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Engaging Digital Tibet
Bronze, Iron, Gilt, Lapis, Coral, Carnelian, and Turquoise Mirror
From The Collections of the American Museum of Natural History
70.2/386 purchased in 1947 from Count S Walewski, owner of Esoterica,
East 56th Street,
New York City
The mirror is very pretty. Across it measures nineteen centimeters and, being slightly concave, 2.2 centimeters deep at its center. The reverse is cloth-covered, lacking an inscription.It is one of an identical pair. The American Museum of Natural History has no information about its history prior to purchase, such as where it was made, or when, and we only can speculate about its intended use as it falls outside of recognizable categories. Note the decorative lapis lazuli, coral, turquoise, and carnelian, organized into patterns reminiscent of eight flowers, interspersed with eight dots, and the relief cloud-like or wave-like inner border, which make it fancier than mirrors worn by soldiers. Then look closely at the outer rim, to find four tiny places where a leather thong might have been attached, as though it had been worn. The elaborate loveliness of its style of construction reminds one of mirrors worn by oracles but one crucial, defining element is missing, an engraved Tibetan syllable in the middle of the mirror; therefore it could not have functioned as an oracle's mirror. In short, with all the contradictory evidence, one hesitates to draw conclusions about the mirror's past. Did it start out as one sort of mirror only to be altered? If so, why?
The London auction house Spink was presented with a similiarly puzzling mirror only to conclude--rather than leave open
the question--that it was indeed an oracle's mirror; the rationale behind the conclusion was not provided. The 1995 catalogue features it on its cover. (
The mirror would have been constructed by casting the outer brass ring, cutting it to sized, adding the wavy relief design, inlaying the stones from the reverse side of the brass ring, then lastly, placing the concave mirrored iron surface within the outer ring.
With the absence of a provenance, one is left to contemplate the eccentric collector from whom the pair of mirrorss were purchased. In 1955 Walewski published "The System of Caucasian Yoga" based on esoteric teachings of Zoroastrianism. From the book's preface: "His shop, Esoterica, was not only a famous New York connoisseurs' landmark but the gateway of another world, in which magick, demons and talismans were as real as subways and neon signs. The Count firmly believed that he attracted these strange objects to him by a sort of higher magnetism of which he knew the workings; and his unrivalled collection seemed to prove his point."
Compare to a mirror with a seed-syllable.
Photograph of an
oracle wearing a mirror
Photograph of a seated (horse was cropped)
warrior wearing a mirror
The first mention of mirrors in a Buddhist context was the gift of a mirror by the goddess of light, Prabhavati to Shakyamuni Buddha. The stainless mirror represented the "clear karmic past of previous lives". Mirrors are one of eight auspicious substances in Tibetan Buddhism of Indic, pre-Buddhist origin--white mustard seeds, yogurt, precious medicine, durva grass, bilwa fruit, white conch, and vermilion powder, being the others. The ritual of pouring water over a mirror reflecting a sacred image, similiarly survived in Tibet (khrus gsol). The water which comes into contact with the reflected diety image is considered sacred.
The Tibetan word for mirror is melong. They were placed on shrines, usually in offering bowls; if used for divination called a thugs-kyi melong, a mirror of the mind; adorned the torsos of spirit-possessed oracles; employed in the consecration of thangkas; sprinkled with red sindhura powder for abisheka rituals; were worn front, back, and on the sides, over chain mail suits of the armor of warriors; attached to arrows symbolizing long life; and were symbols of the Dzogchen teachings.They are also to be found in book titles, such as the Crystal Mirror of Tenet Systems, a history of philosophy completed in 1802; or the Tibetan history, Clear Mirror: A Traditional Account of Tibet's Golden Age by Sakypa Sonam Gyaltsen; or the Crystal Mirror of Obligations and Prohibitions, for governmental officials, authored by the regent of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Desi Sangye Gyatso; or the Mirror of Poetics, a 6th century work on writing poetry; or The Mirror of Mindfulness: The Cycle of the Four Bardos by Tsele Natsok Rangdrol; or The Mirror: Advice on the Presence of Awareness by Namkhai Norbu, a contempary Tibetan master. Mirrors were used as illustrative teaching devices by Zen as well as Tibetan masters.
In Songs of Naropa author Thrangu Rinpoche explains mirror-like wisdom thusly:"...is the basic purity
of or the transformation of anger. Due to not knowing our innate nature, there is an instinctive attachment to the belief in a 'me'.
At the same time, there is an instinctive aversion towards that felt to be 'not me'--the 'other'. This clinging is very deep-rooted and
gives rise to intense fixation and manifold complexities. At the same time, there is always the possibility of the mirror-like wisdom.
The analogy here is that of a mirror: an image reflected in a mirror appears very distinctly, even though there is no 'thing' in the mirror.
It is empty of any substantial entity and yet visible. Once someone realizes the basic state and sees the empty nature of all things,
experience still takes place. Everthing is seen, but there is no attachment to these images as having any concrete substance. In this
way, there is no opportunity for anger to arise." (p.147) Relative to the above is "melong yeshe" or mirror-like wisdom, "the unobstructed appearance of all qualities of existence and enlightenment," as Thinley Norbu puts it in A Cascading Waterfall of Nectar (p.53) or equivalently, "always being unobstructed is mirrorlike wisdom" (p.280).
