Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery Explores Rich Buddhist Heritage of Asia

“Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice across Asia” To Go On View Oct. 14
July 27, 2017
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Golden Buddha statue

Buddhism is practiced by millions around the globe and holds a rich and diverse history spanning more than 2,500 years. “Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice across Asia,” opening Oct. 14 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, reveals how art and place are central to Buddhist understanding and teachings. The Freer Gallery of Art and Sackler gratefully acknowledge The Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation as the exhibition’s lead sponsor.

“Encountering the Buddha,” on view through October 2020, draws upon the Freer and Sackler collections of Buddhist art from India to Indonesia and Afghanistan to Japan. With more than 250 objects, two immersive environments and integrated digital platforms, the exhibition shares the stories of Buddhist objects and artworks, describing the beings that they represent and the people who engaged with them, their ritual use, their sacred power and their remarkable beauty.

“By juxtaposing sculptures, fascinating objects and sacred sites, we show how Buddhist visual culture conveys profound and often universal concepts, such as compassion or the urge to move beyond suffering,” said Debra Diamond, the Freer|Sackler’s curator of South and Southeast Asian Art. 

Buddhism is founded on the teachings of the Historical Buddha, also known as Shakyamuni. Born a prince in the fifth century B.C., the Buddha rejected a royal life to instead become a holy man. Through meditation, he came to the realization that attachment to impermanent things causes human suffering. The Buddha taught others throughout northern India how to overcome suffering, and after his death, the Buddha’s teachings spread across Central, East and Southeast Asia.

The exhibition examines Buddhism through a wide lens, touching upon the religion’s diverse expressions by considering objects that span the Buddhist world and Buddhist traditions. Two experiential spaces, one centered on a public site, the other evoking a domestic shrine, present specific examples of the interplay of place and practice.

The first immersive space features a three-channel digital film titled The Texture of Practice: Sri Lanka’s Great Stupa. Projected onto three large screens, this meditative installation invites visitors to experience a living Buddhist site in Sri Lanka. Tradition holds that the site, the Ruwanwelisaya stupa, was created in the third century B.C. to enshrine relics of the Historical Buddha; it remains the locus of vibrant activity today. Created exclusively for this exhibition, the film installation conveys the stupa’s enduring potency through the daily practices of monks, nuns and laypeople during the December full-moon festival.

The second immersive installation is the Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room. Last shown in 2010 at the Sackler, this newly-expanded iteration of the shrine from the Alice S. Kandell Collection has 243 objects, including some 20 objects that have never before been publicly exhibited. The objects were created by Tibetan, Chinese, Nepalese and Mongolian artists from the 13th to the 19th century, and the shrine is an assemblage rare in both size and quality. The objects are arranged as they would be within the grand domestic shrine of a Tibetan Buddhist noble family. Sculptures and ritual objects are placed atop polychrome Tibetan furniture and in front of brocade-bordered thangkas (scroll paintings). Lit by flickering lamps, the objects are arranged according to traditional hierarchies, with ritual implements on lower levels and Buddha images in higher positions. Containing no labels or cases, the Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room invites visitors to have the sort of unmediated experience that is typically not available in art museums, where objects are isolated within cases and surrounded by interpretation. 

Throughout the exhibition, digital tablets invite visitors to choose their own paths for further learning. A tablet located outside the Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room allows visitors to discover more about the objects displayed inside and learn about the various shrine spaces of the Tibetan Buddhist world. On another tablet, developed in partnership with an undergraduate design team from University of Michigan, visitors can follow the eighth-century pilgrimage of Hyecho, a young Korean monk who set out for the Buddhist holy land of India, traveling as far as Persia before following the Silk Road back to China. Elsewhere in the exhibition, tablets permit visitors to explore the rituals taking place at a Sri Lankan stupa and learn the answers to commonly asked questions about the exhibition’s artworks, which range from “Why is this Buddha’s hair blue?” to “How did this Buddha get to the museum?”

Concurrent with the exhibition are a number of related publications and digital products. The museum is producing Paths to Perfection, the first guidebook dedicated to the Buddhist treasures in the Freer|Sackler’s world-renowned permanent collection. Twenty-four artworks from the Freer|Sackler collection are also featured in a new book, Hyecho’s Journey: The World of Buddhism (University of Chicago Press), which offers a general picture of the Buddhist tradition by imagining the Buddhist world experienced by the young monk Hyecho. Additional apps are: a new Freer|Sackler audio app, featuring Donald Lopez, that provides in-depth perspectives on Buddhist works on display in the Freer and Sackler galleries; the app for the Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room, which has been designed for those who want to experience the museum’s shrine installation at home and is also a repository of information and images exploring various types of Tibetan Buddhist sacred spaces, as well as the objects and activities therein; and a mobile app, produced by a team of University of Michigan undergraduates, which will offer an enhanced audio tour that takes guests on a pilgrimage through the Freer and Sackler, guiding them to multiple stops at Buddhist objects along Hyecho’s journey.

This project received federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Additional funding was provided by the Ellen Bayard Weedon Foundation. The Freer|Sackler acknowledges the University of Michigan Humanities Collaboratory and the Multidisciplinary Design Program; the Hyecho tablet, mobile app and book are the latest in a century of collaborations between the University of Michigan and the Freer|Sackler, which have been inspired by the generosity of a mutual benefactor, Charles Lang Freer.

The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation is a private philanthropic organization based in Hong Kong, whose mission is to foster appreciation of Chinese arts and culture and cultivate deeper understanding of Buddhism in the context of contemporary life.

About the Freer and Sackler Galleries

The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., together comprise the nation’s museums of Asian art. It contains one of the most important collections of Asian art in the world, featuring more than 40,000 objects ranging in time from the Neolithic to the present day, with especially fine groupings of Islamic art, Chinese jades, bronzes and paintings and the art of the ancient Near East. The galleries also contain important masterworks from Japan, ancient Egypt, South and Southeast Asia and Korea, as well as the Freer’s noted collection of works by American artist James McNeill Whistler.

The Freer|Sackler is a part of the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum, education and research complex, which is dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge. 

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Jennifer Mitchell