Deciphering the Sacred is our series where we explore the symbolism of different geometric figures. Make sure to check out our previous installments, like this in-depth analysis of Metatron’s Cube or an enlightening exploration of The Flower of Life.
You’ve probably seen a winding, single-lined symbol on someone’s body before and wondered what it meant? Well, wonder no more: it’s known as an Unalome, a Buddhist design that represents life’s path toward enlightenment. It’s a bit confounding to think that such a simple figure can stand for something so profound, but once you understand how to interpret them, the cryptic meaning of these sacred insignias becomes as clear as a zen master’s mind.
Here’s how to unravel an Unalome: start at the beginning of the path, the spiral at every Unalome’s base. This swirl stands for our burgeoning consciousness, the human mind in its infancy. Follow along its bends — life’s ups and downs — struggling to find direction but growing wiser and more worldly along the way. You’ll become less wayward the longer you wander, more centered as the loops tighten. Eventually, there is no more room for the line to overlap. It goes completely straight, symbolizing the point when a person achieves nirvana — a release from the cycle of life and death.
Aside from their primary meaning, Unalomes embody a number of other spiritual properties. They can be symbolic of feminine and masculine energy depending on which direction their spirals are facing, left for female and right for male. In some sects of Buddhism, they are believed to represent the third-eye of Shiva herself or records of the lives of various arahants — individuals who have aspired to buddhahood over the ages.
Unalomes have been depicted for thousands of years in Buddhist art (the stone spires outside of the temple Wat Bang Phra for instance), but the place that they’re most commonly seen today on people’s skin. Tattoos of them are thought to have originated with sak yant — a form of body art in Thailand. Artists do all sorts of innovative things with Unalomes, elaborating on their intricate form and embedding them into other spiritually charged designs. The minimal yet ornate shape of Unalomes makes them ideal for placing on narrow stretches of the body. Just never position yours facing downward; enlightenment is about aspiring to a higher level of consciousness, so make sure to orient yours in the right direction, preferably toward one of your chakras.
If you’d like to seem more blessed body art, make your way to these tattooists’ Instagrams. Should you want a little Unalome along your inner finger, sternum, or elsewhere to show that you’re well on your way to nirvana, have one of them inscribe your skin.