Sex & Death - Tantric Buddhism in Tibet

Sex & Death - Tantric Buddhism in Tibet

This exhibition is so good I had to visit it twice. It is a rare treat indeed to see so many truly exquisite Tibetan artworks brought together in one place. The advent of this exhibition is a real highlight for London’s cultural calendar, and it is certainly one not to be missed. The themes it explores will appeal to anyone with an interest in Tibetan art, culture, history, or religion – but so too, it will be of genuine fascination to anyone with a broader interest in non-Western medicine, yoga, meditation, neuropyschology, mental health and well-being. 

Vajrayogini, 19th century
Tibet’s Secret Temple at London’s Wellcome Collection (free entrance; closes February 28th) explores how Tantric Buddhism has been interpreted and practiced in Tibet from the time of its introduction to the country in the eighth century to the present day. Taking the murals of the private meditation chamber of the Dalai Lamas in Lhasa’s Lukhang, or ‘Temple to the Serpent Spirits,’ as its central pivot it brings together a breath-taking wealth of religious artefacts, artworks, spiritual-medical charts, models, archival and contemporary photographs and film footage to create for the visitor a comprehensive idea of the Tibetan Tantric Buddhists’ worldview. 

The architecture of the Lukhang itself is laid out like a wheel or mandala – representing the integral harmony of the cosmos and the human psyche. This ideal is augmented even further in the fact that the temple building integrates three distinct architectural styles – namely Tibetan, Chinese, and Mongolian, which also represents the complex political alliances which Tibet had formed with its near neighbours at the time of the temple’s construction at the turn of the 17thcentury. 

The Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lozang Gyatso (1642-1682)
It is said that the construction of the Lukhang was ordered by the Fifth Dalai Lama in order to appease the elemental, serpentine forces of nature which the Tibetans call ‘lu’ (nagas), who had been disturbed by the imposing construction of the Potala Palace nearby. This pious act of geomantic reparation was subsequently completed during the following reign of the Sixth Dalai Lama; although this Dalai Lama is reputed to have used the secluded temple, which stands isolated on an island amidst the placid waters of a small lake, as a retreat for his rather unorthodox romantic liaisons with beautiful women, which, along with a fondness for writing romantic poetry, he is said to have preferred to his more proper religious duties and attending to the affairs of state.

The Lukhang, with the back of the Potala Palace in the background
The Lukhang’s lower floor is built in the Tibetan style. It is dedicated to those elemental forces, the lu, for which the building is named. The second storey, built in the Chinese style, houses a shrine to the mythical Lord of the lu, flanked by statues of the Sixth Dalai Lama and Padmasambhava, the Indian spiritual teacher who brought the Tantric teachings to Tibet and who is now revered as a divine master. The uppermost floor of the temple is crowned with a Mongolian-style roof, under which is the private meditation chamber of the Dalai Lama. This little room is decorated with intricate murals depicting the advanced practices of Tantric yoga and the ‘Great Perfection’ teachings which illustrate the essence of spiritual enlightenment. At the centre of this once-secret chamber stands a statue of Avalokitesvara with a thousand arms, representing the embodiment of universal compassion, and of whom the line of the Dalai Lamas is believed to be the earthly manifestation thereof.

Shmashana Adhipati, or the Glorious Lords of the Charnel Ground, 18th century

At the start of the exhibition I overheard another visitor saying to her friend that what very little she knew or had heard about the tenets of Tantric Buddhism she’d gleaned as hearsay from the pop star Sting! … And I too have to confess that I was similarly vague in this particular respect. But, thinking about it, it’s perhaps fair to guess that most visitors to this exhibition will have some similarly founded notions that Tantric Buddhism has something to do with yoga and sex – and indeed, one of the first things which leaps out from the multitude of artworks found throughout the exhibition is the frequency with which the motif of male and female figures in the act of sexual union recurs. Looking beyond this, one sees yet further motifs recurring – many of which are centred upon death and horror. But again, looking deeper one starts to realise that these figures are often found arranged in some sort of dance macabre, much like visual depictions celebrating the Day of the Dead in Mexico. Naked figures dance joyously free, as do grinning skeletons, yet they dance upon the prostrate bodies of unfortunate people and stricken beasts, and some of them drink from skull cups filled with blood whilst wearing necklaces made from a string of skulls. Knives and daggers abound in their hands. But as one looks longer and stops to read the text panels and the object labels we begin to learn that our Western notions of sex and death, of propriety and embarrassment, of repulsion and horror; our giggles and sniggers, our shivers and shudders, do not equate here. 

