1. How did this project come about?
Back in 2010, when looking at a five-meter-wide print of Thomas Laird’s life size mural images for the first time and marveling at the resolution and extent of the body of work, Benedikt Taschen asked the photographer, “What do you want to make with these?” “Well, if a book is to be made, the first edition should be in a very large format, like your SUMO books. I’ve always loved John James Audubon’s great work Birds of America. He made his book as large as he did to convey life-size details of the birds he was so passionate about. Just like with Audubon, many of the murals I am capturing will be gone in a few decades, as extinct as the passenger pigeon is in our time. I’m not asking you to do a big book just to be big. I’m saying the power of such large-scale art cannot be carried into the future any other way.”
“Okay, Thomas,” Benedikt replied, “so you made these wonderful images—and they are fantastic! But you’re asking me to do the impossible, do you understand? If you want this impossible thing, answer me this: would the Dalai Lama, given the importance of this work, sign all copies of a SUMO first edition?”
So Thomas Laird flew to India and explained to His Holiness how crucial such a large-format book would be for preserving this chapter of Tibet’s cultural heritage for coming generations. His Holiness said: “Yes, I understand the importance of the work you are doing: it is good work, important work. Continue the work. But why sign so many sheets of paper?” “Your Holiness, by signing you are giving your blessing, in the traditional sense. You have never signed every copy of a book. When you take the time to sign each sheet of paper, every copy becomes empowered, more valuable. Many of the murals themselves will vanish in the next few centuries, they are ancient and fragile. Despite the best efforts to conserve them, many will still disappear: some of the murals captured are already gone. But this book will last for generations to come.” To this, the Dalai Lama answered, “Yes, this is important work. I will sign some pages for this work.”
2. Why was a donation made to the Mind & Life Institute?
His Holiness, as a monk, does not own anything except for a few personal items, so he asked TASCHEN to support the Mind & Life Institute. His choice, his action, speaks loudly.
Mind & Life’s mission is to “integrate science and contemplative practices and wisdom traditions to reduce suffering and promote flourishing.” The foundation funds research that examines how the brain, health, and human behavior are transformed by meditation. Some research shows that the brains of adept practitioners respond differently to stimuli in measureable ways. They appear to react in a calmer way than those of us who have not had such intense training. Perhaps there are strategies we can incorporate into our daily lives that will allow us to respond to the challenges of life with less anger, more resilience, and more compassion. For the Dalai Lama, this path is important for humanity, our survival, and the future of our planet.
And so we come full circle. For a millennium, Tibetans have painted murals to transmit the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, compassion, wisdom, and other ideals. These murals have inspired many different people across time, but always uniting them on a clear path. Humans face a fundamental choice. Will we allow greed, anger, ignorance, lust, and pride to dictate
our actions? Or will we consciously choose our words and deeds so we can set out on a wiser path? May these timeless masterpieces continue to serve such ideals far into the future.
3. How did the stand come about and what is its significance?
The foldable bookstand, designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect and humanitarian pioneer Shigeru Ban, is a piece custom-made to bear the 23-kilogram SUMO Murals of Tibet. True to the signature material of the “paper architect,” it combines paper tubes and an adjustable wooden platform. It constitutes a unique work of art together with the SUMO and scholarly companion volume. The use of recycled material is part of the innovative strategies of the Japanese master, who is widely acclaimed for offering design solutions to victims of man-made and natural disasters. His relief interventions include the Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the Paper Partition System for refugees after the Fukushima earthquake. He has also designed other highly collectible paper furniture pieces, for example, the 1996 “CARTA” collection with Cappellini. Ban’s truly groundbreaking humanitarian work and ingenious handling of humble materials make him the partner of choice to create this masterpiece, in his own words: “A paper-made bookstand that is in harmony with these images of Tibetan art.”
4. What are the assembly instructions for the bookstand designed by Shigeru Ban?
Please consult the illustrated assembly instructions that come with the table. According to the artist’s instructions, the legs should be assembled from back to front, working from widest (back right) to smallest (front left). The stabilizer bars can be inserted from either side; be sure, however, to always start from the top. As the last step, unfold the wooden platform and position it on the base. Before placing the book flat onto the platform, check for stability.
5. What are the care and cleaning instructions?
The book contains 6 fold-out pages. To avoid damaging these, always fold each one back in carefully before turning to the next page. Please also keep in mind that the book is sensitive to UV light. If you consistently leave it open to the same pages, the colors may eventually fade slightly. It is advisable to wear the supplied gloves when leafing through the book or handling the table. Fabric elements and the cloth of the book are vulnerable to damage and stains, so please treat them with care. The elements of the table, including the paper tubes and wooden platform, are delicate and should be cleaned only with a simple dry rag. The stand is made to support the book only.
