Bodhi art: reclaiming the body with Buddhist tattoos
People often ask me why I get tattooed and why I have so many. I have 40 tattoos, including one that covers my entire back. I have also been branded and pierced in various locations on my body. I started out with a small tattoo paid for by my best friend as a 25th birthday present. He said, “I want to give you something that you can never get rid of!” I continued to get tattoos regularly, a couple times a year and at one point every six weeks. For many years, I was not conscious of any particular reason for being continually tattooed. I liked how they looked; I actually liked the pain and the feeling of being tattooed. When I was first tattooed, they were not so trendy and I guess I was trying to look like a “bad ass.” Some of my tattoos have deep personal meaning and some are meant to be funny or merely decorative. All of them have been done by Tex at Authentic Tattoo in San Francisco.
I later discovered, in the course of my own personal psychotherapy and introspection, that there were reasons why I modifying my body to such an extreme. It would take hours to go into these, but to summarize, I was subjected to various forms of abuse as a child, was bullied in junior high school, survived cancer with two surgeries and six months of chemotherapy and struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for many years. These factors, particularly the abuse and the cancer treatments, caused me to feel that my body was not my own. Being tattooed has helped bring me back to my body: to quite literally mark it as my own and take ownership of it. It no longer belongs to those who abused me or to the doctors and surgeons. Being tattooed is certainly not the only way I truly inhabit my body; Zen Buddhist practice — especially zazen — and yoga, certainly help me in this regard.
Several of my tattoos are what you’d call “Buddhist tattoos,” though I get the impression that tattoos are generally frowned upon in Zen. I once asked my teacher what he thought of so-called “Buddhist tattoos.” He furrowed his brow disdainfully (or so it seemed to me) and said, “What about invoking Bodhi-mind?” Well, that stopped the conversation before it even began. I got all of the Buddhist tattoos I will discuss after I got into recovery from drug and alcohol addiction and re-committed myself to Zen practice. The top half of my body is devoted to more serious or sacred themes, the bottom half to more profane or irreverent subjects. I don’t remember doing this consciously, that’s the way it turned out.
I have two koi, in a Japanese style, on my forearms. They are not exactly Buddhist, but they were the first tattoos I got when I got sober. I have a Dharma wheel, a Tibetan “Knot of Eternity,” a Daruma and several texts: pieces of Buddhist scripture and a Buddhist poem.
The text tattoos are:
1. A poem:
That it will be glorious:
That momentary burst
It is more like
Losing your mother
In a large Department Store forever.
I have always loved this poem yet I do not know wrote it.
2. Dharma Hall Discourse #53 “Nothing is Hidden,” from the Eihei Koroku (Extensive Record) by Eihei Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen:
“Directly it is said that not a single thing exists, and yet we see in the entire universe nothing has ever been hidden.”
When I first read this piece, I had the most incredible sensation and had to sit down. I could barely speak for half a day.
3. An important quote from the Genjo Koan by Dogen.
“Here is the place; here the way unfolds.”
Another one of those “gob-smacked” moments.
4. A verse repeated several times during the Full Moon Ceremony in which we Zen practitioners repeat our Bodhisattva vows:
“All my ancient twisted karma,
from beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
born through body, speech, and mind,
I now fully avow.”
I get chills just thinking about saying that verse, and I usually weep at that point in the ceremony. This helps me free myself from the incredible amount of guilt and shame I carry at times — my “ancient twisted karma.”
5. The Robe Chant from the morning ceremony after the first period of zazen at Zen Center — the point at which the Priests put on their okesa and the lay people put on their rakasu:
“Great robe of liberation.
Field far beyond form and emptiness.
Wearing the Tathagata’s teaching,
Saving all beings.”
The Daruma tattoo is especially dear to me. Daruma is a wobbly Japanese toy, a version of Bodhidharma, the mythic founder of Zen. The image is that of someone who keeps getting up when knocked over. While struggling to get sober, I would fail like most addicts and alcoholics tend to do. My teacher would repeat the Japanese Proverb, “Fall down seven times, get up eight. Like the Daruma.” Once, during an evening at Zen Center, my legs had fallen asleep while in half-lotus position. I was probably hung-over or had taken a few pills, and I did not notice. I stood up for the ceremony, staggered, and started to topple over — right there in the Buddha Hall. My teacher leapt over, cat-like, and caught me. He held me until my legs woke up and I could stand on my own. Everyone was staring at me, and I was deeply mortified. My teacher said, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” The zendo erupted in loving laughter and my shame faded quickly.
Other Buddhist tattoos are the lotus and Bodhi leaves on my chest. The symbolism of the lotus, flowering beautifully from muddy water (although perhaps it’s even more beautiful to think of it growing from sewage), holds special meaning for me, given my life experience and background.
While it’s definitely not Buddhist, I have Oscar Wilde’s prison number, “C.3.3.” tattooed on my arm. When I was a very lonely, bullied, and abused teenager struggling with my sexual orientation in rural Tennessee, a kindly retired schoolteacher gave me “The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde.” Wilde got me through those dark days. Reading about Wilde’s trials for “gross indecency” and his subsequent imprisonment and ruin, began in me an interest in social justice and political activism, especially for LGBT rights. To me, one of the worst aspects of the legal action against Wilde was the way his writings were used against him at his trial. I could never fathom the gross indecency of using an artist’s own art against him. The Prosecutor famously said, “There could be no worse thing [than Wilde’s homosexuality]”. Really? Really??? But, I digress…
My back is covered by an exact rendering of the Buddha on the main altar of San Francisco Zen Center. The statue is a priceless and ancient Ghandara Buddha from a formerly Buddhist region in Afghanistan. This statue has very deep meaning for me. It is not an Asian Buddha at all; it is Western, with a European face, done in the Greco-Roman style because Ghandara was a Greek outpost at the time the statue was carved. For years, this fact was lost on me as I sat in the Buddha Hall and struggled with the idea of this “Asian” religion, feeling like one of the people I would criticize when in a dark and hateful frame of mind: “…silly white cultural vampires and spiritual materialists, trying to adopt some Asian religion because Asians are superior to us and more spiritual than us Westerners….” (pretty harsh judgments, no?). But, it hit me one day that this Buddha I was sitting in front of was Western, like me, and that Buddhism is not about race or culture, but about something universal that is in all of us.