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Picture yourself in a boat on a lake in the Dalai Lama’s back garden about to explore the Temple of Lukhang. The Wellcome Library pulls off a masterstroke by recreating it in a fascinating exhibition.

The Great PerfectonIn 1645 building began on a winter residence for the 5th Dalai Lama. The Potala Palace looms over Tibet’s capital city Lhasa, and is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site museum cramming in up to 3000 visitors a day. Towards the end of the 17th Century, the 6th Dalai Lama built the Lukhang Temple on the willow covered lake island hidden behind the Potala as a private retreat.

The uppermost chambers of the Lukhang Temple concealed a secret: some 2,500 metres of murals depicting 84 yogis undertaking the vigorous physical and contemplative spiritual practices necessary for enlightenment. In 1986 Thomas Laird, a young photographer, made a complete record of the vivid pink, gold-red, green, white and celestial blue wall paintings known as The Great Perfection (Dzogchen). These life-size, digitised images are the backdrop to the Wellcome exhibition. In 2006, Laird showed the murals to the 14th Dalai Lama, in exile from Tibet since 1959. He had never seen the paintings before and deciphering the arcane symbols, referred to them as ‘motivational tools’ for human development.

Originally accessible only by boat, the Lukhang Temple was designed as a harmonious three dimensional mandala representing outward reality, inner experience and the transcendent state beyond time and space. The three levels built in the Tibetan, Chinese and Mongolian styles reflecting Tibet’s complex political history. Its purpose as a watery sanctuary appeased the Naga and the Lu, the elemental energies that Tibetan Buddhists believe were here long before the emergence of human beings. 

Tibetan Medicine

Seventy-nine scroll paintings depicting the anatomical systems of Traditional Tibetan medicine (sowa-rigpa) were commissioned around the same time as the murals. Tibetan medicine draws from the ancient Chinese and Indian healing systems based on the subtle energy channels within the body that determine physical and mental wellbeing. Research funded by the current Dalai Lama into the benefits of internal practices such as meditation, yoga postures and Prana breathing that increase energy flow and circulation is finding acceptance in Western science since a number of studies have revealed brain changes in Tibetan monks entering calm, meditative states of oneness [1].

According to the scrolls, all disease is caused by greed, ignorance and aggression. In contrast, a healthy life is based on equanimity, clarity and bliss, and an all-embracing recognition of the interrelationships between the Universe, Nature and the human organism. This concept is fundamental to understanding non-duality and the unifying state of consciousness with the environment. And is also key to the post-modern holistic worldview.

Tantric Sex And Transformation

Tantra is an often touted word for prolonging amazing sex. But its origins lie in 8th-11th century Buddhist writings called The Tantras. These texts were influenced by an early cultural movement in India that reconciled sensuality with spiritual seeking and imagination: its Sanskrit root meaning Ten - to expand and Tra - methodology. In the room called the ‘Secret Assembly,’ the overt images of male/female sitting cross-legged in sexual union with three heads and many arms are metaphors for synthesising the polarities of the ego and transcending the separation of the self with the other. 

Another expression of heightened awareness and blissful rapture is the spontaneous verse by the poet Mahasiddha Saraha, usually depicted with a piercing arrow of insight. Saraha left the interior world of the monastery to marry a bow maker. His Songs of Realisation are standard couplets in Tibetan literature.

Dropping masks and false selves are central principles of Buddhism. So too is connecting with joy and bliss, so yogis must always sing and dance! The first female Tibetan master Yeshe Tsogya, who through devotional practice expresses the dance of the divine feminine ‘where delusion ends, all that is is joyous spontaneity.’

The Essence of Consciousness

The simplified steps to consciousness are as follows: to go towards that which you find repulsive, helping those you think you cannot help, letting go of anything that you are attached to, going to places that scare you, being mindful, and discovering the Buddha within you. Buddhism teaches us that there are 9 levels of consciousness; the 5 senses, the mind, the sense of self, the unconscious and pure consciousness.

On the path to enlightenment you must be willing to banish fear and the destructive negative forces that plague human existence. Vajrakilaya is the most powerful Tibetan deity, the blue-faced destroyer of the obstacles to compassion and wisdom: the foundational qualities of goodness and purifier of the spiritual pollution so prevalent in our age.

Symbolic cutting, flaying and fire are all part of the transformation of negative energies into positive ones. Ornate driguds or three handled knives are the tangible tools symbolising these objectives. The ‘yogas of the inner fire’ called tummo is a meditation that cultivates internal bliss to burn up conceptual thoughts and reveal the clear light of the awakened mind.  Advanced practitioners of the inner fire meditation have been recorded raising the temperature of their fingers and toes by as much as 17 degrees, a useful skill for scantily robed monks on a windy Himalayan hillside [2].

Ritual and ceremony inside the Tibetan temple recycles some unusual objects. Human skulls stuck crown to crown make ceremonial chod drums, and decorated craniums offer up drinking cups of knowledge and power. The intricate aprons carved from human bones as strong as ivory are worn by monks swinging rosaries and chanting mantras on 108 snake vertebrae.

Buddha’s Brain And Neuroplasticity

The present Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso has recruited Tibetan monks and nuns for the collaboration between neuroscience and the Buddhist Vipassanā and Mahāmudrā styles of meditation. Research at Wisconsin University using functional fMRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to map changes in the brains of monks and other experienced meditators has helped to expound on the relatively new term ‘Neuroplasticity.’ Broadly meaning that the structure of our brains continuously evolves as a function of our experiences, and is capable of sprouting new cells (neurons) and forming new connections (axons) or neural ‘pathways’ when we learn new skills and habits, such as meditation.

The Wisconsin studies show a beneficial increase of the oscillation of gamma waves, the fastest electrical frequency in the brain during meditation, especially when the subjects focussed on love and compassion [3].  And that the gamma amplitude remains raised with regular practice. Meditation trains the brain by cultivating mindfulness, a positive mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations that arise. Mindfulness as an act of attention can do much to relieve anxiety, fear, stress, depression, and anger, and promote the body’s ability to heal itself [4].

That the brain reorganises and adjusts in response to its environment is concomitant with one’s personal journey so far. But interestingly, the connectivity of new pathways provides the opportunity to reshape and remould our non hard-wired ‘plastic’ brains by taking responsibility for them right now. So, neuroplasticity may also be a factor in people recovering from brain damage, dyslexia, or unhealthy cycles of addiction by responding, thinking and acting differently.



[1] Davidson, Richard; Lutz, Antoine (January 2008). "Buddha's Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation" (PDF). IEEE Signal Processing Magazine.

[2]. Cromie, William J. Meditation changes temperatures: Mind controls body in extreme experiments

[3]. Lutz, A.; Greischar, L.L.; Rawlings, N.B.; Ricard, M.; Davidson, R. J. (16 November 2004). "Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice". PNAS 101 (46): 16369–73. doi:10.1073/pnas.0407401101. PMC 526201. PMID 15534199. Retrieved 8 July 2007.

[4]. Sharon Begley (20 January 2007)."How Thinking Can Change the Brain".