Is the Dharma Wheel a commonly recognized Buddhist symbol?
June 2, 2007 12:42 PM   Subscribe

Non-Buddhists: Would you recognize the Dharma wheel as a Buddhist symbol?

I'm a Buddhist, and I'm considering getting a tattoo of a Dharma wheel on my left forearm. My girlfriend, however, thinks that I'm overestimating American society's knowledge of Buddhist symbolism. She insists that the symbol looks nautical, and the average person would not know what a Dharma wheel was or how it was related to Buddhism. She thinks people will see the tattoo and ask if I'm in the Navy.

So, my question: if you're not a Buddhist, would you recognize a simple Dharma wheel (Wikipedia image here, Google image results for "Dharma wheel" here) as a Buddhist symbol? Do you think the average person would see it as a nautical (or other) symbol?

Note: I don't really care whether other people recognize the tattoo or not, as I'm not getting it for other people, I'm getting it for me. But it will be the first tattoo I've gotten that's in a very visible spot, so that's why my girlfriend is concerned. She thinks it'll get irritating having to explain it all the time.
posted by aebaxter to Society & Culture (53 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not a budhist and I'm thinking (a) ships, and (b) Trivial Pursuit.
posted by humblepigeon at 12:49 PM on June 2, 2007

I am a non-Buddhist American, and it looks to me like a steering wheel on a ship. I don't think Americans would perceive it as Buddhist unless they happened to be unusually well-informed about Buddhism.

On preview, it does look like someone is playing Trivial Pursuit in the middle of a ship steering wheel.
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:52 PM on June 2, 2007

well... i know what it is, but i know a little about non-western religions.

where do you live? i have to assume that in larger cities more people will know what this is.
posted by joeblough at 12:53 PM on June 2, 2007

I'm not a Buddhist and I would definitely recognize it as a Buddhist symbol. I can't tell you why, but it's almost the first thing that springs to mind when I think of Buddhists...
posted by ob at 12:54 PM on June 2, 2007

I'm not Buddhist and I definitely wouldn't recognize it as a Buddhist symbol. The first thing that came to mind was actually the symbol of the Galactic Empire from Star Wars.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:56 PM on June 2, 2007

I'm not a Buddhist, but I'd recognize a simple Dharma wheel.

That said, I've also got forearm tattoos, and they're of the variety that you have to explain all the time. I kinda dig that--it's a chance to talk, briefly and clearly, to a wide range of people, something that's important to me (or, alternately, to break 'em off a big chunk of bullshit--but hey, tom-ay-to tom-ah-to, right?) But if you don't enjoy having these kinds of discussions (which, usually, don't have to be much longer than 'It's a Buddhist symbol') perhaps you should consider either a different location or a more strictly representational design.
posted by box at 12:59 PM on June 2, 2007

...people, about something...
posted by box at 12:59 PM on June 2, 2007

Heck, I live near a Buddhist temple and if I saw that tattoo, the first thought that's occur to me would be: "Well, at least your shipmates didn't pay that Bangkok tattoo artist to ink propellers on your ass while you were passed-out drunk."

Yer girlfriend's right.
posted by RavinDave at 1:03 PM on June 2, 2007

on first glance, i would think it was a ship's wheel. some of the more decorative designs i saw in the google search would make it seem less so.

perhaps you could incorporate some snippet of buddhist text (although "om" is probably way overdone at this point) either into the design or above/below it, which would also help.

but i think as long as it's pretty and represents what you want it to, go for it. yes, you might have to explain it. i wear a piece of jewelry depicting a religious symbol everyone thinks is a tulip. it takes about 5 seconds to explain and i don't find it any more annoying than having to spell my slightly unusual last name.
posted by thinkingwoman at 1:05 PM on June 2, 2007

The only Buddhist symbol that the average person would recognize is Buddha.

