The most well known of the mantras of Tibetan Buddhism, Om Mani Padme Hum, is often translated from the Tibetan as “Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus.” It is a translation that may well be incorrect but, no matter how it has been interpreted, it is a mantra that has layer upon layer of meaning. Joined with the image of the lotus in tattoo symbolism, it adds to the many visual representations of Buddhism that are becoming more widespread in the West.
Although some may put it down to quibbling, scholars have long disagreed about the translation of the six syllable mantra: om ma ni pad me hum. Today, even as the wheel of dharma turns and more complicated translations proliferate, we may be coming back around to the beginning.
As Donald Lopez points out in his book Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, the first Catholic missionaries to Tibet very likely had the right interpretation as early as 1762, when Fr. Giorgi wrote “O Jewel Lotus. For example, just as a young child fervently calls the name of its beloved mother, the practitioner fervently calls the deity Mahakarunika (Supreme Compassion), having a jewel and a lotus in his hands, calling, ‘O Jewel Lotus.’ Mahakarunika, remembering his prior promise, comes quickly.” Even more to the point, Lopez cites Pieter Verhagen’s work regarding an early Tibetan grammatical treatise stating “Because om is the nature of the five wisdoms, it is stated first. It closes with hum, ‘take to mind.’ Regarding the actual vocative in between, mani is jewel. Padme is the same [in Sanskrit and Tibetan] and is left [untranslated]. Then, ‘jewel-lotus’ is invoked in obeisance. The adding of e in me [of padme] means ‘O'; as in ‘O jewel lotus.'”
As important as an accurate literal interpretation of a mantra might be, it is only its most obvious and superficial of interpretations. As always, the spiritual meaning of the mantra centers around the Bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara (Mahakarunika was one of his names). According to Mahayana Buddhism, Avalokitesvara is the Bodhisattva of compassion. Although he had reached enlightenment and could have entered Nirvana and Buddhahood, he vowed to remain here and listen to the prayers of the world – thus his name, Avalokitesvara, meaning “Lord who looks down” (in Tibetan Buddhism, Avalokitesvara is also known as Chenrezig). The mantra is meant to be repeated, typically by saying it but also through non-verbal means such as the turning of prayer wheels on which it is inscribed. According to His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, “It is good to recite the mantra Om mani padme hum, but while you are doing it, you should be thinking on its meaning, for the meaning of the six syllables is great and vast. … Thus the six syllables, om mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha. It is said that you should not seek for Buddhahood outside of yourself; the substances for the achievement of Buddahood are within.”
Our tattoo symbol, however, also possesses a seventh syllable, known as a seed syllable (or bijah), which in this case is in the center of design and is known as hrih. This version of the mantra, depicted in a six-petaled lotus with hrih at the center is part of a ceiling decoration in the Potala Temple of Chengde, China (not the Potala Palace of Tibet, as is widely reported). More recently, and perhaps more famously, it is also a tattoo on Brandon Boyd of Incubus. The seed syllable emphasizes the mantra character of the other six syllables, encapsulating their essence, and even the essence of the particular Buddha (Amitabha) who had helped Avalokitesvara in his quest to aid others in attaining Nirvana. In every aspect, then, whether as a spoken mantra or a visual one, without the seed syllable but especially with it, as in Om Mani Padme Hum Hrih, this tattoo invokes compassion and the intention to become enlightened through that compassion.