Apparently, there is some scriptural basis for putting the Dharma (specifically mantras) on the body, as shown in the following quote. I came across the following while reading about Avalokiteshvara in a text by Jamgön Mipham Rinpoche.
From the Box Sutra:
The Bhagavat Shakyamuni once said, "It is valuable for beings to hold the name of Avalokita. His great awareness mantra of six syllables was sought for sixteen kalpas by all tathagatas. Even the great mother of tathagatas prostrates to this awareness mantra.
"Those who hold it and recite it will acquire immeasurable merit. At the time of it's recitation tathagatas and bodhisattvas equal in number to the smallest particles will gather. Millions of buddhas will enter the pores of the reciter of this mantra. They will bestow their approval, saying 'Child of family, you have well acquired something worthy of acquisition. Even all the beings who live in your belly will become irreversible bodhisattvas.' The reciter will be guarded by devas, nagas, yakshas, and others.
"Anyone who keeps this mantra on their body will achieve a vajra body and a buddha's wisdom. They will acquire all complete qualities, including confidence, wisdom, love, and the paramitas. They will quickly achieve the unsurpassable awakening of buddhahood.
"Any being who touches or sees this mantra will become a bodhisattva who has reached the end of rebirth. This great awareness mantra pulls out the root of samsara. It guides one to liberation and omniscience. In search of this mantra, one should fill all of Jambudvipa with the seven jewels and offer it. If someone wishes to write this mantra down but lacks ink, it would be excellent for them to use their blood as ink, their skin as paper, and their bones as a pen."
~ pg. 168, [emphasis mine], A Garland of Jewels: The Eight Great Bodhisattvas
It is not lost on me, however, that phrases such as "Anyone who keeps this mantra on their body" could refer to wearing amulets and/or jewelry. And the part afterwards about using one's blood as ink, skin as paper, and bones as a pen is pretty obviously either meant for high level bodhisattvas (e.g. the Buddha cutting off his head and offering it from the Jataka - tales of his former lives), or as figurative language.
Buddhist texts, whether the holy scriptures of sutra and tantra, or the meditational practice liturgies (sadhanas) derived from them, are so full of metaphorical and symbolic language that one must learn their context and the sacred meanings behind them in order to fully appreciate them... to the point that they are sometimes described as being written in "twilight language." This is one of the ways in which an unbroken lineage and having a teacher (guru/lama) comes in handy: as someone who can give detailed explanations and elaborate on the nuances of such texts, as well as providing commentary on how to integrate and implement the meaning in your practice.
That said, it is hard not to see the quote above as scriptural precedent for Dharma body art, at least to some extent. This seems to be an issue that is being talked about more in recent years, but still there is no firm "yea" or "nay" from many lamas on the subject. I've heard from one of my own lamas that basically, "It's good to have such aspirations, but this [art] is not necessary. Better to hold the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and vows in your mind."
Others have been told similar things, asked if it was still OK to get a tattoo even though it's not necessary, and then been told, "Maybe not." And experienced practitioners have expressed their opinions that having sacred images on the body and then engaging in certain activity is tantamount to engaging in improper conduct with a thangka (religious painting) or rupa (form, i.e. buddha statue), especially in light of the prohibitions of certain behavior based on the vows.
However, based on the idea of the vast amount of merit gathered by simply reciting, hearing or seeing mantras and scriptures in the various Buddhist traditions (and especially in Mahayana/Vajrayana), not to mention writing them, it is hard to see why one wouldn't, if feeling inspired to do so, get the Dharma emblazoned on one's body.
