Archive for the ‘Religious News’ Category

BY TOM LASSETER, Detroit Free Press, Nov. 6, 2011

HONGYUAN, China — The young man’s hands began to shake, and he tugged at his fingers to keep them still. The 20-year-old ethnic Tibetan was terrified of the police finding out that he’d spoken about the Buddhist monks who’ve been burning themselves alive.

<< Tibetans in exile in Siliguri, India, protest China's policies in Tibet. Rights groups say at least 11 Tibetan Buddhist clergy have set themselves on fire in China's Sichuan province to call for cultural and religious freedom. / DIPTENDU DUTTA/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

“They’re doing it because they want freedom,” said the livestock trader, who asked that his name not be used.

He paused before adding, “Because we want freedom.”

Since March, according to rights groups, 11 Tibetan Buddhist clergy have set themselves on fire in China’s western Sichuan province. Almost all have been in or around the town of Aba, 50 miles as the crow flies to the west of Hongyuan, amid mountain ranges at the edge of the Tibetan plateau where yaks graze and prayer flags inscribed with mantras and blessings flap in the wind.

It’s said that at least five have died in the fiery exclamations of Tibetan complaint about restrictions on their culture and religion and the continued exile of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

The chain of self-immolations — which includes six monks, three former monks and a nun — is unprecedented in modern Tibetan history. The most recent was Thursday.

A Buddhist nun, Palden Choetso, shouted, “Long live the Dalai Lama!” and “Let the Dalai Lama return to Tibet!” according to a report relayed to the London-based rights group Free Tibet.

Crackdown gets stiffer

The response by the Chinese Communist Party has been to knuckle down even more. Towns surrounding Aba are stacked with police. Internet access is shut off in many spots. Those suspected of sympathizing closely with activist monks are said to have disappeared.

A reporter was detained for two hours Oct. 29 after he was pulled over at a police checkpoint 15 miles from Hongyuan on the winding road toward Aba. He was released only after photos from his camera were deleted, and he agreed not to stop again in Hongyuan, a condition emphasized by threats to his driver and the multiple vehicles that followed him.

The crackdown didn’t stop monks from spreading their complaints via pamphlets in the area, nor did it put an end to people soaking themselves with gasoline and lighting matches; six self-immolations took place in October alone.

Many Tibetans say that the country’s Han Chinese majority, with the muscle of the Communist Party behind it, essentially is occupying their lands and moving to monopolize business interests while marginalizing the Tibetan language and way of life.
‘We are all afraid’

The Chinese government maintains that it liberated Tibetans from a feudal existence and now works to improve their lives with billions of dollars in infrastructure projects. Any outbursts of Tibetan rage, the government maintains, are the result of outside influences personified by the Dalai Lama.

In Hongyuan, police now swarm the streets. Many of those patrolling the predominantly ethnic Tibetan town appear to be Han Chinese.

“A lot of people have been taken away by the government,” said the livestock trader, who wore a puffy neon-blue jacket and jeans.

“A lot of Tibetans feel that we aren’t free. We aren’t allowed to put up pictures of the Dalai Lama. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

He was joined by a group of friends, a couple of whom wore small likenesses of the Dalai Lama at the ends of thin leather necklaces that they tucked beneath their shirts.

One of them, another Tibetan trader in his early 20s, spoke up, “We are all afraid of the government.”


By Tom Lasseter, McClatchy Newspapers, Nov. 4, 2011

BEIJING, China — A Buddhist nun in China’s western Sichuan Province burned herself to death on Thursday, bringing to 11 the number of Tibetan clergy and former clergy who’ve set themselves on fire since March.

<< Palden Choetso

The series of self-immolations, unprecedented in Tibetan Buddhism’s modern history, has continued despite an increasingly large Chinese security presence in the predominantly ethnic Tibetan area.

The protests against Chinese government policies — including claims of oppression of Tibetan culture, language and religion — have resulted in official condemnation of what Beijing sees as a conspiracy by exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

The nun, Palden Choetso, shouted “Long live the Dalai Lama” and “Let the Dalai Lama return to Tibet,” according to a report relayed to the London-based rights group Free Tibet.

