Buddhism @ the British Library

Buddhism is a major exhibition at the British Library, bringing together objects and artefacts, folding books and scrolls and manuscripts, paintings and pictures, wall hangings early printed works, along with not one but two displays of the tools which have been used to make precious Buddhist scriptures for centuries, interspersed with half a dozen films (interviews with practicing Buddhists, demonstrations of chanting and praying, how the ancient texts are preserved nowadays), plus an enchanting video installation of a contemporary Buddhist artist painting holy texts on pavements and walls.

It’s a lot of information to take in at once. My review is in four parts:

  1. The life of the Buddha and Buddhism
  2. Myths and legends, preachings and practices
  3. The importance of numbers in Buddhism
  4. The exhibition itself

The life of Buddha and Buddhism

A copy of the Lotus Sūtra in a lavishly decorated scroll from Japan, written in gold and silver ink on indigo-dyed paper in 1636, one of the most popular and most influential Buddhist texts of Mahayana Buddhism © British Library Board

A brief outline of the Buddha and his teachings is relatively simple. Born into a royal family in what is now Nepal 2,500 years ago, young Prince Siddhārtha Gautama lived a coddled protected wife, which included undergoing an arranged marriage, and living entirely within the palace walls. However, he grew restless and managed to make several journeys into the big wide world where he was shocked for the first time to encounter poverty, hunger, decrepit old age and squalor.

He finally broke free from his gilded life and spent years wandering India, pondering the human condition and one day, seated under a bodhi tree, he achieved enlightenment.

‘Buddha’ is a title, which means ‘one who is awake’ in the sense of ‘having woken up to reality’.

He realised that the world is a bubble of transient appearances. Nothing lasts. All of us die and are reincarnated (here he was basing himself on far more ancient Hindu beliefs) back into this world of woe.

What causes all the pain and suffering? It is attachment to things of this world, it is desire, want, letting our physiological urges drive us to try and own or achieve things which are themselves only passing and delusory, which most of the time we fail to attain anyway.

Therefore, the secret of enlightenment, is to strive for a condition of complete detachment from the things of this world. One should begin by observing The Middle Way, not going to extremes of self-deprivation or sensual indulgence. But the techniques of the Middle Way will lead, ultimately, to complete detachment from the things of the world.

Only then will the enlightened one break free of the endless cycle of Samsara – of rebirth, suffering, death, and more rebirth – and their soul achieve nirvana.

Myths and legends surrounding the Buddha

The most comprehensive woodblock-printed work depicting and describing scenes from the life of the Buddha, including 208 beautiful hand-coloured illustrations from China, created in 1808 © British Library Board

If this is all there were to it, Buddhism really would be a simple belief system. But one of the most fascinating things about it is not its teachings per se, it is that so many teachings can be generated from such a simple premise.

An enormous number of legends grew up about Prince Gautama:

  • stretching back in time (for it turns out that he had been reincarnated many times before, hundreds of times before and each of those previous incarnations had had numerous adventures which are described in the Birth Stories or Jatakas
  • that he would be reincarnated in the future, in the figure called the Maitreya, to bring us all back to the True Way
  • and, moving away from the Prince himself, it turns out that the world has contained other holy ones, boddhisatvas, people are able to reach nirvana but delay doing so through compassion for suffering beings

Many texts were written about the Buddha’s sayings and teachings. These included a steadily growing number of his wonderful deeds and miracles. Monuments were built, stupas, where the relics of the Buddha himself or the lesser enlightened ones – effectively Buddhist saints – are buried, chief among the holy sites being the very Bodhi tree under which Siddhartha achieved enlightenment (where a vast temple complex was built in the third century BC, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site).

There are four first-order holy sites related to the life of the Buddha (as there are a defined number of sites holy to the life of Mohamed and the life of Jesus) but countless others where various legendary events took place, as well as important events for the boddhisatvas, take the annual Procession of Buddha’s Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka.

