At the turn of the 18th century, on a serene, willow-fringed island behind Tibet’s Potala Palace, an unknown artist painted a vulva on a temple wall. Some 150 years before Courbet’s Origin of the World scandalized Parisian high society and nearly two centuries before Rodin’s Iris spread her legs at Western taboo, the Lukhang Templebhaga, or cosmic vagina, is one of the most extraordinary and explicit of such renderings in cultural history.
For centuries, this astonishing image was only seen by the Dalai Lama. Carefully hidden behind silk curtains, it formed part of an extraordinary mural scheme on the top floor of the Lukhang Temple, a three-story, pagoda-roofed enclave that was added to the Lhasa winter residence for the Dalai Lama’s private meditation and retreat.
The temple was constructed as a three-dimensional mandala, a sacred geometrical shape symbolizing the Buddhist universe, with its three tiers representing the three dimensions of enlightenment—outer reality, inner experience, and a transcendent dimension beyond time and space. To enter this building was to encounter a place of the most esoteric and intense spiritual learning and endeavor. Many pious Tibetans barely knew of the building’s existence, let alone of the staggering murals inside.
Presented for the first time in life-size resolution in Murals of Tibet, these vast wall paintings are, according to the book’s photographer Thomas Laird, the Tibetan Sistine Chapel. In bejeweled pink, gold, green, and lapis blue, they record the Dalai Lama’s worldview, a “map of the universe,” via five thematic areas of the Buddhist teaching tradition of Dzogchen. Oriented towards discovering and continuing in one’s real, primordial state of being, Dzogchen or “Great Perfection” is considered the highest and most definitive path of the nine Buddhist vehicles of liberation.
Contra reductive Western preconceptions of Buddhism as an exclusively tranquil, “Zen”-like practice, Dzogchen teachings make intense demands on the body and mind, drawing on extreme and carefully guarded tantric practices. These extend far beyond the prolonged sex tips commonly, but incorrectly, associated with tantra in Western pop culture, to include radical breath control exercises and intense yoga positions, both carrying life-threatening risks if practiced without requisite knowledge or guidance. So too, does tantric sexual practice, in the Dalai Lama’s own words, require “powerful compassion or powerful understanding of Shunya or wisdom” if it is to avoid bad karma.
Dzogchen iconography is similarly extreme. Not unlike Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, the murals set graphic and at times gruesome details against lush, otherworldly landscapes. Beneath lapis-blue skies, and frolicking among flowers and waterfalls and rainbows, we find strange hybrid creatures, disemboweled organs, disembodied heads and limbs, halos of fire, animal-headed dancers, and the cosmic vagina.
In Dzogchen teaching, in the beginning was not the word, but this vulva. With the use of the Sanskrit term bhaga emphasizing its cosmic, rather than sexual or physiological, significance, the vagina preexists any names. While other scenes in the mural depict the origin and development of human life from conception to zygote through to birth, the bhaga is the ultimate origin matrix, the site of the birth of the world, specifically of the five elements in Dzogchen cosmology—earth, space, fire, water, and wind (as clouds). The caption text below reads “Prior to the existence of the (five) elements even the name of Buddhas and bodhisattvas didn’t exist; from space arose wind, from wind water, and from water earth, which became support for sentient beings. Wind arose within the bhaga, from which manifests moisture and from that flesh, the abiding place of the mind.”
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