Tibet’s Secret Temple: A Review

Though the path towards enlightenment may, when perfumed, be straddled by thorns, the marvellous “Tibet’s Secret Temple” exhibition currently being staged by the Wellcome Collection in Euston yet succeeds in affording a pleasingly informative account of the unquenchable passion for spiritual transcendence that distinguishes early far Eastern thought.

Loosely charting the course of events which were to culminate in what many would consider to be modern Western concept of monastic Buddhism, the “Tibet’s Secret Temple” exhibition, affords a mesmerising account of the many crafts and disciplines which have come to define the Buddhist faith

A Model of the Lukhang Temple

Focussing upon The Temple of the Serpent Spirits, or “Lukhang”, a splendidly isolated idyll situated upon a willow blown island at the centre of a lake behind Lhasa’s Potala palace, the Wellcome Collection presents a vast catalogue of artefacts before scrutiny, including the celebrated Lukhang murals, a series of wall paintings which, in being drafted by a man named “Lochen Dharma Shri”, were thought to have been commissioned beneath the regency of “Desi Sangye Gyatso”, the governor of Tibet between the reign of the fifth and sixth Dalai Lama in the late seventeenth century.

Initially only approachable by boat, a convention observed in the exhibition’s introductory display with film footage of a man laboriously sculling over a turgid expanse of water to reach the island upon which the temple is located, “the Lukhang” is depicted as a place out of time, an Edenic paradise long neglected by the ever encroaching tide of Western civilisation.

Manuscript depicting Thod rgal kyls dep I ris

Legendarily constructed to appease the concerns of beings known as “Lu’s” or “Serpent Spirits Of The Lake” over the impending completion of neighbouring Potala Palace during the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama, an allusion perhaps to the usage of the qaurry beneath Potala Palace as a carp pond, “The Temple of The Serpent Spirits” was initially conceived as a walled haven designed for ritual purposes.

Distinguished by a number of elaborately latticed balconies, wind chimes and gilded dragons, features which were perhaps added during the reign of the eighth Dalai Lama “Jampel Gyatso” in the late eighteenth century, “The Temple of The Serpent Spirits”, epitomises both the pastoral delicacy and peculiar solitude for which monastic Buddhism has become renowned, being used as both a sanctuary and a pleasure palace by successive incarnations of Tibet’s legendary Gelug ruler.

Carpet of a Flayed Man

The murals drafted upon the walls the “Lukhang’s” uppermost chamber are thought to be depictions of “Dzogchen” or “The Great Perfection” a concept which, in legendarily being formulated by the eighth century sage “Padmasambhava” after having been consigned to subjugate a number of unruly aqautic “Naga Lords” by the Tibetan king “Trisong Detser”, was subsequently adapted into the fifteenth century text “The Compendium Of Primordial Awareness” written by the Bhutanese Tantric master “Orgyen Pema Lingpa”.

Composite to a collection of medical diagrams and mandallas which, in alloying anatomical descriptions of bone structure and blood circulation with what were thought to be invisible flows of Tantric energy, the Lukhang collection reflects many of the themes apparent in the work of early European physicians, the equation of blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm described in Roman medicine, presuming archaic correspondence with the imbalances which were believed to have occurred between the vital energy “Prana” and pestilent influence “Naga” in Eastern belief.

Literally meaning “the methodology of expansion” the medieval Indian idea of Tantric energy was potentially initially derived from the practise of controlled breathing, a discipline which, in internalising consciousness and focussing attention, gradually evolved into the astonishing feats of contortion for which Yoga later earned renown.

Known as “Vajrayana” or “the indestructible vehicle” in Buddhism, Tantric meditation was interpreted to encompass many aspects of the human condition, including positive states of mind that could both absent themselves from thought and preserve sentiments of well-being and benignity against adverse influence, influence which, in Buddhism was, like the legacy of bedevilment apparent in medieval Europe, frequently credited to demonic possession.

