Art, refugees, religion and the Tibet Open House in Prague

William Heath reports on a visit to Prague’s new Tibet Open House:

After centuries of invasions, religious wars and violence Czech is – alongside Sweden – Europe’s most secular country.

The place has fantastic spirit, irrepressible art – especially Nouveau, Cubist and contempory – impenetrable language, a suspicion of outsiders and external authority, and a surreal sense of humour. The 2004 film Czech Dream reflected the emptiness of capitalism with a hoax supermarket that was just a giant poster. A 2005 vote for greatest Czech ever saw TV viewers pick Jára Cimrman, a non-existent comedy character.

Prague is the location now chosen by Ai Weiwei for his monumental installation Law of the Journey. It’s a vast inflatable model of an inflatable, packed with inflatable refugees. It takes up the entire National Gallery trade fair hall, a vast space built in the 1930s where Jews were gathered under Nazi occupation for transport to the camps.

Ai Weiwei chose the 1930s Prague National Gallery to show his Law of the Journey.

It’s an extremely powerful and moving installation, with the boat mounted over a wave of quotations from Kafka to Vaclav Havel. But the people of Prague seem not that engaged with it. There’s no need to book tickets; you just walk in and have the hall to yourself. Czech isn’t that interested in refugees, and the feeling is mutual; very few refugees have settled in Czech, preferring Germany or the UK.

But Prague is the location chosen by Bath Quakers’ good friend Geshe Yeshi Gawa. On the very day of our arrival this week in Prague the Tibetan monk finally got his visa for a two-year stay in Czech as spiritual director of a new Tibet Open House established by the Linhart Foundation. It’s a place for sharing Tibetan culture and teachings about Buddhism and language.

The freedom-loving and independent minded people of Prague, which has a moving monument to the victims of communism, have evidently taken the plight of Tibetan people to heart. Despite having a Tibetan population of just 12, Prague has a Tibetan film festival this week, a new Tibetan restaurant opened in February (with six of Prague’s 12 Tibetans working there). Above our tube station at Borislavka was a huge poster proclaiming “Free Tibet”. As with Tibet Open House, these bonds are perhaps a legacy of the close relationship between the late President Vaclav Havel, father of modern Czech, and HH the Dalai Lama.

Bath Quakers may yet make a small contribution to the cultural life of this wonderful city, with the possibility of “open meditation” sessions alongside the programme of Buddhist, cultural and language teachings at Tibet Open House inspired by the Quaker Meeting discipline.

Greetings to all in Prague, and best of luck to the new Tibet Open House and all involved. We hold you in the light!

Tibet Open House in Prague offers Tibetan culture, Buddhism and language classes for all comers on an equal basis.

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