Dunhuang Cave Art: Hidden Illumination in Dark Times and the Secret Ambrosia of Great Compassion

A Conversation with Peter Sellars and Robert Thurman

August 10, 2016


For more than twenty years theater and opera director Peter Sellars has been studying the Vimalakirti Sutra—a first-century allegorical text of Buddhist teachings, scenes of which are well-represented in the Dunhuang cave temples—and is collaborating with artists, composers, and Buddhist scholars to stage a full-scale production that is anticipated to premiere in 2020.

Sellars was joined by Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman for a conversation about Dunhuang and the Vimalakirti Sutra as sources of inspiration for artists and Sellars’ ambitious, forthcoming production.

About the Vimalakirti Sutra

The Vimalakirti Sutra dates from the first century CE, a watershed moment in Buddhist history that brought sacred teachings out of the monasteries and into the streets, and out of classical and academic language and into the vernacular. In this allegorical work, the layman, Vimalakirti, debates a host of disciples and bodhisattvas, and demonstrates his deep enlightenment and understanding. The work is characterized by humor, a radical and democratizing aspect, and an inclusive world of spiritually charged reciprocity, which levels all hierarchies.

Photo: Ruth Walz

Peter Sellars has gained international renown for his groundbreaking and transformative interpretations of artistic masterpieces and for collaborative projects with an extraordinary range of creative artists. Sellars has been a driving force in the creation of works with longtime collaborator John Adams, including Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, El Niño, Doctor Atomic, A Flowering Tree, and The Gospel According to the Other Mary. Desdemona, a collaboration with Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison and Malian composer and singer Rokia Traoré, has been performed across Europe and the United States. Current projects include the 70th anniversary of the Ojai Music Festival for which Sellars will be Music Director, and a concert staging of Orlando di Lasso's Lagrime di San Pietro with the Los Angeles Master Chorale in October 2016.

Photo: ©Basso Cannarsa

Robert Thurman is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religion at Colombia University. He is a recognized worldwide authority on religion and spirituality, Asian history, world philosophy, Buddhist science, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Thurman is also President of the Tibet House U.S., a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Tibetan civilization, and President of the American Institute of Buddhist Studies, a nonprofit affiliated with the Center for Buddhist Studies at Columbia University and dedicated to the publication of translations of important artistic and scientific treatises from the Tibetan Tengyur.

This conversation complemented the exhibition Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China's Silk Road.