Meditation and mindfulness.

Unplug and unwind.

Experience the now.

All are catchphrases we’ve heard plenty of times in this smartphone-obsessed, internet era.

But they reflect an age-old condition: the need and desperation for enlightenment and relief. The quest for clarity is as pertinent today as it was centuries ago.

“Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment” is a new exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts that explores the art of Tibetan Buddhism in a brand-new way.

The exhibit features over 100 objects drawn from the VMFA’s collection of Himalayan art and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

But this is no drab, run-of-the-mill art exhibit.


John Henry Rice, VMFA’s curator of “Awaken,” here with “Vajrabhairava” from the 15th century or later, has been dreaming of doing this show for a decade, he said. It’s one that visitors do more than just see; they experience it.

“This is one of the most innovative shows we’ve ever had,” Alex Nyerges, director of the VMFA, said at a preview. “This will be different than any exhibit you’ve experienced here.”

“I’ve been dreaming of doing this show for a decade,” curator John Henry Rice said. “Ever since I joined the museum, I’ve been brainstorming ways to make it more accessible to our visitors.”

“We have one of the best Himalayan exhibits in the country,” Nyerges said.

But the trick is making it matter — making Himalayan art not only accessible, but also imperative — to today.

Rice and his co-curator, Jeffrey Durham from San Francisco, did that by creating a story and quest for the visitor.

“We created an exhibition that visitors will not just come to see, but to do, to experience,” he explained.


Chaos is the theme of the entryway to “Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment” at VMFA Thursday, April 25, 2019. Videos are shown on the walls.

The new ticketed exhibit puts the visitor on a journey “from the fragmentation and confusion of ordinary experience ... to the focus and clarity of the awakened, enlightened mind,” Rice said.

Right from the start, the exhibit is different.

Visitors step into a blank cube where images flash against the walls: of burning crosses, traffic jams and teeming crowds. The blurry flood of images is meant to convey the vast and overwhelming chaotic experience of everyday life.

Afterward, the visitor is introduced to a figurative personal teacher, a Tibetan lama, as he prepares you on the journey to enlightenment.


Works in the exhibit, such as “Mandala of Vajrabhairava” (from the Ngor Monastery in Tibet, 1650-1750), are from the VMFA and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

The visitor is given a map and moves through the galleries, encountering artwork that represents obstacles to enlightenment. The galleries lead up to the most primal of fears: death itself.

The final two galleries experience a marked shift in perspective, from the dark meditative journey toward an intense light, symbolic of the enlightened mind.

The works in the exhibit range from the ninth century up to today, including three paintings by the contemporary Nepalese-American artist Tsherin Sherpa.

On Sunday, May 5, a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks will complete a sand mandala at the exhibition’s entrance that will stay up for the duration of the exhibit. The monks will return in August to sweep the mandala away in a closing ceremony.


Tsherin Sherpa’s “The Melt” is displayed in “Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment,” at the VMFA Thursday, April 25, 2019.

A few other items to note during the exhibit’s run:

Sherpa will meet with visitors May 14-17 to discuss traditional thangka painting and how he’s transformed that process into his contemporary work.

The Meditation and Mindfulness series will offer a free hourlong meditation series from guest teachers at specific times throughout the spring and summer.

“We try to bring the world to Virginia,” Nyerges said. “This time, we’re going up to the far reaches of Tibet.”

To experience “Awaken” is fresh, exciting and, yes, an awakening.

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Twitter: @collcurran

Colleen Curran covers arts and entertainment for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. She writes the weekly column Top Five Weekend Events.

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