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Tibet tour: Go to the heart of its Buddhist sacred art in a new Washington exhibition

'In the Realm of the Buddha' offers a rare glimpse into Tibet's sacred art and reveals a history largely lost.

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In 1959 the country's spiritual and secular leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, fled to Dharamsala, India, to set up a government-in-exile. In a foreword to the book on the shrine, the Dalai Lama thanks Kandell for preserving his country's cultural heritage and for sharing it with the public. In a world where most think of Tibet as a primitive land of yaks and yurts, the presentation of its sacred objects "will certainly help visitors to form a deeper appreciation of the richness and refinement of Tibetan culture," he writes, adding his hope that "it may inspire further efforts to save Tibetan culture from disappearing forever."

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Kandell became inspired by Tibetan art when she traveled to Sikkim (an independent kingdom before joining India in 1975) for the coronation of her college friend Hope Cooke as queen of Sikkim. "The first shrine I ever saw," she recalls, "was in the royal palace. I couldn't enter, but I peeked in. It was so beautiful; the art just blew me away."

During many visits to the Buddhist country, she remembers the shrine as "so sacred – secret and special. I always wanted to be there." Over decades of collecting she created her own shrine but has come to feel, she says, "it wasn't fair to keep it in my apartment. Great art belongs to the world."

One Washington visitor, a young Tibetan woman dressed in a traditional long, silk dress, described her reaction to the shrine: "It is our heart."

One can almost hear prayer flags whipping in the wind or prayer wheels spinning to diffuse blessings to the sky. Ngawang Chojor, a mandala master and venerable monk from Lhasa who now lives in Madison, Wis., was touched by the shrine, saying the experience was like being back in Tibet.

Robert Thurman, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University in New York, has written many books that describe the expansion of Tibetan Buddhism across East Asia from 1400 to 1800, as monasteries and temples proliferated in Inner and Outer Mongolia, Siberia, and Manchu-dominated China. From roughly 1640 to 1950, he maintains, Tibet developed a unique, peaceful society where 20 percent of the male population entered monasteries. Spirituality and prayer permeated the culture. As monasticism replaced militarism, the country prospered, devoting its budget to religious education, welfare, and celebrations. Mr. Thurman credits the spread of Buddhism with "taming" neighboring aggressive, barbarian nations.

Asked if the display of Tibetan Buddhist art might have a similarly pacifying effect today, Kandell brightened. "In Washington, D.C., with its constant bickering? What a wonderful idea!"

The shrine will tour the US for three years. It is intended to be at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York for 18 months, beginning in October, as part of the exhibition "Gateway to Himalayan Art."