WE ARE MET with sounds of lapping water. A coracle rows over a pine-fringed lake, dipping its oars in rhythmic strokes. Multi-coloured prayer flags whisper in the wind. The coracle moves smoothly across the lake, arriving, at last, at a temple. We see a monk dressed in deep red robes, drumming outside its door, while another monk walks around the building with a hand held prayer wheel. This is the Lukhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet, a 17th-century construction traditionally only accessed by boat. Footage of the journey across the Yarlung Zangbo river to reach the temple greets us as we enter the Wellcome Collection’s current exhibition, Tibet’s Secret Temple: Body, Mind and Meditation in Tantric Buddhism. It is a beautiful film installation by David Bickerstaff, which, with its vivid colours and percussive sounds, gives us our first impressions of the centuries-old temple on which this exhibition is founded.
The Lukhang – also known as the ‘Temple to the Serpent Spirits’ – was built in the shadow of the magnificent Potala Palace during the reigns of the fifth and the sixth Dalai Lamas. It was intended as a secret place of worship for the Dalai Lamas, and dedicated to the Lu, the dragon-like spirits of earth and water that are believed to inhabit the region. Its conception is interesting: during his daily meditation, the fifth Dalai Lama was visited by an irritated Lu, so the story goes, whose swamp-home had been unsettled by the construction of the Potala Palace. The Dalai Lama promised to honour her and her fellow Lu with a temple, and the vow was upheld after his death by the sixth Dalai Lama, notorious for his late-night capers with local women. The newly completed Lukhang temple provided him – the only Dalai Lama to renounce his monkhood – with the perfect setting in which to enjoy these illicit assignations.
The temple has also gained global interest for more strictly religious reasons, through the murals that decorate the walls of a secret chamber on its upper floor, originally concealed with silk hangings and intended for the eyes of the Dalai Lamas alone. Although strikingly colourful and absorbing in the range of activities they depict, the murals do not serve to entertain; rather, they portray the path to Buddhist enlightenment, a practical guide to Tantric Buddhism through the yoga and meditation poses enacted upon them. These paintings represent the teachings of Padmasambhava, the Tantric Buddhist master who brought his beliefs from India to Tibet in the 8th century. His name means ‘lotus-born’ in Sanskrit, a nod towards the legend behind his birth which holds that he appeared as an eight year old boy in a lotus flower on Lake Dhanakosha, and was adopted by the king of Oddiyana (a country in mediaeval India). He is believed to have founded Tibet’s first monastery, Samye Gompa, and disseminated the practices of Tantric Buddhism to the region, defeating the local Bon deities in doing so. Some Buddhists consider him to be an incarnation of Amithaba Buddha. He is shown, in the murals, taking an oath to protect the Tantric Buddhist path to wisdom and compassion.
But how has this secret set of murals – created for the education of the religious elite rather than the enjoyment of the masses – made its way into London’s Wellcome Collection? American photographer Thomas Laird first travelled to Tibet in 1971 at the age of eighteen; he subsequently settled in Kathmandu to take pictures and work as a journalist and Himalayan guide, an experience, which included a three year stint living among the sherpa of East Nepal. At the behest of the Dalai Lama, whose initial meeting with Laird was in 1995, Laird has recreated the murals in digital artworks, which are true to size and stunning in the clarity of their details. He began photographing the murals in 1986, and has since spent many years furthering his understanding of their history and content. The finished pieces, brightly lit (they are printed on transparencies) and captivatingly animated, furnish the exhibition with its centrepiece. The protected status of the murals in the past has been revoked by the Dalai Lama, who believes that with commentaries and teaching the essence of Tantric Buddhism depicted in these murals will no longer be misunderstood. ‘Errors in understanding are best served not by secrecy but by careful and thorough explanations’, he has said, commissioning the images from Laird for the public to see for the first time. And not just the public. Having been forcibly exiled from Tibet in 1959 when the Tibetan national uprising was suppressed by the Chinese, His Holiness left his home country without having undergone the initiations required to see the secret murals within the walls of the Lukhang. The recreated images are the first he will have seen of these sacred Tantric Buddhist guides.
The murals, and the exhibition built around them, occasionally startle in their challenge to the layman’s preconceptions of Tibetan Buddhism. Gone are our stereotypes of serenity; this exhibition is rife with images of vivid physicality. Bracelets, armbands and aprons are carved from real human bone, while a drum is fashioned from a human skull – a kind of memento mori, insisting on viewers a recognition of their own impermanence. A pair of carpets depict a man and a woman, their insides bloodied and flayed. Elsewhere, the medicinal thangkas, or scroll paintings, portray dancing skeletons and annotated body parts, highlighted to identify different chakras in accordance with the Buddhist emphasis on harmony between the body and the mind. A man performs the mystical, masked Cham dance in a video, his brightly-coloured costume swirling (the spinning is a form of meditation, and is believed to have originated with Padmasambhava). The murals themselves can distract for hours with the industry they depict: yogis practising trul khor (Tibetan yoga) exercises, the ‘Birth of Elements’ (also known as the ‘Cosmic Vagina’), scenes of death, scenes of flight and flying animals – all set within a vibrantly colourful landscape of mountains, waterfalls and unusual-looking creatures.
Yet, despite the dynamism of these pieces, there is a clear thread of meditation and introspection throughout the exhibition; an acknowledgement of the Buddhist belief in the importance of both physical and spiritual wellness. The exhibition ends with a film, which considers the role of mindfulness in contemporary Western society, and the debt owed to the Buddhist practices of meditation and yoga. A series of complementary events will run concurrent with this exhibition, including sessions on lucid dreaming, on Tibetan medicine and healing, and a symposium on mindfulness.
BY XENOBE PURVIS
Until 28 February at the Wellcome Institute, London, www.wellcomecollection.org