The Guardians by John Christopher (1970)

In the mid-1960s John Christopher switched from writing science fiction for adults to writing science fiction for teens or young adults as they’re called nowadays. The Guardians is one of the more successful of these teen novels. It won prizes – the annual Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis for the German translation. I can see why. In clear, factual, no-nonsense prose Christopher vividly depicts the adventures of a fatherless young boy in a story which is both a scary adventure, but also strangely reassuring at the same time.

It uses familiar sci fi tropes: a) it is set in a future society which b) has been divided into castes or distinct groups c) is controlled by shadowy, all-powerful forces, but d) there is a cohort of keen young idealists setting out to overthrow it. If Christopher doesn’t investigate any of these themes in any depth a) this is maybe appropriate in a book aimed at 10 to 14 year-olds, and b) instead of depth what you do have is tremendous speed. It’s a short but fast-moving book, good to keep easily distracted teenagers’ attentions.

Lastly, unlike The White Mountains and some of his novels for adults which consist of long, gruelling journeys which end up wearing down the reader as well as the protagonists, The Guardians has a compelling symmetry and circularity to the storyline, and it ends on a pleasing note of excitement and expectation. It is a good novel for older children (11 to 14).

The Guardians

Future It is 70 or 80 years in the future. England is divided into the ‘County’, a rumoured land of leisure beyond the ‘Barrier’, and the ‘Conurbs’, the extensive urban areas in one of which lives Rob Randall. Rob’s been living in an apartment in a high rise with his dad since his mum died after a long illness.

Conurbs The Conurbs are packed. People live in high rise blocks and have access to futuristic gadgets. Monorails run at up to 200 kilometres an hour. Cars run on predetermined routes. There are portable lumoglobes.

Games The populace is kept entertained with bread in and circuses, in this instance the high-speed often violent Games held in massive Stadiums, including terraplaning where jet-propelled cars hurtle round a cambered track, occasionally crashing, to the cheers of the crowds. Crowds entering or exiting often turn into mobs, creating hysterical crushes.

China war The world is at peace as far as we know, except for a permanent war in faraway China, which people rarely talk about, and never seems to present any threat.

Library Rob gets caught in one of these sudden mob crushes on the way back from the library. The library is falling to bits, no-one goes there. A sign outside says it was opened as long ago as 1978 (thus setting the story in what was then the future). This is because in the Conurbs hardly anybody reads books or writes anything. Everybody watches holovision (HV) or dictates messages into handheld recorders.

An accident Rob pops by the Stadium to see his dad but is met by his friend Mr Kennealy who tells him his dad’s had an accident. He’s an electrician and touched a live wire. Mr Kennealy takes him back to his house for supper and to spend the night.

Conspiracy? That evening Rob hears Kennealy discussing his father in a conspiratorial way with some men who’ve come to visit, but can’t hear the details. ‘This is a dangerous business… We better all watch out.’ Was Rob’s dad’s death not an accident? Why? Was he part of some conspiracy? What?

Dad dead Next day Mr Kennealy takes Rob to the hospital where he is shocked to be told Rob’s dad has died. Kennealy takes Rob to his dad’s apartment to collect some things, including an old box Rob finds, containing his mum and dad’s letters and old b&w photos, and then back the Kennealy flat.

Leaving Mr Kennealy’s Mr and Mrs Kennealy discuss whether Rob could stay with them but the decision is taken out of their hands at his school next day when inspectors turn up and declare Rob must be sent to a state boarding school in Barnes. Rob goes back to the Kennealy’s to get his stuff. Keannealy tells him he’ll be ‘safer’ there. Safer? From what?

Barnes Boarding School It’s horrible. Extremely regimented, with fanatical rules about making your bed just so and presenting possessions for a weekly inspection. Rob, predictably, fails the inspection and is subject to a midnight bullying, ‘the Routine’ (hit on the forehead repeatedly by a rubber-tipped hammer) by the other boys. He is given an extended detention, extra work, and the precious books we saw him borrowing from the library at the start of the book, are taken away and burned.

