Secrets of the Temple: Tantric Buddhism at the Wellcome Collection

By Ben Miller | 18 November 2015

Inspired by a series murals adorning the walls of the Lukhang Temple in Lhasa the Wellcome's new exhibition illuminates the secrets of Tantric Buddhism

a detail of a photo of a ferocious Tibetan shrine figure standing on prone bodies
Vajra Yogini Shrine, Tibet, 19th century.© Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

The Lukhang

Lukhang means ‘Temple to the Serpent Spirits’ and has its origins in a vision that came to Tibet’s Fifth Dalai Lama (1617–1682). A serpent-like water deity called a lu appeared to him during his meditations and warned that construction of the Potala Palace was disturbing its subterranean realm.

In an act of reconciliation, the Fifth Dalai Lama vowed to build a temple to appease the lu once the Potala Palace was completed. This promise was fulfilled during the lifetime of the Sixth Dalai Lama (1683–1706) who made the resulting island temple his primary residence.

Once there, he satisfied his controversial preference for romantic trysts and poetic composition over affairs of state. Over succeeding centuries the Lukhang continued to serve Tibet’s Dalai Lamas as a place of spiritual inspiration and contemplative retreat.

a detail of a Tantric banner sowing bodies and skulls
A detail from Attributes of Brahma, Tantric Banner.© Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
The wall paintings in the Lukhang’s uppermost chamber illustrate Dzogchen, or ‘Great Perfection’, teachings of the eighth-century Tantric master Padmasambhava. These teachings were ‘revealed’ in a text by Orgyen Pema Lingpa (1450–1521), an enlightened Tantric master from Bhutan who was a direct ancestor of Tibet’s Sixth Dalai Lama.

The Lukhang murals are believed to have been commissioned by Desi Sangye Gyatso (1653–1705), the acting governor of Tibet between the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1682 and the enthronement of the Sixth Dalai Lama in 1697.

In the same period, Sangye Gyatso also commissioned a series of 79 scroll paintings outlining Tibetan medicine’s understanding of the human body and approach to optimal health.

a photo of a chart sowing the body and organs
The Interconnecting Blood Vessels: Back V© Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Rising out of a copse of willows on an island beneath the Dalai Lamas’ Potala Palace, the Lukhang could originally only be reached by boat.

The temple’s symmetrical design and ascending levels form a three-dimensional mandala, a Buddhist representation of the integral harmony of the cosmos and the human psyche.

This ideal of harmony is further reflected in the Lukhang’s integration of three distinct architectural styles – Tibetan, Chinese and Mongolian – representing Tibet’s complex political alliances at the turn of the 17th century.

a painting of a female deity standing on bodies
Detail from the Mandala of Vajrayogini. Scroll Painting© Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
The Lukhang’s lower level, built in Tibetan style, honours the elemental, serpentine forces of nature that Tibetans call lu. The temple’s second storey, in Chinese style, houses a shrine to the mythical Lord of the lu, flanked by statues of the Sixth Dalai Lama and Padmasambhava, the revered Indian master who introduced Tantric Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century.

A sweeping Mongolian-style roof shelters the meditation chamber on the Lukhang’s uppermost floor and its wall paintings depicting advanced practices of Tantric yoga and ‘Great Perfection’ teachings on the essence of enlightenment.

A thousand-armed statue of Avalokites´vara, the embodiment of universal compassion that Tibet’s Dalai Lamas are said to represent, stands at the heart of the once-secret chamber.

a photo of Buddhist deity statue
Lu Goddess, Lukhang Temple, Lhasa. Da© Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Tantra: embodying enlightenment

Tantra arose in medieval India as a cultural movement that sought to reconcile spirituality with sensory experience and the creative imagination. With the Sanskrit root tan, meaning ‘to expand’, and tra, meaning ‘methodology’, Buddhist texts called ‘Tantras’ expanded the scope of existing Buddhist doctrines and extended their applicability beyond monastic institutions.

link to Culture24 history section with image of an ancient Roman vase
The core texts of Tantric Buddhism appeared in India between the eighth and 11th centuries. The anonymously authored works modulate Buddhism’s earlier emphasis on life’s inevitable dissatisfactions and promote actively cultivating joy and compassion.

Unbound from Buddhism’s originally ascetic character, the “indestructible vehicle” of Vajraya–na (or Tantric) Buddhism offered a means for positive change in individual and collective lives. To that end, Tantric deities were not conceived as objects of worship but as representations of the human potential to transcend egocentric concerns and embody universal qualities of wisdom and compassion.

a photo of part of a Buddhist scroll painting showing a female deity with her foot of two prone people
A detail from Mandala of Vajrayogini. Scroll Painting © Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
The Tantric journey depicted in the Lukhang murals encompasses rapture, terror and self-transcendence. The murals and the following rooms present specific methods used in Tantric Buddhism for freeing the mind from its limitations and embracing all experience with insight and compassion.

The daemonic divine

Tibetan monasteries typically include chapels dedicated to ‘wrathful’ guardian deities representing wisdom and compassion in dynamic form. As can be seen on this panel, the doors leading into the Lukhang’s ground-floor chapel are adorned with intertwining lu – volatile serpent spirits that also signify untamed energies of human consciousness.

