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A different light.

In August 2003, ROM's Asian departments hosted a special visitor from India: the leader of a school of Tibetan Buddhism, one of several schools from the mountainous region of the Himalayas. He was equal in status, if not celebrity, to the Dalai Lama, the well-known leader of another school of Tibetan Buddhism.

The young Rinpoche, an honorific title used for high-ranking lamas that literally means "precious one," was genuinely interested in the beautiful and historical objects in our galleries and storage areas. His reaction to one object in particular--a long, slender ladle associated with tantric ritual--stands out in my mind. It had a black metal handle inlaid with gold designs and a scoop made out of the top part of a human skull, encircled with semi-precious stones. Skulls and bones are often used as Tibetan Buddhist ritual objects, serving as reminders of the ephemeral nature of the physical body. As I held it out for him to touch, he took one step backwards. The translator explained to me that he would not touch the object due to the energy it emanated. I was struck by the matter-of-fact nature of the comment. Working in a museum, I regularly encounter the power that objects hold, either through their history or the stories they preserve, but I had never witnessed so directly the energy that an object continues to convey even outside of its original context. Little did I know, the theme of energy would return again during the tour.

During that visit, at exactly 4:11 p.m., Toronto was plunged into the largest blackout in North American history, leaving 50 million people without electricity for as long as 41 hours. It prompted emergency declarations, disrupted transit, and left businesses scrambling. We were in the middle of our tour when darkness struck. But our guest seemed undeterred. Instead, he bounded up six flights of stairs when the elevator stopped working, ate cookies without tea when we couldn't boil water, and viewed the objects in the vaults by flashlight. Throughout the experience, his demeanour was kind, gentle, and serene, even as his entourage fussed. He embodied the Buddhist principle of non-attachment in the face of hardship caused by the blackout. It was as if he was in accord with forces beyond our recognition, to teach by example this small group in the back of the Museum about the limits of our physical comforts.

Later, as I walked the long distance home along with throngs of stranded people, my head was filled not with thoughts of the melting ice cream in my fridge, but of our special visitor. In Tibetan Buddhism, Rinpoches are believed to be reincarnations of spiritual teachers, enlightened beings like the Buddha. And I couldn't help but wonder about the coincidence of having one of Tibetan Buddhism's highest teachers--a beacon of light for so many believers--present as the city descended into darkness; a darkness that, in the coming days, taught people to turn not to their computers and TVs but to each other for support, comfort, and community. Through the darkness that summer, shone a different kind of light.

To read other recollections and to share your ROM story, visit

DEEPALI DEWAN is senior curator of South Asian Visual Arts in the ROM's Department of World Cultures.


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Title Annotation:ROM ReCollects
Author:Dewan, Deepali
Publication:ROM Magazine
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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