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The Guardian


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

A detail of yogis from the murals in the Lukhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet. They were painted
c1700 for the fifth Dalai Lama. All images courtesy of Thomas Laird

Emine Saner

Tuesday 10
November 2015 10.12 EST Last modified
on Wednesday 11 November 2015 05.12 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.”

TheLukhang Temple, Lhasa, c.1936. Photograph: Frederick Spencer Chapman/Pitt Rivers
Museum, University of Oxford

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

A detail from the Lukhang Temple murals showing Guru Rinpoche – or Padmasambhava –
accepting obeisance from the naga king.

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

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.”

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.”

Related: The Dalai Lama at 80

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

* Tibet’s Secret Temple is at Wellcome Collection, London, from 19 November to 28 February 2016

© 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited or
its affiliated companies. All rights

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