Buddhist Tattoos, Cultural Difference, and the Internet /// A Brief Musing for Musers

Let’s look again at the story of Antony Ratcliffe who was booted from Sri Lanka for having a tattoo of the Buddha’s head on his arm.

First, let’s set aside the idea that no two things are ever the same, that you can’t step into the same river twice (or even once), and that the Buddha you see is not the Buddha. All fantastic stuff, but not my concern today. For, even though Ratcliffe’s tattoo of the Buddha is in no way the Buddha, or arguably even an image representing the Buddha, there are people, including Ratcliffe, who believe that the particular arrangement of colors and lines on his arm represents something familiar and more or less sacred.


What interests me most about this little foible in the South East is not whether Ratcliffe’s getting a tattoo of the Buddha’s head is somehow culturally insensitive, or whether or not Sri Lanka is overflowing with hyper-sensitive power-centralizing Buddhists. What I’m interested in is how utterly balked either “side” was in relation to the “Other.” It’s the slip, the misconnection, the fact(?) that (at least judging from the short article) both cultures had no idea where the other was coming from.

The choice of language in the short piece emphasizes this slippage. Ratcliffe talks of being “shocked,” “upset,” and having his time “wasted.” When accused of being disrespectful of the Buddha he had to tell his “side of the story.” Comparatively, the police and guards responded by looking at his arm and “shaking their heads.” The chief officer attempted to silence Ratcliffe by repeatedly telling him to “shut up.”

And yet, how could it be that two cultures so “connected” by the technologies of modernity could still have no idea how the other could be so inappropriate?

Fortunately for our readers, there has yet to be a place suitable on this site for me to pontificate about the internet and what I believe to be its false sense of connectivity. So, in keeping with that boon, I’ll keep it brief here. I am of the opinion that the internet has presented us with a false sense of “knowing.” People have bought into the idea that they are truly more “connected” than ever before, because they can buy a pillow from Thailand with the click of a button, or read the tweets of some thirteen-year-old in Burkina Faso. But, what do they really know of the Other? What Understanding has lead to Knowledge and to Wisdom?

For many people is seems seeing the images of the Other leads to an assumption that the Other is looking back at them. There is an assumed recognition in the images. He sees me and I see him. I come across this sentiment time and time again when presented with much of what ends up on this site. Yoga practitioners tacking on indigenous identities to their Teacher Trainings because it feels right and they can. White girls wearing bindis for similar reasons. Truth be told, I’m not so interested in whether or not any of this is “OK.” I’m not a police officer/overseer. Bindis aren’t “my” cultural signifiers, and people in the West have more or less internalized Derrida’s “free play of signs and signifiers” without even knowing it, and it’s a culture as “valid” as any other. Not to mention, I’m a being “of the West.” My very nature is to be idolatrous, and I’m happy to play my part.

What I’m not happy with is watching how “shocked” Western people are when the culture being appropriated has an issue with their costume party. News Flash! That person in the pic on your Facebook page is not looking at you. He does not see you, your “Om” tattoo, or your woven Q’ero scarf. It would be of benefit to ask yourself a similar question: Do you see him?


  1. Garuda

    And the Rich Sikh woman who glows on about my abilities as a Yoga teacher is not any more or less valid because of her dark skin and Indian accent.
    Try as she may to get me to teach her rich friends in Rancho Santa Fe, the whole thing just reeked of rancid ghee and sandalwood. She didnt want me to teach my classes, she wanted to impress her rich friends with her trick pony yoga teacher. No thanks. You all can read about it in my new Yoga Teacher training manual “I Aint That Kind of Whore. [A Story as Old as Yoga Itself]”
    Whatever happened to Mr. Ratcliff, probably happened because he gave the immigration dude attitude. IDK but it seems that the Sri Lanka Television network has seemed to bypass this crime against humanity. I dont see TMZ hot on the trail of justice here either. Sayin.

    • I still think yoga rocks.

      Oh please. You should have taught her rich friends and charged them appropriately. Then, with that money you could offer scholarship classes to people who can’t afford it, Or cover yourself in those times when maybe you’re not making as much money. “Whore”? Really? Perhaps you’d like to choose another word. Or shall we deconstruct capitalism, value systems, slut-shaming, women’s labor, and faux spirituality, too, while we’re at it.

      • Jimbo

        “Or shall we deconstruct capitalism, value systems, slut-shaming, women’s labor, and faux spirituality, too, while we’re at it.”

        Isn’t that what the Babarazzi is all about in the first place?

      • Garuda

        Hey listen…thanks for Shoulding on me
        How you made this into misogyny defies all logic.
        Truth is, I never charge for my classes.
        The most profitable class I ever taught was in Dana Point. I attended a Yoga in the Park event that the teacher forgot to show up at. I offered my services. At the end,there was $175 in my hat. That was incredibly humbling to be honest and it taught me the value of being there at the right time
        Rich housewives who cant be bothered slumming in Encinitas to attend a yoga class think they can charm their way out of showing up. The facilitator was a student who routinely cancelled classes at the last minute without regret so yeah…NO
        I never said I wasnt a whore. I said I wasnt THAT kind of whore. I dont stand with a fist when it comes to principles but to abandon or displace principle to make a buck is greed. I am as interested in a buck as the next person but summing my yoga teaching on an adding machine just seems kinda slimy. Like petitioning God for the Lotto numbers.

        • Garuda

          Full disclosure: I have a ॐ Tattoo surrounded by a Sun. If that offends someone, I simply elplain that I was number ॐ when I played for the Solar Allstar Team.

  2. Thaddeus

    My suspicion here is that the irony of all this runs even deeper given that “we” are operating within a “culture” which predicates itself on self awareness and it is this awareness, or lack there of, about “ourselves” which is blinding us all the more to the gaze of the other. Talk about a snake biting its own tail…jeez.

  3. This is just a rhetorical question but why is it OK for Eurocentric-types to appropriate other cultures yet if another person of Eurocentric background speaks up and says cultural appropriation is not cool, no one calls Person 2 a racist and calm dialogue can proceed? Yet, if you are a member of a visible minority and speak up and say cultural appropriation is not cool (especially if it’s your own) all hell breaks loose and people start calling you a racist and someone “with issues against white people”.

  4. Yoga_Dude

    Dear Babs….

    The picture you have on the main blog page for this thread has been fixed up by a very compassionate and generous tattoo artist. The results are at the URL below….


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