A blissful wander through body and brain

Editor Jon Sutton visits Wellcome Collection’s exhibition ‘Tibet’s secret temple: Body, mind and meditation in tantric buddhism’.

‘I have seen in my wanderings great temples and shrines, but none are as blissful as my own body.’ – Mahāsiddha Saraha, 8th century

When a serpent-like water deity called a lu appeared to Tibet’s Fith Dalai Lama (Lobsang Gyatso, 1617-1682) during his meditations and warned that construction of the Potala Palace was disturbing the lus’ subterranean realm, Gyatso vowed to build a temple to appease them. The Lukhang, or ‘Temple to the Serpent Spirits’, was completed in the late 17th century, its symmetrical design and ascending levels forming a Buddhist representation of the integral harmony of the cosmos and the human psyche. The Sixth Dalai Lama promptly renounced his monastic vows and used his new pad for his ‘amorous encounters’.

Why did that strike me as incongruous, and amusing? Maybe because, like so many Westerners, I have largely lost that connection between mind and bodily energy. This exhibition puts ‘body’ before ‘mind and meditation’, yet still I arrived expecting the emphasis to be on the mental.

Of course, it’s not either / or. One of many quotes adorning the walls (from Rigdzin Jigme Lingpa, 1730-1798) reminds visitors ‘Unless the vitally important body is compliant and energy flowing freely, the pure light of consciousness will remain obscured. So take these physical practices to heart!’ And many of us do find our own mindful moments in running, dancing, other forms of exercise. But modern ‘mindfulness’, as Oxford psychologist Professor Willem Kuyken outlines in a film at the end of your walkthrough, emphasises attention, attitude, and ethical / virtuous qualities. Is it just me that finds that a bit intellectualised, worthy, dull even? Give me ‘couples making love’, a ‘trul khor’ yoga workout, and a sexually aroused bull-headed deity that vanquishes death (three of the exhibits here).

The Lukhang’s uppermost chamber conceals intricate wall paintings that guided the Dalai Lamas on the path of spiritual enlightenment. Lifesize, lightbox digital recreations of these fabulous murals are the centerpiece of the exhibition. Photographer Thomas Laird has performed miracles in bringing these stories of rapture, terror and self-transcendence to the Western world in such a vibrant manner, and any concerns that Lochen Dharma Shri’s paintings were not meant for our eyes were assuaged by the curator quoting the Dalai Lama: ‘The time of secrecy is over’. The murals express living traditions that we must share and learn from, or lose.

Indeed, it could be argued that we crave the essence of enlightenment more than ever. In the film, Geraldine Davies, Principal of The UCL Academy, describes how her school pupils come from sometimes chaotic family environments, on noisy buses, to learning environments where they are constantly questioned. She is using the .b programme to build their own strategies to provide moments of silence and calm in a busy, turbulent environment.

And yet… again, we are reminded that one of the earliest of the Buddhist Tantras, the Hevajra, states that ‘the yogi must always sing and dance’. I hope the importance of embodied expression is not lost amongst the colonisation and (some would say) dilution of ancient mindful practices. Much of what is on show here represents a threshold: a transition from mundane reality to engagement with primal aspects of the human condition. That’s a transition we could all perhaps do with making more often.  

The curators describe their offering as ‘a bit of a risk’: a consideration of well-being rather than their usual focus on medicine, and a whole gallery devoted to a non-Western perspective for the first time. Perhaps it will encourage visitors to take their own risks: we are reminded that Tibetan Buddhism is characterised by its ‘unhesitating evocation of aspects of existence that are normally psychologically and culturally suppressed’, and confronting them in this incredible ‘free destination for the incurably curious’ is a wonderful wander in our own temples: our brains, and our bodies.

- 'Tibet's Secret Temple' runs until 28 February 2016 at the Wellcome Collection, opposite Euston Station in London. While you are there, why not visit Ann Veronica Janssens' yellowbluepink.
There is also a series of events to accompany the exhibition: in particular, see 'Mindfulness unpacked' with the Hubbub group.
For more from a non-Western perspective, see Edward Slingerland's cover feature from the November edition on 'wu-wei'.

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