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

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The images symbolize deities of all persuasions: male, female, fierce, and friendly. But they are not icons to worship – more like doorways to enlightenment. As Ganden Thurman, executive director of Tibet House US in New York (and Robert Thurman's son), puts it, "That golden image of a Buddha represents human potential to become enlightened" and the possibility of attaining "the ultimate power of knowledge, wisdom, and compassion – a power that ennobles rather than corrupts."

Another rarity is the fact that these works from the 13th to 19th century are complete, in pristine condition. A gilded Tara figure, for example, radiates benevolence with her gem-encrusted crown, necklace, and earrings intact. Prayers and jewels are still sealed in the lotus base.

Many of the pieces were smuggled out of Tibet in the early 1960s by aristocratic families who packed them on mules and crossed the mountains seeking sanctuary in India. The sacred art from their family shrines became currency for these refugees, who surrendered the pieces to Rudko on the condition that he keep them in a devotional setting. "Had these pieces been left in Tibet, they would not exist today," Kandell acknowledges.

Ganden Thurman offers a guesstimation that, after the full-scale Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 (or "peaceful liberation" in the Chinese version), the People's Liberation Army destroyed 95 percent of Tibet's material culture. Bejeweled gold and silver statues in monasteries "loaded with loot and defended by a bunch of monks committed to nonviolence," he says, were melted down into ingots, hauled away, or smashed.

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