Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly

Reducing Dharma to Exotic Art

NO MUSEUM CURATOR would ever dream of inviting Catholic priests to come in, stand before the museum’s collection of Renaissance altarpieces or devotional crucifixes, and perform a mass. Such an overtly religious rite, in which the priests’ blessings transubstantiate the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, would naturally be considered out of place in the museum context.

Yet since the late 1980s and the Free Tibet movement, curators have invited Tibetan monks into the secular space of their galleries to construct sand mandalas, then deconstruct and distribute the colored sands among its gathered spectators. In doing so, they effectively treat this powerful practice as performance art. In this context and setting, mandalas are markers of an exotic culture to be consumed by outsider–spectators, not a transformative ritual for insider–practitioners or initiates. The monks’ blessings, which invoke retinues of buddhas and bodhisattvas to transform the museum atrium into a dharmadhatu—and which are equally sacred in nature to a Catholic priest performing mass—are routinely invited by museum education staff.

The separation of church and state would prevent the National Endowment for the Arts from supporting such an obviously religious enterprise with taxpayer dollars,

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