The Hyakumantō darani or ‘One Million Pagoda Dharani,’ the oldest extant examples of printing in Japan and some of the earliest in the world, dating 764-770 CE © British Library Board

Monasteries were established, communal buildings for Buddhist monks. Elaborate ceremonies grew up to celebrate key dates in the Buddha’s life, and the monasteries required texts to guide and define the rituals as well as texts of teachings and doctrine for students to be taught and masters to meditate on (for example a long list of the Buddha’s many names which could be used for meditation). The monasteries also preserved and expanded on earlier written accounts of the Buddha’s life.

The exhibition includes a wall-sized animated map which shows the spread of Buddhism up into Afghanistan, east into China and then into south-east Asia. At the same time it developed into three major traditions which took flavour from the local cultures, and used the languages of the regions of Asia which they spread into:

  1. Theravada
  2. Mahayana
  3. Vajrayan

And by about this stage of the exhibition I had come a long way from the simple insight at the core of Buddhism and was beginning to feel overwhelmed by numbers.

The importance of numbers in Buddhism

A 7.6 metre-long 19th century Burmese illustrated manuscript detailing the early life of the Buddha, on display at the Library for the first time © British Library Board

The Buddha is one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism, the others being his teachings (Dharma) and the monastic order (Sangha).

The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths:

  • life is unsatisfactory and there is suffering
  • the cause of suffering is desire
  • suffering can be overcome
  • this liberation is effected by following the Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path consists of eight practices:

  • right view
  • right resolve
  • right speech
  • right conduct
  • right livelihood
  • right effort
  • right mindfulness
  • and right samadhi (meditative absorption)

The Noble Eightfold path is represented by the dharma wheel (dharmachakra) whose eight spokes represent the eight elements of the path (although a dharmachakra can also have 12, 24 or 31 spokes, representing other sets of holy values).

The Buddha’s first discourse was given in a deer park to five disciples who become the basis of the huge monastic orders which followed.

The Buddha had 547 previous lives all described in the Jataka tales.

The last ten Jatakas or Birth Stories about Buddha are popular in South-East Asia because they illustrate the ten perfections of a Buddha.

The Buddha’s footprint features 108 auspicious symbols such as royal insignia, mythical creatures, rivers, mountains and even continents.

Bodhisattva or Buddha-to-be is characterised by a set of paramita or perfections. The Pāli Canon, the Buddhavaṃsa of the Khuddaka Nikāya, lists ten perfections. Two of these virtues, mettā and upekkhā, also are brahmavihāras.

In Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Prajñapāramitā sūtras, the Lotus Sutra and a large number of other texts list a different list of six perfections.

The ‘pure illusory body’ is said to be endowed with six perfections (Sanskrit: ṣatpāramitā). The first four of these perfections are ‘skillful means’ practice while the last two are ‘wisdom’ practice.

In the Theravada tradition 28 Buddhas are believed to have appeared in the past and attained Nirvana. The Buddha we know about is the fourth Buddha of the present aeon.

Twenty four of these previous Buddhas gave advice to the Buddha we know about, and they are listed, quoted and depicted in countless manuscripts, illustrations and books.

Rebirths occur in the six realms of existence, three good realms (heavenly, demi-god, human) and three evil realms (animal, ghosts, hellish).

The six realms of rebirth are part of the 31 realms of existence. After death the soul passes through ten stages as described in the Sutra of the Ten Kings before entering the six realms of rebirth.

The mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ has six syllables, symbolising the six realms of rebirth.

There is a heavenly realm named Trayastrimsa with palaces, gardens and parks for the 33 gods who live there. Trayastrimsa is only one of the six heavens or celestial realms.

On Buddhist monasteries, of the Theravada tradition, a bhikkhu (male monk) is expected to follow all 227 rules of monastic disciple, while a bikkhuni (female monk) has to follow 311 rules.

