Lineage and Costume

from a teaching given in 2001

by Ngala ’ö-Dzin Tridral

The gö-kar chang-lo’i dé (gos dKar lCang lo’i sDe) is the Lineage of Ordained non-monastic practitioners. Gö-kar chang-lo’i dé literally means white skirt, long hair, emphasising the importance of outward appearance. Today I am going to talk about some aspects of costume.

Firstly, though I wanted to say something about costume and lineage. You can’t help but notice that there have been one or two football matches lately. Costume is important. If the players just turned up in whatever they fancied, it would make things difficult – they wouldn’t be able to tell who was on which side. So this is an important thing – recognition. If you’re belting the ball up the field, you want to get it to someone on your side, so you’re going to be looking for a particular coloured shirt. For the team members there’s a sense of belonging and commonality of purpose, a shared goal, you might say.

The costume advertises the team, and people wanting to be associated with the team will wear the colours also. Then finally there is the power of the tradition itself. Players have spoken of how proud they feel to pull on the shirt of their country – as worn by Bobby Moore or Bobby Charlton.

The lineage is something that is bigger than the individual. It has its history and tradition. It can be an inspiration just to wear the costume of the lineage and know that you are a representative – regardless of whether you play centre-forward or goalkeeper, or are just sitting on the substitutes bench.

So I would like to talk about the strip that we pull on when we play, as it contains a veritable arsenal of symbolism.


The white shamthab is a symbol of chö-ku (Dharmakaya).

The white undyed cotton is a symbol of the unaltered nature of mind. The idea is that all we have to do is ‘leave it unchanged’. Leave mind unaltered – and kadag, primal purity, is there. The idea of primal purity is like that of ‘virgin snow’ or ‘virgin forest’ – untouched and left as it is. Allow mind to relax into its own nature.

The pleats at the front and back are symbolic of the indivisibility of sacred and secular. This is connected with integration. The fact that we are ordained practitioners but we live the lives of family people. The sacred and the secular are intertwined in our lives. There is no sense of separation.

The doubled bands at the top and bottom of the shamthab are symbolic of the indivisibility of samsara and nirvana. Samsara and Nirvana are not different. The difference is in approach and attitude. We make samsara with our view. We make nirvana with our view. We also discover the union of samsara and nirvana in our view.

The six panels are the six levels of Tantra – the three Outer Tantras (Kriyatantra, Upatantra or Caryatantra and Yogatantra) and the three Inner Tantras (Mahayoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga).

The skirt is supposed to be made from the shroud of a leper – the vilest item of clothing imaginable. It is a symbol that every aspect of reality is intrinsically pure.


The ngak’phang Zen is a symbol of long-ku (Sambhogakaya).

It is primarily red, white and blue, but it contains threads of green and yellow displaying the colours of the visionary sphere.

The three sections of the Zen symbolises the Tantric refuge – the three roots of Tantra – Lama, yidam and khandro/pawo.

The colours red, white and blue of the shawl represent the solar, lunar and central channels.

The thin stripes represent the secret refuge of rTsa, rLung and thig-lé.

The red and white panels represent the male and female aspects of the path; form and emptiness; spacious passion and passionate space.

The blue central stripe represents Dzogchen Trek gÇod and the fringes Dzogchen togal.

The sets of three stripes represent the three series of Dzogchen: Dzogchen Sem-dé, Dzogchen Long-dé and Dzogchen Men-ngag-dé.

The shawl is made of silk as a symbol of long-ku – the body of enjoyment and body of communication. The silk Zen represents the communication inherent in touch. It is communicative appreciation or enjoyment which is known as compassion.


The to-nga or waistcoat is a symbol of trülku (Nirmanakaya).

For ngakmas and ngakpas it is primarily red with white panels and a blue lining, and usually contains threads of green and yellow displaying the physical manifestation of the elements.

Red is the colour of energy. It was the colour advised by Padmasambhava and Yeshé Tsogyel.

The cross-over collar represents the fangs of Shin-jé – the Lord of Death – showing that we are always in the jaws of death.

The threefold pleating of the collar represents the three series of Dzogchen.

The flaps on the armholes are known as the elephant’s ears and represent memory.

The triple piping in red white and blue on the elephant’s ears is unique to the Aro gTér and represent the solar, lunar and central channels and the secret refuge of rTsa, rLung and thig-lé.

The red and white of the to-nga represent the female and male aspects of the path.

The blue lining represents Dzogchen.

For naljormas and naljorpas the to-nga is primarily blue with red edging. The blue is the colour of the cuckoo, which heralds spring as Ati yoga heralds the birth of the enlightened state.