The Power of Tibetan words: golden letters arrayed like stars and planets

“I love the earthiness of Tibetan culture and think this is something often lost in translation in the West. This reverence for text and words manifests in very concrete, tangible ways,” says curator Patrick Dowd.

The exhibition is ongoing until Feb. 20, 2020 in the Liu Institute for Global Issues at UBC.

The power of letters

Never throw away anything with Tibetan writing. Never place a book on the ground. Every letter is holy; every syllable is mantra,” Dowd writes in his introduction to the exhibition, recalling his first lesson with the Tibetan teacher he studied with in the Indian Himalayas. “They told me every letter of their alphabet was sacred, imbued with the power to liberate beings from suffering.”

Taken from a 13th-century Tibetan poem by Chögyal Pakpa Lodrö Gyeltsen, the title of the exhibition Golden Letters Arrayed Like Stars and Planets captures Tibet’s reverence for letters. For instance, the poet, Pakpa, compares the blue-black paper to the blue sky where golden letters, like stars and planets, are beautifully arranged in lines. This image depicts the transcendental and celestial power of Buddha’s teachings and wisdom that are inscribed in delicately ornamented books.

The Discourse on the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom. | Photos courtesy of Gina Hsu

This 8000-line Prajñāpāramitā Sutra (The Discourse on the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom) is a significant scripture about the ‘perfected manner of understanding the true nature of reality,’ printed in golden ink on deep-blue paper made with lapis rock.

Godly blessings in earthly objects

[The exhibition aims to] take the audience on a kora, [which means] a clockwise ritual circumambulation of holy objects,” says Dowd.

While kora is spiritual in nature, and the displayed objects are imbued with godly blessings, there is an intriguing aspect of materiality that brings the power of Tibetan letters – of stars and planets – down to earth and close to the people who look to the spiritual guidance that has transcended time and space.

The mani stones in the glass display are inscribed with holy mantras and carved by master carvers in Nepal. Above the glass case is an image of the mani wall in Nangchen, Tibet where stones carved with sacred syllables pile up ‘literal mountains of prayers’ around which Tibetans ritually circumambulate. The most common mantra carved is the six-syllable mantra om mani pémé hung.

Traditionally printed scripture.

Another image shows two Tibetans in the forefront, one woman applies ink on the side while another man places a rolling pin on his lap. They each holds down one end of the paper strip on top of a carved woodblock. According to the catalogue, it takes three days on average to engrave a two-sided woodblock, with each letter carved in reverse to create a mirror image for print.

This picture not only shows the traditional Tibetan print culture but also offers an earthly insight into the production and transmission of what is held to be unworldly and divine.

“Devoted human hands function every step of the way, from the making of the ink and paper, to the carving of the blocks, to the printing of the books themselves,” Dowd further explains. “Even though woodblock texts may be harder to read than machine printed ones [because of less precise printing], people value that human connection that went into the production, and this is why the tradition persists.”

Dowd believes that it is important to remember that modern print technology exists in Tibet.

“But the fact that Tibetans still maintain this tradition of woodblock printing, far slower and laborious than modern printing, speaks to the connection between motivation, the hand and the product,” he adds. “There is also a sense that blessings accumulate with age, so these wooden blocks that have been used for years hold centuries of blessings, something not possible with modern printing presses.”

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