SACRED RITUALS — SECULAR SPACE

Museums just love sand mandalas —  and every time I see Tibetan monks streaming brightly colored sand into intricate patterns surrounded by people like me snapping photographs I wonder: what are they doing here?

Sand mandala at Newark Museum of Art, Newark, NJ

Part of me feels strongly that, if a public museum is going to host a Tibetan Buddhist ritual, then it should be ready to have a priest come in and consecrate hosts before a triptych in the European Medieval galleries.  The fact that museums don’t — and none do to my knowledge — leaves them open to attack on two fronts:

– museums can be accused of dismissing Buddhist sacred rituals as mere artifact and curiosity while considering Christian rituals so sacred as to be out of bounds (indeed, Blake Gopnik made this argument in the Washington Post)

and/or

– museums could be alternatively accused of using public funds to favor one religion over another.

Now, the very presence of monks in the museum — not to mention the fact that the Dalai Lama himself consecrated a shrine in the Newark Museum’s Tibetan galleries — pretty much says that  Tibetan Buddhists don’t feel any slight.  And since the Newark Museum has no Medieval galleries with art from Christian churches, it can’t be accused of favoring one religion over another (which is one of things I argued in writing about another instance of religion in museums).

Another part of me, however, sees no harm in inviting practitioners of a religion to show us their rituals and explain their beliefs.  On the contrary.  We walk into churches, mosques, synagogues, temples all the time in the hope of understanding people of another faith and culture.  The challenges in both instances strikes me as the same: namely making sure that the approach is respectful and does not reduce human beings and their beliefs to artifact.  You know, the way natural history museums in their early days used to display peoples of other (usually deemed more primitive) cultures.

Leaning over the balustrade at the Newark museum, with my phone in camera mode, I could not help but also wonder whether this was how Tibet is going to survive, no longer a country tied to mountains and valleys and rivers, but as collection of uprooted cultural/religious events that double as tourist attractions and living art exhibitions in museums and fairs across the globe.

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