09 November 2010

A Real Buddhist Tattoo

So. I'm still regularly asked for tattoo designs, for advice about tattoos. I still regularly get people who want tattoos of glib slogans, in scripts that they can't read, and in languages they don't speak. Often they can't distinguish between a script and a language. And in any case the tattoo is destined for some place they can't see. I'm seldom thanked for my responses because I'm honest about being bemused by the idea of tattooing something incomprehensible on one's body as a reminder of anything. I ask why someone would do such a thing, why they would spend money on it. Often a lot of money.

So I was giving some though to a really appropriate Buddhist Tattoo. I think the ideal would be to have this tattooed in English somewhere prominent that you can see:


This seems to me to contain the essential thing that most people need to be reminded of, and doesn't pander to cosy New Age nonsense or soft-peddle the Buddha's message. This is really something that will make you stop and think about what you are doing and why. In view of the fact that you could die any time without notice are you fully prepared, is what you are doing right now the most important thing for you?

Of course there will die-hards who believe in the magical power of Sanskrit and Asian writing systems. So I have translated this in Sanskrit:


Here it is in Siddhaṃ script:

Here it is in Tibetan script and orthography (but still in the Sanskrit language).

Please feel free to use these images for tattoos. Send me pictures!


  1. Jayarava,

    To be honest, much of your opinion about tattoos does not come across as true curiosity or even an openness to understanding why someone gets them. It comes across as rather arrogant and snobbish. Instead of being curious, you sound like you consider them to be a useless thing, something one should "be above" (perhaps something only uneducated plebes would do?).

    It's not really an attitude one would expect of someone who is genuinely curious. I noticed that you never expressed the same opinion of the Thai and Cambodian tattoos you posted about. Is it any less frivolous to get something that one finds cool than something one considers so magical it would protect them from cuts and bring luck? I don't find the two ideas different.

    I pick up this feeling from you that unless what is being done is entirely utilitarian, it's totally worthless. I wonder if you feel that the ornamentation and symbolism in Buddhist temples is excessive, frivolous, and a waste of time?

    If you've gone this far without understanding why someone gets a tattoo, perhaps the reason why is you've never intended to really understand the reasons people get them, but voice your clear disdain for them and the people who get them.

    You should stop, put down your prejudices, and your arrogance as well as your pride and try to listen to the reasons people get tattoos and why they would spend hundreds of dollars on personal ornamentation.

    Instead of making a show of it here where you clearly indicate you don't intend to understand, move on and focus on other things. Things that aren't a waste of precious time.

    Also, you might want to read the stories on bmezine.com. Don't let the frivolous tattoos and piercings stop you though.

  2. @What a Shame

    I do think tattoos are a useless affectation, and that most of the people contacting me about tattoos are shallow at best. I'm glad that at least is clear.

    When I ask why someone wants a tattoo of something they don't understand, in a language they don't speak, in a script they can't read, I don't usually get any reply, let alone a reply that might make me think again. I conclude that people don't know the answer to my questions, and have probably never considered that these might be questions to ask. I'm quite serious and sober when I ask this never-answered question. I'm concerned for the people who see a tattoo as something genuinely spiritual. What's missing in someone's spiritual life that a tattoo is going to help with - so far no one has been able to say, and you are too busy telling me off to even think of it!

    I've been in this game a long time and I know plenty of people with tattoos, and have even designed a few for people I know (while telling them I thought they were nuts to do it). Several of my close Buddhist friends have tattoos of mantras and the like. They have their reasons.

    So when you make out that I am ignorant or even arrogant, where is that coming from? Not from personal knowledge of me in any case. Have a think about the fact that you are abusing me on the basis of what you find in your own mind. It's not my stuff, and I do not accept it, so it remains yours. Perhaps getting a tattoo will help you with that? ;)

    I genuinely want to be known far and wide as someone who is not interested in tattoos; for it to be clear that I am not the right guy to ask about tattoos; that I am the wrong guy to ask; that there are much better people to ask about tattoos. Please don't ask me about tattoos! I'm not interested in tattoos! Are we there yet? :)

    If you want a Tibetan tattoo talk to Tashi Mannox http://www.tashimannox.com/ (who is not only a *much* better calligrapher than me, but much more mellow!) and if you just want Sanskrit then ask this guy http://freetranslationblog.blogspot.com/

    But because I get a several emails a week asking about tattoos, and having given it some thought I am suggesting that "I AM GOING TO DIE" in large Roman script would be the best choice for any Buddhist considering a tattoo.

    Best Wishes

  3. By writing a blog about tattoos, you have inadvertantly unleashed a plague of google ads for them. I'm with you on this one, really. I would never "help" those who suffer from the craving for tattoos, like buying a drunk another drink. Perhaps you could translate "This fulfils an obscure need I have for disfiguring my body with scripts neither one of us can read" into Sanskrit for those people. I was also thinking, "When this tattoo is gone, I will be too." or, "I will be gone before this tattoo wears off."

