Given that tattoos are often a sort of “garland” or “cosmetic”. Of course the reasoning behind certain tattoos varies, with some being purely for artistic/display purposes and others have more action-oriented intentions. Tattooing as a practice is fairly old and I think was probably at least known to the Buddha’s milieu.
Feel free to also give me your info or thoughts on the tattooing practices in Thailand and other Buddhist majority countries where tattooing has some connection to the sangha.
I know an American who recently ordained at a Thai wat in the United States. He is in his mid-40s and has numerous (at least 20 or more) visible tattoos. Apparently it wasn’t a problem for his ordination.
The portion on thirty-two (cases) where one should not let go forth
Now at that time monks (each) let go forth one who had his hands cut off … his feet cut off … his hands and feet cut off … his ears cut off … his nose … his ears and nose … his fingers … his nails cut off … who had the tendons (of his feet) cut … one who had webbed fingers … a hunchback … a dwarf … one who had a goitre … one who had been branded… one who had been scourged … one who had been written about… one who had elephantiasis … one who was badly ill … one who disgraced an assembly (by some deformity) … one who was purblind … one with a crooked limb … one who was lame … one paralysed down one side … a cripple … one weak from old age … one who was blind… one who was dumb … one who was deaf… one who was blind and dumb … one who was deaf and dumb … one who was blind and deaf and dumb. They told this matter to the Lord.
He said: “Monks, one who has had his hands cut off should not be let go forth; one who has had his feet cut off … one who is blind and deaf and dumb should not be let go forth. Whoever should let (one such) go forth, there is an offence of wrong-doing.”
A person who had been branded with a tattoo is not allowed to ordain.
But a person who tattooed himself for decoration could be ordained with no offence.
It would be a problem if a bhikku tattooed himself.
Buddhism is about forgiving and accepting. If one tatoos after ordaining this is IMO definitely unacceptable. But those who have got them already for whatever reason should not be banned for that reason.
The Buddha himself proved this fact by allowing a woman who had ordained without realizing that she was already pregnant to continue as a bhikkhuni even though Devadatta wanted to expel her. She gave birth to a son who later became arhant Kumar Kassapa.
Quite a few Thai monks have tattoos, usually discreet, but sometimes not! In our local Monastery even some of the paintings of famous monks display small Sak Yan tattoos on their arms. Of course that doesn’t make tattoos (or amulets) an Early Buddhist thing…
Buddha is always flexible about vinaya rules. There are many occasions where the buddha allowed monks to override monastic rules. For an example at first if a bhikku recieved an extra robe he cannot keep it. Then he allowed it to keep upto ten days. However, according to final ruling a bhikku cankeep an extra robe any longer after vikappana vinaya kamma, which is so simple one, but he cannot use it without determination (adhittana).
In the case of tattoos::
Having a tattoo does not make anyone incapable of achieving nibbāna. Therefore rdaining a person with a tattoo is not a problem and it is forgiving and kind.
I have seen bhikkus who show off their tattoos. A person who has a tattoo shuold try his best to cover it up. As long as he is to achieve nibbāna after ordaination he should not have any bonding with tattoos ( his past mistakes).
Eventhough having a tattoo might not be a problem in some countries, there are places people get judged by them. So the person with a tattoo should try his best to remove it before ordaination. Sometimes there are cases removing is unaffordable, and causes serious damage to the skin. In those cases he can ordain with the tattoo but he has to use robes to cover it up in front of the lay people. He can use a “kandupaticcadaka” according to monastic rule. I have seen bhikkus who always try this way. I met a bhikku who tried to remove hs tattoos and got overgrown (small bumps on the skin) skin due to failed plastic surgery, then he ordained anyway. Eventhough he has tattoos allover his body most people even fellow bhikkus don’t know that he has tattoos. I believe one with tattoos should have that effort.
