2016-06-30

SAN FRANCISCO (RNS)--The Venerable Dharma Master Hsin-Tao got the idea for the Museum of World Religions in a graveyard.

Spend enough time among symbols of death and you come to realize the basic unity of the world.

"It shows you very clearly where all human life will end, whether you are rich or poor," Hsin-Tao said. "You realize life and death are equal."

Hsin-Tao has chosen to spend much of the last 10 years of his life developing and financing the first museum devoted to revealing the wisdom of the world's faiths to mass audiences.

Next spring, the $66 million Museum of World Religions is scheduled to open in Taipei, Taiwan. The 86,000-square-foot museum, designed by the firm that was commissioned to do the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, intends to combine religious symbols and artifacts with a spiritual experience that is respectful to all religions.

Almost a city block in width, the museum is designed to have visitors spend two hours wandering through exhibits that both teach and allow them to experience aspects of religions both Western and Eastern.

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The task was to produce harmony in an environment of intense diversity and allow visitors to go on a spiritual quest that would make them think twice about issues that they may not normally think of at all, Appelbaum said.

The plan to disrupt the everyday sense of time and place begins with a slow-moving elevator up to the museum. When visitors enter the museum, they will hear the sound of rushing water. They can participate in a purification process by cleansing their hands in a curtain of water.

They will then encounter a special surface that retains the impression of their handprints, evoking the rituals of ancient peoples who left shadow images of their hands on stone cave walls.

Early on, visitors will enter a theater that depicts a series of creation accounts from different cultures. The show concludes with a baby crying, and then visitors enter an exhibit showing celebrations of the life cycle from birth to death among different religions.

An inaugural special exhibition will devote particular attention to Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Shinto, Sikhism and Taoism. As they leave, visitors may receive a blessing from the dharma master.

Much of the funding for the museum is coming from followers of Hsin-Tao, but the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School is among the institutions and museums offering assistance in its development.

The museum said it has received the spiritual if not the financial blessing of many world religious leaders and has received gifts for its collection from several sources, including the Dalai Lama. It plans to charge an admission fee of about $7.50.

Hsin-Tao founded the Ru Huan Monastery in Ilan, Taiwan, and later the Ling-Jiou Mountin Wu Sheng Monastery.

Part of what spurred him to create the world religions museum was his concern that many people look at situations throughout the world from Northern Ireland to the Middle East and see religion as a source of conflict.

"Each religion is a good thing in itself, but we don't seem to understand the problems modern society sees in religion," he said in an interview during a visit to San Francisco for a September meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association. "There is no place where religion can be presented in a way that is encompassing and shows the good things about religion."

Dressed in red and gold robes with a red head covering, Hsin-Tao constantly smiles and touches people he meets as he discusses how love is at the center of religion.

"Each religion has great potential to help humanity, and if those potentials shine together, the potential would be immense," he said, speaking through an interpreter.

He accepts the different approaches of the world's faiths as different expressions of wisdom.

"For Buddhism, the whole world is seen as a world of wisdom," he said. "All the phenomena of the world are expressions of deep underlying wisdom."

The goal of the museum is not to foster one world religion, but to encourage religious understanding and tolerance, organizers said.

"God sees us in our different places," Hsin-Tao said, "and gives us what we need in our specific places."

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