First of all, I don’t have a tattoo. However, if and when I do get inked, this is what I envision.
On my left arm, I want to get an old woodcut of a phoenix rising from the flames. In fact, the specific image I want is this one:
To me, the phoenix means, among other things, “What goes around, comes around.” I think of that in terms of “karma” (at least the pop understanding of such) but also in terms of the fact that we tend (at least in our minds) to create the environment that we interact with. It’s a reminder that we’re part of what we’re reacting to, that we’re putting energy into situations, driving them, inventing them, influencing them, and that we need to understand and accept this non-duality if we are to live in alignment with reality (assuming that matters to us).
The phoenix also says, along with Heraclitus, “All is flux.” Everything is tipping over into chaos and emerging out of it. This idea is reinforced by the second tattoo I want, on the back of my neck, of a serpent (or dragon) eating it’s own tail like this one:
I’ve heard this referred to as a “symbol of chaos,” and that may be one reason it appeals to me. It reminds me that, although we think of chaos in terms of “disorder,” the pinnacle of disorder is actually the entropic equilibrium—also called “heat death”— towards which matter/energy thermodynamically flows.
True chaos, seen from this perspective, is not tumultuous change, but, rather, the unchanging. If reality is still shifting from one form to another, we have not yet achieved chaos. When, however, there is no longer any movement, any difference, any here or there, hot or cold, etc., then total chaos has been achieved.
I like that something so simple—a circle; a serpent eating its own tail—expresses something seen or conceived as incredibly complex (chaos). Furthermore, snakes are my totem animal.
This lion also reminds me of the Lion of Dharma. While I’m not sure what that phrase might mean to a practicing Buddhist, to me it refers both to those individuals who understand and propagate the Dharma with ferocity, as well as the uncompromising, inescapable ferocity of Dharma itself. Which in turn reminds me of a time when a friend of mine complained about the practice of sitting meditation, pointing out that the only creatures who sit perfectly still are predators (like lions).
Finally, the Lion of Judah also means, “Chant Down Babylon.” By this I’m thinking not only of protest songs or songs of prophecy—songs meant to bring an end to the reign of the wicked. I think also on the power of those who, like “an advancing tribe of wise men coming to take down Babylon once and for all,” speak the truth.
I’ve envisioned this set of tattoos for years now and yet this is as close as I have come to associating them with my body. Somehow, getting a tattoo means something to me, something that I’m not sure I want to mean. Specifically, it would mean, “I’m the kind of 48 year old guy who gets a tattoo.” And I have to ask myself if I am that kind of 48 year old guy.
On a deeper level, though, it would mean that I had a distinct, permanent view of myself and that this “view” could be expressed, in mortal perpetuity, via ink buried in my skin. This sort of committed statement about myself is exactly what I have avoided making throughout my adult life.
Still, to be fair to myself and my principles, such as they are, these tattoos would indeed express something that I have long believed: Reality is essentially fluid (like blood, like ink) but fundamentally stable (like our identity, our skin).
Moreover, to the extent that I have a coherent “view of the world,” it is revealed through these symbols. In the center you have unchanging chaos. On the left, you have the wild wheel of life, death and rebirth—the phoenix and the flames. On the right, you have the ordering principle, wisdom, righteousness, courage—the conquering lion.
Man, I should just do this….