"The Buddha`s Eyes"

Buddhist chants provided a trance-like ambience disturbed only by the intermittent sound from large ritual drums and tibetan short horns. The Gelugpa monks (yellow hat school) chanted sutras in perfect unison, as the sun rose over the ancient 12 storey complex. Thiksey Gompa was built in 1430 AD on a hilltop north of the Indus river. It takes a while to adjust to the darkness and coolness of this ancient Tibetan monastery.  Seated on blankets, and leaning against the painted plastered walls my eyes adjust to see a line of monks sitting on raised benches (eldest at the front, the youngest by the doors). The younger monks were carrying large kettles filled with tea and containers filled with yak butter. According to the Tibetan custom, the salty butter tea is consumed in separate sips, and, after each sip, the younger monks filled the cups to the brim.

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                  600 year old Thiksey Gompa             Nga -  is a large ritual drum with two membranes.
I had travelled the 18 kms from Leh, the capital of Ladakh before sunrise this morning, to witness Puja, or morning prayer. Unlike many other monasteries of its` kind, Thiksey welcomes visitors to sit in on its prayer ceremonies.
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                           Pouring butter tea                             Maitreya (Future Buddha)

One of the main points of interest is the Maitreya (future Buddha) Temple, erected to commemorate the visit of the 14th Dalai Lama to this monastery in 1970. It contains a 15 metre (49 ft) high statue of Maitreya Buddha - the largest such statue in Ladakh, covering two storeys of the building. As the largest Buddha statue deified in the monastery, it took four years to craft. It was made by the local artists, under the master Nawang Tsering of the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies (Leh) - in clay, gold paint and copper.

One of the older monks told me the story about The Buddha`s Eyes - Buddhists do not worship statues and religious artifacts. A Buddha’s image is used as an inspiration for creating and spreading positive human qualities. The most important moment in the construction of the Buddha’s figure is when the eyes are painted on, for this is the moment when the statue can “see”. For this reason, the artist or monk will paint in Buddha’s pupils over his shoulder, with his back to the idol, for none will dare to look the Buddha in the eye. This statement intrigued my curiosity, and, upon returning, home I tried to gather additional information. I did find mention in the book "The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core Of Christianity," by Slavoj Zizek, that the artist can not look the statue in the face, but work with his back to it; painting sideways, or over his shoulder, using a mirror which catches the gaze of the image he is bringing to life. It goes on further to say that, once he is finished he now has a dangerous gaze himself, and is led away blindfolded. The blindfold is removed only after his eyes can fall on something that he then symbolically destroys. Perhaps someone who has knowledge of this subject matter could leave a comment on this article, and enlighten me as to these statements; I would appreciate it.

 
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                          Thiksey Gompa view                                                      Blowing conch shell (calling monks to prayer)                                         

The highlight of visiting the Ladakh monasteries is arriving very early in the mornings, and trying to witness the Puja (morning prayers). The monks are very co-operative, and, with a good guide they will give visitors a demonstration of blowing the horns  for the morning ritual.

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                                                              Announcing Puja (morning prayers)
The dungchen (Tibetan: dung chen ) is a long trumpet or horn used in Tibetan and Ladakhi Buddhist ceremonies. Dungchen are usually made in sections, so that they can be collapsed to be carried or stored easily. The low sound of the dung-chen can be heard when important lamas arrive at, or leave, the monastery, at dawn and sunset, before the beginning of rituals, and on some other important occasions.
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                          Disket Gompa Puja                          Yellow Hats Diskit Gompa
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                               Stakna Gompa                               Disket Gompa
Buddhist Monasteries are the key attractions to the tourists visiting the beautiful valley of Ladakh. Monasteries, or Gompas, are ancient structures, where Buddhist monks and nuns live, study, and practice their religion. Almost all of these historic monasteries are situated in scenic locations, on hills, and mountains. These main centres for worship belong to either the Red Hat sect, or the Yellow-Hat sect of Tibetan monasticism. These Gompas are undoubtedly beautiful, but are perched dangerously on the edge of craggy mountain faces or rocks.
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                                  Young monk from the "Red Hat Sect" blowing a Dung-kar on top of Hemis Gompa
(Dung-kar) conch shell horns (turbinella pyrum) were traded throughout the Indian subcontinent and the Tibetan plateau where they are used as ritual trumpets. In India and Nepal, they are a Hindu ritual tool associated with Vishnu called Sanka. In Tibet they are called Dunkar, one of the ubiquitous Tashi Tah Gay or eight auspicious symbols from Tibetan Buddhism. The instrument can be played in two ways – either by blowing through a hole that is drilled at the top of the conch, or by putting a special brass mouthpiece in the same hole and blowing through it. The sound of the conch is considered a good omen, and its` purpose is to announce the beginning of prayer, or to mark the peaceful nature of a ritual.

 


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