NOTE: This feature first appeared on the Icons of Kemet Blogger blog on March 12, 2015
Some people may regard icons as belonging to the past; how do you think icons can relate to, or even enrich, the modern world?
The first thing that comes to mind is an experience I had in June of 2000, when the Office of Tibet
invited me to participate in a blessing ceremony the Dalai Lama would be leading as part of an initiative to promote non-violence within the inner city youth community of Los Angeles. A special intimate morning with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, hosted by actress Sharon Stone, had been arranged in the Hollywood Hills, which I attended as part of this larger project. The entire Shi-Tro Mandala for Universal Peace project was being initiated around a single sacred object, a three-dimensional Tibetan mandala that was scheduled to travel to different communities throughout the United States, which would benefit the initiative for non-violence. The hope was that spiritual tools such as meditation could be promoted within communities where at-risk youth were prevalent, that the Shi-Tro Mandala would itself be a springboard for social awareness of the importance of developing mental and emotional peace...also to address the issues of domestic violence and anger management.
During this event, before His Holiness actually blessed the mandala, he gave a very animated talk about the importance of mindfulness and how changing our perspective, changing our attitude was the first step towards the development of inner peace. That was one reason why, from his perspective, things like mandalas could be instrumental, because they were training tools for the mind. They had the ability to gather our mental focus and lock it in place, so that we could start doing the necessary internal "legwork" for sharpening our mind. At one point he began discussing the actual construction of the Shi-Tro Mandala, and affirmed that from his point of view such spiritual objects could actually put an imprint on one's karma, basically planting seeds for awareness that could ripen in the future. There was this idea that just by setting eyes on the Shi-Tro Mandala, one could generate a blessing whose effects could be seen not only in this life, but in future lives as well.
This touches on your question...how can icons relate to, even enrich, the modern world. A Tibetan
mandala may not be an icon from the Western perspective of what an icon should be, however, I feel that my experience with the Shi-Tro Mandala that morning held up a powerful example for me as an iconographer of the way in which sacred or spiritual images can be used to impact lives in the material world. I mean, here I was, in the Hollywood Hills, in the center of what some people might say is the Mecca of materialism and greed, and yet I saw this very ancient meditation form, this three-dimensional Tibetan Buddhist mandala, and the effect it had on those who came into contact with it. They had invited a group of inner city youths, some who had been in prison, and gave them the opportunity to share their stories and to view the mandala. You could see that being in the presence of the Dalai Lama made a certain impression on them, but also seeing this amazing spiritual structure, this large Tibetan shrine housing the Shi-Tro Mandala. You could feel a very tangible energetic exchange between these young people and the mandala. It definitely made an impression on them, and one can hope that it triggered some kind of desire to move towards inner peace, spiritual clarity.
That really is my answer to this question, that icons or similar sacred images can touch the mind and change one's perspective. An icon, by using strong symbols, the language of symbols, can elicit a positive and constructive response, or trigger an emotional reaction that awakens things that have been buried deep in the subconscious. Because of such an experience, a person may be able to come to terms with things inside them that need release or relief. Icons work on a different level than our commonplace, everyday stimuli, from my perspective as a painter of icons. They represent the invisible world, the world of faith, which for most people means a certain amount of hope or certainty. Catholics see the crucifix and are immediately reminded of the sacrifice their faith tells them was given on their behalf. This gives them a feeling of hope or strength, and when we feel hope and strength in our convictions, then we feel that there is a way to move ahead, to change or grow or improve our human condition. In my view, this is what icons do for us. They work deep down inside us, in our psyches, touching us in a very personal way, using our relationship with symbols as a catalyst for touching our faith, the Sacred, in the most immediate way possible.