Ancient Tibetan Book Covers at UMMA

Tibetan Book Covers? On now and running through April 2, 2017 at the University of Michigan Museum of Art is “Protecting Wisdom: Tibetan Book Covers From the MacLean Collection.” I’d never heard of Tibetan book covers as a special art form, and maybe for good reason: this is the first exhibition in the United States devoted to this subject, which was virtually unknown until “discovered” in recent years. The MacLean Collection is a museum, outside Chicago, founded by Barry MacLean and his wife Mary Ann who began collecting the book covers in the late 1990s, mainly through auctions. Now we are the happy public who will lay eyes on these amazing once hand-held sculptures. This is exciting for all the public no matter how much or little you know about Tibetan art. Thirty-three covers are showcased, dating from the 11th to the 18th centuries. There are no texts within the covers; they would have housed and protected various sacred Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts over the centuries. Two of the covers were discovered in Mongolia, where Tibetan Buddhism, sometimes called Lamaism, was a predominant faith. Another cover can be dated with some precision to 1290-1298, corresponding to the death of the Kublai Kahn. Two are associated with the Chinese Ming Emperor Yongle (who reigned from 1402 to 1424) one of first Chinese rulers after the overthrow of the Mongols. The rest were recovered from Tibet, itself, which developed its own vigorous branch of Buddhism after the introduction of Buddhism in the 8th century A.D.

Tibetan Books? Since its origin, c. 500 B.C., Buddhism has had a great love of learning and knowledge and writing on all subjects. The original “proto-canon” of Buddhism consisted of the memories of the followers of the Buddha written on palm fronds, pieces of wood, anything, and tossed into one of three baskets. In later centuries “books” consisted of stacks of unbound, two-sided paper manuscript pages, wrapped in a cloth and sandwiched by a pair of wooden covers or “book boards” (the subject of the exhibition). The entire block was held together by a leather strap wound several times around and tied with a metal buckle. As in all civilized cultures, books were afforded a place of honor in private Tibetan homes. In temples, bookshelves housing the Tibetan canon stood by the main altar and have done so since the early ninth century. They are sometimes regarded in a talismanic fashion, believed to bestow power, protection and blessings, and this sanctity accounts for the many rules regarding their care and handling. For example, they cannot be placed on the floor, touched with the feet, stepped over or stored in a low-lying space. It’s exactly the opposite for the farrago, the hodgepodge of my personal book collection, sections of which serve as a stepladder to reach top shelves, where I keep the liquor.

Buddhist Art. The artistic significance of the exhibition is the artistic excellence of the covers themselves, quiet apart from history and religious sensibility. These are magnificent woodcarvings, on hardwood that doesn’t grow in the Himalayas, sometimes painted, often repainted, gilded and decorated inside and out and on both ends. On some you can see the layers of paint, missing paint or small empty rectangles where replacement pieces have fallen out. And keep in mind that these are five hundred to a thousand years old. In a poignant historical flourish you will see the signs of the Communist Chinese who used the book covers as breadboards. You will see the slicing marks. In fact the savage Commies drove the cream of Tibetan Buddhism right out of Tibet, right down to the Dalai Lama. Much of that cream rose (or fell) to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Google Michigan Buddhism Ann Arbor and you will find fourteen serious going concerns, temples, societies, centers, meditation groups, mindfulness organizations, and entire sanghas (devoted communities). One, the Tsogyelgar sangha is a tranquil must-see and has the only stupa (dome-shaped reliquary) that I’ve ever walked around (clockwise). Another, Jewel Heart was founded by Gelek Rimpoche, nephew of the 13th Dalai Lama. Gelek is famous for being the guru of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and composer Philip Glass. Jewel Heart offers free lectures, meditation, even tea and cookies. So much Buddhism, so little time! Or is there? The UMMA is always free and open to the public, and while you’re there check out their permanent display of Buddhist art.

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