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Bringing an understanding of Buddhism

April 27, 2009

By Peter Aspden
The Financial Times
April 25, 2009 03:50

There won’t, almost by definition, be much of a
noise made about it, but London is about to play
host to its biggest-ever festival of Buddhist
culture. Films, dances and discussions will open
the doors on a religion -- or is it a philosophy?
-- that may have attracted its share of followers
in the capital, but whose quiet ways remain
largely opaque to the general public.

The Many Faces of Buddhism season will be given
extra impetus by the opening next week of the
Victoria and Albert Museum’s first-ever gallery
of Buddhist sculpture. It is no coincidence. Both
the festival and the gallery owe their existence
to the Robert H.N. Ho Foundation, a Hong Kong
philanthropic organisation founded in 2005 and
committed both to the spread of Chinese arts and
culture, and to the wider dissemination of Buddhist thought.

Ho is in London with his son, Robert Y.C. Ho, to
observe the final touches being applied to the
museum’s light-filled gallery, which stands next
to the John Madejski Garden. The preponderance of
philanthropists’ names is a telling indicator of
the reliance of even internationally renowned
museums such as the V&A on private investment to fulfil their plans.

Ho is soft-spoken and seemingly modest in his
aims: he wants to give people a greater
understanding of Buddhist ways and traditions,
particularly inspiring young people to take up
meditation. But there are wider ambitions at work
too: helping people to "achieve peace, not just
with themselves but also in society at large."
This is an artistic programme with an unashamedly broader social scope.

I ask Ho and his son, who has a more studious
air, what kind of surprises the casual onlooker
might expect. “I’m not sure people realise that
Buddhists don’t believe in a directing God. It is
a philosophy, a way of looking at the world," says the younger Ho.

"And then there is its basic message, that there
is a profound level of interconnectedness in the
world. Buddhism has evolved through each culture
that has adopted it, but its basic message has
remained the same." Ho’s father interrupts to
clear up a potential misunderstanding. "We are
not out there to be missionaries. We just want to show the art."

The £1.5m gallery will trace the chronological
and geographical development of Buddhism through
the museum’s outstanding collection of works.
They include a spectacular two-metre-high shrine
from Burma’s royal palace at Mandalay, replete
with sacred geese and a chest containing a volume
of scripture. It is the first time for more than
30 years that it will be on permanent display.

The festival, which starts today, is similarly
devotional in its conception. Ho Jnr’s personal
highlight is the day of rare Buddhist dances that
belong to four distinct traditions, taking in
Japanese Noh theatre and a troupe of Drikung
Kagyu nuns from the Samtenling monastery in Dehra Dun in India.

Ho and his son respectively represent the third
and fourth generation of philanthropy in the
family. The tradition was started by his
grandparents, who practised a simpler version of
giving. “My grandfather would donate a sum for a
building or a school, write the cheque and then
walk away," says Ho Snr. "We try to create
projects, and stay with them." To that end, the
foundation has a chief executive and a permanent
staff of 13 in its Hong Kong headquarters.

Although much of their time is presently taken
with bringing work to the west, the reverse
applies too. The foundation was instrumental in
taking a British Museum exhibition, Britain Meets
the World 1714-1830, to Beijing in 2007. The aim
of the show was a subtle one, tracing the
similarities between two nascent empires. It was
the first substantial British exhibition to
travel to China since 1949, and not the easiest to arrange, says Ho Snr.

"A lot of countries -- and China is one of them
-- do not understand the role of private
foundations. They suspect them of ulterior
motives. They are so used to the idea of state
sponsorship, they don’t see why individuals would
try to get involved. You could see they mistrusted us. It was not comfortable."
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