Reading Skin On Bodies Of Faith

“And the Word became flesh.” This well-known biblical passage conveys not only a central Christian belief, but also underpins wider notions of skin and self. Body markings establish codes of religious and cultural coherence, and the human body has been slashed, pierced, burned and branded in order to express spiritual states.

Through the exercise of strict physical dominion over the body, one cultivates or disciplines the spirit. Interestingly, those who commit physical abuse may share a similar intent, but if done in the name of religion or culture, such practices are given respect and even celebrated instead of condemned. The mutilation of a child’s genitalia, for example, may be viewed as child abuse in one context, but the righteous sign of a covenant with god in another.

The Buddha had special markings on his body at birth; Christ at death. In contemporary society, too, the skin is used to reveal bodies of faith. Jews and Muslims are circumcised; many Christians and Hindus mark their foreheads with ash and powder during special occasions. The relationship between flesh and spirit also is clear to followers of Mahikari, a new Japanese religion, with branches in Waikele and Waikiki, where boils and skin disease are understood as the product of spiritual toxins. Through a form of exorcism, one can then remove the spiritual pollutants and remedy skin conditions as a result.

At the Jade Buddha temple in Kapahulu, Yin Jue, a humble and unassuming Buddhist nun, has taken the bold step of burning incense into the front of her shaved head. The painful ritual lasts about five minutes, but the burning is made bearable by calling on the name of Sakyamuni Buddha. The incense marks burned into the scalps of Buddhist monks and nuns transform their entire bodies into sticks of incense. Their lives are offerings to the gods. Like the biblical prophet Isaiah, who had hot coals sear his lips, Yin Jue’s faith is burned into her skin.

The prevalence of body piercings and tattoos in popular culture has noticeably increased over the past 20 years, and it has reached the point where it is commonplace. For many, tattoos and body piercings are simply the result of getting caught up in the latest fashion trend. Ironically, attempts to be unique have simply rendered those with tattoos boring and ordinary. For others, however, body-modification practices have meanings that are more than skin deep. Piercings and tattoos bring the internal image of the self closer to the external image. This is clear on college campuses in Hawaii, where ethnic-derived tattoos are increasingly popular. From tattoos that feature baybayin/alibata — an ancient Filipino writing system — to kanji (Chinese written characters), to Polynesian symbols, the markings help maintain ethnic identity.

Scars speak and tell who we are and what we mean. Battle scars from war and sports injuries, surgical ones from illness, accidents and disease speak to the strength and weakness of our bodies. Some students tell me that their tattoos and piercings provide an intimate glimpse to an inner self. Indeed, people pierce their tongues and lips, eyebrows, noses, ears, navels and genitals, at points that allow passage between the physical world and the spiritual body. This is appealing to those who are increasingly dissatisfied with the apparent spiritual desolation of modern society or who view the risks and demands of modernity as overly stressful and empty of meaning. The skin, then, protects and exposes our sense of self and functions as a bearer of meaning.

The skin is open to being read. We show ourselves in and on our skin, some through circumcision and incense marks, tattoos and body piercings; others by way of dieting and plastic surgery. Through such body-modification practices, the skin becomes text, the body a language and the Flesh becomes Word.