To see a world in a grain of sand

28 February 2016

Today is the last day of our ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple‘ exhibition. Open since November, the show was inspired by 17th century murals from a private meditation chamber for Tibet’s Dalai Lamas in Lhasa’s Lukhang Temple and explored Tibetan Buddhist yogic and meditational practice and their connections to physical and mental wellbeing. As we say goodbye to this much-loved exhibition, Sarah Jellenc explores the common ground between ancient Tibetan practices and Romanticism.

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‘Tibet’s Secret Temple’ at Wellcome Collection.

Making my way through ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple, expecting to be confronted on every side by the exotic and unfamiliar, I was struck by the thematic continuity between the content of the exhibition and my own studies in English Romanticism. As I learned more about the ancient Dzogchen practices of Tibet, I recognised its concern with the nature of the mind and its relationship to the body and to the world. It became clear that both the yogis depicted in the Lukhang murals and my beloved Romantic poets were committed to connecting the dots between art and science, mind and body, the finite and the infinite.

What does it mean that people from wildly different contexts with radically different world views, separated by space and time, were asking the same questions and reaching some of the same conclusions?

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Model of the Lukhang Temple by Capital Models, 2015. (Image credit: Wellcome Library)

Although yoga, mindfulness and meditation practices have been increasing in popularity in the West (particularly in light of recent empirical research around the clinical implications of these practices), much of the terminology, aesthetics and conceptual framework highlighted in the exhibition may remain marvellously strange to Westerners who have lacked much exposure to Tibetan Buddhism. A plurality of perspectives can be especially useful in trying to wrap one’s head around these complex and unfamiliar concepts; a better understanding of one can help illuminate the other.

The centrepiece of the exhibition, the recreated Lukhang murals, portray the physical practices that are meant to push the body, and thereby the mind, beyond conventional limits towards a realisation of the ultimate nature of reality and human consciousness. Many of the exhibition’s other images centre around Tibetan medicine and the gestalt that encompasses both the subtle and not-so-subtle anatomies. These images encourage us to consider the body and mind, like poetry, in terms of a cohesive whole rather than separate parts. The Romantic polymath S.T. Coleridge defined a legitimate poem in his Biographia Literaria as “one, the parts of which mutually support and explain each other[…].” The emergent meaning resulting from a non-dualistic view of parts and whole was also a favourite topic of William Blake, another great Romantic poet.

To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour….

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

A quote from Rigdzin Jigme Lingpa (1730-1798) adorning the wall in the exhibition beautifully captures its emphasis on the significance of embodied experience: “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!”

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Lhasa Potala Palace by David Bickerstaff. (Image credit: David Bickerstaff 2015)

Mahāsiddha Saraha (8th century) echoes this sentiment on another wall: “I have seen in my wanderings great temples and shrines, but none are as blissful as my own body.” Blake, too, understood the importance of embodied experience: “Energy is the only life, and is from the Body [….] Energy is Eternal Delight” (William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).

The idea of tantric union, of energy and excess giving rise to enlightenment and awakening was as familiar to William Blake as it was to the Mahāsiddhas and to the Sixth Dalai Lama. Many of Blake’s most famous works are largely concerned with co-constitutive opposites, the union of contradictions, and non-duality. Wordsworth, too, speaks of “the pleasure which the mind derives from the perception of similitude in dissimilitude” in the Preface to his Lyrical Ballads and argues that “[t]his principle is the great spring of the activity of our minds, and their chief feeder.” But where Wordsworth would caution against excess, believing that “there is some danger that the excitement may be carried beyond its proper bounds,” Blake contended that it could be useful. “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” he writes. “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”

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The Minor Connecting Blood Vessels. (Image credit: American Museum of Natural History)

The Lukhang murals, like great poetry, remind us that timeless art can accomplish what conventional language alone cannot, helping us to build conceptual bridges between seemingly disparate ideas and find what it is that connects us to each other. Wordsworth’s famous definition of a Poet may certainly be extended to the long line of contemplative adepts and artists of ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple’:

In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs: in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed; the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time.

William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads

Sarah is an independent scholar with an MSc in Literature & Society from The University of Edinburgh.