A Different Light during the Toronto Blackout
- 2000 - 2010
During the Summer of 2003, those of us in the Asian section of the Royal Ontario Museum hosted a special visitor from India: the leader of a school of Tibetan Buddhism, one of several schools from the mountainous region of the Himalayas. He was equal in status, if not celebrity, to the Dalai Lama, the well-known leader of another school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Curatorial sections often get calls about visiting VIP's and, in this case, we had been approached by a local Buddhist temple to arrange a behind-the-scenes tour for His Holiness, which we were happy to do. The young Rinpoche, an honorific title used for high ranking Lamas that literally means "precious one," showed genuine interest in the beautiful and historical objects we showed him in our galleries and storage areas. He admired our thangka paintings and commented that artists who did this kind of work no longer survive. His reaction to one object in particular stands out in my mind: a long, slender ladle associated with tantric ritual. It had a black metal handle inlaid with gold designs and a scoop on one end made out of the top part of a human skull that was encircled with semi-precious stones. Skulls and bones are often used in Tibetan Buddhist ritual objects, serving as reminders of the ephemeral nature of the physical body. As I held it out for him to touch, he took one step backwards. The translator explained to me that he would not touch the object due to the energy it conveyed. I was struck by the matter-of-fact nature of the comment. While I regularly encounter the power that objects hold while working in a museum, through the history and stories they preserve, I had never been presented so directly with the actual energy that an object continues to convey even outside of its original context. Little did I know, the theme of energy would return again during the tour.
Indeed, His Holiness’s visit coincided with something else unforgettable: on August 14th at exactly 4:11pm, Toronto was plunged into the largest blackout in North American history that left 50 million people without electricity for up to 41 hours. It prompted emergency declarations, disrupted transit, and left businesses scrambling. We were in the middle of our tour when darkness struck. But our guest seemed undeterred. Instead, he bounded up six flights of stairs when the elevator stopped working, ate cookies without tea when we couldn't boil water, and viewed the objects in the vaults by flashlight. Throughout the experience, his demeanor was kind, gentle, and serene, even as his entourage fussed. One could even say that he embodied the Buddhist principle of non-attachment in the face of hardship caused by the blackout. It was as if he was in accord with forces beyond our recognition, to teach by example this small group in the back of the museum about the limits of our physical comforts.
Later, as I walked the long distance home along with throngs of other stranded downtown workers, my head was filled not with thoughts of the melting ice cream in my fridge, but of our special visitor. In Tibetan Buddhism, Rinpoche’s are believed to be reincarnations of spiritual teachers, enlightened beings like the Buddha. And indeed, one of the most potent symbols of the Buddha’s enlightenment is light. And I couldn’t help but wonder about the coincidence, or perhaps irony, of having one of Tibetan Buddhism’s highest teachers, a beacon of light for so many believers, present as the city descended into darkness. A darkness that, in the coming days, taught people to turn not to their computers and tv’s but to each other for support, comfort, and community. Through the darkness shone a different kind of light: a great lesson was learned by all that summer.