In May, I explained how to hang a thangka. In that post, I made a distinction between the heavy ties at the top of the frame, intended to support the weight of the thangka, and a thinner cord at the front intended to hold the silk drape. Now, if you’ve had your thangka hung on the wall since May and can’t figure out how to get that silk drape out of the way, this post is for you.
The original purpose of the silk drape was probably to protect uninitiated practitioners from seeing imagery which they were not yet prepared to integrate.
Tantric practices of Buddhism are passed from master to initiate through direct instruction and empowerment rituals. These empowerments or initiations serve to activate the practitioner’s innate potential for realization. Traditionally, they were also a way for a spiritual teacher to manage the pace of instruction to coincide with a student’s progress. Students were expected to have a deep understanding of sutra and a direct experience of emptiness before entering the tantric path. Images of tantric deities were to be seen only by the initiated, who had attained a level of understanding which would allow them to interpret and use the images positively, and effectively. Under these circumstances, a cover served to keep the images hidden between practice sessions, when the uninitiated may have been present.
These days, images of tantric deities are widely visible in books, shops, museums, and on the internet. And lamas are granting empowerments liberally. The silk cover’s protection has become somewhat superfluous.
Moreover, peaceful deities like Tara and Avalokiteshvara and idealized images of historic figures like Buddha Shakyamuni and Guru Padmasambhava were never meant to be hidden. So no cover was necessary (unless perhaps it served to cover the image in a person’s home when they engaged in activities they’d rather the buddhas didn’t know about).
Over time, the silk drape became a traditional element of the thangka mounting and now serves mostly as decoration.
If kept down, it may also protect the thangka to some extent from the damaging effects of dust and light. But most of us who have thangkas in our homes prefer to see them and be inspired by them daily.
In the photos below, I demonstrate a method for arranging the drape in a decorative flourish at the top of the thangka:
If your thangka mounting also has long silk ribbons hanging from the top, you have a choice. You can leave them hanging freely in front of the thangka if you like the look. Or, if you prefer to get them out of the way, you can take them over the upper bar of the mounting and let them hang down the back.
Enjoy living with your thangkas and let them inspire you daily!