Running away Early the next Sunday, Rob takes a small bag, makes his way between buildings to the school gates, out into the road beyond, catches a bus into central London (through Trafalgar Square with its glass column) and to a train terminus where he takes off his school blazer and bow tie (!) then spends almost all his money on a ticket to Reading.

Reading? Yes. When he read the dusty old love letters written by his mum to his dad, he learned that she originally came from The County, beyond the wall. Well, he’s got nothing to stay in the Conurbs for. Reading is only a few miles south of the border. He’ll go there and sneak across The Barrier and see if he can find a better life in the County.

Reading carnival When the monorail has whisked him to Reading in just 30 minutes (as if any train in England could ever run that fast!) Rob discovers there’s a Carnival going on, one of the many festivals which Conurbanites fill their time with in between watching violent competitions in stadiums or immersing themselves in twaddle on the holovision.

Rob is given a lift This is bad, though, because when he asks a guy for a lift to the north side of Reading, the guy helpfully starts asking around and someone volunteers to take Rob in a ten-seater ‘Electrocar’ and others offer to come along – with the result that he can’t just hope to be dropped and slip away. Damn! These volunteers ask him where he lives so he has to invents a street on the spur of the moment. After driving around north Reading in search of this non-existent address, the volunteers stop at a police station and most of them go inside to ask directions. Rob takes the opportunity to nip out the car but some of them see him running away, so there’s a chase through the Victorian terraces of north Reading.

Rabbit man Rob nips into someone’s back garden and into their garden shed. The mob arrive moments later and the owner gives them the wrong directions. Rob realises this is because he’s keeping rabbits in his shed, which is illegal. He’s a rough, working-class, ferret-faced man who, when Rob says he’s hungry, gives him some mildewy cheese in week-old bread, then tells him to hop it.

Through the Barrier Rob walks north as the buildings of Reading peter out into bare moorland and eventually stumbles on the legendary Barrier. Instead of being vast and electrified it’s only 12 feet or so high and, when he watches a squirrel scamper across it, he realises, not electrified at all. He walks along it, comes to a bit that’s come loose from the earth, digs for a while with his bare hands and wriggles underneath. He is in the County!

Horses He immediately notices the difference. Some men ride by on horses, wearing swords in scabbards and accompanied by hunting dogs while Rob hides. He walks on getting hungry and grubbing up some potatoes to eat raw. Oh dear, this recalls the protagonists of all the other Christopher novels I’ve read, who spend weeks on the run, hungry, cold and exposed to the elements

Mike Luckily this phase is relatively brief because after a night sleeping rough, he’s making his way through fields when a figure on horseback spots him and gives chase. Rob runs but (inevitably) stumbles and there’s an exciting moment when the horse rears above him, the sun behind the rider dazzling terrified Rob. Then it speaks and turns out not to be some vengeful Viking but a boy his own age named Michael, who is jolly decent.

Bunker Mike is astonished to learn Rob has crossed from the Conurbs and decides to help him. He takes him to an old disused concrete bunker (from back during the ‘Hitler war’, apparently) which is relatively dry and secure. Here Rob rests and over the next few days Mike brings him a huge amount of stuff, fresh food every day along with blankets and bedding, a torch and a little paraffin stove.

Mrs Gifford One day Rob is cooking up a nice little meal when someone stands in the doorway. It isn’t Mike and, once again, for a moment I thought it would be some horrible police / army / militia figure who would drag Mike off to prison, but it’s the opposite. It’s Mike’s mum, Mrs Gifford. She’s realised food and clothes have been going missing and watched Mike one morning. She briskly makes a decision to take Rob in.

Big house The Giffords are an old landed family, members of ‘the gentry’. They (Mr and Mrs Gifford, Mike and his younger sister Cecily) live in an enormous old mansion staffed by at least 20 servants. Mrs Gifford runs a tight ship, keeping the servants up to snuff, so that food is served on time, the horses are well looked after, everything runs like clockwork. Mr Gifford is a very passive, understanding man. After the initial introductions, he shows Rob his collection of miniature bonsai trees and there’s a couple of pages going into some detail about how to tend and nurture them.

