In Tibet it is commonly held that death is not something that awaits us in some distant future, but something we bring into the world with us at the very moment we are conceived. Our lives run up against death at every step. However, even the seeming finality of death need not be strictly negative; rather, in the religious traditions of Tibet, death is said to provide a unique opportunity for spiritual growth. In fact, the ultimate aim of Tibetan religious practice is the transformation of death into an immortal state of benefit to others. Among Tibet's many and varied religious traditions are found certain esoteric teachings that address the art and science of compassionate death. To these traditions belong the wisdom of the Tibetan Books of the Dead. In many respects, these popular texts are manuals of practical instructions for the dying, who are immediately facing death; for those who have died, who are wandering in the intermediate state between lives; and for the living, who are left behind to continue without their loved ones. 

I am delighted that some of the great treasures of Tibetan sacred literature and ritual art relating to death and dying have been assembled for display. In this first exhibition of its kind at the University of Virginia Library, there are examples of many significant items, both literary and artistic, from the wealth of its Tibetan collection as well as through the generosity of institutional and private lenders. It is my hope that this exhibition will help to encourage more widespread interest in the valuable culture of Tibet so that the world might one day see it flourish again. 

P. Jeffrey Hopkins 
Professor, Department of Religious Studies 
University of Virginia

 

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