JAIC 1991, Volume 30, Number 1, Article 3 (pp. 13 to 34)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1991, Volume 30, Number 1, Article 3 (pp. 13 to 34)




THIS INQUIRY into the content of consecration ceremonies began with a survey of the literature, including both summaries of various older Tibetan texts and writings of modern Tibetan practitioners. A questionnaire on the viewpoints of living practitioners toward the opening of consecrated statues, discussed more fully in section 4, also elicited some descriptions of the consecration ceremony from current practitioners.

The consecration ceremony first purifies an image in order to make it suitable for habitation by the Buddha or other deity involved. Then it invests the statue with the power and presence of that deity. Unless it has been consecrated, a statue is not considered suitable for use in religious practices.

The consecration ceremony can only be performed by a fully qualified person considered knowledgeable and proficient in all the ritual activities that need to be done; he must be stable, calm, wise, patient, honest, and without pretensions and must have received the required initiations and teachings. The deity is invited to the statue through the power of meditation, the potency of the ritual, and the devotion of the ceremony's hosts. After being invited, a deity is drawn into the statue to be consecrated, and its presence is sealed by the procedures of the ritual. The ceremony can be performed either in a monastery or in a layperson's home. It is repeated, when circumstances allow, once a year. After consecration the image must be kept clean and the spirit of consecration kept alive through the religious study and practice of those around it (Sharpa Tulku and Perrott 1985).

The ritual can be used to consecrate any representation of the Buddha's body, speech, and mind. The Buddha's body is most often represented by statues or paintings, speech by scriptures, and enlightened mind by a stupa (chöten)1. Other more ordinary objects can also be consecrated, such as ornaments, houses, gardens, wells, or mantra beads. (A mantra is a sequence of syllables whose sounds, when recited in tantric meditations, are intended to promote a state of identification with the deity being invoked; the exact number of recitations to be performed is usually specified in the meditation text, and a string of beads is the usual device for keeping count.)

There are many reasons for consecrating an object. For example, greater faith and respect for the object is generated when great lamas have performed consecration rituals for it. The ritual is also used to clear an area of obstacles and make it more peaceful and free from disease, to create conducive conditions for meditation, and to increase the lifespan, happiness, and wealth of the inhabitants of an area (Panchen Ötrul Rinpoche 1987).

During the consecration ceremony, holy articles are sometimes sealed inside the statue. While the objects are being placed inside the piece, the deity is invoked and infused into the work of art through the use of appropriate hand gestures, mantras, and visualizations.

According to Giuseppe Tucci's summary of Tibetan Buddhist texts concerning consecration (Tucci 1949, 1:309–310) and modern Tibetan scholars on the subject (Kazi 1966, 8–10;Dagyab 1977, 1:32–33), a wide variety of holy articles can be selected for insertion. These objects usually include sacred writings (mantras or excerpts from scriptures), with specific ones being considered most appropriate for placing in particular parts of the statue. The physical relics of holy persons can also be inserted. These relics may be actual parts of the body (hair, teeth, pieces of skull or bone, and ashes) or objects that came in close contact with the holy person during his or her lifetime. Other items frequently inserted are sacred images (made of metal, wood, or clay) and medicinal or purifying plants such as powdered saffron flowers or pieces of juniper tree incense. Whatever is most available and appropriate to the specific situation can be included.

Tarthang Tulku, Head Lama of the Tibetan Nyingma Center in Berkeley, California, described the preparation and insertion of objects into a statue during a typical modern consecration ceremony (Tarthang Tulku 1989). In the center of the statue one might insert an obelisk cut from the east side of a cedar tree at the proper time (determined by astrological charts). The top of the obelisk would be carved into a pyramid shape, with Sanskrit or Tibetan letters placed at each face and at the apex (the seed syllables of the five Buddhas: Vairocana, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitābha, and Amoghasiddhi). Letters symbolizing Buddha qualities would be placed down the sides of the obelisk. Relics and powders made from precious substances (in barely visible amounts) might be inserted with the obelisk—gems, pearls, gold, silver, turquoise, coral, and stones or sand from holy places. Copies of tantric texts of different types would be placed in certain locations within the statue. Lineage prayers from the meditation connected with the statue would be included.

For each statue, special writings would be inserted. The selection of writings to include depends upon the meditation practices and the purposes of the statue. On an auspicious day, a teacher or monk who has performed the proper fasts, ceremonies, visualizations, and prayers writes them out. The words must flow along a single line for as long as necessary, following special grammatical rules. Other lines may be added, with the order following specific principles. These long strips of writing are done very meticulously and are then carefully checked for accuracy. In addition, a “correction” mantra is added to counteract any mistakes that might have occurred. At the end of each writing is a mantra that seals it with the power of truth, and special wishes are added to conduct the flow of energy in a certain way. The writings are carefully placed in the proper parts of the statue. A closing rite then fully activates the energy of the mantras and precious objects.

Tarthang Tulku also mentioned that it is considered especially important that large statues receive this empowerment once a year to renew the blessings and purify the consciousness of its worshipers. In Tibet, large groups would at times gather together to perform this ceremony for many statues at once. Sometimes great masters would travel hundreds of miles to attend such ceremonies, which were often dedicated to special purposes such as world peace or removing all suffering in the world.

The main purpose of repeating the consecration ceremony on occasions other than the original completion of the work is to increase the holiness of the image and renew observances of respect toward it. The reconsecration would most likely take place for a special event, such as the inauguration of a temple or to celebrate a particularly holy day. For reconsecration the face might be repainted, and the pigment in the eyes, lips, and hair redelineated, especially if they have become worn or damaged with use. If the mantras are to be renewed or if the image is to be regilded, the objects previously installed may be temporarily removed (Kazi 1966, 10).

A statue would also be reconsecrated after being desecrated by flood, fire, violence and war, or other calamities. If possible the original contents would be reinserted, but if some or all were found to be damaged they would be augmented or replaced with new objects (Aye Tulku, Lobsang Nyima 1989).

Copyright © 1991 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works