Not only could this serve as a daily reminder for oneself to examine one's mind, engage in good conduct and virtue, refrain from harming beings, and to cultivate compassion and wisdom, but it would obviously be able to serve sentient beings who see such art/text and inquire as to the meaning, bring them to the Dharma, or simply piquing their interest in the subject of Buddhism. Giving the Dharma --- whether by directly explaining or by helping create the conditions for its development --- is known as the supreme form of generosity, for it aids the mind... and generosity, after all, is one of the 6 transcendent perfections (prajnaparamita).
|Goddess Prajnaparamita, personification of the Perfection of Wisdom|
There list of the Six Perfections:
- Generosity (Dana)
- Morality (Shila)
- Patience (Kshanti)
- Diligence (or Joyous Perseverance)
- Concentration (or Meditation; Samadhi)
- Wisdom (or Insight; Prajna)
Sometimes this list is expanded to Ten Perfections, adding the following to the first six:
- Skillful Means (Upaya)
- Aspiration (or Resolution, i.e. taking and upholding vows)
- Spiritual Power (Bala)
- Primordial Wisdom (Jnana; pronounced "Gyana")
There are many wonderful explanations of and commentaries for these practices and the Prajnaparamita sutras they are named for (i.e. the "Heart" Sutra and the "Diamond" Sutra, as well as the recensions in Eight Thousand, Ten Thousand, Twenty Five Thousand, and One Hundred Thousand Verses). The best that I have found, getting direct explanation from a living master in person not withstanding, are in Bokar Rinpoche's Taking the Bodhisattva Vow and Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche's Transformation of Suffering. I cannot recommend these texts highly enough.
Having received teachings on Prajnaparamita from my root guru (Khenchen Tsewang Gyatso Rinpoche) as my entry into Buddhism, the perfections have a special place in my heart. From the cultivation of prajnaparamita comes the blossom of bodhicitta (pronounced "bow-dee-cheetah"), the "enlightened mind" or the "mind that turns toward awakening." And it is only with bodhicitta fully ripened in the mindstream that one can attain the fruit of unsurpassed, perfect, complete and precious buddhahood.
Padmsambhava in the flesh
So, why should anyone care about Dharma tattoos? Are these just the rationalizations of a samsaric mind which wants to adorn the body with symbols of a Buddhist identity? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I leave it for you, dear read, to decide for yourself. This issue, however, has asserted itself in my mind. As Shantideva says:
"I therefore have no thought that this might be of benefit to others; I wrote it only to habituate my mind. My faith will thus be strengthened for a little while, that I might grow accustomed to this virtuous way. But others who now chance upon my words may profit also, equal to myself in fortune."
~ The Way of the Bodhisattva (Bodhicaryavatara), Ch. 1: The Excellence of Bodhicitta
|Shantideva, 1 of the 84 Mahasiddhas,|
the "Great Saints" of Medieval India
What follows, then, is a description of the latest version of a tattoo design which, someday, I would like to get done, step by step as I walk the path. In the Tibetan tradition of Vajrayana, there are what are called generation stage practices in which one generates the chosen meditational deity (yidam) in front of oneself, generates him/herself as the yidam, or both, depending on the ritual text being employed. The practitioner is not merely worshiping an external deity, but rather uses such a practice to.envisions the yidam insubstantially, like a rainbow or a hologram, and to realize that the enlightened nature of such a being is no different than oneself, for the Self is likewise illusory and emptiness is all-pervasive... In truth, all things are interdependent, changing, and relative, whereas we perceive a reality that is solid, stable, and in which things exist independently of each other. Generation stage yoga, quite simply, is a very skillful method that reminds the practitioner of his/her essential buddha-nature; the ability of all beings, through cultivation, to become buddhas.
"Through this meditation practice, we transform from the completely ordinary state to [that of] a buddha. The buddhas' compassionate skills interact with the ability and comprehension of the practitioner in this 'spiritual technology' that developed over thousands of years. Many have been freed from samsara with it."
~ Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche
Therefore, the idea for this design is to serve as an outward manifestation of the internal generation stage practices in which I am engaged, and to become like a living, breathing thangka as a reminder of the inseparability of myself and the yidam, my buddha-nature; to constantly cultivate the perfections and increase my bodhicitta; and to keep my conduct virtuous with the constant thought that I carry the vows.
