It’s exhibitions like ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple’ that make you realise how incredible London really is. To be able to spend 2 hours blissfully transported into Tibetan culture, seeing art work that before now had been reserved only for the eyes of Dalai Lamas, and all for free, you just can’t quite believe it.
From November to February this year, the Wellcome Collection looked to explore body, mind and meditation in Tantric Buddhism (aka Vajrayāna (वज्रयान)) – a branch of Buddhism highly popular in Tibet. The exhibition began with an immersive video showing the synonymous Tibetan prayer flags billowing in the wind with the dramatic mountains in the background, monks chanting, mala beeds fondled, yogic salutations practiced and prayer wheels being turned by dedicated Buddhists.
The exhibition’s main focus was to take you on a journey to discover the intricate murals which are housed within the 17th-century Lukhang, or ‘Temple to the Serpent Spirits’. This almost secret temple is nestled behind the huge Potala Palace in Lhasa (the ‘Place of the Gods’) on a hidden island on a lake. This private sanctuary was for hundreds of years reserved purely for the Dalai Lamas, as a place of isolation away from the hubbub of the Potala Palace. In the uppermost chamber of the Lukhang is what has been known as the secret of life – a room filled with intricate murals outlining Buddhist philosophy and the route to enlightenment.
The exhibition lead you round different aspects of the mural showing only small snippets of it until the final space – a life size digital reproduction of the murals. Following this journey introduced you to the ideals of Tantric Buddhism, learning about it’s expressive nature with dance rituals, elaborate costumes, death masks and an array of musical instruments. There is a very frank relationship with death in this form of Buddhism and it is apparent everywhere from drums made of human skulls to death dances performed at ceremonies. This constant reminder of death is however humbling, reminding us of the impermanence of life. There were 120 extraordinarily beautiful objects from both public and private exhibitions all of which had deep meaning and symbolism behind them.
After sitting in awe looking at the beautiful murals you were finally taken into a room to watch a short video discussing how aspects of this Eastern culture are being brought into our Western one and the profound effects it is having on people from all walks of life, young and old.
The parting words that stuck with me were that of a Tibetan monk who spoke of how in the West we are obsessed with being physically clean, we wash every day yet a Buddhist monk may only be washed once, when his body is being prepared to be cremated. However, they will have spent their life cleaning their mind whereas in the West very little time is spent on this. Something to consider when you’re having your shower tomorrow morning…