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New York’s Rubin Museum Offers an Immersion into Buddhist Wisdom and Practice


New York’s Rubin Museum of Art, a long-time supporter of contemporary innovation alongside ancient Buddhist ideas, is offering two widely praised Buddhist-themed exhibits. The exhibits, the Mandala Lab and Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey to Enlightenment invite visitors to interact with the art as well as their own minds and senses. The Mandala Lab is an ongoing exhibit, slated to last through 2031, while Awaken will end on 3 January, 2022.

Awaken is comprised of 37 works of art, dating from the 7th through the 21st centuries. Media include stone, wood, and metal sculptures alongside illuminated manuscripts and traditional Tibetan hanging paintings (thangkas) as well as original art by Nepal-born, Tibetan American artist Tsherin Sherpa.

According to its description, Awaken invites visitors to, “Unplug, step away from the chaos, and embark on a journey of self-knowledge and transformation.” (The Gothamist)  

The show is adapted from a larger show at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and began at the Rubin during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elena Pakhoutova, senior curator for the exhibit and Himalayan Art at the Rubin, explains, “We hope that the visitors make a connection to these universal notions, relate to them in their own way, and appreciate the art which is largely created to be either a focus for religious practices, an inspiration for personal development, or as an actual ritual/religious object to be used in rituals and practices.” (Observer)


The Mandala Lab is the work of a collection of artists including Laurie Anderson, Sanford Biggers, Tenzin Tsetan Choklay, Billy Cobham, Amit Dutta, Sheila E., Peter Gabriel, and more. Tibetan American artist Palden Weinreb created a piece called “Untitled (Coalescence)” for the show. In his exhibition statement he said, “the Rubin is uniquely suited to refresh the dialogue between Buddhism and contemporary art, and I feel particularly aligned with the Mandala Lab’s innovative approach. It’s an honor to participate and hope my work will prove to be an inspiring addition to this thoughtfully reimagined space.” (The Observer)

The Mandala Lab begins by asking the visitor, “How does your sense of pride impact your behavior?” (Observer) Beyond this, visitors are invited to draw, write, smell, listen, and touch, involving all of the senses in a thoroughly immersive experience.

Tim McHenry, the head curator of the Mandala Lab, said that, “trying to explain enlightenment is always a bit of a challenge. You don’t know what it is, I haven’t experienced it. But that’s the beginning. So I think if we just use a, maybe the term interconnectedness. In other words, being totally at one with everything there is. (Observer)

Nodding to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, McHenry notes that enlightenment cannot be transmitted in a verbal sense, but it can be hinted at in various ways, which the exhibit tries to do. Traditionally, a mandala is one way in which Buddhist practitioners create a two-dimensional visual metaphor for a three or four-dimensional realm of awakening.

“We as a museum are not trying to sort of give you a Tibetan Buddhist teaching as a Tibetan Buddhist teacher would. That’s not my job,” said McHenry. “My job is to say, these paintings that we have in our collection, from this extraordinary culture, have a really helpful aspect to them that are intended as tools to help you navigate life.” (Observer)

However, Tenzin Gelek, senior specialist of Himalayan arts and culture at the Rubin, suggests a deeper purpose and function for the Mandala Lab. “With the Mandala Lab, we’re using Buddhist wisdoms coupled with creative and interactive artworks and experiences to understand, unlock, and heal these difficult emotions within ourselves. This ‘mental gym’ invites us to face life with renewed wisdom and insights.” (Observer)

See more

Mandala Lab (Rubin Museum)
Awaken (Rubin Museum)
Finding Inner Peace at the Rubin Museum Amidst Chaos (Observer)
“Step Away From The Chaos” And Into The Rubin’s New Tibetan Buddhism Exhibit (The Gothamist)
“Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment” (Time Out)
The Rubin Museum of Art’s Mandala Lab set to open (BD+C network)
‘Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment’ Review: Meditations on Suffering and Being (The Wall Street Journal)
Want to Change Your Life? A New Exhibition Offers a Path (The New York Times)

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