Buddhist Amulets – Tsa-tsa
Any traveller venturing into remote areas where Buddhism is practiced will certainly come across examples of clay tablets deposited within stupas, holy caves and monastery alters. These clay tablets are known as tsa-tsa and are believed to have originated in India. In Eastern India tsa-tsa dating from the 8th century have been found in Buddhist ruins.
Tsa-tsa are clay impressions made with a metal mold containing the hollowed, reversed image of a deity or sacred symbol. The stamped images are dried in the sun and in some cases fired into hardness. In many cases the amulets may be empowered by engraving a mantra on the back. The reverent method by which these amulets are produced ensures that each one is transformed into a receptacle for sacred power.
Tsa-tsa were traditionally created in connection with pilgrimages to sacred places. Travelers carried metal molds with them to sacred sites and upon arrival would collect holy clay to make the tablets reciting mantras while they worked. This activity was considered a meritorious action which generated an abundant dose of auspiciousness for the creator and his family. Sometimes a pilgrim would stay in a place for weeks pressing an auspicious number of amulets. Some of these would usually be left at the site as offerings. Others would be kept or shared as sacred objects.
Tsa-tsa traditionally played an important role in funeral practices. After a person passed away a ceremony was performed which might have lasted several weeks. A lama would read from sacred text in front of an effigy of the deceased. At the conclusion of the readings the paper print representing the deceased would be burned in a final ceremony, mixed with clay and a number of tsa-tsa would be created by a relative or close friend. These amulets would have been deposited at the gates of a monastery or left under the ledges of a sacred site. Funeral tsa-tsa would not have been kept in the home.
The use of tsa-tsa is not confined to areas of Tibetan influence only. In southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Burma tsa-tsa are extremely valued as amulets and often worn around the neck.
These amulets are still being produced in the traditional clay form as well as in cast metal. The clay amulets are often placed in cases or frames for protection.
I am not a Buddhist, but I wear a small amulet frequently. The jewelry I personally wear is always simple and always has a spiritual element whether it is outwardly evident or not. I’ll choose a stone that resonates with me, an antique piece whose history speaks to me, or an amulet such as these. In our busy lives it is important to have something that reminds us to be grateful and to see the beauty in every person and every moment.
Parts of this post are extracted from “Juan Li: Images of Earth and Water, The Tsa Tsa Votive Tablets of Tibet“