Buddhist Tattoos are more than fanciful designs, even though the artwork can be breathtaking. Each tattoo is symbolic of one or more of the teachings of the great Buddha himself, a man who believed everyone could triumph over life's suffering and achieve "Nirvana," a state beyond all suffering.
A Brief Overview of Buddhism
Buddhism is one of the world's major religions, and is based on the teachings of Gautama Buddha, a fifth century figure who believed the sufferings of life could be relieved by purifying the mind of its cravings, thereby reaching an understanding of the true nature of all things.
Although Buddhism is rich with teachings and symbolism, it is founded on "The Four Noble Truths".
- Live is filled with suffering.
- Craving is the source of suffering.
- If we cease craving, we can end our suffering.
- Following the "Eight-Fold Noble Path" is the way to end suffering.
Buddhism is filled with so much symbolism it would be hard to list each an every possible design. Instead, let's examine a few of the most popular Buddhist tattoo designs and their meanings.
Mandalas, also known as Mandala Wheels, are beautifully intricate designs meant to represent the universe. Each Mandala begins with a core geometric figure. From this base, further embellishments are added in ever growing rings to represent the layers of the universe.
Mandalas are often used to help focus during periods of meditation.
Dharma wheels are similar to Mandalas, but hold a different meaning. The Dharmachakra, as it is more accurately known, represents the Wheel of Truth and Law, which the Buddha would spin to signal the beginning of a new cycle of teachings. Spinning the Dharma is believed to change the course of destiny, much like the wheel changes the direction of a sailing vessel.
In keeping with this imagery, the Dharma wheel is a circular figure with eight spokes, which represent the "Eight-Fold Noble Path."
Each spoke symbolizes one of the following:
- Correct Thought- The conscious effort to avoid indulging in bad/harmful thoughts.
- Correct Speech- Being responsible about what is said and speaking the truth with consideration for the feelings of others.
- Correct Actions- The resulting fruits of correct thought and speech.
- Correct Livelihood- Practicing correct thought, speech, and actions in the daily work life.
- Correct Understanding- Developing true wisdom.
- Correct Effort- Persevering with a good attitude through life's trials.
- Correct Mindfulness- Living life in the present, letting go of the past, and letting the future take care of itself.
- Correct Concentration- Keeping a calm frame of mind.
Buddhist tattoos of lotus blossoms can have slightly different meanings, depending on how they are drawn. All lotus are considered a symbol of purity, but the color of the bloom symbolizes a specific type of purity.
- Pink blossoms represent Buddha himself.
- White blossoms stand for purity of the mind and body.
- Red blossoms stand for purity in matters of the heart.
- Blue blossoms stand for wisdom and triumph over physical longing.
The stage of the blossom also has meaning.
- An unopened lotus blossom symbolizes the potential for enlightenment.
- An opened blossom represents full enlightenment.
Buddha, the wise one who teaches the path to spiritual enlightenment, is the central figure in the Buddhist religion. Although most of us are familiar with the happy chubby Buddha figure used in statuary and art, it is said the actual Buddha himself frowned upon having his image used for worship.In keeping with this premise, other Buddhist tattoos are often used to represent Buddha, including:
- The Lion- A symbol of regal strength.
- The Dharma Wheel- A symbol of Buddha's teaching of the eight-fold noble path.
- The Pink Lotus- A symbol of the highest purity.
- The Bodhi Tree- Where Buddha is believed to have achieved enlightenment.
- Buddha's Footprints- Symbolic of Buddha's presence on Earth, and of following in his path.
Annual Buddhist Tattoo Festival
Buddhist tattoos, like many other religious tattoos, are often believed to carry a physical/spiritual power to protect the person who wears them.
The annual tattoo festival in Wat Bang Phra, Thailand attracts people from all over the world. Many are practitioners of Buddhism, but a growing portion of festival participants are simply tattoo devotees, hoping to receive an authentic Buddhist tattoo from one of the monks.
Getting a Buddhist tattoo at this festival is quite different from getting one at a Western tattoo parlor. As the monks dip their old-fashioned two prong tools into their homemade pigments and quickly tap the designs into flesh, they also pray. This is believed to endow the images with the spiritual power to fight against demons.
Once the tattoos are finished, many people who receive them enter a violent, trance-like state. Whether this is because the tattoo is spiritually routing an evil spirit living in the wearer's body, or is due to a physical reaction to the snake venom which is often a component of the ink, the experience is a profound one.
In essence, Buddhism is truly the pursuit of peace of mind, and Buddhist tattoos can be symbolic of the "Nirvana" that many of us find so elusive. Religious tattoos in Buddhism are definitely useful in reminding wearers of that peace of mind as well.