The four dignities are ancient symbols that represent qualities of the windhorse, and are: Garuda, Dragon, Snow Lion, Tiger. Many prayer flags show the four dignities with a windhorse in the center.

The Pancharaksa identifies five female deities and includes spells and rituals to appease them. they are sometimes paired with the Five Wisdom Buddhas.

A monastic is allowed eight personal requisites: three robes in saffron or yellow, an alms bowl, a razor, a needle, a water strainer and a girdle.

Tibetan Buddhists make use of a particular set of eight auspicious symbols, ashtamangala, in household and public art, including the conch shell, the endless knot, a pair of fish, the lotus, the parasol, the vase, the Dharmachakra and the banner of victory.

Maybe you can appreciate why, by this point, I had begun to feel very confused. The basic idea of Buddhism, which I outlined at the top, had long gotten buried in a litter of legends and a bewildering variety of important numbers.

The exhibition itself

You have to like red. The high-ceilinged basement rooms of the Library’s gallery space have all been painted a deep blood red. It is like going down into a torture chamber or maybe a brothel in some red light district.

Installation view of Buddhism at the British Library. Very red

Except that the space is packed with display cases showing a very wide range of types of object – concertina books made of mulberry leaves and manuscripts and paintings and sculptures, bells and drinking bowls, manuscript writing tools and materials, a full calligraphy set, amulet boxes, offering bowls, manuscript cabinets, sacred scriptures written on tree bark, palm leaves, gold plates, illuminated texts and silk scrolls of the major sutras, a Buddhist protective jacket, a rare copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead – it’s a feast of Buddhist texts and textures.

A rare Buddhist manuscript in the shape of a bar of gold from Thailand dated 1917, known as Sankhara bhajani kyam, going on display for the first time © British Library Board

TV monitors dot the exhibition showing interviews with current practicing Buddhists, techniques of manuscript conservation and a contemporary artist painting Buddhist texts in what I took to be Japanese letters.

At one point hidden loudspeakers are playing a loop which includes traditional Buddhist monk chanting interspersed with the sound of streams and birdsong.

I didn’t realise that the lotus is the symbol of the Buddha because lotus flowers often grow in pretty muddy, dirty ponds. So they symbolise a state of complete purity and calm which can be achieved despite the mind’s origins in the messy realities of the physical body.

The section on the physical technique of creating, writing, preserving and storing monastic texts was fascinating and set above or apart from the rather oppressive barrage of sacred numbers, a specialist sub-set of the overall subject which gave you interest and respect for the ancient craftspeople who dedicated their lives to preserving and beautifying the holy scriptures.

The display of materials and tools used to make the earliest Buddhist texts, at Buddhism at the British Library

Conclusion

I went intending to like this exhibition but, if I’m honest, I found it a bit difficult.

a) There’s so much factual content to it, from the outline of the core story, to the incredible profusion of legendary events which have accrued to it; the actual history of its spread and development throughout Asia, to over 20 countries.

b) A long and complicated history which is reflected in the sheer variety of items on display, from paintings, manuscripts and scrolls, through to the displays showing the tools used to make manuscript chests and so on.

But c) I think the thing which overwhelmed me was the sheer profusion of Holy Numbers and Perfections and Jatakas and the Three Jewels and the Eightfold Path, and so on. I quickly got lost and confused in the mathematical maze of Buddhist doctrine.

I felt overwhelmed by stuff when, ironically, I thought the whole point of Buddhism is to clear your head of clutter, and focus on your own existence, cleared of all distractions.

Still, if you’re at all interested in the subject, it is beautifully laid out, with its biography and legends and explanation of the teachings, its maps of Buddhism’s spread, its history, the techniques used to make its manuscripts, as well as beautiful objects like the metal statues of bodhisattvas, a monastery bell, and some exquisite carved chests.

As long as you like red!

Installation view of Buddhism at the British Library

The promo video


Related links

  • Buddhism continues at the British Library until 23 February 2020

Reviews of other British Library exhibitions

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