Basically, the design is a visual form of the well-known Prayer to Manjushri (Gang-loma):
I prostrate before my guru and guardian,The ennobling, impeccable Manjushri.Your intelligence shines forth like the sun,Free from the clouds of the two obscurations,Enabling you to see the extent of all things and how they exist:Thus, you hold a scriptural text to your heart.Your affection for all of us masses who wander,plagued with problems,Groping in the darkness of ignoranceIn the dungeons of our compulsive existenceIs like that for your only child:Thus, your speech is melodious with sixty facets.Its thunderous roar arouses us from the stuporof our disturbing emotions,Frees us from the iron chains of our karma,Dispels the gloom of our lack of awareness,And slashes our problems wherever they sprout:Thus, you brandish a sword.Pure from the core and having traversed the ten bhumis,Your set of enlightening qualities is complete:Thus, as a spiritual son of the Triumphant Ones,Your body is bedecked with the enlightening adornments,ten times ten, plus twelve.Please remove the darkness from my mind.O Manjushri, I bow down to you.OM-A-RA-PA-TSA-NA-DHIH [repeat many times.]DHIH-DHIH, DHIH-DHIH, DHIH-DHIH [repeat many times.]Affectionate one, with light-rays of your supreme omniscienceClear the darkness of naivety from my mind.Direct me, please, so that confident intelligence emerges withinTo comprehend fully the classic textsof Buddha's words and the treatises on them.
Right forearm: Sword of Wisdom; similar in shape to Roman short sword (gladius) with wisdom fire, mantra, and vajra hilt.
|Sword of Wisdom|
Right shoulder: Swayambu stupa, a pilgrimage site in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal and sacred place of Manjushri; when one does circumambulation of stupas, they are supposed to be kept on the right side and walked around clockwise... This would allow me, as described in certain texts, to imagine myself always circumambulatin the stupa to my right.
|Swayambhu stupa, built on the lotus which rested in a lake,|
drained after Manjushri cleaved a gorge with his Sword of Wisdom;
the result of which was the Kathmandu Valley
Left arm: the long stem of a lotus, winding and creeping up my arm, composed of the Tibetan script for the six perfections, which culminates in the word for bodhicitta and then blossoms into a blue lotus upon which rests a Tibetan-style text: the 100,000 verse Prajnaparamita Sutra, symbolizing that buddhahood and bodhicitta stem from the prajnaparamita.
Chest: the mantra of the 100,000 verse Prajnaparamita Sutra, also known as the Mantra Encompassing the Essence of the Kangyur (the Tibetan name for the group of scriptures known as the Words of the Buddha), illuminated by a lotus in the middle surmounted by a sun and moon disc and the seed-syllable of the Manjushri/Prajnaparamita mantra.
Back: the Bodhisattva vows in Tibetan script, as formulated in Shantideva's Way of the Bodhisattva:
Until I attain the heart of enlightenment, I take refuge in all the buddhas.
I take refuge in the Dharma and likewise in the assembly of the Bodhisattvas.
As the previous buddhas cultivated the enlightened mind and progressed on the bodhisattva's path,
I, too, for the benefit of all sentient beings, give birth to bodhicitta and apply myself to the stages of the path.
As with anything pertaining to the Dharma, I end this entry with a prayer of dedication. Recently it was brought to my attention that one of the reasons we have been fortunate enough to encounter the Dharma is due to vast stores of merit, but that the reason this has not led to enlightenment yet is because, amongst other things, we did not dedicate the merit of our practice properly.
By this beneficial activity may I obtain Omniscience, and having vanquished the harmful enemies (greed, anger, and delusion), may I liberate all beings tossed about helplessly by the waves of birth, aging, illness, and death in the Ocean of Becoming.
By conforming to the knowledge of courageous Manjushri (Jampälyang) and in the same way as Samantabhadra (Küntuzangpo), and following their example, I dedicate perfectly all this virtue.
By this virtue may all beings perfectly achieve the accumulation of Merit (Sönam) and Wisdom (Yeshe), and may they thereafter obtain the two holy bodies which result from these two accumulations.
By the blessings of the Buddha (Sangye) who obtained the three bodies; by the blessings of the immutable truth of the Dharmata (Chönyi); by the blessings of the infallible aspiration of the Sangha (Gendün), may this prayer of dedication be accomplished just as it is.
Sarva Mangalam! May all be auspicious!
|Sarasvati, Goddess of Learning, Literature, and Poetry|