Tibet’s Secret Temple

19 Nov 2015 — 28 Feb 2016 at Wellcome Collection in London, United Kingdom

4 NOVEMBER 2015
Garuda, Gilded and lacquered wood, Tibet, 18th century (c) The Trustees of the British Museum
Garuda, Gilded and lacquered wood, Tibet, 18th century (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Wellcome Collection’s major winter exhibition, ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple’, uncovers the mysteries of Tantric Buddhism and the rich history of its yogic and meditation practices. Taking inspiration from a series of intricate murals that adorn the walls of the Lukhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet, the exhibition showcases over 120 outstanding objects from collections around the world that illuminate the secrets of the temple, once used exclusively by Tibet’s Dalai Lamas.

Originally accessible only by boat, the Lukhang, or ‘Temple to the Serpent Spirits’, was built in the late 17th century, during the reigns of the fifth and sixth Dalai Lamas, as a private sanctuary for meditation and spiritual practice, secreted behind the Potala Palace. The murals in the uppermost chamber of the temple helped guide the Dalai Lamas on their journey to enlightenment and have been recreated by photographer Thomas Laird as spectacular life-sized digital artworks that form the centrepiece of the exhibition. This is the first time whole Tibetan wall murals have ever been displayed in a museum as transparencies.

‘Tibet’s Secret Temple’ progresses through 12 themed rooms in the main gallery space at Wellcome Collection. Each room explores a different aspect of the Lukhang, its history and origins as well as Tibetan Buddhist beliefs and practices with relevance to modern understandings of meditation, mindfulness and wellbeing. The exhibition begins with a contemporary film installation by film maker David Bickerstaff, and includes original artefacts from public and private collections, including Tantric yogic implements and exquisite statues of yogis and Buddhist deities such as the naga, or lu –the serpent spirits to whom the Lukhang Temple is dedicated. Photographs and models of the temple itself show its construction as a three-dimensional maṇḍala, a sacred geometrical shape that represents the Buddhist universe, with its three tiers representing three dimensions of enlightenment – outer reality, inner experience, and a transcendent dimension beyond time and space.

A series of scroll paintings, or thangkas, depict the traditional Tibetan medical system and its representations of subtle physiological processes essential to optimal health. Outlining energy channels and their points of convergence (or chakras) within the body, these artworks are displayed alongside early Tibetan ritual diagrams as well as details from Laird’s images of the Lukhang murals, to illustrate Tantric Buddhism’s emphasis on wholeness and harmony between the body and mind. Other sections of the exhibition portray the human form in dynamic movement, such as in sacred Cham dances and Tibetan forms of physical yoga, that reflect Tantric Buddhism’s understanding of the flow of internal energies within the human body and their connection with heightened mental states.

Ornaments made from human bone, bowls carved from skulls, ritual implements for cutting away the ego as well as masks and statues of fierce Tibetan deities, evoke darker aspects of existence that Tantric Buddhism embraces in its journey to wholeness. Primarily used in ceremonial rites, these objects evoke awareness of life’s fundamental impermanence. They highlight the transcendence of fear and inhibition and expanded forms of consciousness that Tibetan Buddhists cultivate through the yogic and meditational practices illustrated in the Lukhang murals.

To foster greater understanding of their potential benefits to health and wellbeing, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has increasingly encouraged the scientific study of even the most closely-guarded techniques illustrated in the Lukhang murals, which were once only taught to highly advanced practitioners. The final room of the exhibition explores scientific investigations into these once secret practices of Tantric Buddhism and their impact on psychological and physiological health and understandings of human consciousness.

Ruth Garde, curator of the exhibition said: “While Tantric Buddhism has invited many myths and interpretations, ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple’ takes visitors through its long and rich history. The extraordinarily beautiful objects in this exhibition come together to reveal stories that were hidden from all but the most advanced practitioners of Tantric Buddhism, and provide a rare opportunity to engage with aspects of Tibet and its spiritual practices that I hope will surprise and intrigue visitors.”

Ian Baker, a Tibetan Buddhist scholar who served as the exhibition’s external curator, said: “This exhibition represents the first time that objects connected to secret Tantric Buddhist practices have been displayed openly to the public. 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.”

Tibet’s Secret Temple: Body, Mind and Meditation in Tantric Buddhism runs at Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, from 19 November 2015 to 28 February 2016. A full programme of events will accompany Tibet’s Secret Temple and there will be a postcard book available, featuring some of Laird’s Lukhang mural details, as well as other selected works from the exhibition.