She was the second nun in as many months to set herself on fire in a northern region of Sichuan, which sits on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, and at least the sixth person to die doing so.

China’s state-owned Xinhua news agency reacted by reporting that, “initial police investigation showed that the case was masterminded and instigated by the Dalai Lama clique, which had plotted a chain of self-immolations in the past months.”

About 35-years-old, according to Xinhua, Palden Choetso was from a nunnery in north Sichuan and reportedly carried out the self-immolation at a road crossing just before 1 p.m. Xinhua listed her identity as Qiu Xiang – a Mandarin Chinese name.

by Kooi F. Lim, The Buddhist Channel, Nov 6, 2011

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — Gaya is a contradiction. At one end, fine yellow dusts fill the air and choke the lungs, while piercing horns and shouts from a thousand bodies choke its narrow streets. You can see children who wear torn rags on the streets, who probably have no idea what school is like – ever. Then you see polio stricken kids crawling on muddy sidewalks extending their hands for alms, and you get hit by the effects of deep poverty and the consequences of what an unattended fever can do to a young child.

At the other end, there exist vast tracts of verdant green fields. These are hidden behind monasteries, temples and village slums which dot the periphery of the local highway leading from its airport to the focal point of Gaya’s existence, the Mahabodhi Temple, spot of the Buddha’s Enlightenment.

In this vortex of noise, pollution, poverty and calm, serene greenery, augmented with a historic Enlightenment, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists held its biannual conference here.

More renowned for its acronym, INEB brings together Buddhist based organizations and individuals from around the world to share stories, resources and to support each other’s work.

This year, the organizers – Jambudvipa Trust, Youth Buddhist Society of India (YBS), the Deer Park Institute and INEB designed the conference as a platform for examining the future of Buddhism to re-awaken and to re-vitalize Buddhist commitment towards helping all sentient beings. More significantly, this year’s INEB takes place to commemorate the 2,600 years since the Buddha gained Enlightenment right here, in Bodhgaya.

Unlike any other Buddhist conferences, people who attend INEB do not just to sit through a series of talk shops. A significant difference between this and other Buddhist gatherings is the participation of “resource persons”. These are not just practicing Buddhists, but also dedicated professionals who are respected in their field of expertise.

The guy who gives detailed narratives of guided tours around the Mahabodhi temple was also a founder of a public listed pharmaceutical company, which produces are made based on traditional medical knowledge. His name is Richard Dixie.

Then there is the Japanese priest Rev. Hideshito Okoshi who established a miro-credit “Future Bank”, developed buildings that could last for 100 years and is now dedicating himself to work for a nuclear free Japan.

In Thailand, Phra Sangkom Thanapanyo works with remote villages to address issues of water scarcity while helping to maintain local agricultural practices and to protect forest ecosystems. He calls his work “Application of sufficiency economy”.

At “The Bridge Fund”, Monica Garry from the United States manages a foundation which works exclusively with disadvantaged people living on the Tibetan Plateau in Western China, down to the most remote nomad. The fund supports developing local entrepreneurship (right livelihood), expanding rural healthcare, tackling waste management and strengthening communities, while grounded in respect for Tibetan culture and values.

Like any previous editions of INEB, social action is synonymous with engaging underserved, under privileged and sometimes persecuted groups. This year, the delegates heard stories of samsara at work on whole communities: the Chakmas (India), the Dalits (untouchables of India) and the Chittagong Hills Tribe (Bangladesh). For some of these communities, like the Dalits, embracing Buddhism is a way out to escape the clutches of discrimination.

And so we get to see real people doing courageous work at ground level to help these disadvantaged communities, people like Mangesh Dahiwale from the Jambudvipa Trust and Santoshita Chakma from the Chittagong Jumma Refugees Welfare Association.

All through the presentations, we hear how these individuals and organizations fortify themselves with non-violent communication strategies, compassion and street smart wisdom as they face the realities of engaging with people who are denied basic human rights just because some parts of society deemed them as below “cows”.

