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)





AFTER HAVING observed the opening of a number of consecrated statues and recording their interior contents, I decided to research the question of how Tibetan Buddhist practitioners really feel about the opening of these statues, to assess more accurately the ethical issues involved. I prepared a survey and sent it to 18 prominent Tibetan religious teachers in India, Nepal, Canada, and the United States. Many of the 10 answers I received were quite elaborate, and the Tibetans obviously were concerned about this issue. Some had already thought about the problem at length on their own and were happy to share their viewpoints with the museum.

The primary questions concerning consecration included in the survey were:

  • Do you feel that opening of a consecrated statue in a museum laboratory, for the purpose of study to understand more about the history and context of the statue, desecrates it?
  • If you feel this is a desecration, if the museum were to subsequently have the statue reconsecrated with new objects by a visiting or local lama, would that study then be acceptable?
  • In your opinion, are the statues already desecrated by being removed from their monastery context, entering the art market, and being displayed in a museum?
  • If a piece is opened for any reason, is there an acceptable opening procedure that we could follow?
  • What is the true purpose of a consecration ceremony?
  • Do all statues get consecrated before use?
  • What are the most important steps in a consecration ceremony?
  • How are the objects to be inserted chosen?
  • When would a statue be reconsecrated? Would reconsecration involve replacing the contents with new ones or adding new ones to the old?


Table 2 lists the respondents and their affiliations. Because many of the answers were so detailed and because not everyone answered all of the questions and some wrote on additional topics, the responses cannot easily be converted into table format without risking some misrepresentation. The responses are therefore discussed below, organized according to general topic rather than strictly by respondent.

TABLE 2 List of Consecration Survey Respondents

None of the Tibetan leaders were comfortable with the opening of statues in a museum context. Two felt, however, that it was not a complete desecration. The others held strong opinions that statues should never be opened for museum study.

Venerable Karma Gelek Yuthok, deputy secretary of the Council for Religious and Cultural Affairs of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, prepared an extensive paper on the subject for the council's reply. In it he says:

It is not difficult to understand the good reasons of museums and curators for opening consecrated statues. But the validity of these reasons may or may not be sound when judged from the religious point of view. The very practice of treating consecrated statues or other religious objects as mere pieces of art amounts to a gross violation of a most basic Buddhist practice….

A Buddhist … is bound by a most basic vow to treat and respect every image of Buddha as a real living Buddha….

Opening of a consecrated statue, under ordinary circumstances, anywhere, not only desecrates it, but kills its very essence. Consecration in Buddhism is much more than a ceremony. A capable holy Buddhist priest invites the real Buddha or Buddhist deity depicted by the statue in its spirit form to inhabit the statue and then seals it to abide permanently unto the end of the world…. Reconsecration after a study is of course possible, but that does not recover the damage already done nor does it make the past act of desecration reasonable.∗

∗Respondents to the consecration survey are listed in table 2. All references in this section are to letters to the author from the survey respondents, 1989.

His Holiness Sakya Trizin replied that a Tibetan Buddhist would avoid opening a consecrated statue unless there was a very important reason, such as the need to disassemble or move a statue during the renovation or repair of a temple. In such cases specific rituals are performed before the contents are removed, and the image must be reconsecrated after they are placed back inside.

Aye Tulku, Lobsang Nyima, began his response by stating that since religious objects are extremely sacred to the Tibetans, he hoped these objects would always be handled in the museum with the utmost respect and care. Although it would technically be a desecration to open a sacred statue, he felt that there would be no harm in opening non-tantric statues provided that the object of the research is to further knowledge and ultimately benefit everyone by helping to preserve the sacred teachings. These statues should only be opened with the pure motivation of preserving and furthering the knowledge gained from researching the contents. Extreme care and respect should be used with any opening procedure. Tantric images contain mantras relating to the deities, and the proper initiations should be undertaken in order to read and understand them.

Geshe Thubten Gyatso felt that since it seems to be the custom in this country, then opening a statue would not be a desecration. If the piece is opened with good intentions to investigate the contents then there would be no fault.

According to the Sakya Monastery in Seattle, led by His Holiness Jigdal Dagchen Sakya, the improper opening of a consecrated statue in any setting is a desecration. Such an act is nonvirtuous and according to the law of action and result will cause harm to the instigator (i.e., the curator making the request) as well as to the person who actually carries out the desecration (i.e., the conservator). Furthermore, the performance of this nonvirtuous act diminishes the stock of merit of all beings. Opening a statue is the converse of a consecration ceremony, which is beneficial and creates merit for those immediately concerned and for society as a whole.

According to Tarthang Tulku, Head Lama of the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center in Berkeley, California, sacred statues have a special meaning and value higher than artistic beauty because they are bearers of blessings and inspiration. The blessings of the statue disappear if the inner contents are removed, so from a traditional point of view the deity has been destroyed. He concludes with, “If you ask my opinion, I find it hard to give you direction that will accommodate the Western view of these matters, which is very different from the traditional Buddhist understanding. So the best I can do is inform you of the traditional perspective and you can judge for yourself how to proceed.”

According to Thubten Jigme Norbu of the Tibet Society, before consecration the statue is just like dirt. After consecration it is a symbolic representation of Buddha himself. In his opinion, opening a statue for scientific or art historical study is a terrible thing—“like tearing out the guts of living beings.”

The Venerable Karma Gelek Yuthok described an acceptable opening procedure used only when a statue is in need of renovation due to damage or when an exclusively religious reason arises to open it. The Buddha or deity (in subtle spirit form) imbibed by the statue at consecration is formally requested through the medium of a capable Buddhist priest to leave the statue during a short ritual called gshegs-gsol (pronounced shey-sol, meaning “request to leave”). When the repair work on the statue is completed and the contents are reinstalled, care must be taken to place everything correctly, especially the mantra rolls, which may appear identical on the outside, but contain different mantras. Different parts of the body receive different mantra rolls. Venerable Yuthok notes that since different sets of mantra rolls were originally consecrated as different organs of the deity depicted by the statue, misplacing them would be like a surgeon misplacing organs during an operation.

One acceptable opening procedure described by the Sakya Monastery of Seattle (called a chog and pronounced “a choke”) is used in Tibet when statues must be repaired. In a special ritual involving a mirror, the blessing the statue receives when consecrated is transferred to the image in the mirror. When the work on the statue is completed, the blessings are transferred back from the mirror image to the statue, which should then be reconsecrated within a month.

The Sakya monastery also emphasized that it is important that conservators and scientists who work with Tibetan Buddhist objects show respect for the image as a religious object so that the practitioners will not be offended or upset by the treatment accorded the object in the museum. For them, this means that the image should be treated with care, kept in a clean area, not put on the floor or stepped on, and kept slightly elevated if possible.


It is clear that for the most part Tibetans see the opening of a statue to be a desecration of holy objects and an offense to their beliefs. Under normal circumstances a Tibetan statue would not be opened except for repairs or if a large statue had to be disassembled and moved. Even then, the consecrated objects would not be disturbed unless necessary, and the pieces would always be reconsecrated when the work was finished. Only qualified religious persons opened such statues, and they followed a prescribed ceremony and procedure.

The Tibetans are not militantly demanding that statues be left sealed; they leave that decision in the hands of the current owners. Yet most have made it clear that, to them, the special blessings and religious qualities of a statue are essentially destroyed once a piece has been opened and the consecrated interior objects removed.

Copyright 1991 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works