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To Hell and Back at the Asian Art Museum

A graphic memoir captures a heart attack victim’s visions of the afterworld.


Gates of Hell, 2015

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Transcend, 2015

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Triptych, 2015

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Border, 2015

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When Sam Bercholz’s plane arrived at Palm Springs International Airport in 2007, he had no idea what his ultimate destination would be: hell. Bercholz, the SoCal-based cofounder of Shambhala Publications, which specializes in texts inspired by spiritual traditions like The Tassajara Bread Book, suffered a heart attack. During the tumultuous days that followed, he believes, his consciousness traveled through the infernal realms. In the aftermath of his recovery, Bercholz asked his friend Pema Namdol Thaye, a Tibetan artist whose works hang in temples across the world, to paint what he’d seen.

The result was the illustrated memoir A Guided Tour of Hell, and, starting this month, some of its hellscapes will be on display at the Asian Art Museum. While the practice of a sage collaborating with an artist is common within Buddhism, for this project the artwork is presented in graphic-novel style—a Buddhist spin on Dante, as written by Alan Moore and drawn by Jack Kirby. Asian Art Museum curator Jeff Durham says the mash-up, though unconventional, is in keeping with Tibetan Buddhist attitudes on cultural borrowing: “Tibetan culture doesn’t view these teachings as their own cultural property,” he says. “By letting other people in, you generate merit, both for yourself and for them.” Apr. 20–Sept. 16

Originally published in the April issue of
San Francisco

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