Google Image Search for ships's wheel which looks almost the same as the one for "dharma wheel".
posted by smackfu at 1:08 PM on June 2, 2007

I'd choose a different symbol than the wheel of dharma. There's plenty of other iconic images in Buddhism, although most aren't simple or symmetrical. If you're going to go with the wheel, though, find one that's stylized enough it won't look like a ship's wheel. IIRC Indian ones have 24 spokes (look at the flag). Also, having some drawing in the hub, or stylized edges and tips will help indicate that its not just a steering wheel.
posted by devilsbrigade at 1:11 PM on June 2, 2007

You could make it the most un-nautical looking Dharma wheel possible and most people will still ask you what it is. Most people have never even heard of the term "Dharma" outside of "Dharma and Greg" and "The Dharma Initiative."
posted by frogan at 1:14 PM on June 2, 2007

I'm a pretty Buddhism-aware American non-Buddhist, and I would not recognize that as a Buddhist symbol. I would also not associate it with the Navy: I would think of it as some sort of symbol I'm not acquainted with. Navy tattoos look like military tattoos, you know, they have anchors and eagles and initials on them.

Explaining it doesn't seem like it should be that big of a deal. "It's a Buddhist symbol called the Dharma Wheel." This might inspire questions about your beliefs, but if you want to avoid that, you know, you should probably not get a visible tattoo of the Dharma Wheel.
posted by nanojath at 1:16 PM on June 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

It would depend on the design of it for me: this looks like a ship's wheel; whereas this I would probably pick up on as being Buddhist.
posted by frobozz at 1:28 PM on June 2, 2007

So then the Buddhist says, "Aye, it's drivin' me nuts."

Which is to say, no, I would not recognize it as a Buddhist symbol. Yes, I would assume you liked boats. No, I would not ask you about it.
posted by Partial Law at 1:30 PM on June 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

I would recognise it, the vast majority of Americans wouldn't.

I find it fascinating that India is a secular state with a supposedly secular flag, yet they would choose such a religious symbol to put in the centre of it.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 1:38 PM on June 2, 2007

I was born in Thailand and I've lived in several East Asian countries where Buddhism is prominent and I had never heard of the "dharma wheel" until just now. I would not recognize the symbol.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 1:39 PM on June 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

it's a ship's wheel. no, i wouldn't assume you were in the navy, but master of your own vessel, navy people have their own tattoos. if you were a pretty lady, i might say

i c u r a sailor

otherwise, i'd remain stfu.
posted by bruce at 1:42 PM on June 2, 2007

She thinks it'll get irritating having to explain it all the time.

Only if you're clinging to the idea that people should recognize it!
posted by mendel at 1:43 PM on June 2, 2007

I should add: my tattoos are fairly easy to comprehend symbols, and yet I still explain them all the time. Even when people know what something means in general, they often wonder what it means to you, and especially why it means to much to you that you would pay someone money and endure physical pain in order to have it permanently etched into your flesh.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:06 PM on June 2, 2007

Well, I know what a Dharma wheel is, but that is not what comes to mind when I see the Wikipedia image. Many of the Google images would be more apparent, but like others have said, if your tattoo is visible, people will ask you what it is, so if you're not cool with that, get it someplace else.
posted by Rock Steady at 2:15 PM on June 2, 2007

one more vote for i would not know what to make of the very geometric one but would probably recognize a more decorative/tibetan looking one. but i think i am extremely informed about world religions for a non-buddhist, so i also agree that most americans would have no idea. still, even if it was ambiguous, a fancier one would look less nautical for sure.
posted by lgyre at 2:19 PM on June 2, 2007

I always thought of myself as pretty hip to Buddhism and still that symbol doesn't say "Buddhist" to me; like your girlfriend said, it reminds me of a ship's wheel. So I'd say it's probably the same for most Americans, at least in the northeastern U.S.
posted by Opposite George at 2:26 PM on June 2, 2007

I am not dumb, and I do not recognize this symbol. Honestly, I would assume that you got it because it was pleasant-looking.
posted by unknowncommand at 2:27 PM on June 2, 2007

