Shrekisattva: Shrek is Compassion


Shrek characters in place of traditional Padmasambhava religious illustration

Shrek is love. Shrek is life. Shrek is compassion and kindness. 


Once upon a time near the beginning of this year, I started reading the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche*. It’s interesting to read about Tibetan Buddhist practices and stories, and it’s a well-written, easy to understand book. But what most intrigued me were three things:

  1. This line from the book, “Only by going over this book and reading it again and again, I suggest, can its many layers of meaning be revealed.” 🧅
  2. The concept that there is a Buddha within all of us and we need simply unpeel the layers.
  3. There’s a part in the book that suggests looking at an inspiring visual when meditating, such as the image of Padmasambhava. I looked up images of this practitioner. I came across this specific thangka of Padmasambhava via Thangka Mandala Buddhist Art Gallery and knew this had to be done. The holy image of Shrek (Padmashrekhava? Shrekisattva?) had to be made.+

This particular holy illustration is a reproduction (reincarnation?) of the one referenced above. I’ve never done anything so detailed and extensive before (not even the noodles from my Generalizasian and Frustrasian series were this intense). And I’ve never felt closer to having a religious experience until this piece. I’m not a Buddhist, and I’m not a fan of religion in general, so my intention is not to spread religion, but rather to encourage people to learn more about other cultures and beliefs (the good and bad).

On that note, I think it’s particularly important for me, as a Chinese person, to mention the brutal colonization of Tibet by the Chinese government and its people. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Tibet. Compared to visiting China, we didn’t have to worry about wearing our backpacks in front of us to avoid theft. In Tibet, the people were extremely kind (that’s not to say that all Tibetans are saints, but overall it was a completely different vibe than in overcrowded, cutthroat China). I felt that they fully embodied the compassionate spirit of Tibetan Buddhism. There were always huge crowds of people doing circumambulations around the temples. The temples themselves were extremely intimate and I have never felt religious awe (and a little fear, to be honest) until then. Some of the statues really felt like they were alive. But walking through the city, we saw several heavily armed Chinese government checkpoints. On the road to the capital city of Lhasa, the Chinese government was building a new residential area along with an amusement park. I had never thought about amusement parks and housing developments as extremely oppressive methods of colonization – methods to wipe out an entire community. Nowadays, in America, we see fancy housing developments doing exactly the same thing, except we are wiping out our own citizens (and veterans). You can help Tibetans by donating to Free Tibet. Or you can find a local unhoused organization or mutual aid organization, like NorCal Resist, which simply sees people struggling as people struggling and aims to help them in any way possible. 

Everyone has the Buddha potential, even people like Farquaad have the capacity to change. It may take lifetimes, but it can happen. There are problems with every organized religion, but what interests me most about Tibetan Buddhism is its hopefulness and determination to continually try to be better. I hope that you will look upon this image and feel the same.

+ For those who are not familiar with Shrek, it was and continues to be a popular animated film from the early 2000s about an ogre who goes on a mission to save a princess for the local tyrannical ruler, Lord Farquaad. Spoiler alert: Princess Fiona is cursed to be an ogre at night and ultimately chooses to stay in ogre form and live happily ever after with Shrek in his boggy swamp. There are references to onions in the movie and, well, you really have to watch it if you haven’t seen it. It is silly fun, but has become internet meme legend in the same inexplicable way other things have become internet memes. 

* Side note: I saw online that he passed away, but that some time before he passed away, he was also accused of sexual assault. I respect the writings, and I hope he will continue the path to betterment and enlightenment in any future lives. 

Additional thoughts about the illustration

There is a grey cloud among blue ones. I think this was an error on my part. It would be easy to fix. But the more I think about it, the more I like the presence of this imperfection. It bothers me personally. That’s because I am grasping at an unrealistic perfectionism. For me, this cloud represents the assessment of priorities. What is really important in this life? Who or what is it important for? 

I love the idea that everyone can reach enlightenment. Even if I may not personally believe in reincarnation or enlightenment, I like the concept that we can make positive change. I also like the concept that our actions have consequences and we must work to improve our understanding of those relationships. Fiona can be happy in her human form, and she can be happy in her ogre form. Farquaad can be happy as a tyrant, but to be a tyrant has consequences. 

This year, I started going to therapy. It’s a lot more helpful than I thought it would be. Now I have lots of tools to help me heal. One tool is the loving and kindness meditation. It’s a common Buddhist meditation. You direct love and kindness towards yourself, to someone you really love or respect, to someone you’re neutral about, and then to someone you might have very negative feelings towards. After that, you send love and kindness out towards something bigger, like all living things. It sounds mushy, but for me it’s pretty confrontational and aggressive (with myself). I have a wall tapestry print of this Shrek image, and when I look at it, I feel the love, kindness, and compassion directed towards myself, and out from myself to the world. I’m serious lol Shrek has become like a religious cult figure for my generation. With Shrek, anything is possible (and everything is absurd). I think this image also resonates with me because it is based on the image of Padmasambhava, but is more relatable to me (“A fictional ogre is more relatable to you?” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). 

Thanks to DreamWorks, William Steig, Vicky Jenson, Andrew Adamson, Mike Myers, and everyone else involved in the making of Shrek for inspiring a generation of memes. 

Additional notes

Here are a few key motifs of this illustration:

  • Shrek, the misanthropic ogre in the middle as Padmasambhava, reborn as Shrekisattva, sitting atop a blooming onion (the deep fried kind). The three blind mice are holding on to his staff, and Shrekisattva himself holds a forest mushroom in one hand and burns sage in another.
  • Donkey, self-declared and proven worthy as Shrek’s bff, at middle right. 
  • The Gingerbread Man, at middle left. There are some great characters in the film (satire on fairytales), but I especially love this one. He’s a hero among the people for the people (and fairytale creatures).
  • Puss in Boots at bottom left as a deity filled with vengeance.
  • Duloc castle at bottom right (Lord Farquaad’s sinister Facebook-esque residence).
  • Shrek’s swamp at bottom middle.
  • The tower where Fiona was kept prisoner, guarded by a dragon at top left (spoiler alert: The dragon is female and lives happily ever after with Donkey. Just two of their children can be seen swimming below Shrekisattva).
  • Princess Fiona in human form, also at top left.
  • Princess Fiona in ogre form at top right (the duality of human/ogre/female?), with children that appear in later sequels.
  • Lord Farquaad at top middle, proving that even the worst being can eventually strive towards enlightenment.