We see at first hand how the Buddha-Dharma operates in diverse conditions of human and environmental suffering – from working with rejected population, empowering marginalized groups, gender identity, awakening the youth, climate change and green marketing. All these are laid out in work groups, led by one or more resource persons.

These work group structures facilitate connections that could be made, so that people with a variety of knowhow, experience and skill can get together and brainstorm on issues. Even innocuous activities such as discussions on how to use a website effectively, film making, photography and art have a role to play in that creative process.

Like Gaya’s vortex of dichotomies – of dust with verdant fields, noise with serene gardens, poverty with its majestic monasteries, INEB’s key success lies in its ability to blend tools with experience, strategies with street smart realities, faith with focus and compassion with wisdom.

Yet, like the focal point of the Buddha’s Enlightenment in the Mahabodhi temple, participants from such diverse backgrounds would not have been so evidently committed if not for the drive and inspiration of INEB’s founder, Ajarn Sulak Sivarasa. In his opening address, he said:

“We need to be culturally sensitive, politically concerned and socially committed to have the courage to tackle questions of the common good and to point out abusive situations. To be able to see clearly, to be truly aware of the state of the world, we must begin by deprogramming ourselves and be free of prejudice toward those we criticize. By working with others of goodwill, we can identify and confront abuses of power. It is critical for people of all faiths and ideologies, as well as atheists and agnostics, to listen to each other as we promote justice and have balance through non-violent means. Equality must be upheld in all situations, in order to have empathy for, as well as to stay in touch with the poor and the oppressed.”

This was aptly summarized and supported with a simple advice from the Bhutanese monk Dzongsar Kyentse Jamyang Rinpoche (a strong advocate of non-sectarian Buddhism), when he observed,

“When you drink tea, there is the tea and there is the cup. We can’t say whether the tea or the cup is more important. Without the cup, you cannot hold hot tea in your hands. Yet, we should not be attached to the cup, and say ‘only this cup can hold the tea’. “

Without a doubt, INEB have successfully brought together groups of diverse Buddhists from all corners of the world, each personally and socially committed to reach out and to help the underserved and under privileged. More admirably, their work are accomplished using Dharma inspired strategies such as mindfulness, compassion motivated actions and non-violence.

They have shown the way that Buddhists are not just self-centred practitioners, motivated only by personal salvation. This INEB gathering has demonstrated anything but that.

Utilitarian Buddhist values need not be undermined by dogmas and cultural strait-jackets, and yet it need not succumb to rootless modernism and new age secularism. With a balanced understanding of the new and the ancient, of east and west, the Buddha’s Teachings is timeless and equally effective, then and now.

All that is asked of us is to have the capacity to see clearly without prejudice, to have the ability to listen to one another and to act without selfish motives and personal agendas.

And when we can do this, no amount of samsaric dust, pollution or mental poverty can stop us from reaching out and fulfilling the dreams of our common humanity, that is to end suffering for ourselves as well as for others.

The International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) was established in 1989. It held its biannual conference from October 26-29, 2011 at Wat Pa Bodhgaya, Gaya, India. The next INEB conference will be held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2013. For more information, please visit:

Irrawaddy News

Campaigners are demanding the release of an imprisoned leader of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance (ABMA) who helped organize the Saffron Revolution in 2007 and is now suffering from serious back pain as a consequence of being tortured under interrogated.

Ashin Gambira, who is currently serving a 63-year sentence in Kalay Prison, experiences a torrid time when the weather gets cold after repeated beatings and this winter is likely to be seriously detrimental to his health, claims his mother.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Wednesday, ABMA member Nanda Marlar said, “He was beaten on his back and head during interrogation and was even assaulted while the authorities moved him from prison to prison. He [Gambira] also doesn’t receive enough medical assistance or treatment.”

Kalay Prison is located in Sagaing Division in one of the most remote area of the country and is the third jail which Gambira has experienced. He was firstly detained in Rangoon’s notorious Insein Prison but was transferred to Hkamti Prison towards the end of 2008. Gambira was convicted of many charges including immigration offences, illegal contact with banned and exiled organizations, and so on.

