In the Footsteps of Tibet’s Buddha

Posted March 16, 2010 at 4:11pm

Washington, D.C., is now home to a Buddhist shrine, complete with all the trappings. The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is displaying the first public exhibition of a rare and detailed Tibetan shrine featuring objects spanning eight centuries.

“The experience of entering the room is really quite profound and moving,” Debra Diamond, curator of South and Southeast Asian art, said in a release. “The gilded and bejeweled sculptures, which are massed together on alters within the dimly lit confines, radiate warmth and palpable benevolence and offer a powerful aesthetic revelation.”

The shrine is bedecked with colorful tapestries, ornate furniture and dozens of gold Buddha statues. Made from objects collected from three different homes, the exhibit is designed to look like the grand shrine room in a private home. The collection took more than five decades to create and was gathered by New York-based collector Alice S. Kandell and collector Philip Rudko.

A plaque outside the shrine informs visitors, “Tibetan Buddhist shrines are portals that bridge the mundane and sacred worlds. They are spaces in which devotees make offerings to Buddhas (enlightened beings) and in turn receive protection, guidance or help along the path towards enlightenment.”

The objects in the shrine are arranged in a religiously correct manner with images of Buddha on the highest tables. Both monks and lamas have worshipped in this shrine, and the Dalai Lama has even blessed some of the objects.

“I have always wanted to offer the same joy and fulfillment that I have gotten from this shrine room to others, so I am delighted that the Smithsonian Institution is helping to present the shrine in a way that retains its integrity,” Kandell has said of the exhibit.

The shrine is accompanied by an exhibit of Tibetan art called “Lama, Patron, Artist: The Great Situ Panchen.” The extensive exhibition explores the work and influence of Situ Panchen, who lived as a Tibetan artist in the 18th century. Situ was responsible for reviving the Encampment style, which featured Indian figures in Chinese-inspired landscapes.

Curator Karl Debreczeny says the exhibit is unique in that it focuses on the artist and his influence, whereas most Tibetan art exhibits are organized around religious themes.

“For the first time ‘Lama, Patron, Artist: The Great Situ Panchen’ features the works and legacy of the seminal figure in the history of Tibetan art, taking his own writings as the primary voice to inform the exhibition,” Debreczeny says. The artists’ diaries and autobiography were used to give voice to the exhibit. “This insider’s view is a completely new approach for an exhibition on Tibetan art, encouraging us to explore the art on the terms furnished by its master.”

Visitors to the Sackler can also watch a monk create a mandala — a circular piece of artwork made from colorful sand — at the entrance of the museum.

Ngawang Chojor, a Buddhist monk, began creating the piece Sunday. But don’t wait too long to see this: It will be swept away in a “disillusionment ceremony” at noon Sunday to demonstrate that nothing in life is permanent.

The shrine and exhibition, which includes dozens of works created with pigment on cloth in addition to several small silver, gold and bronze statues, will be on display until July.