Buddhism is one of the oldest and most widely practiced religions in the world. Through its long history, spanning diverse cultures and far-flung locales, it has developed serious complexity – only one or two basic principles are common to all traditions, and some sects barely resembles others at all. Still, all modern Buddhist sects are derived from the teachings and practice of one man: the Buddha. The term “the Buddha” in Western culture typically refers to Gautama Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama), the historical leader of what has become modern Buddhism. In Buddhist teachings, however, the word has a more flexible meaning and may refer to other incarnations of the Buddha that occurred in the past or will come in the future, when he is next reincarnated.
In tattoo art, “Buddha tattoos” may refer to tattoos of either Siddhartha Gautama or to Budai (also called Hotei), the “Laughing Buddha”, the smiling, pot-bellied Buddha from Chinese folklore. This is a different figure, one who is unlikely to have existed historically, but who some believe will be the next incarnation of the Buddha. Within those two main categories of designs, there are two additional main types: designs that depict the Buddha as he would be painted or as a man, and those that are based on statues (and look like statues or sculptures).
Those who sport Buddha tattoos may wish to show their devotion to this particular faith or may simply admire aspects of it or of the Buddha personally – especially a meditative spirit or disconnection from material possessions. Those who choose Laughing Buddha tattoos may also relate to the jolly, kind-hearted, yet spiritually deep reputation of that figure.
Many Buddha tattoo designs will incorporate elements from traditional Buddhist art. Many depict the Buddha meditating in front of the Bodhi Tree, a Sacred Fig tree in India under which the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment. He is often surrounded by lotus flowers, another popular symbol in Buddhist art that represents the path of spiritual progression – the lotus takes root in mud but rises above the water to bloom, floating serenely. In this same way, the soul is said to progress beyond the temporal material preoccupations of the world, reaching a transcendent state.
Some designs will focus solely on the face and/or head of the Buddha. Often, especially in sculptures, he is pictured with small circular whorls on his head – it was said by some that he had long, curly hair as a boy, and when his hair was shaved it came in in tiny ringlets. Others have suggested that it is an artistic representation of his Crown Chakra or another spiritual feature. There may also be influence from nearby Cambodia, where many figures in art are pictured with similar traits. It is entirely likely that truth is a combination of things like this.
In designs that base Buddha’s head on representations from statues, of course, the primary colors are shades of grey. However, color may be integrated a number of ways, including through the setting of the design (such as water or clouds) or including things like lotus flowers. Juxtaposing color beside black and white can make both the colored and uncolored portions of the tattoo stand out all the more.
The Buddha’s robes are usually depicted as clean and well-kept, though the color varies. Various sects Buddhism have different styles of robes for their monks, and often the sect that produced that particular piece of art will picture the Buddha in the robes of their tradition. This is quite often orange, traditional in the Theravada sect of Buddhism that is predominant in much of Southeast Asia.
Some designs combine these symbols in a more literal sense, such as using the Buddha’s face in the center of a lotus flower, a serene and surreal design feature.
The Laughing Buddha is usually pictured with a large stomach, the origin of the term “Buddha belly”. It’s fitting, then, that some people choose to own their Buddha bellies and have a jolly Laughing Buddha tattooed on their own stomachs.
Other designs simply present the Laughing Buddha as he typically exists in art, smiling and carefree, an unerringly positive figure. Usually he is clad in monk’s robes, though his stomach hangs out of the front, often exposing Buddhist prayer beads.
Buddha tattoo designs may be chosen as a show of affiliation with Buddhism itself or to represent characteristics associated with the Buddha in culture – enlightenment, a meditative spirit, peace, transcendence above material pursuits, etc. Regardless of the designer’s specific intentions, images of the Buddha are packed with layer upon layer of complex meaning and connotations.