Ashin Gambira who is serving a 63-year sentence for his role in the Saffron Revolution (Photo: The Best Friend Library)

A former political prisoner who was detained in the cell next to Gambira said that he was transferred from Insein to Hkamti Prison because he quarelled with officials and insulted the regime’s former head, Than Shwe.

“Our monks have been tortured in both physical ways and mental ways. That’s the main thing for the new government to change,” said Nanda Marlar.

Twenty-six monks were included amongst the 6,359 prisoners that were released in mid-October,  according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. But the group said that around 200 monks and nuns who were sentenced for their political actions are still serving prison terms across the country.

The Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commissions (AHRC) also sent an open letter to the Burmese President and other top officials on Tuesday which called for urgent humanitarian intervention for 33-year-old Gambira.

It said that the AHRC is concerned about the monk’s health after he suffered head and back injuries from assaults during a prison transfer and repeatedly at Hkamti Prison over a month.

The AHRC also quoted prisoners who were released in the second week of October during the presidential decree. They claim that Gambira suffers from fits in which he frequently cries out in pain and clutches at his head.

The prison authorities then hold him down to administer a drug via injection, probably a sedative, after which he goes quiet and falls unconscious. When he comes around, he slurs his speech.

The AHRC statement calls for the Burmese authorities to release Gambira without delay and added, “We also take this opportunity to again urge the International Committee of the Red Cross be given unimpeded access to all places of detention in Myanmar in accordance with its international mandate.”

Gambira was honored in 2008 for his leading role in the Saffron Revolution by UK-based Index on Censorship—one of the world’s leading magazines on free expression issues.

The network, which currently assists the families of political prisoners, also launched a statement on Wednesday which said that 15 political prisoners were starting a hunger strike until their sentences are reduced. Unlike criminal inmates, political prisoners are not normally allowed to have their prison terms cut short.

The statement said, “The lack of reducing prison terms for political prisoners is a violation of the 2008 Constitution. Article 347 of chapter 8 says that ‘the Union shall grant any person to enjoy equal rights before the law and shall equally provide legal protection.’”

According to the AAPP’s data, there are around 2,000 political prisoners in the country and roughly 200 of them were released in the second week of October under the presidential decree.

Sittwe: A 29-year-old monk in Arakan has been put under house arrest by authorities for suspicion of leading the 4th anniversary of the Saffron Revolution protests in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State.

Katahya U Kaythara laid the wreath in front of Ottama monument in Sittwe on 9 September 2011.

The monk, U Kaythara from Pathein Monastery in Sittwe, was forced on 23 September, 2011, by authorities to leave his monastery for a remote monastery in Rathidaung Township, 20 miles north of Sittwe, to be put under house arrest.

A colleague of U Kaythara in Sittwe told Narinjara over the phone yesterday that he is now in Alawdo Pyi Monastery in Kraydawra Pagoda in Rathidaung Township, where he has been put under house arrest.

The authorities and their forces detained and took away Ven. U Kaythara along with two other monks – Pynya Wan Tha and Pandita – around 2 pm on 23 September to a police station in Sittwe from Pathein Monastery.

Minister of Security and Border Affairs of Arakan State, Colonel Htein Lin and Chief of the Regional Military Command, as well as the Vice Commander of the Western Command Lieutenant Colonel Myo Min Swe were said to have led forces to detain the Buddhist monks from the monastery.

The monks said that the other two arrested monks were released and sent back to the monastery in the evening, while U Kaytara was detained and sent to the monastery in Rathidaung Township.

Another monk from a nearby monastery also confirmed that U Kaythara was arrested by authorities on suspicion of celebrating the 4th anniversary of the Saffron Revolution movement.

“Ven. U Kaythara led the monks to commemorate the 72nd anniversary of Ven. U Ottama Day in Sittwe and it is being learnt that he was arrested by authorities on a tip that the 4th anniversary of the Saffron Movement would be activated and commemorated as well,” said another monk from the monastery.

