Until a year ago I had NO idea there were intricate international, government and law enforcement bodies dedicated to protecting old stuff. Registries of things-people-might-want-to-steal and valuable-stuff-that-doesn’t-look-it abound, including registries of already looted relics and art. In principle I’m glad people care about history, prize beauty, etc. I’m less impressed by rich people wanting to protect or even escalate the value of their abstract investments. I’m really frustrated at being forced to the wrong end of this good-intentioned scheme that has no independent system of justice. Those in positions of power get to use it to their advantage. Period. Oftentimes they’re working for good and playing fair, but when it’s for bad, too bad.
When my brother John and I were given a relic in 2008 while on a trip to China and Tibet I never imagined I would be lamenting such a thing.
(Wondering about my political views on Tibet… see my Anti-political Disclaimer.)
The relic was taken from me and Brooklyn (John’s widow) at a physics conference in Turkey a year later. Brooklyn began an invited talk on the relic and its relationship to John’s unconventional observations of physics, and ten minutes in UNESCO’s cultural property police, who were waiting in the wings, confiscated it. I suspect Dr. Bernie Ghes orchestrated the whole thing. He’s been wanting to get his hands on it ever since John’s death. Death to the relic too. I’m guessing his wish has come true and it’s been bagged and labeled into oblivion.
Our gift was stolen from us by bad guy good guys.
Here’s a stylized rendering of the carvings found on and WITHIN the relic. Again, we never dreamed it would be stolen and have little record of it other than what we remember. My friend Peter created this last summer from sketches and descriptions I provided.
The relic looked basically like a dingy, lumpy brick. It was hundreds of years old and apparently made of rock that is common but sacred in Tibet, not a man-made material like metal or ceramic. “Positive” and “negative” carvings, in the pattern you see here in the top frame, decorated opposite faces of the brick. The patterns of the bottom two frames were visible as carvings only when the brick was pried open at its two center seems. So in each case there was a carving and its “negative” on opposite faces. A three-dimensional puzzle of sorts.
Another friend Cam, a philosophy grad student, was the one who noticed the seams along the uncarved sides and proposed prying at them. Luckily, at the moment we had butter lamps at our disposal, and that did the trick getting the old joined together pieces to release.
John never saw the relic open so he only saw 1/3 of its content. Relic aside, he was fixated on wave-particle duality. So the pattern he saw (the first frame) on the relic bolstered his fascination (though at least one friend has joked it looks like a snake with a tumor). What he always described when he talked about the relic was its, how do I put it, magical properties. He claimed that the relic changed in unpredicted ways in different types of light. He died the same night he took it out for a moonlight ride – to see if he might discover different properties in that kind of light.
Early on I was more interested in establishing connections to the relic’s origin. The discovery of the embedded carvings opened up a whole new question in my mind of the significance of the set of carvings though. Recently, with the visit to the Chenpo Terma, the two perspectives finally converged.
The carvings on the relic and “portrait” in the Chenpo Terma are not connected to the existing understanding of Dolpopa’s 14th century central doctrines (on emptiness) in an obvious way. Still, both terma, literally “wisdom treasures,” are ascribed significance by those who know his doctrines well. Which leads me to conclude they may have significance all their own. Could they represent cosmological extensions of Dolpopa’s doctrinal work? It’s entirely possible that esoteric gnostics actively pursued such insights up until the middle of the 17th century. Not coincidentally, that is was when Tibet’s civil war ended, and all but Gelukpa (the dominant “yellow hat” sect headed by the Dalai Lama) doctrine was banished.