Campus: CSU Fullerton -- January 05, 2004
Faculty Member Helps Launch Museum Exhibit of Tibetan Treasures
Nawang Phuntsog was one of more than 120,000 who fled Tibet after its
occupation by the 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 the exiled Tibetans who fashioned a new life in a small Indian
town near the Tibetan border.
This year, the associate professor of elementary and bilingual education
at Cal State Fullerton played an important role in helping to mount
a landmark exhibit of Tibetan treasures at the Bowers Museum in Santa
“Tibet: Treasures From the Roof of the World,” an exhibit
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 through May 16.
“This was an enormous undertaking for the Bowers Museum, and I
am very proud to be a part of it,” said Phuntsog. “Cal State
Fullerton has always enjoyed a close relationship with the Bowers Museum
— specifically the Education Outreach program — and so about
eight 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 Tibetan culture is.
“There has been a great deal of propaganda, particularly by China
to reinforce their 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. When
I had the opportunity to be in front of this statue, I looked very long
and hard into its eyes,” he said. “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
The reference to “roof of the world” helps exhibit visitors
understand the secluded location of the palace, high in the mountains.
In fact, Tibet has a long history of interacting with its neighbors
— importing Buddhism from India in the seventh century and developing
diplomatic relations with the Mongols, India, Nepal, Bhutan and others
throughout the ages.
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’s
family was among those who fled with him into India.
Phuntsog finally met the Dalai Lama when His Holiness made an appearance
at Cal State Fullerton 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. He also was tapped by E! Entertainment Television
to comment on Buddhism for a profile that aired this week about actor
“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,” he said. “Tibet is a country
where people invested much of their time and energy in spiritual pursuits
to a degree we have not seen elsewhere.”
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,”
“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.”
“Tibet: Treasures From the Roof of the World” is on display
from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays at Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main
St., Santa Ana, (714) 567-3600.
Media Contacts: Valerie Orleans, Public Affairs, (714) 278-4540 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Nawang Phuntsog (714) 278-2098 or email@example.com