On the 72nd anniversary of Ven. U Ottama Day in Sittwe on 9 September, 2011, about 300 monks from several monasteries in Sittwe marched to the Ottama monument and garden to honor Ottama for his sacrifice for Burmese independence from British rule.

The abbot of the monastery, however, said that U Kaythara was sent to the other monastery by authorities for security reasons, and dismissed reports that he has been placed under arrest and held in an unknown location.

“He is not under arrest, but he has been sent to the other place because of some security reasons. He may have some problem if he stayed here in the monastery and it would not be good for me to tell what kind of problem he may face or where he is now,” said the abbot.

A youth political activist also said that is possible that U Kaythara was detained and is now under house arrest because authorities are worried he would lead the monks in Sittwe to observe the 4th anniversary of the Saffron Revolution protests in Sittwe.

News is spreading in Sittwe that U Kaythara has been arrested by authorities for leading the monks in a procession and commemorating Ven. U Ottama on the 72nd anniversary of his death at the memorial park and for concerns that similar activities would be carried out on the coming anniversary of the monk-led movement that is popularly known as the Saffron Revolution.


  1. Tipitakadhara=Bearer of the Tipitaka (‘recitation or oral’),
  2. Tipitakadhara Tipitakakawida =Bearer of the Tipitaka (‘oral’ and ‘written’),
  3. Maha Tipitakakawida=Passing the ‘oral’ and ‘written’ with distinction,
  4. Dhammabhandagarika=Keeper of the Dhamma Treasure.

         The above Titles are being awarded to the successful Buddhist monks out of over 400,000 members of the Sangha in the Union of Myanmar (Burma) if the candidates can recite Pali Texts of (8026) pages of Tipitaka canons (more than 2.4 million words in Myanmar Pali) and the written portion of over (200) books of Pali Texts, Athakatha (Commentaries) and Tika (Sub-Commentaries) of Tipitaka Canons respectively
          Other yearly examinations being held regularly in Myanmar (Burma) with a view to promoting and flourishing the Pariyatti Sasana (Learning the Buddha’s teachings) mainly contributing to the purification, perpetuation and propagation of the Buddha Sasana throughout the world are : — (2) Dhammacariya Examination (3) Pathamagyi Examination (4) Pathamalat Examination (5) Pathamange Examination (6) Abhidhamma/Visudhimagga Examination (only for Laymen and Nuns) and (7) Five Nikaya Examination.
          The Tipitakadhara Tipitakakovida Selection Examination is the most extensive, most difficult and profound and highest, and so it has been separately held since 1949 (1310 ME). Buddhist monks who wish to sit for this Sacred Tipitakadhara Tipitakakovida Selection Examination must have passed at least the Pathamagyi Examination. In fact, the Sacred Tipitakadhara Tipitakakovida Selection Examination is quite different from other religious Examinations because the candidates who will sit for this examination must have to take (33) days. They have to meet both oral and written portions as prescribed.
          Only candidates who have got through both oral and written portions of the Sacred Tipitakadhara Tipitakakovida Selection Examination will be presented the Title of Tipitakadhara Tipitakakovida and candidates who have got through the oral portion will be presented the Title of Tipitakadhara. It is further learnt that only (11) Sasana Azanis (Religious Heroes) distinctively emerged during (56) years of the Sacred Tipitakadhara Tipitakakovida Selection Examination from 1949 to 2004 (1310 to 1366 ME). In fact, over ten-thousand Buddhist monks appeared for this sacred Examination during the period of (56) years. Out of them, only (11) distinctively got through the oral and the written portion of Pali Canons and other Pali Texts during the period of (56) years.
         Tipitakadhara Selection Examination is the most extensive, most difficult and profound and highest. No one passed any of the categories in 1948 when it was first held in Rangoon (now Yangon) just after the country gained Independence from British Rule. The aim of the examination was to promote the emergence of the outstanding personalities who can memorize and recite the whole of the Tipitaka.
          It is the longest examination in the world and the entire examination is spread over five years.
         In the first and second year, the candidates are examined in Vinaya Pitaka (2260 Pages) lasting a total of 20 days.( 3 days each for 5 volumes plus 5 days for the written part covering the Commentaries and Sub-commentaries.
          In the third year the candidates are examined in 3 volumes of the Sutta Pitaka (779 pages ). In the fourth and the fifth years, the examination on the first five (1390 pages) and the last two (3597 pages) of seven volumes of the Abhidhamma Pitaka is arranged. The total length of the examination used to be four years before.
          The first successful candidate was Venerable U Vicittasarabhivamsa, who was later known as the ‘Mingun Sayadaw‘. He passed the Vinaya part in the 1950 Examination. In 1953 he completed the final part at that time of the Pathika Vagga of the Sutta Pitaka and became the first ever ‘Tipitakadhara’ in Myanmar (Burma) at the age of 42 and his achievement was recorded in the Guinness Book of Records. Since then, more and more outstanding monks have been awarded full titles for their fabulous memory.
The latest examination was the 56th Tipitakadhara Tipitakakovida Selection Examination of 2004, held at Vizayadhamma Hall on Kaba Aye Hillock, Yangon from 28 December 2003 to 29 January 2004, and it took 33 days. It is learnt that altogether (184) Buddhist monk candidates appeared for the 56th Tipitakadhara Tipitakakovida Selection Examination and out of them, only two candidates distinctively got through both the oral portion of Pali Texts of (8026) pages and written portion of Pali Texts of over (200) books, and one through the oral portion and (79) through respective portions of Pali Texts as prescribed.
The amazing list of these great monks is as follows.

