Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Reading Material Culture

I want to share with you this wonderful photo which I have on my computer desktop. The photo is of a chaitya in the Khumbhu Valley in Nepal with the beautiful Ama Dablam in the background. (Everest is hidden from view - if you need directions, turn right at the top of the valley and keep climbing till there is nowhere else to go but down!) I have never been to this part of Nepal but have had the privilege of trekking in other similar valleys. The photo was taken by my old friend Dr Cheong of Korea.

I love this photo principally because the view up the Khumbhu Valley is breathtakingly beautiful. Ama Dablam must be one of the most elegant mountains in the world. But I love the photo also because of its humanity. The chaitya is an item of funerary architecture seen in many different varieties throughout the Buddhist world.

We can learn a lot about people from the things they make - their material culture. Here are some profound lessons we can learn from this single photo:

  1. Material culture demonstrates God's image in people. Humans are created by God in his image. Here the chaitya bears a remarkable resemblance to the mountain at whose foot it was built. When people create material culture they reflect the image of God in them. Just as the mountain has form and beauty, so also the chaitya has form and beauty. Culture reflects nature. That is, our creativity reflects God's creativity.
  2. Material culture demonstrates that people have "eternity in their hearts" (Ecclesiastes 3:11). This particular artefact is thought to be a memorial for someone who died. Why do we need such a memorial if people live and die and are no more? This life is not all there is. Humans have a profound sense that this is so and show that in their creative activity.
  3. Material culture may demonstrate a sense of transcendence: there is more to reality than the world as we see it. Just as the Himals point upwards to another realm so the chaitya also points upwards. Though men and women choose not to know their transcendent creator but reject him and become foolish in their thinking (Roms 1:21) nevertheless some knowledge of him is retained. It is corrupt and inadequate but it is real. And it is expressed materially.
  4. Material culture may demonstrate a need for a saviour. The stones on this chaitya are carved with the Mahayanist mantra Om mani padme hum - Hail jewel of the lotus blossom. It is the mantra utterred by millions of Mahayana Buddhists many times a day in devotion to the bhodisattva Avolokitesvara, a.k.a. Karunamaya. A bodhisattva, in Mahayana Buddhism, is a person who has attained enlightenment but has not yet gone to nirvana; he has chosen to stick around to help other people. As Karunamaya he is the one who came to the Kathmandu Valley and saved it from peril at the hands of the capricious nagas. He is a saviour figure in Buddhist mythology. From what do we need saving? How can we be saved? These are questions this particular artefact can't answer. That is why the Khumbhu Valley, as many other valleys, need someone to bring them the story of the creator who is also the saviour.

No comments:

Post a Comment