Phuntsok Dorje

Tibetan Buddhist Altar

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This article by Vickie Schlegel was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper

on November 24, 1999. All rights reserved.

Tales of a Journey, From a Sacred Realm

The gritty streets of Newark seem an unlikely location

to discover a thriving outpost of a disappearing Asian culture —

an ancient culture, steeped in spirituality and ritual, whose home

is at the "roof of the world" some 7,500 miles away. Yet


unlikely, the surprising Newark Museum does indeed house the largest

repository of Tibetan artifacts in the Western hemisphere. And on

Friday, November 26, the museum will recreate the spirit of a lively

traditional Tibetan festival as part of its ongoing major exhibition,

"From the Sacred Realm: Treasures of Tibetan Art," which


on view through January 20.

How did this rare collection — over 1,000 objects encompassing

every facet of Tibetan life — find its way to Newark? It was a

chance shipboard meeting in 1910 that led to the Newark Museum’s first

Tibetan acquisitions. Edward Crane, a founding trustee of the then

two-year-old museum, struck up a friendship with an American medical

missionary, Albert Shelton. Shelton was traveling back to America

after six years in Tibet. The destruction of temples during the


border war had provided him with the opportunity to acquire some


items during his stay, which he agreed to lend to the Newark Museum.

After Crane’s death roughly a decade later, Shelton’s family donated

the collection to the museum. The bulk of the holdings grew in the

next 40 years through forays to Tibet by Shelton and three other


along with the treasures later donated by New York financier, C.



This breathtaking exhibition required five years of preparation and

offers over 300 items, including scroll paintings, brass sculpture,

historical photographs, intricate brocade fabrics, and exquisitely

worked silver. The carefully selected items span 12 centuries, and

are among the best the museum owns. "This is when we’re showing

our real masterpieces," says curator Valrae Reynolds, who has

nurtured this collection for 30 years.

Why and how it is that Tibetan art and spiritual traditions are so

extraordinary is a question with no simple answer. As a tribal people

subsisting in the harsh Himalayan environment, Tibetans had, since

time immemorial, imbued their land and the objects they relied on

for their survival with a sense of the sacred. Before Buddhism, the

region’s tribes were united by a theocracy, which attributed divine

powers to an inherited chiefdom. When Buddhism was introduced in the

early 9th century, it initially coexisted with the indigenous


As it gradually supplanted the native theocracy, reincarnation was

introduced into Buddhism, replacing inheritance as the means for



"From the Sacred Realm" is presented in three sections:


and Valleys" and "Castles and Tents" are on the first

floor; "Courtyards and Temples" are in the upstairs galleries.

In the "Castles and Tents" section visitors will find some

of the masterpieces Reynolds mentions. Three tents, never before


together because of limited space, are the focus of the gallery. Two

are spacious and colorful appliqued festival tents designed to


accommodate Tibetan nobility. The other tent, woven of rough, dark

yak hair, sits low to the ground in stark contrast to the others,

before a photograph of proud-faced nomads who relied on tents like

this one to shelter them from the elements at elevations up to 28,000


You can see such a broad spectrum of Tibetan life thanks to curators

dedicated to acquiring the artifacts of daily living as well as sacred

art. As Reynolds says, "This collection shows the richness of

the culture in all its aspects."

A unique dimension of "From the Sacred Realm" is a commitment

to incorporating present-day Tibetan people amidst the backdrop of

their history. Significantly, the museum has a strong relationship

with two Tibetan monasteries that exist in New Jersey. You can, for

instance, watch a living work of Tibetan art develop right on the

museum’s first floor. Just before entering the "Castles and


area stands the low platform in the Eweson Gallery where Phuntsok

Dorje sits at work. Dorje is a Tibetan artist with a long history

of collaboration with the Newark Museum. On weekends through January

16, he will work from 1 to 4 p.m. on a sacred scroll painting, called

a "tangka," that depicts the Buddhist deity Tara.

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Phuntsok Dorje

With the deity Tara sitting serenely beside him swathed in clouds,

Dorje freely talks to museum visitors about his art. Now a resident

of Manhattan, he was trained in Sikkim in the sacred Tibetan style,

and uses traditional materials as much as possible. Though his present

brushes are store-bought, he has made brush tips from a goat’s fur,

and another from a willing neighbor’s cat’s hair. Dorje must be


to tradition to complete the "tangka" properly, for these

images are believed to embody a living presence. In order to invoke

a sacred presence on cotton cloth, there are strict rules that Tibetan

artists must follow, down to the physical proportions of each deity.

Once his "tangka" is finished, it will join the museum’s


collection. Similar completed examples of scroll paintings in all

of their riotous greens, reds, oranges and blues hang upstairs in

the "Courtyards and Temples" galleries. Their debt to Indian

and Chinese Buddhist art is apparent in both style and content. The

deep cultural connections of these countries, born of trade and a

shared religion, are elucidated in the permanent Asian galleries


in the museum.