I'm not a Buddhist, but I spent time in a Buddhist country (Thailand) plus done some reading on comparative religions- and I can confidently say I have never even noticed that symbol before, much less connected it to Buddhism.
posted by konolia at 2:36 PM on June 2, 2007

I'd recognize it, but probably only because I minored in Art History.
posted by trip and a half at 3:14 PM on June 2, 2007

Looks nautical.
posted by rxrfrx at 3:18 PM on June 2, 2007

I would say I have a higher than average knowledge of various religions compared to most Americans and I would not connect that with Buddhism. If you told me it was a Dharma wheel, I would think of "Lost"
posted by jpdoane at 3:18 PM on June 2, 2007

Yes I would, but I researched Buddhism once.
posted by Jimbob at 3:31 PM on June 2, 2007

Never seen it before.
posted by fiercecupcake at 3:41 PM on June 2, 2007

I'd probably buy you a beer and sigh: "Ya, I miss Gilligan's Island too."
posted by RavinDave at 3:45 PM on June 2, 2007

Dharma? Isn't that what My Name is Earl is about?

I'd recognize it, but the symbol is ambiguous.
posted by klangklangston at 3:51 PM on June 2, 2007

I consider myself more Buddhist than anything else but still I would not recognize the stark simple version as a Dharma Wheel. Yep, it looks like the steering wheel of a ship. Some of the more embellished versions, that don't look like a steering wheel, I would recognize. Girlfriend is right, you'll have to explain it.

Do it anyway. My only tattoo is "barbed wire (without the barbs)" around my left ankle. To me it is Yin and Yang dancing around each other and occasionally combining only to dissolve back into the eternal dance. But to everybody else, it's barbed wire without the barbs. I always think that tattoos are for you, not everybody else.
posted by zengargoyle at 4:08 PM on June 2, 2007

guy picciotto from fugazi has the dharma wheel tattoo'd on his left shoulder.

i bet people don't ask him if that means he's a sailor.
posted by Hat Maui at 4:34 PM on June 2, 2007

My answer depends heavily on which version of the image you use.

If your question hadn't primed me by naming the Wikipedia image, I suspect I would've thought "ship's wheel," not "dharma wheel." The spoke endings jutting out and the sparity of line give it a very nautical look when presented without context. The Google search shows several images, some simpler and some more elaborate, that I would quickly identify as dharma wheels.

I'm a non-Buddhist from the U.S. who has studied Buddhist art enough to incorporate some of the terminology into my everyday lexicon. (A friend and I have a very dumb running joke about mudras, which might give you a notion of my decidedly non-expert knowledge level.)
posted by Elsa at 4:41 PM on June 2, 2007

What about the version (from your Google search) that appears on the roofs of monasteries a lot? The addition of the deer, who I believe are hearing the World Honoured One first discourse on the marvellous Dharma, might get your feet back on dry land, plus the wheel itself has the added frame and lotus seat.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the vajra or dorje, either single or crossed, might be another option, but I bet you've thought of that.
posted by Abiezer at 5:25 PM on June 2, 2007

If you get this tattoo, prepare to get very tired of explaining that you're not a sailor.

Why not get a thanka as a large back piece? You're going to have this for the rest of your life. Go for powerful beauty that will make people saw 'Whoa!,' and not a cryptic symbol that will make people say, 'Huh?'
posted by mullingitover at 5:29 PM on June 2, 2007

If we're allowed to make full-body suggestions, you can't beat a Thai temple tattoo. You could probably look around there for individual elements if you don't want to go the whole hog.
posted by Abiezer at 6:00 PM on June 2, 2007

I wouldn't recognize that as a buddhist symbol at all.

Beware hard-to-recognize tattoos that also carry an important meaning for you. A friend of mine copied her grandfather's shoulder tattoo of an eagle's wing, to commemorate his memory. (I beleive his tattoo had something to do with patriotism or war service or some other fairly meaningful concept.) Too bad for her then, that for the rest of her life people are going to ask her why she has a tattoo of fish scales on her upper arm. D'oh!
posted by Kololo at 6:15 PM on June 2, 2007

I would not recognize it. I'd think nautical or the Rotary club.
posted by DrJJ at 6:25 PM on June 2, 2007

While I'm somewhat familiar with Buddhist symbolism, I would probably still read that as a ship's steering wheel first. Failing that, the chaosphere, which would still mean associating it with chaos magick before Buddhism. I suspect that's a derived symbol, though.

