Amsterdam Church Provides an Unlikely Setting for Buddha’s Life Exhibition

Opened on September 16 and running up to February 3 next year, De Nieuwe Kerk offers a new perspective on Buddhist history and thought in its current exhibition, Buddha’s Life: Path to the Present. The display aims to educate on the life of Buddha, born Siddhartha Gautama, and on Buddhist values as they have since continued. The exhibition includes artifacts dating from the third century and art from the present day. Although the venue seems somewhat incongruous an exhibition on Buddhism, it continues De Nieuwe Kerk’s commitment to world religions which has previously inspired displays on Islamic (2010-2011), Jewish (2012-2013), and Christian (2015-2016) culture.

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“Buddha’s life, path to the present” is the temporary exhibition hosted by De Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, from September 2018 to February 2019. Visitors have the chance to explore and get to know who Buddha was, the statues and pieces of art built in his honor and understand the main focus on his philosophy of life and thought, that arrived to our age and are now the point of reference of the life styles dedicated to the well-being of mind and body. Veronica Fontana/ The Amsterdammer

At its opening, the exhibition was honoured by a speech from the Dalai Lama, who contributed a thangka, which is a painted scroll, from his personal collection for display. Since that highlight, a large selling point for the exhibition is its distinct focus on engaging with both Buddhist practice and history in modern ways. There are a series of rooms that explain the five stages of the Buddha’s life, while moving through these, visitors can enjoy over 50 antique art pieces on loan from Royal Society of Friends of Asian Art (KVVAK) alongside on loan from other places, such as the Rijksmuseum. In addition with works from 14 contemporary artists, an up-to-date angle on Buddhism in the present day is provided.

The most unusual aspect of the exhibition is the focus on mindfulness. In the words of the Centrum voor Mindfulness’, this modern practice is “the most alive version of Buddhism in society,” said Angela Wind, with whom De Nieuwe Kerk is collaborating. Wind thought to contact De Nieuwe Kerk when she heard about their upcoming project on Buddhism, as she was aware that the venue always likes to “look for an interactive element.” They have managed to “not just place objects”, but also to “involve the audience” through the meditation space, which occupies the main gallery. Mindfulness trainers hold sessions here on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. From November 8, sessions will run every day but Monday until the exhibition ends.

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Sandra Schoonhagen, 40, is a mindfulness trainer who carries the visitors into a short guided meditation, introduces them to the concept of mindfulness every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the central nave of the church. “There are a lot of people who come and sit for themselves” she says, explaining that “Mindfulness […] is about living in the here and now […] which is also what the Buddha was representing.” Veronica Fontana/ The Amsterdammer

Sandra Schoonhagen (40), a mindfulness trainer working in the exhibition, believes in the link between mindfulness and Buddhism. “Mindfulness is also about non-judging and living in the here and now […] that is also what Buddha was representing and what his job was [in order] to become the Buddha.” The cushioned floors and pillows littered with meditating tourists does contribute to the atmosphere and she details that the exhibit attracts “a lot of people who come and sit for themselves or sit with the guided meditation.” There is something symbolic about holding these sessions, where the congregation once sat during De Nieuwe Kerk’s lifetime as a church. Wind thinks it to be “a very prestigious place for meditation” and “revolutionary.”

However, not everyone is convinced of the link between the modern-day conception of mindfulness and the traditional Buddhist philosophy. Rafael Mulder (23), who works in front of the house at the former church, thinks that mindfulness is “not really a Buddhist thing.” He believes the exhibition could be more informative. The use of the formerly consecrated space as a museum is more interesting for him. De Nieuwe Kerk, dating from 1408, has seen a transformation from Catholic to Protestant until it became a museum in the 1980s. Mulder thinks this development is “probably because we don’t have a lot of religious people in Amsterdam anymore.” This lack of sanctity jars with some; Mulder notes that “people who come here, especially those from the southern European countries, are a bit confused because it’s not a church anymore.” He sees exhibitions like this as an important part of the church’s history and future, “to keep this building alive, I think you should do something else with it.”

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The joined hands of Quan Am, the Vietnamese and female embodiment of “bodhisattva,” a complex Buddhist concept which refers to any being who devotes their life to easing the suffering of others, dating back to 17th century. Veronica Fontana/ The Amsterdammer

Often drawn in by the magnificence as a building, visitors to Amsterdam can be surprised by the exhibition. Caroline Rollet (19) from Paris thought that an exhibition on Buddha in a church is “not really common” and she was intrigued to find out about a topic which she didn’t know much about. She found it “interesting, beautiful and distressed with all the sounds inside,” suffering only from the attempt to grapple with such a big theme in such a small space. The sounds she mentions is an installation art piece called Silence and Sound, one of the many displays of modern art, which sit alongside the historic setting and exhibits.

Similarly contrastive with the historic atmosphere are Kohei Nawa’s PixCell-Deer#51 (2018) and Tony Feher’s art using discarded materials. The PixCell-Deer#51 is a transparent sculpture of a deer as a Buddhist symbol of life and cycles of suffering, which blurs the concepts of reality and digital technology. Tony Feher’s art concentrates on the concept of savouring fleeting moments and realities, at the same time, also looking for aspects of the whole in everyday life. In this way, visitors are rewarded with an understanding of Buddhism in a modern form and unite with the history of Siddhartha Gautama’s life with the philosophies that continue.

  • Reporter (Fall 2018)
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