Awaken, presented by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, takes visitors on a spiritual journey through the history of Tibetan Buddhism.
Richmond’s very own Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) is currently presenting Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment. This eye-opening exhibit introduces the Tibetan Buddhist religion and displays hundreds of artifacts dating back as far as the ninth century. According to the VMFA, each of the exhibition’s galleries corresponds to one of the stages along a journey toward awakening and self-enlightenment.
Life, death, and enlightenment help encapsulate the exiled religion of Tibetan Buddhists, but for a religion with origins in the seventh century, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The most notable and prominent figure of the religion is the Dalai Lama, who currently lives in exile along with other Tibetan Buddhists. After the occupation of Tibet by a communist Chinese government in 1959, the religion was forced to leave its ancestral home, but nonetheless has continued to practice finding peace, welcoming impermanence, and seeking the meaning behind our existence as human beings.
John Henry, a curator at VMFA of the Southeast Asian section, helped curate the Awaken exhibit. Henry said the process of curating the space that you experience in the exhibit was done very deliberately in order to avoid making it a linear display of art. “You have to sort of wind your way through it,” Henry said. “The most fun part of the process was figuring out how to put visual shape and experiential structure to the story that we wanted to tell.”
The way that the exhibit is organized lets visitors go through a journey of awakening and the mandala. A mandala, literally a circle, is an important symbol within Buddhism. Often used as a meditation on impermanence, it is frequently depicted within Buddhist sandpaintings, a symbolically temporary medium. One such painting is visible at the entrance to Awaken.
The exhibit begins in a dark room with a series of mirrors on the walls and a projected video on a loop containing subliminal imagery and sounds. The myriad of noises and video is reflected throughout the space, and throws the visitor into this collection of rapid-fire media. Down a hallway, the journey through the mandala begins.
There are dozens of wood and bronze sculptures, as well as paintings on silk and cotton. The sounds of monks chanting echoes through the room adorned with paintings and banners, each depicting different deities, their origins, and their story. As you pass through the exhibit, weaving in and out of rooms and spaces, each section has a different color, feeling, and layout.
“The goal was to make the visitor not only a viewer, but a participant,” Henry said. “Really anybody can become a Buddhist and literally awaken. Anyone can become enlightened in this very life.”
By the end of the exhibit, the concept of the full circle of life and death, which the Buddhists believed in and desired to learn about, becomes clearer. The exhibit comes to an end with a large sculpture of Buddha, seemingly floating in a white space, followed by a series of mirrors. This finale speaks to the effort and design that went into the exhibit’s creation.
Truly an immersive experience, Awaken provides history, as well as an opportunity for self-reflection. The idea that anyone can become enlightened or awakened provides hope to those who seek a higher understanding through inward speculation and self-awareness.
Throughout June and July, the VMFA will hold a series of Meditation and Mindfulness sessions led by different practitioners. The next will take place on Wednesday, June 5, with John Taylor, programming coordinator for Initiatives of Change. To learn more about the Meditation and Mindfulness sessions, visit the VMFA’s website.
Awaken will be on display until Sunday, August 18. Admission to the exhibit is $15 for adults and $10 for students with ID. Tickets can be purchased at the VMFA’s website.
Before the exhibit’s mid-August closing, the Tibetan monks who made the sand mandala at the entrance to the exhibit will return to ritually destroy it on Saturday, August 3 at 11 AM, thereby marking the end of its cycle and emphasizing the Buddhist idea of impermanence.
Top image: The Three Protectors of Tibet, 2008, Tsherin Sherpa (Nepalese, born 1968), ink and colors on cotton, 17 3/4 x 38 5/8 in. Photograph © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, via VMFA