There are probably more distinct Buddhist symbols, albeit ones specific to the different schools. Perhaps a lotus may be less ambiguous? Or, seconding Abiezer.
posted by trouserbat at 6:36 PM on June 2, 2007

there is a reason that you will never see a tibetan with such a tattoo. it's offensive to put a sacred object on a body.... which is considered to be dirty.

have a good think about why you want to do this.

... married to a tibetan...
posted by taff at 7:34 PM on June 2, 2007

I've dabbled in Buddhism for years but still wouldn't really recognize it (I'm not proud to say). I've seen it before, but I guess I'd only recognize it in proper context, as it definitely does look like a ship's steering wheel.

I've always thought of going with a (particularly Buddhist-looking) mandala for a new tattoo.

But if you're set on a dharma wheel, you could go with one of the more ornate ones, like on this page. (Just for instance. There were other ornate ones on the google images link.)
posted by iguanapolitico at 7:36 PM on June 2, 2007

Nope and I'd probably guess hindu (unless it had a yingyang in the middle)
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:25 PM on June 2, 2007

I might recognize it, but more importantly, I have an anchor and a ship and a nautical star and a mermaid and some other clearly more "nautical" stuff tattooed on me and no one has ever asked me if I was a sailor. So, while i bet many people won't recognize it, I really doubt you'll have people trying to find out what ship you're on.
posted by teishu at 9:24 PM on June 2, 2007

I've read a lot about Buddhism over the years, and I've never seen that symbol before. I'd assume it was nautical in nature. Is this symbol regional?
posted by lekvar at 10:35 PM on June 2, 2007

IANAB (IANAnAmerican either for that matter) but I do have an interest in Buddhism.

The tattoo would appear to be nautical to me in spite of this interest in Buddhism.

The only question I'd be asking is "Why have you defaced your body?"
posted by Lionel d'Lion at 1:40 AM on June 3, 2007

Looks like a ship's wheel to me.

I am not a Buddhist.

I am a pirate.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:51 AM on June 3, 2007

Seconding jpdoane's comment about "Lost." Have you thought about one of these? No wait I meant one of these...It's a dharma wheel, but without the spokes moving outwards. It's common for Japanese buddhist symbols to be more like this than Indian (what you linked).

I'd also consider the Ohm symbol even though closesr to Hinduism.
posted by samsara at 8:20 AM on June 3, 2007

I think it will all depend on the style of the design. The Wikipedia image is so pared-down and stripped of detail, which makes it ambiguous. But as some of the links in other comments show, it's possible to draw a Dharma Wheel in a more traditional style, such as Tibetan (I liked this one from another comment above) that may not make it clearly Buddhist to an un-knowledgeable person, but at least makes it clearly not nautical.
posted by dnash at 10:06 AM on June 3, 2007

Another former resident of Thailand here who would not recognize it. Your girlfriend is definitely right that hardly anyone will know what it is; only you can decide whether that's a deterrent for you. (If you're a serious Buddhist, you might want to consider what taff says about sacred items on the body.)
posted by languagehat at 10:38 AM on June 3, 2007

I've traveled in several buddhist countries and regions (including Thailand and Tibetan areas of India and Nepal) would not have recognized it.
posted by lunasol at 11:58 AM on June 3, 2007

I am a Buddhist, and I sometimes wear a ring with an Om symbol and almost no one knows what it is. I suspect the Dharma wheel would be even less recognizable. Most non-Buddhists I've talked to about Buddhism confuse HoTei with Gautama Buddha.

Btw, if you're going to get the Dharma wheel, and you're okay with explaining the symbolism, make sure you've memorized the 8fold path. :P
posted by desjardins at 1:18 PM on June 4, 2007

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