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Once-Secret Murals Reveal Tibet's Ancient Traditions

Stunning and vibrant paintings depict otherworldly scenes of flying Buddhas and savage deities.
November 19, 2015, 2:25pm
Monk at Luhkang Temple © Bickerstaff

A new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London is revealing a once-secret aspect of Tibetan Buddhism, specifically the Tantric and yogic meditation traditions that lie within it. This isn't the crop-haired monastic Tibetan Buddhism of sacred vows we're familiar with, instead it's one practiced by yogis and dreadlocked shamanistic wanderers, people in their houses, and those situated outside of the monasteries.


Called Tibet's Secret Temple the exhibition focuses on the Lukhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet. Known as the "Temple to the Serpent Spirits" it was built on an island in the 17th century behind the Potala Palace—where Lamas would reside—and was only accessible by boat.

Lukhang temple © David Bickerstaff

In fact it was a secret meditation sanctuary for the Dalai Lama and the temple's structure is in the form of a 3D mandala, a sacred shape in Tibet that symbolizes the universe. Its three-tiered structure references the three levels of enlightenment: outer reality, inner experience, and a transcendent realm beyond space and time.

The upper tier, where the Dalai Lama's meditation chamber was, is home to three fascinating murals situated on the north, west, and east walls. A digital life-size recreation of the murals on lightboxes form the centrepiece of the exhibition and are an insight into the practices and teachings of this esoteric form of Buddhism.

The murals are incredibly detailed, intricate, and colorful, depicting a mix of pre-Buddhist animist traditions mixed with Tibetan yoga exercises, meditations, and tantric techniques. They represent a visual, instructional guide to enlightenment and reference advanced practices which allow the user to experience states of self-transcendent awareness, projecting their consciousness beyond death—known as Powa. Many of them reference teachings credited to an 8th century Indian Tantric Buddist Master known as Padmasambhava.

Padmasambhava taming a lu (nāga) Lukhang mural detail, Tibet, 17th century (C) Thomas Laird, 2015

There are curious beasts, demonic almost gruesome deities, bizarre scenes, and myths of creation (there is something called the Birth of Elements—what's also referred to as the 'Cosmic Vagina'—a symbol in the north facing mural representing the beginning of the universe it tells a creation myth not dissimilar to that found in Genesis).


Describing the fantastical scenes, co-curator Ruth Garde notes, "They are enormously dynamic and vibrant paintings full of surprising and delightful details. They contain strange and wonderful scenes set in beautiful, often otherworldly landscapes, with mountains and inverted skies, trees and flowers, waterfalls, and rainbows. Apart from the yogis there are also mysterious details like an oversized butterfly hovering, an outlandishly large frog, turtles that look like a cross between an armadillo and a crocodile. There are disembodied organs, heads, bones, and limbs, figures floating downstream, others flying through the air, others riding animals through the sky. There are fierce deity figures in halos of fire, animal-headed dancers, and buddhas hovering in aureoles."

The murals were photographed by American photographer and journalist Thomas Laird, who visited the murals in situ and was responsible for the recreations in the exhibition.

Magical movements (trul khor), Lukhang mural detail, Tibet, 17th century (C) Thomas Laird, 2015

The rest of the exhibition is dedicated to contextualizing the murals, along with showing what else was in the temple on the other tiers. These include scroll paintings which show traditional Tibetan medicine, depicting energy points—chakras—and channels and their positions in human anatomy.

There are also other objects and images that seem to have more in common with occult iconography than your typical idea of Tibetan Buddhism. There are three-headed demons that are meant to help practitioners overcome fear and advance to higher states, skull imagery to remind them of the impermanence of life, arm bands, drums, and aprons made from human bones, and ritual skull bowls whose iconography reference the user's ability to transfer occult knowledge and power.

Bone Apron, Human bone, silk, glass, Tibet, 19th Century (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Buddhist human skull vessel and brass stand (c) Science Museum, Science and Society Picture Library

Carved Skull Drum, Human bone, glass, cotton ,Tibet, 19th century (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The reason these once-secret teachings are being revealed is that the current Dalai Lama wants to open them up to scientific study and research, and see what relevance they have for contemporary society in regards to mental and physical health and wellbeing. Not only so the world can benefit, but also so the teachings don't become lost.

"This exhibition represents the first time that objects connected to secret Tantric Buddhist practices have been displayed openly to the public," explains Tibetan Buddhist scholar and co-curator Ian Baker. "The exhibition highlights the relevance of these practices in today’s global society and their ongoing contribution to a deeper understanding of the possibilities and potential of human existence.”

Sculpture of Chittapatti Skeletons (c) Rubin Museum of Art, New York

Lukhang Temple with Potala Palace in the background, Sir Charles Bell, Photograph, ca. 1921 (c) Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Tibet's Secret Temple is 19 November 2015 to 28 February 2016 at the Wellcome Collection 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE, UK


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