County living The gentry live very well. There are regular luncheon parties, dinner parties, and bigger garden parties including one where Rob turns out to have a natural ability for archery. However, this big party is also risky. Having accepted him into their family, Mrs Gifford comes up with a cover story. Rob is renamed Rob Perrott and said to be the son of a cousin of Mrs G’s, raised by an old colonial family in faraway Nepal. After dinner party guests ask him about Nepal, Rob makes straight for the big Gifford library and reads all the books about Nepal that he can find in order to improve his cover story. The family stableman teaches Rob how to ride. Mrs Gifford teaches him how to dress, speak correctly and tip the servants. He is being turned into a gentleman.

Posh boarding school Eventually the time comes for school. Mike had been ill earlier in the year. Now he returns to school along with Rob. It is a very posh boarding school, a mirror image of the Barnes state school (just one of the many parallelisms between the two societies.

Conspiracy After various details of the school routine and settling in and lessons and so on, one night Mike introduces him to a bunch of older boys who, after cocoa and biscuits, fall to having a schoolboy-level debate about the rights and wrongs of the society they live in. The group is led by Daniel Penfold who takes the view that all the peace and plenty is the result of exploitation of the masses. Rob tends to the common sense point of view that most people appear to be pretty happy with the way things are. Rob notices that Mike takes Dan’s side. Later, Mike inducts Dan into a deeper secret, the fact that Penfold is the representative in the school of an organisation of revolutionaries actively dedicated to overthrowing this society.

Debates about revolution If this had been a John Wyndham novel, there would have been a long and penetrating discussion of the merits of revolution. Being John Christopher discussion and debate is much thinner: Mike says people need to be woken up and realise the system is rotten and based on exploitation of their apathy. Rob replies that most people are actually happy enough living as they do. You’ll have a hard job persuading people to throw away the comfort and security the currently enjoy, and for what? For a handful of high-sounding words bandied around by some disgruntled sixth formers.

Christmas at the end of the term the boys go home. Mrs Gifford has always shown a penchant for Rob. He now routinely refers to her as ‘Aunt Margaret’. Now she confides in him her concerns about her son: his school reports all say he’s falling short and not concentrating. Rob and Mike have been invited over to the Penfolds house for lunch and Mrs G expresses concern about the influence of Dan Penfold.

The Penfold household Christopher draws a sharp contrast between the two households and their inhabitants: where the Giffords are tall and handsome and Mrs Gifford is brisk and commanding, the Penfold parents are short and tubby and exercise no discipline over the servants, with the result that tea is served late and cold and, in a piquant detail, Rob’s shoes, which he leaves outside his door to be polished, are done so badly he has to do them again himself.

The revolution After Christmas, back to school and another term, but now with this added tension that Mrs G is unhappy about her son, Mike is distracted and aloof from Rob and Rob wonders what is going on. Back home after that term, Rob and Mike plan to go fishing for a morning before rising on to the Penfold place for lunch, but Mike makes excuses about having to go and see a man about a horse. When Rob eventually arrives at the Penfolds he discovers it in uproar. The Revolution has begun! That’s why Mike rode off that morning, to join it.

Protecting Mrs Gifford Rob rides straight to Mike’s house to discover all the menfolk have ridden off: the radio’s down, there are mad rumours of massacres in Oxford and Bristol, the Cherwell is said to be running with blood, mobs of Conurbanites are said to have stormed the Barrier. Rob saddles up to go and join the ‘vigilantes’ (probably better described as the militia) but all the men including Mr Gifford have left and Mrs Gifford begs him to stay and protect them, so he does.

The rebellion is suppressed The next morning Mr Gifford and the male servants return in a downpour. They tell Mrs G and Rob that the rebellion has been completely suppressed. None of those rumours were true, there was no massacre, no storming of the Barrier, nothing like that. Everyone is very relieved and life goes back to normal except that… Mike is missing! His parents are understandably concerned about what has happened to him.

