My first visit to Tibet’s Secret Temple was on a press preview back in November, it seems like a long time ago now. To be honest I struggled a little with it, but it has got me thinking about my own state of mind, which is very pertinent as the exhibition is part of a whole “States of Mind” season at the Wellcome Collection.
On my first visit I made the mistake of trying to fit in two press previews in one morning, I dashed off to Euston, raced round the exhibition at the Wellcome, then hot-footed it across to Greenwich,to the National Maritime Museum to see the Samuel Pepys exhibition. It was just too much, I couldn’t settle my mind to the concepts of Tantric Buddhism. My mind is the product of a busy modern Western culture, never still for long, always on to the next thing, trying to do so many things at once.
The exhibition takes its inspiration from the 17th century Lukhang or ‘Temple to the Serpent Spirits’ which rises from an island on a lake in Lhasa, Tibet. At the heart of the exhibition are the intricate murals rendered digitally in visual spender that provide an inspiration and training manual to Tantric Buddhism’s most secret practices. Alongside the murals are over 120 objects from public and private collections.
I enjoyed the start of the exhibition which began with a beautifully immersive film, the sounds and colours attempting to still my fraught mind. I enjoyed the mix of architecture of the temple itself in model form, Chinese, Indian and Tibetan elements drawn together, already beginning to tell a complex story. I really didn’t have an idea of the scale of Tibet and it was fantastic to have a huge map on the wall – maps, so often overlooked in exhibitions, give you a sense of place and space.
Many of the objects are beautiful, but I struggled to get beyond that beauty to reach their spiritual significance, but is this a fault of the exhibition or my own limitations? I am not sure. There can be no denying Tantric Buddhism is a complex subject, the booklet accompanying the exhibition has a glossary which is 4 pages long. These terms are complex concepts, thoughts and feelings. I have the smallest inkling of some of them having dipped in and out of yoga sessions for the last 8 years, relaxation, meditation and concentration are such hard things to fully grasp in our busy worlds.
But they are complex for a reason, it does not take years to reach enlightenment and understand the physical and mental practices of Buddhism by reading a few texts and undertaking a few exercises. Or by whizzing round an exhibition in an hour. It takes years and years of devotion, the Wellcome are trying to show me this world but it feels very far away.
I found the beauty of the photography in the exhibition did really help though. The Himalayan mountains are so stunning you could imagine being away from all the people and traffic, that stillness and beauty is the first step to opening your mind to more than ‘what’s on the menu for lunch?’. The videos too, another tool of explanation, are fantastic. It helps to see yogic practices in action, the training of body and mind going hand in hand.
Being greeted by the stunning ‘Adamantine Sky Dancer’ dancing was a real treat. One of the earliest Buddhist Tantras, the Hevajra, states that ‘the yogi must always sing and dance’, something we mirror in Western culture, who can deny the benefits of karaoke and disco? To find objects relatable I always try to connect them back to my own experiences, it seems.
I find the differences between east and west are often brought to mind. The ritual daggers (phurba) are stunning, they symbolise the single pointed awareness that cuts through illusion, but to my Western eyes they are also a symbol of power and strength too.
I walk through the exhibition to the murals, they are a visual feast but I am struggling to connect with them. I know I have found it difficult because it has taken me so many months to write a blog on my visit. But a rushed press visit is never the best way to experience an exhibition, and I returned to dip in again a few weeks ago.
This experience was very different, I was people watching, thoroughly enjoying watching two guys gesticulating over the map, one explaining to the other about borders and territories. I can see the importance of the large scale in exhibits not just the small and delicate but the large and expansive too.
I watch three different conversations, there is a debate, an explanation and understanding. I watch a woman mimic the lotus position to her companion. I think it is here I find my understanding and connection to this exhibition, it is in the eyes of others. It is as if by removing myself from the pressure to see and understand I can enjoy and feed off these strangers as they experience the secrets of Buddhist practice.
I am acutely aware now of my own state of mind when visiting exhibitions and how it effects my experience. I love taking a companion to an exhibition it completely changes how I feel about it. So don’t forget to go to Tibet’s Secret Temple, you have till Sunday 28th February. Take a friend and try and distance yourself from the rush of the everyday to experience the stillness of another way of life.
Tibet’s Secret Temple finishes on Sunday 28th February. The exhibition is free, for more information and opening times please see the website – https://wellcomecollection.org/secrettemple