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)





The first solution is to consult with practicing Buddhists whenever possible. It can be rewarding and useful to identify and involve the local community of practitioners when major decisions have to be made regarding storage, display, and handling of sacred images. A number of references can help locate Buddhist groups in various cities throughout North America who can provide information to conservators. A particularly useful source is Tibetan Cultural Resources in North America (1982). One can also consult the listings in the local telephone directory under names of Tibetan Buddhist centers of worship such as Dharma-dhatu Centers and Karma Thegsum Choling Centers.

If one cannot locate a nearby Tibetan Buddhist group or community, it is always possible to write to major centers with specific questions (see the addresses listed at the end of this article). Such groups appreciate the communication and will respond with a thoughtful and serious reply.


Most Tibetan Buddhist groups or centers offer a variety of ongoing or special events, some of which are open to participation by anyone. These events may include seminars and public talks by resident or visiting teachers, celebrations of the Tibetan New Year, activities commemorating important events in the life of Shakyamuni Buddha and memorializing important teachers of Tibetan Buddhism, meditation retreats, Tibetan language classes, and teachings on specific texts. It is also often possible to arrange private audiences with resident or visiting teachers by contacting the center. For example, a group from the Conservation Center at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was able to arrange for and attend a private ceremony at a local Tibetan Buddhist center to reconsecrate a bronze that had been in the objects lab.

Some introductory practices may require no initiation and are generally open to anyone interested in learning more about Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. One example is the Meditation of the Four Infinitudes (infinite love, infinite compassion, infinite rejoicing, and infinite equanimity). Another example is the meditation of Chenrezi (The Greatly Compassionate One).

All of these participatory activities can bring one into personal contact with Tibetan Buddhist practitioners and can provide a more complete understanding of aspects of their philosophy and daily practices. Such firsthand experiences can provide a better context for interpreting and appreciating Tibetan Buddhist works of art and their intended functions.

Participation in other practices may require a specific initiation. Every tantric image depicted in works of art has a special meditation associated with it, which must be taught to and practiced only by those who have received its unique initiation. If one is interested in attending an initiation ceremony and following the practice for a particular deity in order to pursue in-depth studies of it, one could enquire at any of the Buddhist centers mentioned above. Of course, the traditional motivation for participating in initiations is to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all beings. Therefore, it is not an activity to undertake lightly.

There are different points of view among Tibetan Buddhist teachers regarding initiations. Some teachers hold numerous initiation ceremonies and will include, for some practices, anyone who wishes to attend. In contrast, other teachers do not encourage frequent participation in initiations and hold them more rarely, restricting attendance to serious Buddhist practitioners only. An ethical protocol would be to meet prior to the ceremony with the teacher who will be performing the initiation (or his representative), explain the reason for wishing to attend, and request permission to participate.

The Tibetan word for an initiation ceremony actually means “empowerment.” Participation in this ceremony empowers a person to view and study a particular deity image. Practitioners generally receive numerous initiations, since there is a separate ceremony for each deity image. A Tibetan Buddhist would be expected to actually practice on a regular basis the meditation of only a few of the deities for which he or she has been initiated (Snellgrove 1987), but all initiation ceremonies are serious events.

The initiation format follows in general that of Tibetan Buddhist meditations, which start with (1) a preliminary stage (taking refuge in the Buddha and resolving to obtain enlightenment for the sake of all other beings); then (2) a stage of main practice (visualization of the deity, reciting mantras, silent meditation); and (3) dedicating any merit received through the meditation practice to the welfare of all other beings.

An initiation usually includes a vow not to reveal certain aspects of the ceremony or practice to noninitiates. Such a vow should not be taken unless one plans to respect it. Discussing the ceremony with the teacher beforehand should clarify what is expected of an initiate for that particular ceremony, so it can be determined whether or not one's participation is appropriate.


The third solution is to realize that one should not expect to fully understand the iconography, symbolism, and function of Tibetan art in more than superficial ways unless one is willing to study and become involved to some extent in the practices which are the context of that art. It is in the philosophical and religious teachings that one finds descriptions which more fully explain the iconographic content and purpose of Tibetan bronzes.

An example is the West Tibetan leaded brass sculpture shown in figure 3, representing Yama, the god of death (Pal 1975). To understand why death would be represented by this image, we need to explore some of the Tibetan practices regarding death. According to the Lam 'bras teachings of the Sakyapa order, Yama, at death, appears to the ordinary deluded mind as a terrifying apparition with weapons that are necessary to drag the consciousness into the unknown experience of death. According to Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, one should be aware that death is a certainty and cannot be avoided, since life is not permanent. But the terror of the change from life to death is increased by the physical pain of death and the great remorse and anxiety the dying may feel due to remembering a lifetime of faults, wrong actions, and time wasted on trivial distractions. This image is intended to remind the practitioner that one who better understands death and impermanence and who does not have such regrets will not have this fear at death (Deshung Rinpoche 1980; Lhundrup 1987).

Fig. 3. Yama, West Tibet, 10th century. H. 10.2 cm. Leaded brass. Robert H. Ellsworth, Ltd.

One function of Tibetan Buddhist art is to stimulate the imagination of the viewers, to give them a new way of perceiving, to open up the idea that enlightenment is actually a possibility. Once the ordinary way of viewing the world is dropped and that possibility is imagined, the practitioner would be inspired to diligently pursue the aim of enlightenment for himself or herself and all others through the practices of compassion, study, and meditation (Thurman 1991).


The fourth solution is to develop and maintain respect for the Tibetan people and culture. Respect can be cultivated by personally meeting Tibetan people and by reading some basic books about Tibetan history and culture. Especially good choices are the autobiography of the Dalai Lama (1962; 1990) and the recent historical overview of Tibetan culture by David Snellgrove and Hugh Richardson (1986). Developing a sense of respect for the people who made and used the piece one is studying or working on, whether or not one agrees with their specific religious beliefs or philosophies, makes it unlikely that scholars and conservators will do anything to the sculptures entrusted to our care that will cause offense to the surviving Tibetans.

Copyright � 1992 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works