Amulets- Magic and Medicine

Amulet

Small Blessings: Amulets, Magic and Medicine

 

We attended a short talk on the amulets at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford at the weekend . The museum is using a recent award from the Designation Development Fund (DDF)  to explore and interpret their huge collection of religious and folkloric amulets collected by the French ethnologist Adrien de Mortillet more than a century ago and acquired by Sir Henry Wellcome before its transfer to Oxford.

The 2500 objects in the collection came from various cultures from around the world. Often completely unique and personal, utilizing auspicious materials and symbolism, amulets were made for various purposes, e.g., to avert evil or disease, or to bring good luck in harvests, journeys, or war. Yet a theme that unites them, and one which the project will seek to explore, is that the people who created and used them believed they had the power to alter or affect the world around them. In this sense amulets can help us understand the human need for well-being and the universal concepts of hope and belief.

Windhorse Imports often acquire Tibetan amulet boxes. Tibetan Amulet boxes or “ghau” are generally made from metal in a repousse style of construction. The purpose and function of these is for protection when travelling. They sometimes have a small window on the front with a religious image inside. Typically the front is very ornate and decorated with the Eight Auspicious Symbols and other motifs. Amulet boxes are also commonly used to store all manner of sacred materials such as small texts, blessing cords, consecrated medicine, relics, and the like. Objects such as this were generally carried when travelling some distance away from home, such as on pilgrimage, or for extended business trips.

The Lost Buddhas of Bamiyan

Lost Buddhas

It was announced by UNESCO last year that Afghanistan’s historic Bamiyan Buddhas would not be reconstructed. The monuments were destroyed by the Taliban 10 years before as part of its campaign to rid Afganistan of pre-Islamic structures, Whilst experts were split on the feasibility of reconstruction, UNESCO would not support a rebuild project, citing concerns over funding priorities and authenticity. Replicating the colossal monuments could cost between eight and 12 million dollars. Less than half of the original stone used to build the statues remains. The decision is a serious disappointment to Hazara people as the statues were potentially a huge tourist attraction that could have brought wealth back to the region. However recent archaeological research has uncovered significant new finds in the area and even raised the possibility that a there is a third monument awaiting discovery.

In 632 B.C. a learned Chinese monk named Xuan Zang travelled by land from China to India in search of the original Buddhist scriptures and teachings. Xuan Zang’s travelogues offer a unique insight into the political, social and religious conditions of this region in those times. Xuan Zang had travelled to India through present day Afghanistan, and he was keen to visit Bamiyan and the huge Buddha statues there. According to Xuan Zang’s detailed descriptions however, there were three images of Buddha. In addition to the two standing images there was a third image of a reclining Buddha at the base. This reclining Buddha was described as being 1000 feet long, although it finds no mention in subsequent history anywhere.

The smaller standing image was 114 feet high and the taller image was 165 feet high. They were not completely carved from stone, but had their detailing finished in a cement formed by grinding earth, hay and horse’s hair. They were then painted in colourful colours. Afghanistan’s extremely dry climate ensured that this cement coating and paint layer survived for centuries. Xuan Zang stated that the smaller image was painted gold. The Buddhas would have had Greek influences(see our earlier blog on Greco-Buddhist Art). Beside the rough hewn shelter in which the Buddha images stood, there were many small cave like structures cut in the adjoining walls which had wall paintings, enhancing the grandeur of the scene.

The Buddha images had survived a number of serious upheavals in the region. Bamiyan suffered from the ravages of Genghis Khan in 1272, and signs of the destruction are still visible in form of some of the ruined local forts. However, Genghis Khan’s soldiers were scared of touching the Buddha images and they were saved. Subsequently the Mughal Emperor Aurangjeb in the 17th Century, attempted to have Bamiyan Buddhas disfigured, although his soldiers were not able to achieve much, except for some slight damage to the Buddha faces. In modern era, Iranian king Nadir Shah Afshar, (Assassinated 1747) and Amir Kabul Dost Muhammad Khan (1843-1864) carried out several attacks on the Buddha statues with cannons.

Finally in 2001, despite International outrage, the Chief of Taliban in Afghanistan, Mulla Umar ordered the destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas. Using local forced labour the Taliban planted powerful mines near the Buddha images and they were both destroyed. At the time they were blown up, the statues were the largest Buddha carvings in the world

In 2003, United nations declared Bamiyan as a world heritage site and efforts were started to save whatever remained at Bamiyan. Although the statues are now gone, efforts are now on to save the caves which once housed them. A joint Japanese-Afghanistan group has been working for the last four or five years on the excavation and restoration of Bamiyan antiques. In September 2008 an archaeologist from this group, Anwar Khan Faize found <span> </span>some remnants of a reclining Buddha at the foot of the standing Buddha images. Further excavations found it to be 64 feet long, but it can not be considered as the figure in Xuen Zang’s description. Recently some traces of a Buddhist Vihara and a palace were also discovered. The sleeping Buddha described by Xuan Zang in 632 CE has not yet been found. Since Xuan Zang is famous for his accurate description, many historians firmly believe that the figure exists. If these traces are discovered, the world can have some consolation from the incalculable loss suffered by the mankind after having lost it’s cultural heritage; the Bamiyan Buddhas.