Mike at midnight That night Mike slips into Rob’s room. He’s on the run. Sure, the rebellion was defeated and the servant class didn’t rise up as Penfold et al hoped they would, but he hasn’t given up. He describes how the rebels were outnumbered and outgunned. Theoretically guns are banned in the County, even in the Conurbs, but it turns out that, when they’re needed, the authorities had plenty to use. Plus helicopters flying overhead which released a fatal nerve gas onto the revolutionaries. Many died on the spot but Mike was out on the periphery and just felt very ill.

Escape In fact, far from deterring him, the brutality with which the revolt was put down has hardened Mike’s determination. He plans to go over the Barrier into the conurbs at Southampton. He makes Rob swear not to tell anyone, then they go down to the empty kitchen, steal some chicken and ham, then Rob sees Mike quietly mount his horse, Captain, and head off south, before going back to bed, his mind in turmoil.

Militia Next day a military patrol stops at the Gifford house led by a Mr Marshall and asks after Mike. He’s wanted. They must give up any information they have about him or face prosecution. Mr and Mrs Gifford say they know nothing and are sick with worry (worried parents; a very young adult fiction trope).

But the militiaman insists on arresting Rob. He is forced to come on horseback. At first he is terrified and the reader wonders what dungeon and tortures await. But then Rob is reassured when he discovers they’re going to the Old Manor, home of inoffensive old Sir Percy Gregory (page 141).

Sir Percy interrogates Bumbling old Sir Percy puts Rob completely at his ease, offers him coffee and cherry cake, asks a number of innocent sounding questions… and then springs a surprise. They know who he is. They know he is really Rob Randell who absconded from Barnes Boarding School made his way to Reading and crossed under the Barrier. They knew who he was within a day of Mrs Gifford finding him. Sir Percy gives a complete biographical sketch, including the dates and full names of both his parents (page 145). (This passage contains the kind of chronological information which gives all true science fiction fans a thrill, by specifying the dates of the action. We learn his father died in 2052, so if a Christmas has gone by the revolution and these scenes are set in 2053.)

The Guardians Who are ‘they’? They are The Guardians. English society was divided between the heavily populated Conurban areas full of proley families kept entertained by holovision, games and the occasional riot, and the sparsely populated County run by grand landed families with penumbras of servants, several generations ago. The division perfectly suits the majority of the population and has been preserved in a stable situation by the eternal watchfulness of the Guardians for 50 years or more.

An offer Throughout this piece of explication Rob has nervously been expecting to be told he will be sent back over the Barrier to Barnes. So he is thunderstruck when Sir Percy offers him the opportunity to become a Guardian himself. He is smart, he is resourceful, he has shown he can conceal his true identity and lie. He will be able to carry himself well either side of the Barrier. He is perfect for the role.

Gentleman’s agreement They shake hands on it. Sir Percy gives him a short-wave radio. All he has to do is report to them if Mike turns up. They don’t want him. They want the people he’ll lead them to, the ringleaders. ‘But what will happen to Mike?’ Rob asks. Oh, Sir Percy replies, he won’t be harmed. He will just have a small operation in the brain. It won’t change his memories or who he is. It will just stop him being rebellious. He will carry on living a privileged life, carry on fox hunting and archery and go to university. But with the rebel part of his brain snipped out. Sir Percy explains that this is a fundamental method which has been used to keep the populations in both societies cowed and quiescent. If by chance, young men continue rebellious despite the operation, then they are packed off to the war in distant China so they can exercise their testosterone in a safely distant arena.

Mrs Gifford reveals They let Rob go. He rides back to the Gifford House with the little radio. The Gifford family are relieved to see him. After dinner it dawns on him that he is safe, utterly safe. He has a home for the first time in his young life, a warm loving family, a life of luxury. But after Mr Gifford potters off to his greenhouse to grow Mrs Gifford surprises him with two revelations. First, she says she knows Mike was there the night before. When food goes missing from the kitchen it is reported to her. She accuses him of not telling her and her husband, but Rob says Mike pleaded with him not to.

Mr Gifford’s operation The second revelation is that Mike’s father has had that brain operation. He, in his youth, had the rebel part of his brain snipped out. At a stroke various facts fall into place. First, why Mr Gifford is so placid and content to potter among his bonsai trees. Second, that rebellion must be genetic: Mike has inherited his father’s restless streak.