6. What is the function of the scholarly companion book?
Gathering together only the murals, the SUMO offers an immersive experience by letting these transcendent works of art speak for themselves. Meanwhile, the scholarly companion book acts as a visual index for the SUMO. Its general layout retraces that of the main volume, providing full captions and further context to enlighten readers as to what these works represent.
7. How is Murals of Tibet organized?
This book presents the oldest surviving large-format murals in Tibet, taking you on a geographic journey starting at Drathang and continuing through the major monastic sites of Central and Western Tibet (past the holy mountain Mount Kailash), where important murals have survived. It has thus been arranged along a route that might have been followed by pilgrims. In order to further orient the reader, foundation dates for each documented temple or religious site are given, followed by the date of restoration (if applicable), and approximate date of a particular mural.
8. Which texts were contributed?
While Thomas Laird contextualizes his journey in realizing this visual archive in a personal essay, Bob Thurman gives an insightful account of the spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism. Heather Stoddard researched all the site descriptions and captions of the murals throughout the book with the assistance of Cameron Bailey, except for those of the Lukhang, which were researched by Jakob Winkler.
9. Which editorial conventions were applied?
The authors of the texts in this volume each have their preferred system for transliterating and Romanizing Tibetan (and Sanskrit). In order to unify the text, however, we have opted to use a simplified phonetic spelling for Tibetan and the IAST system without diacritics for Sanskrit. This approach was taken for readability and coherence.
Throughout the book, when describing place names, proper names, and religious or Buddhist terminology, the convention is that the names are in Sanskrit first, as all of these concepts first originated in India, followed by the Tibetan (in parentheses) on first mention, and then by any English equivalent. This convention is also followed in the Index, though Tibetan names are also indexed.
10. What are some of the artworks’ and sites’ particularities?
Tibetan mural art in situ is considered to be live spiritual instruction, and not purely a curiosity of art history. Older murals are thus periodically restored to ensure that the message within the composition continues to be visible to believers, though painters take care to restore only what was there in order to maintain whatever original instruction was intended. The upkeep of these cultural heritage sites, of unique importance for Tibetan Buddhist culture and art history, continues to be a challenge, despite the fact that numerous restoration projects have been mounted since the 1990s.
Furthermore, murals in Tibet often cover entire halls, but they might also occupy only a small wall panel in a chapel. Some of the murals shown in this book are thus details from larger works, while in other cases they constitute an entire wall. In any case, we have given measurements for what is shown only. Dimensions in this volume are only given once per wall or mural, so that the reader gets a general sense of scale, but are omitted with subsequent details. In certain cases, due to local conditions, these numbers are approximations.
11. What makes these photographs such a groundbreaking achievement?
Thomas Laird previously produced documentary-type images typical of the sort published up until recently to convey Tibetan art to the world. Starting in 2009, the technology of multi-image capture allowed for the creation of the first evenly lit lifesize images of the murals. Such small spaces and the challenging conditions of Tibet made it impossible for predigital photographers to capture perfectly lit life-size images of such artworks.
12. Is there an abbreviated chapter overview?
Drathang Monastery (1081): Oldest surviving large murals in Tibet
The inner chapel at the back of the assembly hall dates to the 11th century. The murals’ style bears witness to the rich and original artwork that was created at Samye, ca. 770s, alongside Indian, Chinese, Khotanese, and Kashmiri styles—of which nearly nothing survives in modern Tibet. This includes some of the finest surviving paintings of Pala Indian style bodhisattvas in Tibet today. Pala was an ancient northeast Indian empire (8th–12th century), which influenced the development of Buddhist art.
Gongkar Chode Monastery (1464): Khyentse Chenmo’s masterpieces
This site is a fine example of the flourishing period before the rise of the Gelug school. Today, some monks of Gongkar Chode maintain their centuries-old role among the caretakers of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. The surviving murals on the first and second floor of Gongkar’s assembly hall are outstanding examples of the Khyenri style, painted by one of Tibet’s greatest artists, Khyentse Chenmo, a close ally and contemporary of the monastery’s founder.
Jokhang (ca. 633): first Buddhist temple in Tibet and key pilgrimage site
Enshrines the holy Jowo statue of Lord Buddha, the first Buddha image brought to Tibet and one to which everyone must make a pilgrimage at least once in his or her lifetime. Clothed in swathes of golden-colored silk, it is hard for pilgrims to see anything but the face of the statue, but according to literary tradition, it is said to represent Siddhartha Gautama, as a young prince at the age of 12. The Shelrey Lhakhang features paintings from the 10th and 11th century, as well as 7th-century carved juniper doorframes.
