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Treasures From the Roof of the World: Professor Helps Museum in Exhibiting Tibetan Treasures


From Dateline (November 20, 2003)

Nawang Phuntsog
Nawang Phuntsog, associate professor in elementary and bilingual education, stands next to a Tibetan sculpture, “Lords of Dance,” a symbolic representation of life, death and rebirth. Phuntsog provided translations for the items on display at “Treasures from the Roof of the World,” an exhibit of Tibetan artifacts at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

Nawang Phuntsog, associate professor in elementary and bilingual education, was one of more than 120,000 who fled Tibet after its occupation by Chinese forces in 1959. A toddler at the time, he had no memory of his country but was instructed in its language and customs by exiled Tibetans who fashioned a new life in a small Indian town near the Tibetan border.

Recently, Phuntsog played an importanat role with the landmark exhibit at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. “Treasures From the Roof of the World,” a collection of nearly 200 priceless objects from the 1,000-room Potala Palace (built in the 1600s by the fifth Dalai Lama), features sculptures, paintings, textiles and ritual Buddhist objects. Phuntsog, who speaks, reads and writes Tibetan, was instrumental in providing translations that explain the origins of the various artifacts on display.

“This was an enormous undertaking for the Bowers Museum and I am very proud to be a part of it,” Phuntsog said. “Cal State Fullerton has always enjoyed a close relationship with the Bowers Museum –
specifically the Education Out-reach Program. And so about seven months ago, I was invited to meet with their administrators and curators. My job was two-fold: To provide translations for the artifacts on exhibit, and to help develop a curriculum guide for teachers who want their students to better understand Tibetan culture and its history.”

Phuntsog believes the exhibit is important in demonstrating how rich and sophisticated is Tibetan culture.

“There has been a great deal of propaganda, particularly by China, to reinforce the position that Tibetans are ignorant and backward,” he explained. “I don’t think anyone who sees this exhibit will come away with that perception. This exhibit showcases Tibet’s fine artistry, as well as the country’s history and culture. The essence of our culture is non-violence, compassion, wisdom and respect. All the artifacts are symbolic of these important messages.”

One artifact in particular, has special meaning for Phuntsog.

“There is a small statue of King Songsten Gampo from the 13th century,” he said. “When I had the opportunity to be in front of this statue, I looked very long and hard into its eyes. He was one of Tibet’s great leaders who united Tibet and introduced Buddhism and Tibetan letters of the alphabet during his rule in the eighth century. He is my cultural icon.”

The reference to “roof of the world” helps viewers understand the secluded location of the palace high in the mountains.

When the Tibetans revolted, declaring their independence in 1959, the Chinese military crushed them. The 14th Dalai Lama, considered the manifestation of Avalokiteshvara (the Lord of Compassion) whose role is to rescue others from suffering, fled along with his people.

Phuntsog finally met the Dalai Lama when His Holiness made an appearance on campus in 2000. Phuntsog was instrumental in bringing the Dalai Lama to the university, and he remains interested in helping others learn more about Tibetan culture. That interest led to his work with the Bowers exhibit.

“What’s important to keep in mind is that Tibetan culture is very symbolic in its nature and each piece in the museum must be understood with its symbolic representation in order for all to appreciate their true iconic significance. Tibet is a country where people invested much of their time and energy in spiritual pursuits to a degree we have not seen elsewhere,” he said.

Not a surprising admission from a man who has a banner in his office paying homage to Manjushri – the goddess of wisdom.

“This is why it’s important to understand Tibetan symbolism,” Phuntsog explained. “Manjushri holds both a book – an important symbol of wisdom – and a sword. The sword represents cutting ignorance but to someone unfamiliar with the symbolism, it could represent some sort of violence. ”

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