A decision Reeling from this revelation, that night Rob comes to a decision. He decides he had been taken in, deluded, seduced by the comfort and luxury of this life. But it is not the real life, the whole thing is based on the neutering of the human brain to make people quiescent. He could acquiesce and lead a life of luxury, private school, university, then a life of fox hunting and harmless hobbies. Or he can make his way to the Conurbs, find Mike, and join the struggle to free humanity from its sedatives and delusions.

The novel ends with Rob leaving the Gifford house that night, heading south towards the Conurbs, with a backpack of supplies which includes a trowel for digging under the Barrier on his way to freedom.

Thoughts

The Guardians is a lot better than the first book in the Tripods series, The White Mountains. In both books 13-year-old boys are brought up in a future society which passively accepts philistinism and the submission to accepted conventions. So in both novels the boy protagonist ups stumps and goes on an arduous trek to freedom.

Christopher’s books suffer in comparison with his peer John Wyndham. They lack Wyndham’s psychological or intellectual depth. When the protagonist of The Chrysalids, David Strorm, rebels against his upbringing in a stiflingly conformist future society, it happens over a period of many years of thinking and learning, punctuated by key and highly dramatic episodes, and all accompanied by his slowly maturing conversations with Uncle Axel. You feel you have entered really deeply into David’s mind and experienced the difficulty of breaking away from family and convention.

Rob, on the other hand, goes to a rough school for a few weeks where he’s beaten up one night so he decides to run away. That’s it. It feels trivial and shallow, as if little effort went into imagining the psychological background and none at all went into really thinking about the issues involved.

Also, Christopher’s prose is pretty boring. It is plain and factual, unenlivened by metaphors or similes. Pages go by without any colour. Dull.

And, at least to begin with, I was dismayed when Rob sleeps in a ditch and is quickly reduced by hunger to eating raw potatoes plucked from a field, because that’s more or less what happens to the protagonists of the previous three Christopher novels I’ve read.

However, as you continue reading I think this book addresses and overcomes all these issues. Rob is quickly rescued from sleeping rough and quickly assimilated into a life of luxury (which is a blessed relief for the reader). And the lack of psychological or intellectual depth (for example, around the whole notion of rebelling against a conformist society) can perhaps be justified in at least two ways:

  1. Speed. What it lacks in depth, The Guardians makes up for in pace. At just 150 pages long, a lot of events and brief ideas are packed into a short exciting narrative.
  2. Target audience. Maybe it’s age-appropriate. Wyndham’s novels are all, ostensibly, for adults. In the foreword to The White Mountains Christopher dwells on the advice and guidance he was given by his American publisher which led him to comprehensively rewrite the middle of the novel. We know from his adult books that he’s not a great thinker, Maybe his publishers said, ‘Play to your strengths: put as little controversy or thought or ideas into the book as is necessary, at just the right level to get an intelligent 12-year-old thinking, and then get back to the action.’

And maybe the same thing applies to his bare prose. I went from reading this to reading a William Gibson novel and it was like going from a scratchy black and white silent movie to a modern CGI Marvel movie. Christopher’s prose is colourless. But, again, maybe that’s appropriate. Maybe the prose in a young adult novel should be as bare and functional as possible to let the story and the narrative take priority.

There is also the structure of the narrative. His previous novels were straightforward linear narratives describing gruelling journeys. However, The Guardians is notably more sophisticated than that in its symmetrical structure, in the way the hero introduces us to two very different societies, ending up alienated from both of them.

Not only that but it is aesthetically pleasing the way that privileged Mike is, of course, in many ways a mirror image of working class Rob. Mike has both his parents unlike Rob the orphan; he has been brought up in luxury and privilege, unlike Rob raised in a crappy council flat, and so on.

But the most obvious mirroring is that whereas Rob has escaped from the Conurbs into the Country, Mike wants to escape the other way. It isn’t particularly prominent, it feels a natural part of the plot, but the way the two boys echo and contrast with each other lifts the novel significantly above the level of a mere trek into something much more artful and satisfying.


Credit

The Guardians by John Christopher was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1970. All references are to the 2015 New Windmill Series hardback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

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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