How Not to Tattoo a Tibetan Mantra

I recently saw a woman in a coffee shop with om mani padme hum tattooed on her ankle (for more on this mantra, see my previous post here). There was nothing wrong with the tattoo, per se, but the placement is questionable. In many places in Asia the ground is considered dirty and ritually unclean. (This is especially true in India and Southeast Asia, but also applies in Tibet and other Buddhist areas.) Respected objects, therefore, are rarely placed on the ground, or even on low tables. Shrines and sacred images are often the highest objects in a room. The same applies to body parts, where anything below the waist is generally considered unclean or polluting. Particularly feet. Which makes feet not the best place to tattoo sacred symbols like the maṇi.

Feet are not the only inappropriate places to tattoo a respected religious symbol such as the maṇi mantra. The maṇi is about compassion, not sex (despite what you may have heard about the meaning of ’jewel in the lotus').

Some years ago in Nepal, I remember listening to one young woman ask a lama for help writing out the Kālacakra mantra, which she wanted to get tattooed on her foot. The lama explained that while it was fine to tattoo the mantra, she should get it done on another part of the body, preferably above the waist. Similarly, while Thailand has a long tradition of Buddhist tattooing (often performed by monks), the legs and feet are usually reserved for non-religious tattoos.

Of course, if you live in the US or Western Europe, you may not care too much about what Indian or Tibetan Buddhists consider inappropriate. But if you’re tattooing a Buddhist symbol, it seems like you should at least take note of how it would be traditionally used. So before you go and get that beautiful Tibetan mantra tattooed, it might be worth doing a little research into which body parts are, or are not, appropriate.

14 Replies to “How Not to Tattoo a Tibetan Mantra”

  1. Interesting topic. Never thought about the placement of these tattoos. Most of the ones I’ve seen are on the arm. Being Tibetan and Buddhist in some sorts, the thought never arose of the location of these mantras. Wish there was a Buddhist “fatwa”. Lol. Of course not.

  2. Hi there! I nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award…I’ve enjoyed learning about Tibet – very interesting 🙂

  3. While I certainly understand the sentiment behind this post, my initial reaction was that this seems like imposing western ideas about sexuality (it is somehow wrong, impure, unclean) onto eastern beliefs which often share no such hangups.

    In fact my understanding of eastern spiritual traditions tells me that sexuality was far more accepted, embraced even, as an important part of spiritual tradition. Even down to the symbology of it. Look at an eastern symbol like the yin-yang. Of course, this symbol goes far beyond the simple duality of sexuality, but it is clear that this concept is included. By contrast, the Jewish shekhina (hebrew, feminine) was stripped of all its female connotations when it became the Christian “holy spirit.”

    I could go on, but I’d rather not bore anyone. I hope you get the idea.

    1. I do get the idea, though I wonder if you may have missed mine. The idea of this post is to point out ‘eastern’ taboos to westerners: the idea that feet are unclean and not appropriate for sacred writing certainly does not come from the west. If you doubt this, look at the response to the depiction of the Buddha, the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist imagery on shoes. Note that the author of this article is a Tibetan. Further, most of the angry responses I saw on Facebook were written by Tibetans, rather than westerners. Clearly this taboo is not a western projection.

      As for the imposition of western ideas of sexuality onto eastern beliefs, I fear you may be glorifying the east a bit too much. While some aspects of elite religious practices in Tibet, for example, do indeed highlight sexuality as a pure act, this does not necessarily trickle down to more general understanding of sex, which remains a private and potentially polluting act (this is also true of the status of women more generally, on which subject you should read Kim Gutschow’s Being a Buddhist Nun, which should remove any idea that Tibetan culture treats men and women equally). You find, for instance, many prohibitions on various sexual practices in Patrül Rinpoché’s Words of My Perfect Teacher:

      Sexual misconduct also includes acts associated with particular persons, places and circumstances: masturbation; sexual relations with a person who is married, or committed to someone else; or with a person who is free, but in broad daylight, during observation of a one-day vow, during illness, distress, pregnancy, bereavement, menstruation, or recovery from child-birth; in a place where the physical representations of the Three Jewels are present; with one’s parents, other prohibited family members, or with a prepubescent child; in the mouth or anus, and so on. (p. 107 in the Padmakara Translation)

      So no masturbation, no adultery, no sex in broad daylight, in the same room as a shrine object, etc…

  4. Over at (, James Mark Shields has put up for free download (by members) a paper of his entitled “Sexuality, Exoticism, and Iconoclasm in the Media Age: The Strange Case of the Buddha Bikini.” I thought that might be apropos to the discussion. Buddhists have had a lot to say about the appropriate use of Buddhist icons (of Body, Speech and MInd). For example, you don’t hang thangkas depicting Buddhas on the back wall of the temple (because then they would be in back of you when you make your prostrations). I heard H.H. Himself criticize Tibetan monks for this. It’s not so much about the sexuality in the case of the Buddha Bikini, as it is about the need to keep the holiness of the icons. They need to be kept in positions of respect for excellent reasons that most (non-neo-Western) Buddhists would agree with most of the time.

  5. I like to ask only one think how come a budha has tatoo on his feet , swastika and other holy symbols ?when they so unclean…acording some….

    1. Thanks for a good question! In every traditional account that I’ve come across, these symbols are not tattoos, but naturally occurring marks. (There are usually said to be 32 major and 80 minor marks, though the list varies) The appearance of these marks proves that the bearer as someone extremely special. Only someone of the highest destiny has these marks on their body, and in some stories they seem to have served as proof of the Buddha’s status as a Buddha. In perhaps my favorite story, found in the Majjhima Nikāya a Brahmin comes to examine the Buddha’s marks to see if he is indeed a Buddha. He confirms all but one of the marks: an inverted penis. Being in polite society, the Buddha is wearing his monastic robe, so the Brahmin cannot attest to this final mark. Fortunately, the Buddha grants the Brahmin supernatural powers of sight, so that he can see through the robe and attest that the Buddha’s penis is, in fact, inverted. His questions answered, the Brahmin develops great faith. (See Nanamoli, Middle Length Discourses, p 751)

      So the answer to why the Buddha has tattoos of wheel on his feet is simple: he doesn’t. But he does have naturally occurring marks that prove he is a Buddha.

      At the same time, I would love to come across a tradition that claims these marks are tattoos. Seriously, that would be awesome. So if you can recall where, or in what context you heard this, please let us know!

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