Faces of wisdom

Some of the photos of those long ago times show lamas of great experience. With over 1,000 years of accumulated wisdom and a cultural imperative for practice Tibetan society produced many saints and sages. I can only imagine what kind of wisdom resided in these extraordinary individuals.

The lama seated behind a table full of ritual objects is a Gelugpa incarnate (tulku) with formal responsibilities; incarnate lamas were chosen at a young age then rigorously trained for their position.

The woman lama is Dorje Phagmo, abbess of Samding monastery, who was considered to be an incarnation of emptiness. Nuns were not usually in charge of monasteries with formal control of men. You can see the quiet power from which flowed that authority.

The simply dressed man is a married local villager and Dzogchen practitioner. Dzogchen (Great Perfection) is an unencumbered but very steep path to higher levels of attainment. He was said to have mastered the practices of generating inner heat (tumo), the test of which was to dry off successive wet blankets draped over a naked body on a freezing Himalayan night He had also mastered long distance trance walking (long gompa). Both of these practices (or siddhis) are described in detail by Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969) in her early 20th century book Magic and Mystery in Tibet.

Copyright Information:
All photographs by Charles Bell
Photos © the British Library Board and used by permission.

More historical information and old photographs:

Old Bowls


Old Metal

A Bit of History