The fact that you can get thrown in jail for having a Buddha tattoo sounds crazy to an American, but it happens more often than you might think. There have been a number of stories in the news about unsuspecting tourists getting into serious trouble for having the religious figure on their skin. This may seem like an over reaction to something as harmless as body art, but from a devout Buddhist’s perspective, it’s incredibly offensive to see one’s god depicted below a person’s waist. We spoke to Yoni Zilber, a tattooist who specialize in Tibetan art, about this potentially controversial subject.
“Images of the Buddha and Tibetan mantras are very sacred and should be respected. It is customary to hang pictures of Buddha at the highest place in your house, and treat it with respect,” explains Zilber. “If you put it on your body, especially on a lower part, it can be seen as extremely disrespectful. You sit on the toilet with this part of the body and lay it on the sand at the beach. The Buddha is not supposed to end up in such inappropriate places.”
Buddhism is centered around stripping oneself of worldly attachments, thus most Buddhists believe that our lower halves, since they connect us to the Earth, are an unclean. Because the Buddha is the ultimate embodiment of enlightenment, having an image of him on your foot, calf, or even upper thigh figuratively degrades him. This is not to suggest that all Buddhists find tattoos of their god offensive though.
“I met a very high ranking Lama in India, and I asked him what he thought about sacred Tibetan images tattooed on people’s bodies. He said tattoos are beautiful, and but he’s not so fond of seeing mantras and Buddhas tattooed on people,” Zilber recalls. “But he also acknowledged that if it’s done in a respectful way, not on your butt or close to your crotch, he see it as a way that you can show respect in a meaningful way. Because of this, now I won’t tattoo any sacred image under the waist, and I believe, if you put it on your skin, then you better respect it.”
One of the biggest tattoo festivals in the world, Wat Bang Phra, happens in Thailand every year. Thousands of people gather at a temple near Bangkok to get tattoos of religious figures from monks, but with one catch, none of them ever get these sacred markings below their waist. For them, it’s common sense not to do so, but unfortunately, many Westerners aren’t familiar with the social norms surrounding depictions of Buddha and this has inevitably lead to conflict.
The reverence that Buddhists hold for their god is so strong that laws have been passed in some countries relating to how he can be portrayed. In 2016, a man was apprehended by authorities in Burma and advised to leave the country because of a tattoo of Buddha on his lower leg. Two years prior to that, a Canadian professor was also given the boot for the same reason, and a similar incident occurred to a woman in Sri Lanka.
“If someone wants to get a tattoo of a Buddha, please know that the image is sacred to many people, and they don’t look at it as only a decorative thing,” Zilber says. “I would get something else if it’s just for the look, but if you’re going to, don’t get it under your waist. Position it on your arms or upper back, that way if you travel to the Far East you don’t get weird looks or, worse, in trouble, depending on who you encounter.”
If you have your heart set on getting a tattoo of Buddha and traveling to the Far East anytime soon, just make sure to follow Zilber’s advice, and get it above your waist. Having a tattoo of the god is about expressing reverence for all that he represents, so give him the exalted position he deserves.