The Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University is currently showing “Doorway to an Enlightened World: The Tibetan Shrine from the Alice S. Kandell Collection. Rather than a series of unconnected, singular objects, this exhibit is displayed as a shrine that would have been constructed in the home of a wealthy Tibetan. It includes not only statues, but ritual objects, furniture, tanka paintings and mandalas.
When asked how a Tibetan shrine is similar to other religious shrines, Dr. Sara McClintock, Associate Professor of Religion at Emory University, notes that shrines often contain images of exalted beings. In Christian shrines there might be images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary or the saints. In Tibetan Buddhist shrines there are images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In both instances these images inspire and bless the person who visits them. When a person visits a Tibetan shrine they go to “meet” rather than “see” the images there. Many of these images contain scriptures and relics from spiritual teachers that give them additional spiritual power.
Dr. McClintock, who teaches Tibetan and Indian Buddhism, also talks about the practices that occur in the shrines. They include placing daily offerings in the shrine, reciting mantras, and making prostrations. These activities are believed to increase spiritual merit which is needed to reach higher levels of spiritual awareness. Buddhists see each lifetime as an opportunity to come closer to enlightenment. The objects in the shrine and their arrangement offer help in this pursuit.
Mandalas, according to Dr. McClintock, are two dimensional representations of three dimensional palaces. The palaces are homes to enlightened beings and the mandalas, whether painted, carved or created by monks in sand are tools for meditation to enter the palace and ascend through its levels of spiritual teaching. Rice mandalas are part of the shrine at Emory. They are created while making recitations and in the end dumped into the lap of the creator. The sand mandalas made by monks are also destroyed revealing the impermanence of things.
Shrines are a big reason people visit monasteries, but they are also an important part of family life in Tibet. They can be very simple in the homes of the poor or very elaborate in the homes of the wealthy. The shrine on display at Emory came from the personal shrines of several wealthy Tibetan families. The display at the Carlos is an educational opportunity to see how spirituality was constructed in the Himalayas in ways that seeing a photograph cannot convey.
The impact of visiting the shrine will of course vary from person to person. The shrine at the Carlos is set up to invite meditation. The museum is also inviting people to send images of their personal shrines for an online booklet to be published in August. To participate, snap a picture of your shrine and give it a title or caption (it can be a word or a short sentence) and share on Instagram or Twitter (#shareyourshrine; @CarlosMuseum). You can also send it in to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Doorway to an Enlightened World” is on exhibition through Nov. 27 at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University until Nov. 27.
16 May 2016