Buddhist Tattoos

Buddhism, like the other great religions of the world, uses a system of symbols that echoes and reinforces its basic tenets. The Buddha himself discouraged the use of images but over the centuries a variety of forms have entered Buddhist iconography, including the Buddha himself. Buddhist themed tattoo designs are an ever growing group as is the list of symbols that typically gets used: Bo Tree, the Buddha, a Dharma Wheel, a Kalachakra, a Lotus, a Mala, a Mandala, Om, Om Mane Padme Hum, a Stupa, a Vajra, and protective scripts written in traditional calligraphy, to name a few.

Because Buddhism has so many different forms worldwide, there is no one viewpoint that can be said to reflect the opinion of Buddhism, at large, on tattooing.

In the spiritual tattoos of a festival in Thailand, however, Buddhist monks actually double as tattooists.

Seated Buddha Tattoo Design by Greg James

Seated Buddha Tattoo Design by Greg James

Seated Buddha – his hands form the mudra (dharmachakra) which symbolizes the setting into motion of the wheel of teaching the dharma. His elongated ear lobes once held the heavy ornaments that were part of his princely former life, which he renounced.

Kalachakra Tattoo Design by Greg James

Kalachakra Tattoo Design by Greg James

“Kalachakra” is Sanskrit for Time (kala) Wheel (chakra) and is broadly taken to mean cycles of time in Tibetan Buddhism.

Om Mane Padme Hum Tattoo Design by Greg James

Om Mane Padme Hum Tattoo Design by Greg James

“Om Mane Padme Hum,” written in Tibetan, is translated as “Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus”, a phrase with many layers of meaning which is also used as a mantra.


Buddhist Tattoos — 6 Comments

    • Hi Courtney, I’ve looked through a couple things here and wasn’t able to find anything or recall something that might help you. Most belief systems use a symbol central to their ideology to symbolize their flavor of belief (a cross, om, a pentagram) and a symbol that means something as specific as “believe” is hard to come by. It’s the same case with something as literal as “beautiful.” If you’re looking for a symbol that is specific, then you might want to consider a writing system based on ideograms where one symbol can stand for an entire concept (Japanese kanji, Egyptian hieroglyphs). As always, though, when looking at a language or characters that one doesn’t speak or read, be diligent about vetting the meaning and good luck on finding that perfect symbol!

  1. I’m hoping to have an image for prosperity & good human relation behind my back. Maybe an image of a double-tail lizard ( prosperity) & a butterfly (good human relationship).
    Any recommendation?

    • You know, I don’t have a specific recommendation but you’re on the right path to getting a great tattoo. If you’re looking into Buddhist symbols specifically, here’s a book that I don’t own but that I covet: The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols. I’ll bet the hardback can be checked out from libraries. Wish it was available as an ebook! Anyway, good luck on your search and thanks for stopping by!

  2. I am looking to get a simple tattoo of the word time or death (kala) in sanskrit. Can anyone provide me with the proper writing of this?

    • Hi Kat, I’m afraid I can’t. Traditionalist that I am, I’d probably start in the library! Sounds like a great tattoo though. Best of luck!

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