Shambhala Sun Tattoo

 By Brian Westbye

I got my third tattoo done earlier this month.

On my left pectoral, I got the Great Eastern Sun, the symbol of Shambhala Buddhism and the cover art of Chögyam Trungpa’s book Great Eastern Sun: The Wisdom of Shambhala.

As I’ve written before, I first picked up the book in 1999, when I was 26. I was immediately drawn to the symbol and I printed it off, thinking it would make for an awesome tat.

Of course, I knew I couldn’t get this symbol tattooed on my body without knowing what it was all about: I knew I had to Earn the Ink. But the timing wasn’t right.

I moved on, continuing on a self-destructive path. But I always meant to circle back around and start in on the book, and I always held on to the Great Eastern Sun print-off.

Just in case.

Over the past year plus, I’ve had plenty of occasion to read Great Eastern Sun and many other Buddhist tomes, and my life is dramatically better for it.

I’ve arrived at a place where I consider myself a fledgling Warrior, living with a Rising Sun mentality and purging the Setting Sun from my system.

The tattoo is still pretty raw, and it’s healing slowly. The tattoo carries extreme symbolism: the spirit of strength, healing and change.

And it is, if I do say so my damn self, pretty bad-ass. Just like me. (Insert cheesy 1980s sitcom “awwww” laugh track here.)

I was never the type who wanted to get an Ozzy tattoo on my fingers or Megadeth on my forearm from the kid in high school shop class who figured out how to become an ink master with a Bic pen and a lighter (skills that, I’m sure, would later prove invaluable while toiling in service of the state).

No, I always knew that was superficial. I had seen some really boss tattoos, and I was always intrigued. I figured if I was going to go all in like that, I wanted a tattoo that meant something. I wanted to Earn the Ink.

Getting a tattoo on the pectoral is a serious investment. Obviously it’s an investment in cash (for the best artists, like Danielle Madore at Sanctuary Tattoo, Portland, Maine) and time.

Not to mention, the short-term pain is an investment in long-term beauty and significance. So if you’re going to make those investments in yourself, you’d damn well better be investing in something meaningful.

I’ve had quite a few moments recently where I’ve seen how far I’ve come. My Maitri (unconditional friendliness toward myself) practice, as well as my Bodhicitta (awakened heart) practice are paying off. I’m seeing it in little fleeting glances here and there.

Composing my thoughts to a friend recently, I found myself thinking, “That’s hard to answer, because I don’t kick myself for mistakes I made years ago.”

Woah. Rewind.

“I don’t kick myself for mistakes I made years ago.” These words used to be my default position!

I blew a joke recently, and I moved on. Yes, I moved on.

Not long ago, I would have blown the joke and felt the searing embarrassment of all the eyes in the world boring in on my soul with laughter. I would have been convinced that I will forever be seen as that asshole who “thinks he’s funny.”

Now I realize that—surprise—people don’t spend much time thinking about these things, and I let it go. Realizing I was able to recognize and let go? Priceless.

My last tat, on my left arm, is the Ouroboros: a dragon or serpent eating its own tail. This tat is a symbol of perpetual reinvention, wholeness, and infinity.

I always had a streak of self-preservation and reinvention, and when I got this ink last April, I was starting on this path of Buddhist thought and practice. The Ouroboros became a great reminder for me to keep going.

And now the Great Eastern Sun.

The vision of the Great Eastern Sun is based on celebrating life. It is contrasted to the setting sun, the sun that is going down and dissolving into darkness.

Great Eastern Sun vision, on the other hand, is based on appreciating ourselves and appreciating our world, so it is a very gentle approach, as Chögyam Trungpa explained in his book, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior.

After years of self-deprecating thoughts, I presumed that the world saw me as such (I’m a little slow, but I think there may be a correlation there).

Now my life is dedicated to strength, healing and change. I uphold the Rising Sun mentality, the path of a true Warrior, one who strengthens the joy and goodness of self and others.

And if I happen to indulge in some symbolic ink, why not?

I’ve earned it.


Brian WestbyeBrian Westbye is a freelance writer with a passion for a great story. When not at the day job, he is feverishly working on writing his way out of the day job, penning Buddhish thought-painting at elephant journal, fiction, memoir and poetry at his blog; op-ed at and commercial copywriting. He can found on Facebook and Twitter. He is currently working on his first book, a memoir ode to the Great American Road Trip and the Great American Midlife Crisis. World Domination will follow.



Photo Credit: Courtesy of the author.

Editor: Jes Wright