The selection of weaponry, furniture and musical instrumentation which the Wellcome Collection presents before inspection is quite extensive in this instance, a horde which in depicting the wrathful vigil of many armed warriors and the macabre antics of smiling skeletons, represents an even cruder understanding of physiognomy than previously apparent, an inventory of images frequently adapted for ritual purposes such as the frenetic masked dervish “Cham dances” which were observed to have been performed in Tibetan public squares throughout the twentieth century.

Cham Skeleton Mask

Perhaps the most widely known of the Buddhist documents presented for display is the “Bardo Thodol” or Book of the Dead”, a tract which although blessed with a veneer of antiquity, was actually transcribed fairly recently in 1927.

Although only apparent in an extracted form, the inclusion of the text for presentation lends the venue an air of solemn authority which one would ordinarily associate with the finer displays of the British Museum.

The exhibition continues with a section devoted to the Tibetan’s ingenious usage of crystals and ritual mirrors to reflect and refract light, an intriguing application depicted, in associated artwork as a culinary aid.

Whether or not such practise worked, the idea of preparing cauldrons of water with refracted light remains an endearingly novel concept worthy of the more lucid imaginings of Jonathan Swift.

The last section of the exhibition is devoted to the Lukhang mural itself, a life size replica of the original wall painting being displayed upon three vertices of a darkened room.

Digitally reproduced by the photographer Thomas Laird for the Wellcome Collection, the mural represents a stunningly intricate account of Tibetan Tantric practise, being composed of an assortment of figures suspended in states of transcendent meditation upon a largely pastoral back-ground, a vast collage which, in qualifying many aspects of domestic Tibetan life also includes a number of somewhat more exceptional details such as a graphic depictions of dismembered human remains and an image of two people being drowned in a river, a list which, in extending to include men whose heads emit fire and individuals floating through space, may perhaps have played subject to the whim of artistic license.

All of the images upon the North wall of the chamber are derived from Rigdzin Pema Lingpa’s “Compendium of Revealed Treasure Texts” or “Gathering of Samantabhadra’s Intention”. a vista which, in encompassing a depiction of the sea ringed island of Mount Meru and Padmasambhava’s subjugation of the “Naga Lords” at it’s extremes, charts an episodic tale divided into two halves by a phalanx of the many armed divinities which typify much Asian art.

The Western wall is devoted to the pursuit of Dzogchen or “The Great Perfection”, a state of transcendence considered ideal in Buddhism, and extends to include a series of pictures inspired by Rigdzin Pema Lingpa’s “Compendium of Dzogchen Tantras”, a selection of images largely devoted to the depiction of a number of acutely intent Yogis staring towards heavenly bodies.

The Eastern wall of the chamber, is primarily devoted to the eighty four Mahasiddhas that occupied India between the eighth and the eleventh centuries, an expanse which, in referring back to the discipleship of Padmasambhava, also includes references to the activities of the great Tibetan “Treasure Revealer” and direct ancestor of the sixth Dalai Lama “Pema Lingpa”,

Generally considered to be a civilising influence, the Mahasiddhas were often associated with the cultivation of brewing in Tibetan art, celebrated Mahassidas such as “Virupa”, “Nagarjuna” and “Tsokidorje” frequently being depicted brandishing jugs of water or ale, a practise which, in being denoted by what seem to be elaborately choreographed hand gestures and facial expressions, resemble many images in early North African art.

Decorated from three sides alone, there being no Southern aspect to the painting, the exhibition’s mural room represents an incredible amalgam of miraculous event and immediately familiar occurrence, describing a world in which magic and mundanity merge seamlessly with each other.

The final chamber of the exhibition is dominated by a wide screen television displaying footage of a number of English men and woman who, in converting to Buddhism, have achieved peace of mind, and serves as an introduction to a number of forthcoming meditation themed events due to be held by the Wellcome Collection.

If one finds one’s self in the vicinity of St. Pancras fresh from a period of study at London’s British Library then the Wellcome collection’s “Tibet’s Secret Temple” exhibition comes highly recommended, offering a tantalising insight into the spiritual progress of a culture which although geographically distinct from Western lands, is not entirely dissimilar to that of Europe.

For further information please contact…

The Wellcome Collection, 
183 Euston Road,


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