Title Holders
Titles* Year Age
(First Title)
Ven. Vicittasarabhivamsa 1,3,4 1953 42
Ven. Nemainda 1,2,4 1959 32
Ven. Kosala 1,2,4 1963 36
Ven. Sumingalalankara 1,2 1973 27
Ven. Sirinandabhivamsa 1,2 1984 42
Ven. Vayameindabhivamsa 1,2 1995 39
Ven. Kondanna 1 1997 55
Ven. Silakhandabhivamsa 1,2 1998, 2000 34
Ven. Vamsapalalankara 1,2 1998, 2000 32
Ven. Eindapala
Tipitaka Nikaya Monastery, Dagon, Yangon
1,2 1362, 1365 ME 43
Ashin Sundhara
Sunlungu Vipassana Monastery, Thingangyun, Yangon.
1,2 1362, 1365 ME 48
Ven. Indhacariya
Tipitaka Nikaya Monastery, Dagon, Yangon
1 1365 ME
(1362 – 1363 ME=Year 2001)

3=Maha Tipitakakawida

Total Numbers of Successful Candidates (1948-1998)
         Whole of Tipitaka (Tipitakadhara) 9
         Two and a Half out of 3 disciplines 9
         Two out of 3 disciplines 21
         One out of 3 disciplines 71

Ven. Vicittasarabhivamsa
Visittha Tipitakadhara Mahatipitakakovida Dhammabhandagarika
Mingun Sayadaw (1953)
Ven. Nemainda
Visittha Tipitakadhara Tipitakakovida Dhammabhandagarika
Pakokku Sayadaw(1959)

Ven. Kosala,
Tipitakadhara Tipitakakovida Dhammabhandagarika
Pyay Sayadaw (1963)

Ven. Sumingalalankara, Ph.D,
Tipitakadhara Tipitakakovida,
Dhamma Bhandagarika
Tipitaka Mahaghandayon Sayadaw (1973)
Ven. Sirinandabhivamsa
Tipitakadhara Tipitakakovida
Yaw Sayadaw (1984)

Ven. Vayameindabhivamsa,
Tipitakadhara Tipitakakovida
Yesagyo Sayadaw (1995)
Ven. Silakhandabhivamsa (2000) Ven. Vamsapalalankara (2000)
Ven. Kondanna
Ven. Indapala
Ven. Sundhara
Ven. Indhacariya (2004)

         One may question the wisdom of arranging this highly stressful examinations now that we can put the Tipitaka texts on the CD-Roms and there is no question of the Tipitaka texts disappearing from this world. But the actual rewards of the whole examination is reflected in the emergence of thousands of monks who has got all or some of the texts by heart and are able to help lay worshippers with their instant sermons and discourses, faster than the CD-Rom texts to appear on the Computer screen. In addition, personal human touch in the form of one two one explanation is possible if our monks know the Pali Canon and are able to transmit their knowledge with authority. So the ultimate aim of the Tipitaka Examination is to promote propagation of the Buddhist Teaching which is the noblest of all the gifts, the Gift of the Dhamma in its purest form.

