The Primordial Rigden Thangka
The Primordial Rigden thangka portrays the basic enlightened nature of all human beings, their basic goodness. The details of the painting are symbolic, each one pointing to an aspect of the view, the training, or the full realization of awakened mind.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche designed this thangka to be placed on public shrines in Shambhala Centres throughout the world. He was pointing to the unique spiritual inheritance of the Shambhala community - an inheritance that braids together the Buddhist lineages preserved by the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions in Tibet, practices of the Zen and other Chinese and Japanese traditions, with the specific wisdom the Buddha imparted to King Dawa Sangpo, the first sovereign of Shambhala.
This rich melding of traditions occurred first to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in a series of visions he received in the 1970s. Although Trungpa Rinpoche laid great emphasis on the integrity of each of the lineages he held, he also pointed out how the traditions supported and protected one another, and how they were ultimately inseparable. His eldest son and spiritual heir, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, worked closely with his father to receive this view, and has further developed the path as an effective means of spiritual practice in an overwhelmingly materialistic age. The Primordial Rigden thangka holds within its symbolism the essential points of that path.
The shrine in a Shambhala Centre is non-theistic: it is not used to worship something or someone external. Shrine pictures and objects function as reminders, and as provocations to awaken from the illusion of a small-minded, self-oriented life.
The Tibetan word rigden means “possessor of the family.” Usually the term refers to the historical-legendary kings of Shambhala. This image is not one of the historical rigdens, but is a portrait of their enlightened essence – which is our nature as well.
The Rigden Iconography
The Primordial Rigden sits in an attitude of royal ease: upright, open, alert and relaxed, a state of awareness beyond meditation and post-meditation. The robes and jewelry are richly elegant, and their colors signify the aspects of enlightenment. Wearing such clothing and accessories indicates that the Rigden has not renounced the phenomenal world, nor is he threatened by it. The Rigden rules the world of sensation, rather than being trapped in it.
The Rigden’s hands form the mudra “turning the dharma wheel” (dharmachakramudra, Skt.) The dharmachakra dates from the earliest representations of the Buddha and refers to his first teachings at Deer Park. In his life, the Buddha initiated three major revolutions of the dharma wheel. The mudra thus also implies the continually evolving, up-to-date nature of the teachings.
The Rigden’s throne is supported by snow lions. Tigers, dragons and a garuda (the celestial hawk of India) also make their appearances in the thangka. Taken together as a group – tiger, lion, garuda, dragon – the animals are known as the “Four Dignities” of Shambhala warriorship. They represent sequential stages of training and accomplishment: meek, perky, outrageous and inscrutable. The garuda above the Rigden’s head stands for a vast view, the ultimate view, like an eagle commands. The text on the banner reads “Profound, Brilliant, Just, Powerful, All-Victorious.” This list comprises the traditional qualities of a Sakyong.
At the top of the painting sits Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. Although he chose a humble presentation for himself and his sangha, the Buddha fits perfectly in a picture of enlightened rulership. He was of royal birth, and had many kings and queens among his friends, followers and patrons. The Buddha predicted that in the future dark age – (many believe we are now living in that age) – the teachings of Shambhala and the rigdens would appear, to rejuvenate the practice of wisdom and compassion. It is thus in his role as founder and source of the transmission that the Buddha appears at the highest point in the painting.
The Making of the Rigden Thangka
The creation of the Primordial Rigden thangka took place during many SMR_cythniamonths of collaboration between Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and artist Cynthia Moku. Ms Moku also worked together with master printer Ira Bartell of Atelier 28 in Cologne, on the initial reproductions. The execution of the Primordial Rigden thangka was captured on film by a team of videographers and edited into a brilliant short film - Realizing Confidence - by film-maker Johanna Lunn Montgomery, with assistance from the Sakyong’s brother, Gesar Mukpo.