As you wander through the second floor galleries, be prepared for

a rare experience. To properly house its Tibetan religious objects,

the Newark Museum commissioned an authentic Tibetan altar. It is an

oasis of sacred calm and serene beauty — a little-known treasure

that, once discovered, brings some visitors back to the museum again

and again.

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Tibetan Buddhist Altar

At the time of its original construction in 1935, the

Newark Museum’s was the first Tibetan Buddhist altar in America.


in 1988, the altar was reconstructed and renovated with the counsel

of the local Tibetan community. From 1989 to ’90, Phuntsok Dorje


the room’s ceiling, columns, and walls with vivid painted layers of

clouds, flowers, and dragons. Behind a bright red railing stands the

golden altar laden with butter lamps, flowers, scripture, and statues

of Buddhist deities. In 1990 the altar was consecrated by the Dalai

Lama himself, who left a white scarf, which still rests here


as a symbol of purity.

This year Phuntsok Dorje returned to the Newark Museum to paint a

new extension to the altar that looks into the altar and contains

a photo of the Dalai Lama, as well as a bench for contemplation or


Not far from the altar stands a small room that offers a striking

contrast in mood. Modeled after the traditional Tibetan "Chapel

of Fierce Protectors," it exudes a menacing, fiercely fascinating

atmosphere. Dorje picked the deep orange tones used for the room which

is traditionally kept in darkness except for a few flickering butter

jar lamps. Arrayed around the room are the accouterments of tantric

Buddhism. These objects are nightmarishly alien to Western eyes: a

skull drum, a thigh bone trumpet, a cast-iron chopper blade emerging

from the fanged mouth of a monster.

Walk farther into "Courtyards and Temples" for some of the

artfully crafted instruments of a Tibetan monastic orchestra. Two

telescopic brass horns capable of extending to over five feet curve

over drums and silver trumpets. Horns like these require two monks

to hold them.

Further on, don’t miss the display of intricately patterned textiles

and brightly-hued traditional costumes. Silks from China, Japan,


Asia, and even Europe were imported as early as the 7th century, and

used for altar coverings, capes, canopies, and other temple


Sometimes a patchwork of these foreign cloths were sewn together into

a whimsical combination of stripes, flowers, and other patterns.

Near the back of this floor is a video-screening area with documentary

tapes which augment a selection of videos that are shown on small

screens throughout the exhibit. Some of the footage consists of rare

black-and-white films shot by C. Cutting in the 1930s. These old,

grainy films provide a precious record of a way of life that has


been destroyed since the Chinese occupation began in 1959. One film,

"Music and Dance: Celebrating Tibetan Festivals" shows footage

of past and present religious festivals. Today these cultural events

have disappeared from Tibet along with the stratified social system

of noble families that supported them.

"The mayor or a noble family would sponsor the performance and

it would go on for days," explains curator Reynolds, describing

a typical festival. "It was a chance to catch up some gossip and

do some eating and drinking." Social occasions were especially

anticipated by nomads who roamed isolated for most of the year atop

the vast, empty "roof of the world."

The Newark Museum’s "Totally Tibet" family day on Friday,

November 26, is a partial recreation of such an exciting festival

atmosphere. The day after Thanksgiving is always one of the museum’s

busiest public days, with theme events based on a major exhibition.

Saturday and Sunday’s activities revolve around the sand mandala and

how it is made. This circular Buddhist representation of the sacred

is intricately constructed out of grain after grain of sand, only

to be ceremonially swept away soon after completion. The sand mandala

is a powerful symbol for the impermanence of life. Sadly, it is now

also a metaphor for the Tibetan culture, which has been all but


swept away. Thanks to the Newark Museum, some part of it will endure.

— Vickie Schlegel

The Newark Museum, 49 Washington Street, Newark,


Admission and all events are free. Call 800-7-MUSEUM for more


and directions, or visit the website at

Open Wednesdays through Sundays, noon to 5 p.m., Thursdays until 8:30.

Closed Thanksgiving .

Totally Tibet Family Festival:

Friday, November 26:

Tibetan singers and dancers: Chaksam-pa, Tibetan Dance and Opera


will perform authentic festival dances in the auditorium at 1 and

3 p.m. These are not religious dances, but whirling and stomping party


Participatory workshops from 1 to 4 p.m. include: Miniature


tent workshop in which children can make and bring home their own

decorated festival tent based on the exhibition’s large formal tent.

Monastic dance mask workshop to make and keep a life-size masks

similar to the guardian mask in the collection and to those worn by

traditional Tibetan dancers. Tangka Painting Workshop led by

Phuntsok Dorje who teaches participants to make a flower in the sacred

Tibetan style.

Artists in Action features a sand mandala demonstration

by Tibetan monks, continuing Saturday and Sunday, from 1 to 4 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday, November 27 and 28:

Weekend activities include Tibetan Sand Painting workshops at 1, 2,

and 3 p.m. The sand mandala demonstration by Tibetan monks continues

from 1 to 4 p.m.

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