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See into the future the Buddhist way at the Rubin Museum

For all of 2018, the Rubin Museum will try to explore how we can make a better future right now through exhibits, talks and performances.
The Rubin Museum's yearlong exploration of the future spans from the eighth century to the present, and beyond. Credit: Rubin Museum

Thinking about the future is an irresistible pastime for every culture around the world.

It is also a delicious paradox, both a pointless exercise and also the entire source of our life’s meaning.

“We do everything aimed at the future, and yet the future never arrives,” points out Jorrit Britschgi, executive director of the Rubin Museum of Art, which is spending all of 2018 examining The Future through six new exhibits and a yearlong series of talks, screenings and performances.

At the same time, as the head of an institution devoted to Himalayan art and Buddhist philosophy, the idea of reincarnation makes a better future the goal of everything we do.

“In Buddhism, there is this idea of ever-repeating cycles and your goal is to be liberated from them,” he says. “So you have the concept of karma, which directs your actions towards that goal.”

The man who knew the future

The exhibit starts in the eighth century with the Second Buddha, Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Tibet and, as legend has it, stowed away knowledge that would be useful in the future in physical spaces as well as coded in his teachings.

“He was well aware that there may be a point in the future that the teachings would be lost and people would be in peril, so he did this amazing thing of projecting his teachings into the future,” says Britschgi.

Fans of HBO’s Westworld will note that Anthony Hopkins’ character, Dr. Robert Ford, did something similar to guide the android Dolores’ journey toward attaining consciousness.

In fact, one of the show’s consultants, Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman, is now part of the museum as its first-ever Brainwave Fellow coordinating events as varied as a seminar about luck and a talk about how dogs perceive time starring fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi’s pups Dean and Kitty.

The exhibit continues through the present day, from Albert Einstein’s theories about time to movies grappling with time travel, spanning a broad range of media from paintings and sculptures (including the Buddhist version of an astrological chart) to an augmented reality encounter and a larger-than-life gallery of animated light sculptures inspired by the mudra, also known as the Scorpion Gesture that is said to be capable of transformation.

How can we change our world?

Of course, thinking about the future these days is a little difficult with the daily crises shaking the very foundations of our democracy.

To help visitors purge their negative emotions and try to refocus on working toward the future they want, the Rubin is adapting the Tibetan prayer flag ritual — which publicly express private hope — with the Monument for the Anxious and Hopeful. Visitors write down their thoughts on index cards, which become part of an installation that will grow and change over the course of the year.   

It’s also a reminder that we’re all in this together: In Buddhism, there’s our own individual karma, but also a broader human karma that binds all of our fates together through issues like climate change.

“It’s not just about your life, because your life is ultimately tied to everybody else’s life,” says Britschgi. “[This exhibit is] really a way to make people think, ‘How do you, or we collectively, prepare for times yet to come?’”

The Rubin Museum is located at 150 W. 17th St. It’s open Wednesday-Monday; admission is $15.