Buddhism and the Swastika

In January of this year a jewellery store in Brooklyn USA was forced to stop selling Buddhist swastika earrings. Politicians claimed that the earrings were the latest example of anti-Semitism in New York and New Jersey and demanded the store immediately stop selling them. This, despite the fact that the symbol faced in a different direction to the Nazi swastika as most Buddhist, and even neo-Pagan swastikas do.

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Visit to the DCWC Hospital

On 30th January 2012 we were fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to the remote mountain village of Ratbash, in the Kavre District of Nepal, to visit the Community hospital built by the DCWC (Development of Children and Womens Centre) Charity. The trip took about five hours in a four-wheel drive jeep, much of it along a rocky mountain track. Continue reading

Celebrating Losar

Mahakala

from Karma Kamtsang Association Poland – Branch of Benchen Monastery

We all know how New Year’s Eve and New Year are celebrated. Some would also like to know how Tibetans spend their New Year. Fellow Buddhists often ask what could they do, how to celebrate this day, if they are not able to perform the traditional pujas taking many hours. Lama Rinchen will try to answer these questions.

 

The traditional Tibetan calendar is based on calculations connected with the lunar phases. It is divided into lunar months, thirty days each. Sometimes, depending on the year, some days may double or, on the contrary, be omitted (i.e. in certain months there will be two 5th days, or the 10th day will occur right after the 8th). It happens that entire months are repeated (for example there were two last months in 2005). Therefore Buddhist feasts and anniversaries are movable. This refers also to  Losar, the Tibetan New Year.

It usually falls in February and celebrating it is one of the most important events for the Tibetans. In Tenga Rinpoche’s monastery the preparations for this ceremony start already several weeks in advance. The puja of Mahakala, the main guardian of Kagyu teachings, begins nine days before the New Year. The prayers are recited day and night. All diseases and other suffering, destructive emotions, bad inclinations and deeds, not only of persons participating in the ritual but of all sentient beings, are gathered in one location in order to be destroyed. The possibility of them harming anyone in the coming year is erased.

The famous Mahakala dances are the culmination point of the puja. One the day before the last, after a whole-night puja, the monks put on brocade clothes and masks. They dance from 7 a.m. till late afternoon, with short breaks only. This ritual is performed to subdue demonic forces which are impossible to be tamed by meditation or mantra recitation.  According to the transmissions, if these rituals were to stop, the released negative forces would bring madness to human minds and the world would immerse in war.

Lamas’ meditation and the flames of a giant fire in which the main torma in the shape of a demonic face is burnt at the end, are supposed to cut off all the negative influences from the previous year.

The first day of the New Year is the most festive day for the Tibetans. Lamas, monks and lay people working for the monastery come to the gompa at sunrise. Entire families arrive. First, the monks recite prayers for auspiciousness for over half an hour; later each participant approaches the thrones and offers gifts to the Rinpoches and receives blessings.

On this day the Tibetans simply celebrate. They wear neat clothes, some dress in Western style, others wear traditional Tibetan outfits, and visit each other. They exchange wishes, recall past days sitting at a lavishly set table and move on to the next house. Every door is open. It is also typical to visit the local lamas offering them kathaks and gifts. Losar, the New Year, celebrations last three days.

Since there are no large Buddhist monasteries in Poland or generally in the West, it is impossible to perform traditional Tibetan New year ceremonies. I have observed the Mahakala dances a few times in the Benchen Monastery and I have a thought to share with you – the size of the event – the knowledge necessary to properly perform the ritual, the number of required outfits and accessories, the long training of a large group of monks (some dances are performed by up to 100 dancers!) – makes it difficult to imagine when and if transferring this tradition to the West would be possible.

However, a lot of us would like to celebrate this day somehow. I have once asked Tenga Rinpoche what we can do here, in the West. Rinpoche answered that if anyone wishes to celebrate Losar, it would be best to perform an offering tsok puja on the first day of the New Year. Some Western Buddhists believe that the Mahakala dance day would be the best day to celebrate. Actually, the contrary is true: it is the most inauspicious day of the year. That is why the dance ritual is performed then, to evoke the wrathful aspect of Mahakala which is supposed to conquer all adverse conditions.

 

It is best to start the New Year with an auspicious activity. If it is not a tsok offering, you can perform another puja or meditation, preparing special offerings. In our Centre we usually start Losar celebrations with Amitayus (Tib. Tsepame) Buddha empowerment. Tsepame is the embodiment of buddhas’ activities augmenting vital forces, life span and all prosperity. Then we perform the Milarepa or Amitabha puja. After the ceremonies, there usually is a slide show from pilgrimages or religious ceremonies connected with the Benchen monastery and its lamas.

It is worth remembering that the first month of the year is considered to be a period when the effects of all activities: both positive and negative, are multiplied. Therefore, depending on you possibilities, it is good to devote more time to meditation practice then.