Below right, watch the video of the Sakya Trizin performing a long life ceremony for the Dalai Lama, for his 73rd year. The part of the ceremony featured displays a mirror atop a beribboned arrow, a dadar.
is Mandarava, a consort of the mythic figure
Padmasambhava, holding an arrow, called a dadar, topped with a
melong (just below the feather) and streaming yellow,
blue, red and white ribbons. She is associated with a long life
On the left is Dorje Yudronma, a worldly protector also
invoked for mirror divination. Dorje Yudronma
holding mirror in right hand and arrow in the left,
from a 19th century wall painting of a Drukpa
Kagyu temple in Bhutan. The image is from the
photographic collection of Francoise Pommaret.
Perhaps the translucence of the mirror is meant to indicate its
The third patriarch of Hua-yen Buddhism, Fa-tsang, was a writer of philosophical works. As a Buddhist master, his demonstrations of philosophy for his royal patrons were paradoxical. He built a hall of mirrors in order to illustrate for the Empress Wu-Zetian the doctrine of mutual interpenetration of all things; in the room of mirrors the shrine and Buddha statue reflected infinitely. (Incidentally, in Hua-yen Buddhism the alaya-vijnana is called the great ocean mirror.)
Here is another story, this one of a magic mirror taken from "When a Woman Becomes a Religious Dynasty: The Samding Dorje Phagmo " which concerns Kunga Sangmo, the second incarnation of the Samding Dorje Phagmo and the first reincarnation of Chokyi Dronma, who was a fifteenth century princess. Thangtong Gyalpo was one of her contemporaries. He is famous for having built iron chain bridges across the Brahmaputra River, one of which was used as recently as 1993. "Thangtong Gyalpo is said to have presented the young girl with a magic mirror that would become clearer and clearer the more it was wiped. This ritual item seems to epitomize her experience of being and becoming... In the narrative the mirror, along with the other gifts she recieved from Thangtong Gyalpo, seems an important metaphor that reflects the interaction among the girl, the master, and the community around them" (p.249).
Oracular practices and mirror divination were criminalized during the Cultural Revolution; oracles resumed practice around 1980, after the "more or less extraordinary reappearance of the mirrors" and, the Chinese legal reclassification of oracular
practices as "traditional custom".
From the photographic collection of Harry Staunton at the
Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, taken in 1940 in Lhasa during
a prayer festival, the Monlam Chenmo. The soldiers wore mirrors
front, sides, and back of the torso. The purpose of the mirrors
was "to witness" (personal communication).
Video of the present Nechung Oracle, Thupten Ngodup,
by Maud Kristen. His oracular pronouncements are
used by the Tibetan government.
Note the large decorated
mirror (thugs kyi melong) worn by the Oracle and
inscribed in its center with a syllable, the seed-syllable of a diety.
Regarding European history and the mirror, in antiquity we find the
myth of Narcissus as well as mirrors used
as symbols in the writings of Socrates and Seneca. Catoptromancy,
or divining the future with images in mirrors, was the subject of a
1932 book, La Catoptromancie grecque et ses derives; mirror divination
was practiced in the ancient Greek world. Catoptromancy is reported
through the nineteenth century in France.(The interested reader may
see p191 of The Mirror for specific instances.)
Hildegarde von Bingen, the twelfth century Christian mystic, wrote of God as analogous
to a mirror, "all works beyond age and time" contained therein. During the
thirteenth century encyclopedias were called specula, Latin for mirrors.
"In the Middle Ages, when the philosophical polarity between subject and
object did not exist 'speculation' was a consideration of a relationship between
two subjects like that between the mirror and what it reflects. This mode of
thought embraces all the visible world in that it resembles the invisible,
serving as a testing ground, providing clues with which man rises beyond
the known to the unknown...Saint Thomas Aquinas thusly linked 'speculation'
to the speculum: 'To see something by means of a mirror is to see a cause in
its effect wherein its likeness is reflected. From this we see that ' 'speculation' '
leads back to meditation.' " (The Mirror, p 113)
1. Ashencaen, Deborah. The Mirror of Mind: Art of Vajrayna Buddhism. Spink & Son, Ltd.,1995
2. Beer, Robert. Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols. Shambhala, 1999.
3.Giacomello, Orofino. "Divinations with Mirrors. Observations on a Simile Found in the Kalachakra Literature. in Tibetan Studies. Proceedings of the 6th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies. Fagernes, 1992. Vol 2 Edited by Per Kraerae.Published 1994 by the Institute for Comparativ Research in Human Cultures. Oslo.
4.Kapstein, Matthew. The Tibetans, Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
5.Diemberger, Hildegard. "Female Oracles in Modern Tibet" found in In Women in Tibet. Columbia University Press, 2005.
6.Melchoir-Bonnet, Sabine. The Mirror. Routledge, 2001.
7. Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Rene de. Oracles and Demons of Tibet: The Cult and Iconography of the Tibetan Protective Dieties.
Akademische Druck-u.Verlagsanstalt, 1975.
8. Norbu, Thinley. A Cascading Waterfall of Nectar. Shambhala, 2006.
9. Thrangu, Rinpoche. King of SamadhiL Commentaries on the Samadi Raja Sutra and the Song of Lodro Thaye. Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1994.
10. Zwalf, W. Heritage of Tibet, British Museum Publicatons, 1981.
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