  4. Hi Dan

    So, we're a minority of 2 then :-)

    I have suggested that I just design funny things when people ask me for tattoo designs - just write 'I'm an idiot' or whatever - there are only about 6 people in the world who can read Siddhaṃ anyway and what are the chances they'll meet on of the others? But I thought that would be bad karma for everyone... tempting as it may be.

    I do allow that other people have different views, and I'm not seeking an argument or even a discussion. I'm just making it clear that I'm the wrong person to ask because if you like tattoos you're liable to find my view offensive. The responses to this blog post amply demonstrate this dynamic as most went straight into the bin, many were abusive. Lot's of pious people wanted to tell me off for my anger - which really annoys me! LOL!

    1 in favour. Your good self! Yay!

    Last week I saw someone who thought their tattoo was Buddhist, but they had the Hindu ॐ symbol on a lotus. All is one, but the one is a bit rubbish apparently. I have bigger fish to fry.

    Thanks for you positive comment, it balances out all that other rudeness :-)

  5. "I AM GOING TO DIE" .... truly funny ....it balances out the severity of all yur other comments ;) ... and not at all a bad idea :)

  6. Hi Jon. I'm surprised that you see all my other comments as "severe". But I'm glad you enjoyed this one.

  7. I have a tattoo - A Tibetan script tam on my left fore arm - and I agree with everything Jayarava says, although as I tend to be quite worried about whether people like me or not, I'd probably phrase it a little less bluntly.


  8. Hi Jñānagarbha,

    Are you saying I'm blunt ;-) I find that English people do struggle with anyone who is direct. One has to sugar cote everything and talk about the weather quite a lot. It gets very frustrating, and often I miss the fact that someone has said something they feel passionately about but it is phrased like they couldn't care one way or the other. So the difference is two edged.

    Actually I've realised that it doesn't matter whether strangers on the Internet like me or not - even if I try not every will like me. Most of them don't even relate to me as a person - I'm just a (free) source of information or pretty pictures. So I don't waste time on trying to please them - except in a few rare cases where a friendship of a sorts develops. With my friends, with people I meet in person, and with people who come to the Buddhist centre I make a lot more effort to be friendly, though I'm still quite direct. I don't always succeed in getting people to like me however, which is one of life's little lessons, eh.

    Knowing you as I do I would not criticise you for getting a tattoo, or make fun of your tāṃ. You are a sincere practitioner and a sensible and sensitive person. I wouldn't have advised you to do it, but being a friend I might well have designed something for you if you'd asked. I still would. Call me contrary. It's the strange strangers that get to me.

    Anyway, thanks for dropping by :-)


  9. I can tell you why I have a mantra (soon two) tattoo'd on me, even though I am a white middle class college student. Because I read what they are for, and although I do not claim to be buddhist, my "OmMaNiPadMeHum" (in the sanskrit of course) reminds me to be aware of my hubris, lusts, desires, ignorance and jeaulousy and all of that. If I remain aware of them, I remain free of them.

  10. @Pet Giraffe: You just prove my point. And Sanskrit is a language, not a form of writing. If you think you are free of hubris, lust etc then congratulations: you are a Buddha. All power to you.

  11. @Nate. I don't publish personal abuse on any of my blogs, let alone personal abuse of ME. Hence your nasty little comment went straight into the bin.

    I'm entitled to my view, and I have always said that it is just my view. I don't expect others to share it, and I'm not trying to convinve any one. Though I do ask that people respect my view. Just as you are entitled to think such hateful thoughts and say mean and spiteful things about me - though not of course on my blog, since I have a bit more self-respect than to allow that. But the hatred is yours and yours alone. Best of luck with it.


  12. At the recent Triratna Buddhist Order convention someone came up to me and said this blog post made her laugh out loud. :-)

  13. Looks like I missed all the fun. I feel the same way about people who put little doves or fish symbols on their cars. Unless you're going to drive like Jesus would have, take it the hell off. haha!

    With that said, sometimes maybe people are trying to live the life they feel is the buddhist way and by adorning themselves with the symbolism they are expecting the outside world to hold them accountable. (As when I yell out my window, "Jesus woulda used his f***ing turn signal!" hoping to spur the driver into more Christ like behavior.

    For me though, I really like it for the art sake, and I dig when people say, Ohmygawd, that is cool as Sh*t! Are you a Buddhist?"


  14. I've been studying Buddhist teachings and meditation for over 10 years. I have a tattoo of pali script Anicca. I still love this post and would consider this tattoo if i didn't already have Anicca! which is essentially, the same thing.

    1. For reference there is no such thing as "pali script". Pāḷi is a language. It is written in half a dozen different scripts, including Roman. The irony is that anicca means impermanent, so why would anyone try to have that permanently marked on them?