JAIC 1992, Volume 31, Number 1, Article 6 (pp. 41 to 50)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1992, Volume 31, Number 1, Article 6 (pp. 41 to 50)




Many Tibetan Buddhist images can be viewed by anyone. Such images include the historical Buddha, the primary Bodhisattvas (potential Buddhas who for the sake of compassion remain in the world and guide others toward enlightenment), and sculptures representing historically known teachers and saints.

Tantric images were originally intended to be viewed only by those who have been initiated into the corresponding meditation. These images are frequently complex with multiple arms, legs, and heads (fig. 1). The multiple hands may hold a variety of implements. The deity may be either peaceful or wrathful and may be shown in sexual union with a consort (fig. 2). Traditionally, these images were kept covered except when being used for an initiation or meditation practice, so that the uninitiated would not see them. In the modern Western museum, of course, these images are displayed for public viewing, often with little explanation.

Fig. 1. Dorje Phurpa, West Tibet, 12th century. H. 33.5 cm. Leaded brass. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, Museum Associates Purchase M.70.1.6

Fig. 2. Vajrapāni and Consort, Central Tibet, 15th century. H. 27.9 cm. Unalloyed copper. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, Museum Associates Purchase M.82.42.6.

The uninitiated scholar studying such images will have difficulty obtaining help from Tibetan Buddhist experts. I first encountered this problem in 1981 while studying the sculptures of a West Tibetan monastery located at Ta pho, now within the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. The sculptures form a life-size mandala of the deity Kun rig rnam par snan dzad, whose image is placed in the center and is surrounded by 32 clay sculptures representing the other deities of his mandala (Tucci 1988). My goal was to determine, through a statistical analysis of the patterns of the mudrās in relation to other iconographic features of the sculptures, whether the hand gestures were deliberately used as a form of communication (Reedy and Reedy 1987). As part of my research I collected, and where necessary had translated, several versions of the Kun rig meditation text. I also interviewed a Tibetan Buddhist teacher regarding her perceptions of the form and meaning of each of the mudrās seen on the Ta pho sculptures.

The monk who prepared most of the text translations for me commented many times as he was working with me that technically I should not be studying the texts without having the Kun rig initiation. However, since he was a friend he did do the translations, although he was clearly somewhat uncomfortable. The teacher who discussed the mudrās with me was also clearly uncomfortable and said that as soon as possible I should be initiated. It seemed to me that she was deliberately holding back information, giving me only a very bare outline. Eventually I was given a short form of the appropriate initiation from a visiting teacher who specialized in that particular meditation, and Tibetan Buddhist informants were subsequently more comfortable talking with me about the subject.

I later surveyed Tibetan Buddhist teachers about the ethics of opening consecrated bronzes (Reedy 1991). I also included a question on the topic of noninitiates studying or working with tantric images. Nine teachers responded to the question: “Do you feel it is inappropriate for a scientist or art historian to study a specific image (especially tantric) in great detail when he or she has not received the initiation for that deity?”

Six teachers either accepted study by noninitiates in some circumstances or suggested that another factor is more important. Thubten Jigme Norbu feels that it is acceptable for the uninitiated to study a tantric Buddhist image for the sake of art history. He is not troubled by technical examinations of such sculptures, including x-radiography and analysis of alloy composition. However, he does feel that “the taking of a sample of metal from the base of the image is problematic from the Buddhist perspective,” perhaps since this involves deliberate damage to the image.

H. H. Jigdal Dagchen Sakya from the Sakya Monastery in Seattle said, “What is important is that the scientist show respect for the image as a religious object so that followers of the religion not be offended or upset by the scientist's treatment of the religious object.” H. H. Sakya Trizin, head of the Sakyapa order of Tibetan Buddhism now headquartered in Dehra Dun, India, said, “Theoretically, those who have not received initiations are not allowed to study a specific tantric image, but practically speaking, not everyone has the opportunity to receive these initiations. Therefore, the real issue is faith, and as long as one has faith in the teachings, there is no harm.”

Karma Gelek Yuthok, speaking for the Council for Religious and Cultural Affairs of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, said “An initiated Buddhist is, directly or indirectly, bound by many vows and commitments to respect the images of Buddha and other deities in every possible way… . On the other hand, for the uninitiated ones, non-Buddhists, and non-believers, they would have more reasonable excuses of being innocent and not bound by religious commitments. It is for this reason that they are said to collect less bad karma than the believers and committed followers by doing the same undesirable act.”

Three respondents felt that it is always inappropriate for noninitiates to study or examine tantric (as opposed to nontantric) images. Aye Tulku said that he does not feel it is inappropriate to study images in general, but “tantric subjects have to be dealt with in great caution. Initiation before pursuing an in-depth study of any tantric subject is a requirement.”

Different viewpoints were also expressed by the Tibetans regarding their feelings toward the public display of such images in museum exhibits. H. H. Jigdal Dagchen Sakya's definition of displaying or storing a statue with respect is that the image “should be treated with care, not put on the floor, and kept slightly elevated, if possible. Certainly it should be kept in a clean area. This respect for the object is important regardless of what material the object is made.” He considers that “there is no desecration of a statue or other Dharma object by moving it from a monastery, purchasing the object, or displaying it in a museum.” On the other hand, Geshe Tashi Namgyal, now in Victoria, Canada, stated strongly that “The tantras in Buddhism are sacred and secret and should not be revealed to outsiders.”

According to Karma Gelek Yuthok, “The very act of removing a statue from its proper context and placing it in the art market desecrates it to some extent, but the statue, by its own, is still a sacred object. It's like forcing a holy saint to remain in a busy worldly place. There is a world of difference between keeping a holy statue in a museum just for display and putting it anywhere for sale” (which is generally considered a sacrilege by Buddhists). Jetsun Chimey Luding agreed, saying, “It is not good at all to sell on the ‘art market’ these sacred statues. It is said by the Buddha that we do not sell sacred things.”

Geshe Thupten Gyatso also said, “The people who sell the article desecrate it. They commit the bad action (karma) of abandoning Buddha's teaching. But the one who buys the object has no fault, and in fact has accumulated merit in doing so. There is also nothing wrong with displaying it in the museum; many people will obtain virtue by seeing it, remembering it, hearing the name of the deity depicted, and touching it.”

The mixed emotions generated by this relatively recent situation of Tibetan sculptures becoming available to Western collections is expressed by Tharthang Tulku. “Unfortunately, in recent times, with the destruction of various aspects of Tibetan culture, many precious statues have been lost; others have been scattered across the world in museums and private collections. In one way, it seems suitable for statues to be in museums where many people can view them. But … when sacred images are placed in secular environments, their essential purpose is lost.”

It should be noted that under more normal circumstances, Tibetan Buddhist sculptures would rarely be appearing in private or public collections in the West. Their presence here is directly due to the relatively recent Chinese invasion of Tibet and the subsequent destruction and looting of most Tibetan monasteries. Consequently, those of us working in museums and in the fields of conservation and art history face an ethical dilemma whenever we choose to study, treat, and publish these sculptures. Since the oppression and extermination of the Tibetan people are continuing, we do not want to encourage continued looting by increasing the value of Tibetan sculptures through our work. However, we also do not want to ignore Tibetan artistic works once they are here, and it is possible that conserving, researching, and publishing artifacts of the unique Tibetan culture might ultimately help to preserve and protect that culture. The types of issues involved in this ethical debate are quite complex, and have been dealt with in detail elsewhere (Greenfield 1989; Messenger 1989). There are, however, some practical solutions available for obtaining a better understanding of Tibetan sculptures and for deciding how they should best be stored, displayed, or handled.

Copyright 1992 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works