing to my students to explain how macrophages take up the pigments.
Theravada Buddhist unlike Mahayana detest use of Buddha image for purposes other than for worship and meditation. In that vein tatooing is a taboo but painting is not.
Some strange coincidence I have a blog page called Buddhism and Dhamma at asokaplus ( You are free to visit and read them. I promote Linux and the site is mainly for that purpose not Buddhism.

Kris said...

I'm no more attached to the Buddha quote on a card that sits on my desk than the quote inked into my skin, both won't last forever but for the short term, they remind me of what I aspire to be or practice.

If someone else sees their tat as a vain attempt to show others of their "desire" to be thought of as a Buddhist. I can't judge them. I simply hope the constant reminder eventually helps them to visit a Sangha or crack a book. :)

Julie Reiser said...

Hey, nice post. I read somewhere--of course somewhere I can no longer recall and/or find--that certain sects of Buddhists believe you should never get the tattoo below your heart. It seems to be the same kind of thinking that views tattoos as desecrations, but I remember thinking at the time that it was an important Rinpoche who said it. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

Hitchcock Butterfield said...

The tattoo was excellent. Isn't it painful?

Renz said...

If for some they like tattoos as their inspiration and expression, mine is collecting Buddhist art. I feel inspired by the stories that each painting say. I believe it's knowing which things/ways work for you and which does not.

7des7iny said...

Hi James, first time visiting your blog. You are so humble to say "It does not mean that somehow I think my blog is the definitive blog on Buddhism."

Equally magnificent is the quote of "However many holy words etc, what good if not act on upon them". Those are great reminders.

I think Thailand has their longstanding traditions on how to "treat" the images of Buddha. So they will cringe when you carve the image of Buddha (tattoo) on your body :D

Sofan said...

As an artist I believe on different forms of expression and it depends on our preferences:)

Steven Budden said...

A tattoo can serve to advertise the fact that you're a buddhist, or simply provide an idiosyncratic adornment that will make you feel more like an individual. Perhaps it could cement resolve in a waning faith. In any case, it usually seems to have more to do with ego, owning and displaying a custom made luxury, and harboring the delusion that it will never fade (intellectually or otherwise). But I don't doubt the magic in them. Miracles are just facts our heart isn't ready to see yet.

Srisuda from The Buddha Garden said...

Hi there, James:

Regarding Thailand banning Buddhist tattoos, you mentioned:

"...which puzzles me a bit because Buddha didn't even want his image to be used at all!! So, if getting a Buddha tattoo is disrespectful than so is adorning Buddhist temples with gilded Buddha statues (as is common in Thai Buddhist temples)."

Being a Buddhist woman from Thailand, born and raised in the Thai Theravada tradition, and still regularly attending temple, perhaps I can help shed some light on the Thai position regarding statues and images of The Buddha.

In Thailand, we believe that the Buddha stated (more or less) "Treat an image of me as you would treat me." I don't know which book in the Buddhist canon that came from, but it is pretty much universally accepted amongst Thai, Lao, Cambodian and Burmese Buddhists.

As such, Buddhists statues are not used for "decoration" in Thai temples, but are used for performing pooja. They are venerated, and hence, Buddha statues must be placed in certain ways so that they may be used for performing pooja.

So, to the Thai mind, there are very clear ways that an image of the Buddha should be used (as a sacred object in the performance of a religious ritual) and shouldn't be used (say, as a decoration).

The other concern was touched upon by Julie Reiser when she said in her comment:

"...certain sects of Buddhists believe you should never get the tattoo below your heart."

In Thailand we have Buddhist amulets, which are depictions of either The Buddha or venerated Buddhist monks. We do not believe that they should be worn on the body below the chest. To do so would be disrespectful (the lower parts of the body are unclean). If you didn't have a chain to put your amulet on, you could carry it in your shirt pocket, but you would NEVER put an amulet in your pants pocket. Again, too low on the body is considered unclean.

Likewise, a man might wear an amulet all day, but he would remove it if they were going to enter a house of ill repute, of which there are many in Bangkok and the larger cities. Those places are considered unclean, and you would never find a Buddha image in one.

(No, a Buddhist man shouldn't be going to such a business in the first place, but that is a whole other store for a different day.)

