EXHIBITION REVIEW: Tibet’s Secret Temple

By: Ellen O'Donoghue Oddy | Date 16.01.2016
Tibet’s Secret Temple is an exploration of the relationship between the human mind and the physical spaces it occupies. It traces the history of Tantric Buddhism, which was founded within the hidden Lukhang temple. Unearthing the story of Tibet’s temple, the exhibition is both a reflection on the integral values of Buddhism, and an excavation of the objects, people and art of Tibet’s past.
Photo: Wellcome Collection
In Tibet in the 17th century, the Fifth Dalai Llama was constructing the Potala Palace, which was to become the home of the Dalai Llama until mid-20th century. Whilst meditating, the Dalai Llama beheld a vision. A serpent-like deity of the water named lu warned that the construction was disrupting the underworld of the lus. As recompense, and antidote to the power of the palace, the Dalai Llama vowed to build the Lukhang temple.

Situated on an island behind the Potala Palace, shaded by overhanging willows, quiet and undisturbed, sits the result of this promise. It was completed by the sixth Dalai Llama who practised Tantric Buddhism, a freer, more sensual, and controversial form of meditational practice. The Lukhang temple is surrounded by water and was once only accessible by boat. Its architectural design embodies the mandala, a symbol of Buddhism’s harmony between the metaphysical cosmos and the human psyche. Its design connects the imagination to nature, and incorporates architectural styles from Tibet, China and Mongolia – reflecting the complex politics of 17th century Tibet. Its walls are adorned with paintings that depict secret instruction for yogi practice. It’s figuration is both culturally and spiritually powerful, and for centuries onwards the Lukhang continued to be a space of spiritual retreat for Dalai Llamas.

When reimagining the hidden world of 17th century Tibet, the Wellcome Collection uses a modern eye. The exhibition begins with a double screen video installation by David Bickerstaff that introduces the world of the Lukhang. Slow motion film of Buddhist rituals play against distant sounds of singing bowl, and the sound of meditation bells are played over still shots of the Lukhang’s wall murals. The two screens are positioned in a corner, creating the effect of enclosure within the hidden world of the Lukhang.

This cinematic perspective of the Lukhang is continued by the photographs of Ian Baker, joint curator of the exhibition alongside Ruth Garde. The resolution of his photography creates a sharp contrast of colour and form between people and Tibet. In one photograph taken at Khandro Tsok Puk in Central Tibet, a yogi climbs up to the enlightenment cage of Yeshe Tsogyal, home of the founder of Tantric Buddhism. The yogi is performing rituals for protector spirits. The soft, layered colours of his robes contrast with the hard, grey mountains and piercing white of surrounding clouds. The person and the place speak to each other harmoniously; two opposites drawn together by the click of the camera lens.

The objects of the exhibition, from a 2015 film to ancient manuscript, waver between the Tibetan past and a global, technological present. Distinguishing between these opposites are the photographs of Thomas Laird. Laird takes high resolution images of the Lukhang inner wall murals, and restores them true to scale. They are now positioned on the walls of the Wellcome Collection, teaching its visitors about mindfulness and imaginative precision. You feel that the exhibition is drawing you into the Luhang, whilst at the same time encouraging you to consider, and reconsider, this ‘secret temple’ at a distance.

The ancient artefacts are brought together for the public, for the first time. We can read the manuscript where the fifth Dalai Llama recollected his vision of lu, and his plans for the Lukhang. The exhibition also features paintings of 17th century medical thangkas which are now destroyed. They map the ‘Primary and Secondary Causes of Diseases’ across the human physical and spiritual system. They explore the interrelation between Tibetan medicine and the play between sensuality and mind at the roots of Tantric Buddhism.

The power of these ancient objects – beads, knives, masks - is that they are designed in the shape of, and to inspire, the mind. A Dakini mask represents a ‘sky dancer’ that was incorporated into Tantric dances. It is complimented by a famous proclamation of Padmasambhava’s Tibetan consort Yeshe Tsogyal: ‘When delusion ends, all that’s left is joyous spontaneity. There’s no other way to dance in the sky’. A bronze and iron ritual dagger, made in Tibet around the 18th century, symbolises the clarity of the meditating mind, and its sharpness of knowledge that pierces through illusion. In one of the final rooms is a Ritual Cham Costume, it is made up of Tibetan silk brocade, bird feather, wood, plastic, and initiation crystal. It is hung high in the centre of the room, in a glass box. Each of these objects incorporate Buddhist ideals of freedom, focus and sensuality through their form. They are not explicitly objects of weaponry, battle or status. The exhibition space is dimly lit, and although busy, remains in hushed quietness. It is educational, but more so, ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple’ is relaxing.

That the Wellcome Collection would be the location of this exhibition, is significant. It is a space that explores the human mind against the body, and progresses art alongside science. It encourages its visitors to be ‘curious’. Furthermore, it is situated among the city’s busiest universities, train stations and business offices. A retreat for curiosity amongst London’s busy streets, there is not a more appropriate setting for an exhibition that reimagines Tibetan Buddhist practice of mindfulness and yogi.

Tibet’s Secret Temple is more than just an antidote to modern day life. The exhibition unearths Buddhist state of mind of body against backdrop of Tibet’s rich history; from architecture and geography, to medicine and religion. Bridging historical artefact with contemporary photography and filmmaking, it finds the chord between an ancient past and a contemporary world; Tibet in the 17th century and the world in 2016.


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