Tibet. Treasures from the Roof of the World

On Thursday, 14 February I was lucky to visit a spectacular exhibition, one of the largest exhibitions in Italy in 2012, “Tibet. Treasures from the Roof of the World”, located  at Casa dei Carraresi in Treviso. The exhibition will continue until 2 June 2013, a unique opportunity to discover the culture, history, customs, art and the profound spirituality of Tibet a country that has always been shrouded in an aura of impenetrable mystery.

I was greatly impressed by the richness of displayed objects and detailed narration that decided to share some material with all those who are interested in the subject but cannot visit the exhibition personally.

The text highlighted in Italic quotes the original comments from the exhibition panels.

Like many peoples who remain isolated in their native environment for centuries without mixing significantly with other races, the Tibetan ethic group has remained homogeneous and pure. In the course of history, the Tibetans have felt the cultural influence of both India and China, entering into the orbit of the Chinese empire thanks largely to the conquests of Genghis Khan, and later, those of the Manchu emperor. The creation of the figure of the Dalai Lama in the Ming period strengthened relations with China due to the fact that Tibetan Buddhism was honoured and protected by the Chinese court. The Manchu dynasty of the Qing in order to reinforce links with Tibet, promoted the tantric Buddhism of the Yellow Hats sect (to which the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama still belong) as a state religion.  The languages of all four groups were used in drawing up official documents, and in inscriptions on important buildings and the palaces of the Forbidden City.

Tibet covers an area of 1.300.000 square kilometres, and with just over two million inhabitants, is sparsely populated. The endemic scarcity of population is partly due to the fact that in the past 30% of males followed the monastic life, and did not produce offspring. As a result, polygamy, and polyandry were common: a man, when he married, became the husband of all his wife’s sisters, and thus produced more children. In certain areas, the opposite occurred: a wife would take as husband all the men in the clan she married into, any of whom might become farther of her children, and true paternity would be impossible to determine.

BUDDHA

Amitabha ( front) and Akshobhya Buddha (background)
Amitabha ( front) and Akshobhya Buddha (background)

The Five Dhyani Buddhas are icons of Mahayana Buddhism. Each represents a different aspect of enlightened consciousness to aid in spiritual transformation. Amitabha Buddha  (statue on the front of the picture) is the “incommensurable” Buddha of “infinite light”, also knows as Amida, who possesses infinite merit through the good deeds performed during his numerous lives as a Bodhisattva. He lives in the Pure Land of the West and is shown with his hands clasped in his lap in a meditative pose. The Panchen Lana (who resides in the Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, and the second religious authority after the Dalai Lama) is considered to be his reincarnation with the Tibetan name of Opagme.

Akshobhya Buddha (background) is the “Immutable Buddha of the East” and represents the consciousness as an aspect of reality. Known as Mikyoba or Mitrukpa in Tibetian, he is one of the five cosmic Dhyani Buddhas of Meditation who represent five forms of divine wisdom, each being at the head of a family of seven Bodhisattvas. Akshobhya and the other four cosmic Buddhas are emanations of Adi Buddha, being the most elevated entity in the Buddhist pantheon.

Buddha Amitayus. The Buddha of Longevity
Buddha Amitayus. The Buddha of Longevity

Buddha Amitayus. The Buddha of Longevity, thanks to the quality of wisdom. The hands are held in attitude of meditation and hold a vase containing the nectar of immortality. In Tibet the figure often appears in ritualts for the prolonging of life and is given the name of Tsepame. In thangka he is often represented together with eight other Buddhas. The statues of Amitayus are often clothed in the robes of a Bodhisattva with the crown.

Mandkesvara, the “Happy Buddha”
Mandkesvara, the “Happy Buddha”

Mandkesvara, known universally as the “Happy Buddha” and as Yab-Yum in Tibetan  (literally “Father-Mother”), represents the male divinity in sexual union with his consort.Sexual symbolism is a central teaching in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. The use of erotic practices is seen as leading to Enlightenment through the symbolic union between the woman (representing wisdom) and the man *representing method). Their function is to make visible the union of the female and male energies present in every living being and to bring them together to reach perfect harmony.

CEREMONIAL OBJECTS

Mandala
Mandala

The mandala is an important object of contemplation in Tibetan Buddhism with a great many functions and meanings, the first of which is “container” (la) of “essence” (manda); it is made up of elements: a central body and four doors at the sides. In mandalas with a pyramid shape the central part represents the sacred Mount Meru (the axis of the world) of ancient Asian cosmology. The mandala can have many forms and is not necessarily an object; it may be simply a figure drawn on the ground in coloured sands, which are later blown away in a kind of ritual destruction of the ephemeral. It is also believed to be a symbol of the mind and body of Buddha, and is normally made up of circular base surmounted by square or other geometrical forms.