So I am pretty confident in stating that the reasons my fellow Thai Buddhists would not want someone to get a tattoo in the image of the Buddha is because, 1) It would be for decoration instead of veneration, 2) The image would (possibly) be on a part of the body that is too close to the unclean parts, 3) someone with a tattoo of the Buddha might enter into an inappropriate location (such as a house of ill repute).

I hope that helps to clarify the Thai concerns regarding tattoos of the Buddha.

Anonymous said...

I come from they Nyingma linage of vajrayana. There is also what we call liberation upon seeing, which is why you see so many Mani Mantras every where. Even for those who do not know what they are seeing directily it imprints in the mind, makes a connection etc. So, tattoing mantras etc but bring benifit to many who see it.

A.S said...

if i get a tattoo of a inspirational image NOT the Buddha? Would it be wrong?

p.s. i'm buddhist

greygoose said...

I have a number of Buddhist tattoo's all of which have deep meaning to me. What they are, where they are positioned, the coulours used or lack of colour are all a part of 'me'. Even down to using a tattooist I trust to be of good faith and simple heart. I am happy to explain to people what they all mean and for my Buddha - it was a gift, a creation of something special to which I gave my tattooist something simple in return (a cake made by me) as a celebration. I am not ashamed of my tattoos knor do I believe it is wrong - my body is all that I have in this life which is constant. I can give my life away and pass to the next life but my body will stay in this world. My body is part of my celebration of my life and being. As long as the tattoo has meaning and is done with pure thought and heart - we should not be ashamed.

rach444444 said...

Getting a Buddhist tattoo may be viewed as disrespectful because of the precept to not decorate the body.

tat2marc said...

Hi I am a Buddhist and a professional tattooist in Brisbane AUstralia, and I have 3 Buddhist related tattoos including a huge back peice which is not complete yet. If you have any questions my fb account name Marc Furbank tattooing.

RichtheTryer said...

As victorygin put so eloquently tattoos can be a great reminder of our impermanence and insignificance in the grand scheme of things. So long as there is awareness of the temporary nature, in my eyes there is no reason not to enjoy the beauty in manmade art, be it in the form of temples, tattoos, hiphop music, ballet etc etc.

For me personally a great problem I suffer is worry, and I think the quest for a completely vanity-free existence is futile. After all dyed clothing is vain, cutting hair is vain, long hair is vain, washing is vain, not washing is vain, keeping ourselves comfortable is vain, building anything is vain, gardening is vain. Even meditating and appreciating life is vain as we could be helping others.

What I am trying to say (excuse my rambling thoughts) is there is a catch-22 with life, so many contradictions. If we were to live a completely-vanity free life we would essentially be making ourselves suffer at the hands of our deprivation thus damaging our physical body (is forced fasting selfish/vain simply for our own self discovery?) just as much as a hedonistic lifestyle. A middle road whereby we respect our bodies and strive to keep ourselves "reasonably" comfortable is preferable.

A tattoo will not cause significant damage to our mind-vessel, and if it makes ourselves (or others) smile without offending or hurting anyone else I can see no harm in that.

A good person is a good person, whether they are tattoo-free, tattooed and pierced, fat, thin, fancy or plain. To go back to Victorygin's point, tattoos are merely temporary splashings of ink, not good, not evil, nothing more, and nothing less.

P Ben said...

Hi! Thank you for such a fair article. I have been wondering the same thing and I agree with your words. In the past years I have found myself questioning everything in Buddhism and thought I was becoming someone who doesn't believe in anything spiritual while only wanting to follow the teachings of the Buddha that I agreed on and everything else was a matter of truth or untruth. I later found out that this was actually another form of Buddhism, something my home country, Thailand, was not familiar with. This kind of Buddhism, for me is more accepting and open-minded than the conservative, linear one of Thailand's. The reason I questioned my religion was partly shown by this rather narrow-minded website. I think the problem with Buddhism in Thailand, well actually, the problem with most religions is that people follow the faith blindly without questioning whether certain teachings suited their lifestyles or not as well as taking the teachings too literally instead of metaphorically which in turn could cause harm onto others. I feel that because I have had some experience of living in the west and attending a Christian school, my views have become more liberal and the west has taught me to question things even when taught by a great teacher or someone of authority. Unfortunately, the Thai society's mindset has been shaped differently; we follow those who we deem are higher or wiser than us without question and question is deemed disrespectful, although thankfully we are becoming more 'aware' which is what Buddhism is all about isn't it?

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