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Lions Roar : May 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2006 33 In my own work with thangkas and their owners, the question of the thangka’s innate power often arises. Many people wonder whether the thangkas they see in museums would be considered “dead” somehow by those within the tradition. When a thangka painting is completed, it is ceremonially empowered with the na- ture of the deity represented. According to Tibetan teacher Min- gyur Rinpoche, the thangkas carry that blessing “until the four elements—fire, wind, water, or earth—destroy the image.” The method for removing blessings from thangkas or rupas (ritual statuary) that are no longer to be used is to burn or bury them, he explains. When I asked him whether older thangkas have more power than newer thangkas, he replied that many older thangkas “have been blessed by many great masters. Newer thangkas have been blessed in a ceremony, but they don’t have the level of blessings of the lineage that older ones have.” Therefore, in his view, by appreciating their history and their sacredness, we would be mo- tivated to show old thangkas very great respect, in terms of how we preserve and present them. I have asked many great teachers about whether previously restricted images, now readily visible in museums, carry their original subtle empowerment. The general agreement is that for non-Buddhists, there is what is called a “seed of liberation,” which is planted in the viewer just by virtue of looking at a blessed thangka. By contrast, however, Peter Irniq, a respected Inuit elder and commissioner of the Territory of Nunavut in Canada, says, “When carvings are in a non-Inuit home, they have no power, just as the carver has no power over the spirits who inhabit the carving.” I have gleaned one consistent message from speaking to many elders from a variety of traditions: if we are fortunate enough to own (or be the steward of) a sacred or culturally significant object, we must show it respect in a way that is meaningful both to the object and ourselves. We must be particularly sensitive to such respect when we have no cultural relationship with the ob- ject. In that case, it seems we ought to get to know it and how it “likes to be treated.” Throughout history, as societies have been conquered, their cultural objects—imbued with profound sa- cred significance—have been treated according to the aesthetic and religious mores of the conquering culture. Such desecration can take the form of something as dramatic as the dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan to something as banal as decorating a doctor’s waiting room by hanging African masks next to the rack of old magazines. In fact, when we take possession of sacred or culturally signifi- cant objects, we assume a responsibility to be a steward of these treasures. They have been around, in many cases, for centuries before we were born, and with proper care, they will survive for centuries beyond our death. With proper attention to how they are to be treated, their original sacred power may still be trans- mitted to people far into the future, which was why they were created in the first place. ♦