The Seven “Protections” of Buddhism
The Seven “Protections” of Buddhism

The Seven “Protections” of Buddhism belong to ceremonial objects that are places on the altar – exquisitely crafted in gold – of enormous artistic and intrinsic value. Seven “Protections” of Buddhism are known also as “seven jewels”. Respectively, they represent Military command, Horse, White elephant, Queen, Jewel, Wheel, and Government. They served to protect Tibet from the influence of demons and evil spirit.

Dharma chakra
Dharma chakra
Stupa in Pagoda Shape
Stupa in Pagoda Shape

Stupa. The most characteristic construction in Tibetan religious architecture, originating in India, where it is known as a stupa, it was the first funerary monument dedicated to the mortal remains of the Buddha, which were divided up into relicts after the cremation of his body. Over time, the stupa came to be used to contain the ashes of the holiest monks and other followers of Buddha, becoming a powerful symbol of the Buddhist faith. The five levels which make up a stupa reflect the four natural elements plus eternal space: the square base represents the earth, the cupola is water, the spire is fire, the moon and the sun at the top of the chorten are air and space, while the highest point represents “Enlightenment”. Chortens are used in all the monasteries of Tibet, while the most important are the Potala Palac and contain the mummified bodies of the Dalai Lamas.

Stupa in Pagoda Shape
Stupa in Pagoda Shape
Thangka “Glory of Sakyamuni”
Thangka “Glory of Sakyamuni”
Ceremonial tibias, Ritual Tantric object comprising two human tibias
Ceremonial tibias, Ritual Tantric object comprising two human tibias

Ceremonial tibias, Ritual Tantric object comprising two human tibias (usually of a holy monk, sometimes of a virgin girl who had died young) used as musical instruments in particular magic ceremonies.

Book of the Dead” (Bardo Thödol), a fascinating and mysterious 14th-century text recounting the phases and visions between death and rebirth
Book of the Dead” (Bardo Thödol), a fascinating and mysterious 14th-century text recounting the phases and visions between death and rebirth

An extremely rare example of the famous “Book of the Dead” (Bardo Thödol), a fascinating and mysterious 14th-century text recounting the phases and visions between death and rebirth, hand written on paper made from rags and vegetable fibre. The black background colour is derived from human bone burned during cremation, crushed in a mortar and mixed with juniper oil. The pearl white colour of the writing comes from pulverized bone which has not been burned once again mixed with juniper oil.

Damaru drum, made from a human skull
Damaru drum, made from a human skull

The Damaru drums, especially those made from human skulls, played an important role in Tantric ceremonies. A solemn rhythm was beaten with the hands and mingled with the beat of the Nga drum, hanging from its brightly painted wooden support, and the sound of the trumpets and shells blown with devotion by the monks; the complex sound of the instruments was the perfect accompaniment to the haunting chanting of the psalms and mantras.

“Cham” mask
“Cham” mask

Cham” masks are used exclusively by lamas during exorcism rituals in temple courtyards.

HISTORIC DOCUMENTS

The exhibition displayed many historic documents related to Tibet, one of them was “The Decree of the National Government Confirming the 14th Dalai Lama”, stating in Chinese:

The National Government decrees:

The Decree of the National Government Confirming the 14th Dalai Lama
The Decree of the National Government Confirming the 14th Dalai Lama

The Holy Child Lhamo Dongrub from Qinghai is profoundly intelligent and an extraordinary person. Now that the 13th incarnation of the Dalai Lama is no longer with us, the drawing of the lots is to be done away with and special approval is granted for you to become the 14th Dalai Lama. The Ministry of Finance, in line with instructions from the Executive Yuan, is allotting 400,000 yuan to you to cover the expense of the enthronement ceremony.
February 3, 1940

(Preserved in China No. 2 Historical Archives)

P.S. As we know, Buddhism started as philosophy. Prince Siddhârtha Gautama discovered a way to reach happiness and advised to “look within” in order to find enlightenment though spiritual work. The concept itself was revolutionary and liberating from bureaucratic Hinduism beliefs, simple and wise. The exhibited items as well as the narration convinced me that Tibetan Buddhism ceremonial objects, symbolism and traditions are way too distracting for one, trying to reach enlightenment within self. Yes, it all looked very complicated for a mind-and-spirit-liberating philosophy. Comparing one of the three Tibetan Buddhism teachings, Mahayana, the later form of Buddhism, (eclecticism and a general belief in a common search for salvation, sometimes thought to be attainable through faith alone) with Hinayana (Theravada), the oldest form of Buddhism, still prevalent in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia, (emphasizing personal salvation through one’s own efforts) we can notice that Mahayana is different from the original ideas of Buddhism. Personally, I believe that everyone has his own way to enlightenment if he/she wishes to. One does not need statues, ceremonial objects and complicated concepts in order to find harmony within. I think, fixed ways always turn into dogmas and lose their original mind-liberating meaning. Though, sincerely, the concept of Tibetan Buddhism did not find a follower in me, I absolutely enjoyed the colorful journey to the land of mysteries and its rich culture.

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