Photos by Ben Easter
Written by Christine Riccelli
Our contributing photographer was granted exclusive access to ancient Buddhist relics on display in an exhibit that stops in Des Moines in August. Here’s a peek at what you can expect to see—and experience.
“I was skeptical going into it, but I’m a curious person and kept an open mind,” says Easter, one of only a few photographers who have been allowed access to the relics since the tour started in 2001. “I left there amazed. It’s hard to put into words, but the energy was very powerful. … My friend who was with me, and who doesn’t believe in anything, was blown away.”
In the past 11 years, more than 1.6 million people have viewed the relics, and many have reported similar reactions, says Kevin Thoren of Des Moines, who’s organizing the local event, one of only two stops in the Midwest this year. The relics are from the collections of Buddhist disciples, including the Dalai Lama, from Tibet, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma and other countries. The oldest of the relics is believed to be about 2,500 years old.
Although the types of artifacts commonly associated with Buddhism—prayer wheels, incense burners, statues of the Buddha—help set the stage for this exhibit, the focus is on what Thoren describes as “the essence of Buddhist masters.” Specifically, he’s referring to materials, most resembling small, crystal-like pearls, found in the cremation ashes of Buddhist masters. “Buddhists believe these relics are produced as a result of the masters’ spiritual qualities of compassion and wisdom,” he says.
That may sound esoteric, but Thoren says the point of the exhibit isn’t to dwell on how the relics were created but rather on their effect in inspiring “maitreya,” which means “loving-kindness.”
The exhibit is for people of all faith traditions, as well as for nonbelievers, emphasizes Thoren, who says he’s a Christian. He notes that the tour’s universal message—“the need for more love, kindness and compassion both within ourselves and in the world”—transcends religious doctrine.
“Most all religions are based on loving-kindness,” he adds. “This tour is not about worshipping Buddha (but) about … connecting with our hearts.”
In the summer of 2011, Thoren spearheaded the effort to bring the tour to Des Moines. Although at that time he hadn’t seen the exhibit, “I emailed the tour organizer and said, ‘We’d love to have the relics come to Des Moines,’ ” Thoren recalls. “It was a leap of faith and inspiration.”
Once the tour organizers agreed to a Des Moines stop, Thoren started recruiting others to help plan the free event, which will open with a special program and ceremony the evening of Aug. 17 (click “The Maitreya Project” tab above for details). The weekend itself will require more than 150 volunteers, he says.
Like some others who have viewed the relics, Thoren, who saw the exhibit last fall, found the experience transformative. “After experiencing the relics, I am more understanding and accepting towards myself and others,” he says. “I see the world with a different set of eyes.”
The Maitreya Project
Heart Shrine Relic Tour
The tour will stop at Hoyt Sherman Place Aug. 17–19, with the opening program and ceremony 6–8 p.m. Friday (doors open at 5 p.m.). Des Moines author Jim Autry will emcee the event, which will feature talks by Dr. Richard Deming, medical director at Mercy Cancer Center and founder of Above and Beyond Cancer; Dr. Nisha Manek, a consultant rheumatologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who has studied the impact of the relics on viewers; and Talia Leman, the founder and CEO of Waukee-based RandomKid.
Exhibit hours are 10 a.m.–7 p.m. Aug 18 and 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Aug. 19. There will be a special blessing for pets on the grounds of Hoyt Sherman Place
10:30–11:30 a.m. Aug. 18, and a special children’s blessing 11 a.m.–noon
Aug. 19. Admission is free to both the opening ceremony and the exhibit.