Shalu Monastery (1040): the only surviving Newar masterpieces
Shalu became one of Tibet’s most famous centers of learning, under the direction of the great polymath Buton Rinchen Drub (1290–1364), and today it holds one of the richest surviving treasuries of Tibetan murals. A large number of these works, especially those in the khorlam, the circumambulatory, are unique examples of the school of art founded by Arniko (1245–1306), a brilliant young Newar artist from Kathmandu who had been invited to Beijing in 1263 to meet Kublai Khan.
Lukhang Temple (ca. 1700): The “Sistine Chapel” of the Dalai Lama
The Lukhang Temple lies on an island in a pond behind the Potala Palace. Its murals are of key importance as they were commissioned by Tibet’s Gelug rulers to illustrate spiritual practices closely associated with the Nyingma, and because some of Tibet’s finest artists created these treasures. At the heart of the temple is a triptych of murals showing some of the most advanced yoga and meditation techniques. Many practices and ideas illustrated here are depicted in no other murals in Tibet.
Jonang Puntsoling Monastery (1619): masterpieces by Taranatha
Founded by Taranatha, the most outstanding scholar of the controversial Jonang order and a major figure of early 17th-century Tibet. The surviving murals at Puntsoling reflect his unique vision. The magnificent site sits astride a white rocky crest above the vast Raga Tsangpo River, in view of one of the yogin Thangtong Gyalpo’s finest iron suspension bridges, with ruins of one of Tibet’s most ancient libraries, Denkar, perched on a towering rock above.
Samye Monastery (ca. 779): Tibet’s first Buddhist monastery
Built as a center of learning and translation of Buddhist texts. A stone stele declaring Buddhism to be the state religion of Tibet was raised during construction of the monastery, and it can still be seen today in front of the main temple. Samye was built as a cosmogram, a mandala of the Buddhist universe. The “Central Peak Temple,” at the center of the mandala, symbolizes the world mountain, the axis mundi. The temple also hosts the Gate of Souls. Tibetans believe they must pass through here to enter the next life.
Gyantse Kumbum & Palkor Chode (1427/1370): UNESCO World Heritage
Gyantse Palkor Chode monastery, with its Great Kumbum Stupa, is one of the finest surviving religious sites in Tibet. A central concept of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism is the mandala of the Buddhas of the Five Families. They are fully illustrated in the iconography of the Kumbum, also called “Great Many-Doored Auspicious 100,000 Image Stupa That Liberates on Sight”: the entire structure is a 3-D mandala, an ideal cosmogram, a guide for the Buddhist practitioner on his or her path to enlightenment.
Potala Palace (1645): Murals of Tibet shows murals from the East Gate House only
The original Potala Palace was built ca. 633 as seat of the Tibetan Empire. It was refurbished and enlarged to its present majestic dimensions in 1645, as it had become the official seat of the Fifth Dalai Lama and his newly founded Ganden Phodrang government—which moved there from its old quarters in Drepung Monastery. The White Palace was built as the Dalai Lama’s residence and seat of government while the Red Palace was destined to house the funerary stupas of the Fifth Dalai Lama and his line.
Sakya Monastery (1073): vast assembly hall with 40 huge pillars
Sakya’s proximity to the Indian subcontinent—it is situated midway between Lhasa and Tibet’s closest neighbor, Nepal—kept it open to external influences, especially from Nepal. Thus, the paintings and sculptures of the Sakya—in this monastery and in the Tibetan Buddhist traditions fostered by the Sakya among the Mongol—are deeply inspired by the Baltri Newar style, which is also one of the earliest and most constant foreign traditions of Buddhist art to touch the Tibetan world.
Drepung & Nechung Monastery (1461/17th c.): seat of the State Oracle and former palace of the Dalai Lama
Drepung became the largest of all Tibetan monasteries. Being the seat of the Ganden Phodrang (or government) under the Second Dalai Lama, there were seven colleges with vast library resources and a renowned medical clinic. Nechung, the small temple nearby, is the seat of the State Oracle of Tibet, a specially designated monk, who acts as the human “support” for a deity that enters his body as he goes into a trance, making utterances that are noted down and interpreted by monk scribes.
Tsaparang and Toling (10th c.): capital of the Guge Empire
The Guge kingdom expanded across the northwestern Himalayan range, incorporating in its territory present-day Ladakh and Purang, as well as the high desert region of Mount Kailash, the axis mundi revered even today by millions of followers of four Asian religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and the ancient Tibetan indigenous Bon. Superb murals from the 15th century survive today, and their inscriptions suggest that Tibetans were trained in the temple workshops alongside master craftsmen from Kashmir.