Dharmapala Yamari, 16th-17th century
This iconography is meant to convey to us something of an altogether different meaning. These figures embraced in intimate union are by no means pornographic, instead, we learn, that the male signifies ‘supreme compassion’ and the female represents ‘all-encompassing wisdom’ – and, as such, their union combines to represent the ‘non-duality’ of the individual and all things. This is a joyous conquering of the self and of material attachments. The skulls and skeletons are no mere morbid memento mori either, they are in fact a celebration of the transience of all aspects of existence – hence why they dance with exuberant jollity whilst they are encircled by the flames of ‘pristine awareness’ – they are meant to remind us that we too can attain freedom from all earthly attachments, all the worldly things which weigh us down, if we seek transformation through a more enlightened perception of reality.

Traditional Tibetan Medicine diagrams
A central portion of the exhibition shows a number of artworks, beautifully rendered paintings, which depict the human body. At first glance they appear to be medical charts depicting human anatomy, but on closer inspection there appears to be something odd about these lines and the areas of the body which they connect – this, we are told, is because “Tibetan medicine represents physiological processes in metaphors that reflect subjective human experience.” 

These diagrams also appear to be dancing or they are caught in animated poses. “Depicting the human form in dynamic movement underlines Tibetan medical understandings of the movement of the body’s inner energies and the need for the free flowing of essences to optimise physiological and psychological functioning.” This links to a later section in the exhibition which examines the Tantric practises of yoga and meditation, where we see photographs and film footage which show lamas who are adept in controlling these ‘energy nodes’ or chakras that are centred in various points of the body by enacting set motions and striking certain poses, thereby controlling these energies through mind and breath, in order to focus ‘mindfulness.’ An interesting set of interviews on film at the close of the exhibition examine these themes from different points of view – religious and spiritual, physiological and psychological, behavioural and educational, philosophical and scientific.

The Potala Palace, showing the Lukhang to the left, 19th century (Wise Collection)
For me, I was originally drawn to the exhibition primarily for the art and the historical, particularly the pictorial map of Lhasa from the British Library’s Wise Collection. And the exhibition has indeed brought together a fantastic selection of first-class objects from public and private collections from many different countries. An amazing number of these are on open display, I found the masks particularly fascinating and it was wonderful to be able to look at these up-close from a number of angles. The intricacy of the manuscript paintings (on paper) and thangka scrolls (painted on silk) as well as the final room in which the visitor can examine in close detail life-size digital images of three walls of the Lukhang’s sacred meditation chamber are all-absorbing. But what I took away from this exhibition was far from what I’d originally been expecting. I found I took away a deeper cultural understanding of the Tibetan Buddhist worldview, which is perhaps summed up most eloquently by a quotation of the Second Dalai Lama (1475-1542): “The world we see is a painting born from the brush of discursive thought. Within or upon it nothing truly existent can be found. Knowing this, one knows reality; seeing this, one sees what is true.”

Prajnaparamita, painted wooden book cover, 13th century

This worldview goes beyond one of a purely abstract cosmology, as, in its simplest essence, it is entirely applicable to us as individuals in our everyday lives as sentient and caring beings. The final sections of the exhibition succeed in relating these ideas to conceptions of health and well-being which have been successfully translated over into the modern West. If we think of the tenets of meditation and mindfulness, the holistic ideas of maintaining health through mind and body – the principles of these teachings seem closer to us, and if we think upon them in this light their ostensibly shocking and gaudy depictions in Tibetan art, with its hallucinatory visions of flayed corpses and musical instruments made of human bone, may even start to seem less alien and incomprehensible. 

Phur Bu, ceremonial dagger, 18th-19th century

All religions meditate upon, and try to make sense of, essentially the same realities: of life and death, of existence and meaning, of personal fulfilment and social understanding, of happiness and acceptance. “Mindfulness,” we are told, is an awareness, “of one’s inherent Buddha nature, a self transcendent state of empathy, insight and spontaneous altruism.” Hence, “Mind, in its essence, is the perfect Buddha. Do not search for the Buddha elsewhere.”

Detail showing trantric meditation poses from the Lukhang meditation chamber mural
It’s a rare thing for an exhibition – examining through the means of art and history in a secular/scientific setting – to elucidate a philosophical worldview quite so clearly beyond the confines of material culture on so many different levels so successfully. Watching my fellow visitors I could sense the many ways in which the exhibition seemed to engage them. Certainly there were titters at some of the gilded figures looking like exotic bejewelled, naked pole-dancers, and I even saw some people distastefully wrinkling their noses up at the motifs of flayed corpses and dismembered human bodies or the artefacts which were created from actual human remains (it’s interesting to note though that the exhibition doesn’t go so far as to examine the Tibetan practice of ‘sky burial’); yet most visitors seemed to genuinely connect with the intense and intricate beauty of these artworks, with the costumes and the dances, the holistic ideas of yoga and meditation. This really is a wonderfully collated and expertly curated, thought provoking exhibition. One that certainly repays the time that the visitor is willing to invest in it. It’s one to see (more than once even!), and, certainly – it’s one not to be missed.

The Wellcome Collection, London
19 November 2015 – 28 February 2016
Free entrance

Garuda, 18th century

Interview with Ian Baker, principal curator of "Tibet's Secret Temple"

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