Sackler’s Tibetan Shrine: Go for the Art, Not the Spirit

A confession: I desperately miss Taiwan’s Buddhist and Taoist temples. I lived on the island in 2006-07, and the multi-denominational temples there had a surprising effect on me: I’d find myself wandering in a couple times a week, seeking a few moments of mindfulness amid the capital’s full-on clamor.

I consider myself agnostic, so I wasn’t expecting to tap into an unseen spiritual vein during my year abroad. But that’s what happened. In the hills encircling Taipei, where you’ll find small, smoldering temples along hidden trails, I felt free to make of the experience what I wished: commune with nature, talk to the dead, release desire.

I was hoping to recover a fraction of that centeredness at home recently when I visited the Sackler Gallery’s Tibetan shrine, billed as a “sacred space” containing hundreds of works of Tibetan Buddhist art. No question, it’s an impressive showcase of scrolls, sculptures and prayer tables, moved en masse from the home of collector Alice Kandell, in an assembly you likely won’t find anywhere else in the U.S.

But spiritual? Sorry, I wasn’t feeling it. The shrine seemed to telegraph material wealth more than anything else–surely not the path to nirvana.

For me, a wistful disappointment, but gratefulness for having experienced the real deal.

I miss Taiwan.

In the Realm of the Buddha, which includes the Tibetan shrine and a separate exhibit of Tibetan paintings, runs through July 18, 2010 at the Freer-Sackler Gallery.

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