On Buddhists and Tattoos

As a child, the idea of a tattoo was unspeakable. With an inescapable association to convicts and rebellious teenagers on motorcycles, tattoos represented, for me, a disrespect towards the natural order of society and a disregard for the purity of ones own body. However, as I grew older, I began to view tattoos with a sense of curiosity, even fascination. After emerging from a series of painful emotional experiences in high school, I began to seek refuge through storytelling. Tattoos finally made sense to me on a personal level. Whether they were meant to make a statement against undesirable societal norms, an illustration of a personal narrative, or a marker of ones identity, tattoos spoke to me on a much deeper level in my adolescence.

At the beginning of the semester, I was assigned to read an article called “Ironic Bodies and Tattooed Jews,” by Heather Joseph-Witham, an exploration of the relationship between Jews and Tattoos. Although Jews are traditionally opposed to tattoos, the article interviewed a few individuals who use their bodies as canvases to tell stories about their Jewish ancestors. This article made me curious about the relationship between Buddhism and tattoos.

My parents identify their religious affiliation as both Hindu and Buddhist. Although I grew up reciting sanskrit prayers that were meaningless to me, when I was eight years old, I declared myself an atheist. College was the first time when I began to explore religious philosophies, and Buddhism spoke to me on a personal level. Most of the principles are difficult for me to incorporate into my life, but many of my core values align with Buddhist philosophies.

Last year, I had the privilege of studying abroad for a semester at a liberal arts university in India. One of the people who took me on my first tour of the campus was a member of the  university’s outreach team, Nikita Samanta. Although she does not consider herself a religious Buddhist, she incorporates Buddhist philosophies into her life. She was born and raised in Hyderabad, a city in the southern part of India, and she was first introduced to Buddhism by her sister at age twelve.

When I asked Nikita about her take on Buddhism and tattoos, she said that under the broad umbrella term “Buddhism,” there are many sub-religions. While some sects of Buddhism are highly religious, she interprets Buddhist philosophies in a fairly liberal manner. Using her interpretation as a guiding principle, there are no real restrictions when it comes to sex, alcohol, or even tattoos. She says that people can interpret Buddhism in a way that makes sense to them as an individual, and they need not subscribe to a strict doctrine.

“I have two tattoos myself,” she admitted, “one of the Buddhist chant that is the core of our practice.” Above is an image of the design of Nikita’s tattoo. The scripture contains the following phrase: “Nam myoho renge kyo,” which is Japanese (derived from Sanskrit) for “I devote myself to the mystic law of cause and effect.” This phrase describes the karmic law of the universe, one that has been adopted in American pop culture and persists in our everyday language.

When I asked Nikita what connected her to the phrase, she said that it is less about a personal connection to the specific phrase and more a commitment to Buddhist philosophy. “It, unlike any religion,” she explained, “places the power and responsibility in my hands for my life and everything that happens in it.” The concept of karma, a key element of the Buddhist philosophy, gives her a sense of agency over her own life and keeps her grounded.

Nikita acknowledged that not all Buddhists are as liberal as she is when it comes to the concept of tattoos. While it has become a trend among some Buddhists to get a tattoo of the head of Buddha, in Sri Lanka and Thailand, such tattoos are not encouraged. Nikita does not view Buddha as a deity, but Sri Lankan and Thai Buddhists worship Buddha. With some research, I learned that a British tourist with a tattoo of the Buddha was denied entry to Sri Lanka, and there have been similar threats in Thailand to outlaw tourists sporting tattoos with iconographic Buddhist symbols (Willem Jones and Matthews-Jones 2015: 171). According to Timothy Willem Jones and Lucinda Matthews-Jones’ Material Religion in Modern Britain: The Spirit of Things, the mass reproduction of Buddhist images is not the issue, as tattoos are not unique to modern westerners, but it is more a failure to adhere to the conventional rules of tattoo placement. Based on the Tibetan rules, tattoos must be placed above the waist. Placement on the feet, for instance, shows a disregard for Buddhist customs (Willem Jones and Matthews-Jones 2015: 172)

David L McMahan’s Buddhism in the Modern World discusses the twofold debate about tattoos in the Buddhist community. While some people view tattoos as a permanent marker of their Buddhist identity and a commitment to the practice of Buddhism, others dismiss tattoos as an insufficient substitute for hard work towards the noble path to enlightenment (McMahan 2012: Section 20). While there are undoubtedly some people who get tattoos of Buddha’s head without understanding the implications of their actions, I believe that there are enough people who have informed themselves of the traditional connotations of the symbol, and are reshaping it to fit their contemporary sensibilities.

One of the main ideas behind Buddhism that attracted me was that the root of all suffering is attachment. I think that this is an incredibly powerful insight, for much of the anxiety I face on a daily bases stems from fear of losing what I am attached to. In my first year of college, my roommate identified Buddhist philosophies as guiding principles in her life. “Change is the only constant,” she would repeat to me, chuckling at the irony of the phrase. Nothing is permanent, including the body and the illusion of a sense of self that an individual might face. Impermanence is key to Buddhist philosophy (Gowans 2015: 20). The very idea of a Buddhist tattoo, a permanent brand of one’s identity, is riddled with irony.

Works Cited

Gowans, Christopher W. Buddhist Moral Philosophy: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

McMahan, David L. Buddhism in the Modern World. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Willem Jones, Timothy and Lucinda Matthews-Jones. Material Religion in Modern Britain: The Spirit of Things. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Print.

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