Lukhang temple is the Buddhist Sistine Chapel, full of stunning murals of body-hopping yogis and the vagina that gave birth to the world. It’s meant for the Dalai Lama’s eyes only – so how did a US photographer manage to share its secrets?
Tuesday 10 November 2015 10.12 EST
In the spring of 1986, Thomas Laird stood before the secret tantric paintings in the Lukhang temple of Lhasa, Tibet. The American photographer was one of the first westerners ever to enter, and the first to shoot inside this secret space created by the fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century – and reserved for the private meditation of his successors.
“I was stunned by the colours: pink and gold and white and lapis,” he says of the murals that cover its walls. There were yogis demonstrating poses, 84 tantric masters, Buddhas, waterfalls, forests, animals and a vast number of symbols he couldn’t quite fathom. He was dazzled: “That afternoon had a huge impact on me.”
Twenty years later, Laird stood in a hotel in California showing his life-sized pictures of the murals to the Dalai Lama himself. The 14th Dalai Lama was exiled in 1959, and he was seeing them for the very first time. Laird had photographed them, then meticulously collated around 100 images into vast recreations that showed every last detail. The Dalai Lama stood before them, then turned to Laird. “OK,” he said, “now I’ll give you the commentary,” proceeding to talk him through their meanings. “At that moment,” says Laird, “it was like he was right there in the Lukhang with me.”
This is the Tibetan Sistine Chapel … the whole Buddhist view of the world, in paintings
This month, Laird will bring his images from inside the temple to London, where they will form the centrepiece of a new show at Wellcome Collection called Tibet’s Secret Temple. This is the Tibetan Sistine Chapel, explains Laird: “The Sistine Chapel was painted by a great artist, commissioned by a pope and it tells us everything from God creating man to the resurrection. The whole world, as Christians viewed it, are there in images – and that’s what’s happening in the Lukhang.”
The pictures show some of the most secret practices in tantric Buddhism: in one image, a yogi who has died transfers his spirit into a naked couple who are having sex; hidden in another corner, a tiny crystal surrounded by a rainbow represents enlightenment. “It’s like a map of the universe,” says Laird.
Laird has been capturing Tibetan murals for decades and has the largest photography archive of them in the world. He fell in love with Nepal while travelling as a 19-year-old and lived there for more than 30 years, becoming a photographer, journalist and Himalayan trek guide. When Tibet first opened to tourists in the mid-80s, Laird went immediately to the Potala Palace (the vast complex that served as winter residence of the Dalai Lamas) and found the Lukhang temple on a small island on a lake.
“You go through a sort of trapdoor to the third floor,” says Laird, “and step into this room with murals covering three of the walls. I went in the late afternoon and the light was reflecting off the pond and coming through the small windows as little glittering shafts.”
In 2001, inspired by the large-scale, multi-image work of Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky, Laird moved back to the US to learn how technology could let him make huge, high-resolution recreations of the murals. To create them, he had to piece together hundreds of frames from different exposures, then print them on transparencies.
The co-curator of the Tibet exhibition, Ruth Garde, hopes the murals will challenge western preconceptions about Buddhism. “You come to it thinking it’s quite serene, tranquil: deep breathing and that kind of thing,” she says. “Tantric Buddhism is very different – the more radical and advanced yoga techniques are quite dangerous.” She points out skulls, flaying knives and disembodied body parts. “And some of the iconography is quite terrifying, almost grotesque.”
Yogis in 23 yoga positions, from the Lukhang Temple murals. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Yogis in 23 yoga positions, from the Lukhang Temple murals.
The murals are accompanied by 100 artefacts, including masks and costumes used in rituals, manuscripts and sculptures of yogis and deities. Still, anyone who has dabbled in yoga or meditation will spot things they recognise. “There has been a great change in the west since the 1960s,” says Laird, “the slow opening up to these ideas.”
When they met, Dalai Lama reminded Laird that these murals weren’t just art – they were motivational tools. “One of the arguments I have always had with him about art is that he doesn’t care about the aesthetic,” says Laird. “For him, the purpose of art is to inspire you to achieve enlightenment. If a work of art gives you the motivation to do your practice – overcome greed, anger, ignorance, lust and pride – then it is a great success.”
The Dalai Lama also admitted there were many aspects of the murals Laird didn’t know about, and pointed him in the direction of the great Dzogchen master Namkhai Norbu. “So I rolled up my canvas and flew down to Venezuela and Namkhai Norbu came out with 100 of his students. He was the one who introduced me to the ‘cosmic vagina’,” laughs Laird. It’s something visitors to the exhibition should look out for, he says: a tiny detail that represents the beginning of the universe.