The arrival of spring means we’ll be seeing a lot more exposed skin on New York City’s streets, along with a fresh crop of attention-getting tattoos. None are more curious to me than those Sanskrit and Chinese characters showing up on the backs and biceps of so many young urbanites.
My fantasy is that some mischievous tattoo artists are etching nonsense onto the bodies of our grooviest millennials. I would love to see a lithesome young woman sashaying through Chinatown, neck tat in full display, only to have a native Mandarin point to the esoteric text and laugh out loud, “CHICKEN AND DUMPLINGS!”
Apparently, this inking of symbols from ancient cultures is a declaration that one is really serious about a spiritual path or devotional cause. But why not design the body art in English — a nice 24-point Times Roman that reads “God Loves Cow Pose” or “Bushwickers for Buddha”?
Maybe the profusion of foreign inkblots points to a larger issue: that in matters of spirit, Americans have an inferiority complex. We employ esoteric practices from countries and cultures we know nothing about, in languages we don’t understand, because if it’s old and unpronounceable we think it must be spiritually superior to anything we might find here at home.
I should know. I’ve jumped on my share of quasi-spiritual bandwagons over the years, particularly the exotic imports. In fact, I spent the better part of two decades on a well-intentioned, albeit rambling quest for meaning which, for me, meant looking East.
For a period in my early thirties, I sat cross-legged in an incense-laden meditation room in Chelsea, chanting in Sanskrit — the mother tongue of venerated mystics and advanced souls. I have no idea what I was intoning, but I was told the arcane language harmonized with the cosmos and aligned my chakras (chakra — another Eastern mystery on loan). It’s entirely possible that our wise guru was merely feeding us the litany of his morning wake-up routine: “I rise at six, sidaaaa, I clean my feet with a sponge, vedaaaa, I like sugar on my cereal, ramaaaa.”
Some years later, I arranged for a Feng Shui consultation in my apartment at the urging of a friend who insisted that the centuries-old, Chinese energy flow philosophy increased her professional billings three-fold. I hired an architect with a thriving Feng Shui practice on the side, and for $500 he told me to paint my walls “prosperity gold,” turn my desk to face south and place a small fountain by my front door. Within weeks I did notice a change in my prosperity — I had less of it, thanks to the $1500 hand-dyed rug that he suggested for the living room. I’m still waiting for the strategically placed, sage-scented candles to increase my yang and attract more yin.
My skepticism increased one summer Saturday in the ’90s when I journeyed to the Catskills to see an eminent Indian master. Apparently, this woman, who looked as serene as a snowy owl in photos, had the mystical power to banish my troubles with one wave of her sacred peacock feather.
I entered the ashram grounds with 1000 other earnest souls, chanted for two-and-half hours in the heat (Sanskrit again), and grew faint in the queue as I made my way toward the luminous master and her promised avian blessing. Just as I reached her shaded pedestal, ready to have her flick the flaws from my aura with her colorful plume, she turned away to ask one of her sidekicks about getting some lunch … and she missed my head entirely.
That got me thinking a lot about Indian Hindus or Chinese Buddhists and why they’re considered more enlightened than Jesuits from Jersey City or even atheists from Astoria? China has one of the most oppressive regimes on the planet and India still struggles with a racist caste system and misogynistic culture that has dehumanized generations. If these cultures are so evolved, why the glaring blind spots in the freedom and equality departments?
It took some blunt truth to finally shake me out of my fascination with the spiritual teachings of remote cultures. I was spending the weekend at a Massachusetts retreat led by a middle-aged Indian guru (who later fell from grace for tempting his female disciples with a more corporeal form of transcendence). One evening after he had given a three-hour lecture and meditation, a reception line of his faithfuls formed outside the temple room, where I was jockeying for position along with a cynical friend who I’d brought from the city. As the guru passed in a shower of rose petals, and his disciples peaked their hands together and bowed, my friend turned to me and said with a lopsided smile, “We all shit the same way.”
I think I’ll tattoo that on my forearm.