The Tantric Buddhist deity visible at the shrine beyond – Senge Dra – rides on a snow lion and, wielding a ritual trident, both subdues and illuminates the psychic forces that the lu embody.

a painting of a ferocious blue figure surrounded by flames
Yama, 'Lord of Death'© Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Ornaments of human bone, such as those worn by Tantric practitioners, boldly display life’s fundamental impermanence, and ritual instruments fashioned from skulls and thighbones are widely used in Tantric rites to cultivate unconditional awareness.

Pilgrims in Tibet typically pay homage to these integral forces of mind and body in their journey towards a state of being beyond self-identification, suffering and strife.

Beyond Tibetan Buddhism’s outward forms lies a hidden world of yogic practices that cultivate subtle awareness through physical exercises, breath control and focused visualisation.

a photo of a skull with blood red eyes and fangs
A skull detail from Attributes of Brahma, Tantric Banner.© Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Based on Tantric principles of bringing all aspects of experience onto the spiritual path, practices of Tibetan yoga range from masked dance ceremonies to sequenced exercises that concentrate attention, energy and sensation in the body’s central core to induce self-transcendent awareness.

Yogas of fire and light

In Tibetan Buddhism, the physically demanding practices of trul khor commonly precede more subtle Tantric practices undertaken during states of waking, sexual union, sleeping, dreaming and dying.

The so-called ‘Six Yogas’ are designed to cultivate lucid awareness within all phases of human experience and, as shown in the photograph on this panel, to focus energy and concentration in the heart centre.

a photo of a blue deity having Tantric sex with a woman
A detail from Mandala of Vajrayogini. Scroll Painting © Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Visualising the body as a translucent network of energy channels (Illusory Body Yoga), practitioners engage in the Yoga of Inner Fire (tummo) to increase vitality and sensation.

The Yoga of Radiant Light and the Yoga of Conscious Dreaming are practised while sleeping and reveal possibilities that normal waking consciousness obscures.

The Yoga of Transitional States (bardo) prepares practitioners for the possibility of psychological continuity after death, and the Yoga of Transference (powa) offers a method of projecting the mind into a paradisiacal Buddha Realm at the moment of death.

a painting of a large phallus above a belt of decapitated heads
A detail from Yama, Lord of Death© Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
The supplementary Yoga of Union, practised either with a real or visualised partner, further enhances subjective states of bliss and luminosity.

Mindfulness, meditation and beyond

The Tibetan word for meditation is gom, meaning mindfulness of one’s inherent ‘Buddha nature’, a self-transcendent state of empathy, insight and spontaneous altruism.

Although Tantric Buddhism includes a multitude of meditation techniques, the Lukhang murals reveal a system of mental cultivation called Dzogchen, or ‘Great Perfection’, that was introduced in Tibet in the eighth century by Padmasambhava.

a photo of a portable shrine with a ferocious red figure inside a case with doors
Vajra Yogini Shrine, Tibet, 19th century.© Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Based on present moment awareness of the mind’s intrinsic freedom from discursive thought processes and conditioned behaviour, Dzogchen is presented as the innate human potential to live beyond limiting beliefs or psychological stress.

When integrated into all aspects of one’s experience, Dzogchen is upheld as the culmination of the spiritual path in which mind and body, reason and intuition, and intention and application function in unison.

Although physical yoga, breathing practices and mindfulness training help to align the mind with its fundamental nature, Dzogchen ultimately does not require them.

A black and white photo of two men in religious robes in tibet
Lamas at Talung in Sikkim, East India© Royal Geographical Society
Padmasambhava described Dzogchen as “the mind looking directly into its own essence”, a seamless continuum of perceiver, perceived and the act of perception. This open presence and ‘non-dual’ awareness at the heart of Tantric Buddhism is vividly illustrated throughout the Lukhang murals.

Tibetan Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness today

The Tibetan Buddhist teachings depicted on the walls of the Lukhang are widely practised today both within and outside of Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism’s diverse approaches to mental cultivation are also the subject of scientific investigations into their potential impact on physiological and psychological health and the enhancement of human potential.

The health benefits of diverse meditation practices from an array of Asian Buddhist lineages awakened the interest of Western scientists in the 1960s, when fascination with Eastern spiritual traditions was burgeoning in the West.

a painting of a winged horse flanked by skulls
Detail from Attributes of Brahma, Tantric Banner© Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Collaborations between Tibetan Buddhism and Western science began after the (current) Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s first visit to the USA in 1979.

His interest in science – coupled with his willingness to allow Tibetan Buddhist monks to participate in scientific experiments – encouraged a range of investigations into the neurological correlates of meditation, which continue to this day through initiatives of the Mind and Life Institute and related organisations.

The health benefits of mindfulness, a practice central to all Buddhist lineages, have also been the subject of scientific research in the past 35 years, which has led to the development of a variety of stress-reduction programmes.

a photo of a bone craving with deities
Pectoral made of carved human bone, strun© Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, for example, has become a clinical tool recognised by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence for the treatment of anxiety and depression.

With the encouragement of the Dalai Lama, scientists are beginning to investigate the reputed physiological and cognitive benefits of Tibet’s once highly secret Tantric yogas of breath control and dynamic movement, as illustrated in the Lukhang murals.

  • Tibet’s Secret Temple: Body, Mind and Meditation in Tantric Buddhism is at the Wellcome Collection, London from November 19 2015 – February 28 2016.

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