At least in Thailand, you will see monks with tattoos, so it is not uncommon. I have never heard that someone with a tattoo is not permitted to ordain, and I don’t believe that having a tattoo is a “branding” suggesting that someone is ineligible for ordination. See Ordination | The Buddhist Monastic Code, Volumes I & II
(b) A person who has been branded or tattooed as a punishment. Again, the applicant may be ordained after the wounds have healed as long as they don’t show when he is fully robed with his right shoulder open. The texts mention tattooing only in the context of punishment, so it would seem reasonable to assume that applicants who have voluntarily had themselves tattooed are not prohibited. Still, if tattoos visible when fully robed contain words or designs that are blatantly contrary to a bhikkhu’s ideals, it would be wise to have them removed.
The above is Ven. Thanissaro’s opinion re: the rules.
For a truly interesting example, I have visited a number of times Phra Khru Baa in the Chiang Rai region. He is a former Muay Thai champion, who left Muay Thai and ordained, and now is abbot of the Golden Horse Monastery.
Myself, after I disrobed as a samanera, one of the monks took me to a Shan village for a Shan Sak Yant tattoo. On my forearm is, in the Pali language in Shan script, a protection chant that translates close to *Buddham Saranam Gacchami, et al * The tattoo was done in the traditional way depicted in the video, above.
I’ve seen monastics with tattoos in Australia. Not necessarily appropriate ones either! They were gotten long before ordination and if they are on the left arm/shoulder are inevitably visible.
I have a tat that was done in the traditional way with a bamboo needle in Borneo. As it’s not related to the Dhamma I won’t be sharing it here. But just to mention that the guy who did it said that bamboo is less painful than modern steel needles. Thanks for sharing the video.
They are becoming more common in the sangha east and west every day.
To answer your original question, I am not aware of any mention at all of tattoos in the first four nikayas. Neither in the first 8 books of the KN. I can’t think of anything in the Dhammapada commentary stories, but I can’t be 100% sure about that. Anyway, some people wouldn’t consider that to be EBT.
I really like my father’s definition of tattoos (from a western perspective): A permanent reminder of temporary insanity.
Questions like this have come up in the sutta study group I am part of, and one I was part of in the past. I think westerners get pretty wrapped up in precepts and wondering about how “strict” things are or can be. I think this type of thinking is useless but I might be wrong. I have actually heard “practioners” lauding themselves for how austere they are in regard to precepts, or who lives a more austere lifestyle.
With all due respect, the only way one could abandon an existing tattoo would be to have it lasered off. Wouldn’t that also be an example of attachment to appearance, and therefore antithetical to the goal?
I have quite a few Buddhist tattoos on my fore arms. Not in anyway shape or form designed to show off or be cool, but to serve as personal practice reminders. For me, having the dharma chakra, the word “sati,” and a handful of tattoos relevant to my dominant practice of Soto Zen makes it hard to intentionally act in an unskillful manner… All I have to do is look down to be reminded of the Dhamma. My tattoo artist couldn’t understand why I wanted the characters to face me, and therefore be upside down to everybody else, until I explained that to him then again, I don’t intend to ordain.
I personally think, and others can chime in, that tattoos don’t fall into this category. People have been tattooing themselves for quite awhile. Way before people put much thought into “looking cool” or beautifying their body in general. Maybe the intention is what really sets the tone nowadays. If you get a tattoo to look “cooler” maybe that is more of an issue than the tattoo itself.
I have to also take issue with that definition, since I am 50 years old and didn’t get a tattoo until I was in my late 40s, and every tattoo I have received I have thought about for at least six months, my most important internal debate being what my true intention is for getting inked.
Obviously it’s a joke. And he was saying it long before CNN existed. By western perspective I meant that in the US and Canada, there is not a historic spiritual connection with tattooing that I am aware of. It was something you did after a night of drinking. Not the case now, of course.
I think in the west tattoos are more about personal identity and self constructed spirituality. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. There does seem to be a correlation between people likely to get a tattoo and someone who would go against the grain to become a monk. However this may be a passing thing as now tattoos are becoming ubiquitous.
No, it wouldn’t. To extend that argument you could say that shaving one’s head and wearing robes is attachment to appearance.