Buddhist tattoos: Not always a hit, especially below the belt

Just one of the tattoos from TheWorstHorse.com, this one submitted by Gary Steinberg of the Metta Foundation.Just one of the tattoos from TheWorstHorse.com, this one submitted by Gary Steinberg of the Metta Foundation.

Over at TheWorstHorse.com, I’ve done lots of coverage of Buddhist tattoos. (For example, here, here, and here.) I’ve found them to be a fascinating subject, and for a few reasons. First, because they can be, and often are, beautiful. Second, because people’s reasons for getting them run the gamut from the absolutely inane to the sincere and aspirational. Third, because there’s a sort of built-in controversy-and-discussion factor: getting a Buddhism-inspired tattoo can be just another gesture of spiritual materialism, or at least seen that way. As someone who has a clutch of tattoos, some dharmically inspired, I think it’s valuable to look at the motives behind getting them, especially long, long after the scabbing has dropped away: Do our dharma-tattoos still have the meaning we saw in them? Did they ever to begin with?

There’s another controversial aspect, too, one that’s often quite culturally driven: some think that getting them is just downright disrespectful in any case (most specifically, in cases below the waistline). British tourist Antony Ratcliffe learned this the hard way, getting deported by Sri Lankan authorities last week for sporting a Buddha face on his arm.

Though said authorities claimed that Ratcliffe was unreasonable and spoke detrimentally against Buddhism, his story paints a completely different picture. As he told the BBC: “I like the artwork in tattoos obviously and, due to my belief in Buddhist philosophy which I have followed for many years, I thought a quality tattoo of the Buddha was rather apt.”

You can see it, and read the rest of Ratcliffe’s story by way of the BBC, here.

As noted above, the distinction here can often be a cultural one. (Here, for example, is a story from two years ago, in which Thailand warns against Buddhist tattoos below the waist as being offensive.)

And yet, for many, such tattoos can be an act of commitment to Buddhist teachings; getting them, after all, is as “permanent” a gesture as we can make — it’s a bodily vow, an inner wish made public.

Do you have one? Would you get one? Do you love it? Have regrets about it? Let us know.


  1. the crown says

    By harbouring rigid precepts the true samaya is impaired,
    But with cessation of mental activity all fixed notions subside;
    When the swell of the ocean is at one with its peaceful depths,
    When mind never strays from indeterminate, non-conceptual truth,
    The unbroken samaya is a lamp lit in spiritual darkness.

    Free of intellectual conceits, disavowing dogmatic principles,
    The truth of every school and scripture is revealed.
    Absorbed in Mahamudra, you are free from the prison of samsara;
    Poised in Mahamudra, guilt and negativity are consumed;
    And as master of Mahamudra you are the light of the Doctrine.

    The fool in his ignorance, disdaining Mahamudra,
    Knows nothing but struggle in the flood of samsara.
    Have compassion for those who suffer constant anxiety!
    Sick of unrelenting pain and desiring release, adhere to a master,
    For when his blessing touches your heart, the mind is liberated.

    – Tilopa

  2. says

    I think the value of the Buddhist-inspired can be its effect on the viewer, rather than benefit to wearer of it. They can serve as a reminder of our own Buddha-nature. And I don't have any Buddha ink…yet.

  3. Christopher Knill says

    Yes, I have a tattoo that incorporates elements of the Tibetan flag on my upper arm. My father has a mirrored version of it on his opposite upper arm. In other words when we sit side by side each appears as though in a mirror. My belief leans toward the Mahāyāna School . . . other than that it is a very long story. I do not regret it. I do not go out of my way to publicly display it . . . . or not. It is just a part of who I am at this point.

  4. JetCityOrange says

    Yes, I have "Om mani padme hum" inked on my left forearm both as a expression of my faith (vajrayana, geluk) and in memory of someone who taught me the true meaning of forgiveness & compassion.

    In addition to sharing the story behind my Dharma ink, my website features a gallery of Buddhist tattoo photos: http://JetCityOrange.com/buddhist-tattoos/

  5. says

    Some replies from our Facebook friends:

    Ann C: Have a few and would like more

    Joseph S: I have a few and would definitely want more

    Susan M.R.: I have one small Sanskrit OM on the back of my right shoulder.

    Kerrie G-S: I've thought about it but haven't been able to decide if it was necessary.

    Johnny T: I got blasted before I woke up, full sleeves and upper body, I wouldn't get more at this point. Mingling mundane old ink with fresh dharma themes doesn't hold any appeal and actually would feel wrong to me at this point. It's been over 25 years since my last tattoo.

    Tracy L: I currently have 3 and have plans for the 4th – a series based on the elements as well as the 8 auspicious symbols

  6. Renee says

    I have a large tattoo of Quan Yin on my back, and the experience – from realizing that this was the tattoo I was seeking to how people respond to it has been so deeply impacting and part of my spiritual growth over the past few years.

    I have always loved tattoos and had a good collection, no color, very tribal and speaking to the woman I was then – solid, strong, regal. And then I started realizing that felt like a wall, not a path. So I decided to explore softening – in my Being, in my life, and with my artwork.

    I started looking for "something with color" for my back. It took awhile but I finally stumbled upon a beautiful image of Quan Yin and knew that was what I wanted. It took awhile to finish her, and it is really stunning work. But its on my back, so I am not conscious of it being there most of the time…until people stop me and want to talk about her – they want the story of her, they want to know why I chose her, they want to TALK. And this happens all the time – whenever she is in sight, this happens.

    So I am called to be soft, and open, and engage people about her, and about me. And this is such a good practice.

  7. David says

    I have a Buddha tattoo on the top of one of my feet. I Love it. It's beautiful and inspirational to me. I like just the one, I don't think I'll ever get another.

    • says

      dalihendrix / pedo///lmao it is not a jerko jacko pedo pan case where a man is sleeping with liltte kids having cookies and warm milk.it is just some moron that has a hard on for a 19 year old chick who is famous.

  8. Jon Rosenthal says

    I have a tattoo of a lotus with the AA symbol as the heart of the lotus, It is on my upper right arm. It was an act of commitment to Buddhist practice and sobriety after several months spent in a recovery program. I have no regrets.

  9. ACB says

    I was thinking of covering a tattoo that I dislike on my lower back (JUST below the waist) with a lotus flower. For many many reasons. I like the idea of covering something from a time in my life where I didn't know myself with the symbol for beauty after struggle the quest for enlightenment etc. But I worry if it's disrespectful because it's below my waist… 🙁 Didn't think of that before I read this. Lotus is important to many cultures so maybe the flower alone without a Buddah face or other symbols will be okay??

  10. Matthew headington says

    Hello I know this comment is a bit late for this topic due to it now being nearly a year on from your post but I came across this blog and found the subject very interesting.
    I currently have a bhuddist themed sleeve. At the higher end of my arm on my shoulder joint I have a large bhudda head surrounded by large red lotus flowers, to cut a long story short I’m off to thailand to do some travelling and I’m worried my tattoo will offend people.
    Is this the case or will it be ok?

    Thanks Matt