(CNN) — A statue resembling the goddess Athena and jewelry bearing images from Greco-Roman mythology may not be objects you’d expect to see in a museum exhibit of Buddhist art from Pakistan.

Their presence among carvings of Buddha and Indian deities is meant to serve as a reminder of Pakistan’s oft-forgotten multicultural roots, which form the basis of a new exhibit, “The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara.”

The show, which runs until October 30 at New York’s Asia Society, is the first to bring works of Gandharan art to the United States since 1960. The pieces, on loan from museums in Karachi and Lahore, highlight Pakistan’s history as a crossroads of cultural influences, despite present-day associations of the country as an incubator of religious extremism, museum director Melissa Chiu said.

“When we think of Pakistan, Americans might associate it with the place where Osama bin Laden was captured, with terrorism and natural disasters,” she said. “But actually, it has a much longer history that dates back to an ancient culture that gives us a sense of a pluralistic tradition that was all about tolerance.”

At its height, Gandhara encompassed present-day Peshawar in northwest Pakistan and parts of eastern Afghanistan, the Hindu Kush, and northwest India, making it a major center of trade, commerce and the development of arts and education. Pakistan may be 95% Muslim today, but Buddhism flourished in Gandhara between the 2nd century B.C. and 10th century A.D., giving rise to a distinct style of Buddhist visual art.

The statue of Athena and a gold carving of Aphrodite in the exhibit demonstrate the early influence of Greco-Roman culture in the region, which began with its conquest by Alexander the Great. Themes from classical Roman art persisted in Gandharan art even as Buddhism began to flourish in the first century A.D., fostered by Silk Road trade and cross-cultural connections from the Mediterranean to China.

Depictions of the Buddha and the concept of bodhisattvas, or “enlightened beings,” became the main icons of Gandharan art. A section of the exhibition, “Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,” explores the diverse visual imagery of Buddha and bodhisattvas in Gandhara and how it relates to the multifaceted nature of Buddhism in the region.

A carving of a standing Bodhisattva bears drapery and folds reminiscent of what you might find in classical art; another flaunts a chiseled torso reminiscent of, well, a Greek god, Chiu said.

“A number of sculptures show us the narrative of the life of Buddha, where we see Buddha represented as person, in symbols, footprint, but it’s his representation in human form that went on to influence art that went to China, Japan, Korea, other parts of Asia,” she said.

Getting the pieces to the United States is a tale of bureaucracy in true form two years in the making, but the initiative never suffered from a lack of desire, Chiu said.

As an international team begins rebuilding two massive Buddha statues in Afghanistan destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, the exhibit also demonstrates Pakistan’s dedication to preserving its multicultural heritage, Pakistan’s representative to the United Nations said.

With Buddha at its thematic core, the exhibit also highlights lessons of tolerance and humanity of enduring relevance, especially in a time when relations between the U.S. and Pakistan are not at their best, UN Amabassador Abdullah Hussain Haroon said.

“Buddha represents a human being whose ethereal qualities were so magnified by his enormous wisdom that his values of himself, which were espoused by Gandhi and so many others, became his contributions to mankind,” said Haroon, who was instrumental in helping secure the works on loan from the National Museum in Karachi and the Lahore Museum in Lahore.

“This was one of the great periods of the world of fundamental equity, of human rights and so many other important principles, which are important to Pakistan and the United States today,” he said.

“We’re constantly going to strive for a better understanding of each other and a better relationship, and despite what’s happening between the U.S. and Pakistan, there are very strong grounds for us to coexist in peaceful fashion.”