Tsatsas are traditional gypsum reliefs in the shape of Buddhas or other representative forms, such as stupas (special Buddhist monuments) and other auspicious symbols. They represent the enlightened qualities of our mind and are used by practitioners as support on the way to enlightenment. Looking at these Buddha aspects in the form of tsatsas creates a positive feedback in our mind. In addition to contemplating at the reliefs in meditation, the production is considered a meditation practice by itself.
The name tsatsa originates from Sanskrit. Therefore the roots for tsatsas can be traced back to ancient India as the most probable country of origin. They represent an even more vibrant, very ancient practice, as practiced in Indian Buddhist monasteries that date back several thousand years. They were already found in ruins of Buddhist monasteries from the 8th century in East India. The first publication about tsatsas in Tibet was done by the Italian Tibetologist Giuseppe Tucci in 1938.
The materials for the first Buddha reliefs were pure clay, fine dust and a small amount of fine vegetable fibre. Water was then added to the paste and stirred until it turned into hard clay. The clay was then pressed into a mold made of wood, stone or metal and then left to dry. Half way through the drying time the reliefs are post-processed with a sharp tool. Some were cooked in a fire or later painted with colour. In Tibet, a metal die or a yak horn in a leather pouch was used for carving the body. Since tsatsas are easy to make, Tibetans produced them in large numbers. It was part of the spiritual practice of a pilgrim; thus today they are still found on pilgrimage routes. As offerings to the Buddha or to stupas, practitioners placed them in prayer wheels, sacred caves and lakes, or on sacred mountains. In monasteries one can see them on the altars or on a specially designed tsatsa wall, where they are then fired and painted. The Tibetans use to place them on the family altar or carry small tsatsas in their gau (reliquary) with them, since it is said that they protect against demons and ghosts.
Types of Tsatsas Depending on the Occasion
- Filled with medicine (so-called “jewel pills”)
- Filled with mantra rolls or texts
- Mantras written on the back side
- Painted with the colours of the elements or decorated with different coloured bands (when filling a stupa)
- Filled with relics and blessed rice grains
- Production includes the ashes of deceased lamas, blessed water or an additional liquid deriving from mummified high lamas
- Finger or hand prints of the Lama on the back of a tsatsa
- Produced by the Lama himself
- Blessed in special ceremonies or initiations
Motivation and Benefits
Since tsatsas depict different Buddha aspects and connect us with the qualities of the respective Buddha, they are not just decoration. They are a symbol of the enlightened body, speech and mind of a yogi or lama and should therefore be handled with care. It is said that only seeing a Buddha statue or a tsatsa connects us with our own enlightened nature. Just looking at an image of Buddha eventually liberates oneself from all suffering. Even if someone looks at a Buddha statue or Tsatsa with negative thoughts, positive impressions are still formed in one’s mind. This may result in less sickness, longer lives, more joy and prosperity, and an elimination of obstacles in this life.
The great Indian master Atisha Dipamkara used to make Tsatsas every day of his life until his hands were completely encrusted with clay. His students said: “People talk already about the fact that such a great teacher like you writes with mud. In addition, you exhaust yourself too much. Why don’t you let us do that?” He replied: “What are you talking about? Will you soon also eat my food for me? To reach perfect Buddhahood you have to remove all negative karma and tendencies and acquire more and more spiritual qualities. Avoid slow and sporadic practice! Practice with zeal and from the bottom of your heart without ever having the feeling you had done enough!”
Today’s Production of Tsatsa’s in Diamond Way Buddhism in the West
Tsatsa workshops can be found in Diamond Way centres when stupa filling or statue exhibitions take place. Lamas that accompany the workshops in the form of retreats, such as the construction of the stupa in Greece or Linz, emphasise tsatsa building as a meditation practice. Furthermore, good impressions in our mind result from producing tsatsas, which are also amplified by the mantras that are said in the process of producing them.
High quality stewalin porcelain gypsum is slowly poured into the silicone relief forms. Afterwards they are dried, and then later manually corrected. For simple stupa tsatsas that look like small stupas, it is required that each little stupa is filled in the base. A certain type of plaster can be used, which is normally used for dental operations. As in ancient times, small stupas are painted in elemental colours. They have little contours; therefore the plaster is easier to pour into the relief forms. For all other Buddha aspects and reliefs only high quality stewalin should be used. Otherwise, there are too many bubbles that can only be arduously corrected. The fine faces of the Buddhas should always be perfect. Especially in the stupa filling process, the lama ensures that the highest possible quality tsatsas is achieved. Building materials such as cement must be avoided during the casting phase.
According to classical texts, the production of 100 000 tsatsa units is considered a meditation practice that brings great benefit. Nevertheless, five tsatsas are the least amount one should try to complete. During this meditation practice, in the same way as when doing mantra rolling and statue filling, the practitioner avoids meat, alcohol, garlic, onions or leeks.
The lamas who prepare the stupas to be filled would not judge the quality of a tsatasa. Usually, they try to achieve the best possible result for the tsatsa, then plate or paint it in colour and a write a mantra on the backside of the Tsatsa. The opening of the Buddha’s eyes is done at the very end of the process by a certain person. This is done by drawing the eyes on the tsatsa. When preparing a stupa to be filled, the lama should exactly calculate how many tsatsas are necessary. It is not considered auspicious to make too many tsatsas.
As it became clear during the Munich statue exhibition in 2004, a tsatsa workshop is very welcome. Children and adults have great pleasure to pour their own reliefs, and they normally adore the results. Additionally, visitors that watch this process get positive impressions in their mind. The highest quality should always be aimed at, since there is no time to make corrections afterwards. Simple shapes combined with high quality silicone stewalin are recommended.
Where Should Tsatsas be Stored?
Since they are images of Buddha or Buddha aspects, tsatsas should be handled as sacred objects, i.e. treated with respect and mindfulness. A good place to put them is the altar, on which others can see them. Only by seeing them the observer will gain benefit. If tsatsas are given to friends and relatives as gifts, it is strongly recommended that these avoid putting the tsatsas on the ground, but rather in a nice place.
In traditional workshops, broken tsatsas that could no longer be corrected were always placed in the back row so that no one could see them. Since they were made of clay, they were offered to the Nagas (formless beings, which live in the water and under the earth) later on by leaving them in the nature. Currently, there is a gypsum workshop in a monastery in France, which is specialized in recycling tsatsas. It uses the recycled material to build private houses. The rationale is that one is still dealing with Buddha aspects. Therefore, broken or uncorrectable tsatsas can be used again for someone from the Buddhist community, who for example intends to build a house.
Author: Heide Hauser (translation from German into English by Tiffany)
Refuge from Lopon Chechoo Rinpoche in 1993
A member of the Diamond Way Buddhism Artgroup,