Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (1922)

Siddhartha is a brief (119-page) telling of the life story of a (fictional) contemporary of the Buddha, a fellow seeker after truth and spiritual enlightenment. The book describes his life and experiences as he follows his own personal path to enlightenment.

Siddhartha is told in simple, lucid prose and has, from start to finish, the feel of a fable, or of a certain kind of old-fashioned children’s story.

I read it in the beautifully clear and rhythmic English translation by Hilda Rosner, which was first published in 1951.

In the shade of the house, in the sunshine of the riverbank near the boats, in the shade of the Salwood forest, in the shade of the fig tree is where Siddhartha grew up, the handsome son of the Brahman, the young falcon, together with his friend Govinda, son of a Brahman. The sun tanned his light shoulders by the banks of the river when bathing, performing the sacred ablutions, the sacred offerings. In the mango grove, shade poured into his black eyes, when playing as a boy, when his mother sang, when the sacred offerings were made, when his father, the scholar, taught him, when the wise men talked. (Opening sentences)

Hermann Hesse

Siddhartha was Hesse’s ninth novel. Hesse had been born in 1877 into a devout Swabian Pietist household ‘with the Pietist tendency to insulate believers into small, deeply thoughtful groups’. He was an intensely serious young man who rebelled against his parents, tried to commit suicide, was sent to mental homes and then a boys’ institution, leaving school as soon as he could. He never attended university and became an apprentice at a bookshop. With few connections he struggled to get his early works of poetry or short fictions into print.

His breakthrough came with publication of the novel Peter Camenzind in 1904 and became popular throughout Germany. He married, had three children and supported himself for the rest of his life as a writer. Reading Schopenhauer had interested him in Eastern philosophy, and in the 1900s he read a lot about the subject.

Seven more novels followed. In 1911 he went on a trip to the East, to Sri Lanka, Borneo and Burma. On return it was clear his marriage was breaking down. The Great War broke out. His son fell ill and his wife developed schizophrenia. In 1916 Hesse went into psychotherapy, which led him to personal friendship with Freud’s disciple, Carl Jung. In 1919 Demian was published, then in 1922 Siddhartha.

The historical Buddha

The Buddha’s given name was Siddhārtha Gautama. He was born into an aristocratic family in what is present-day Nepal, around 480 BC (though his dates and all the facts relating to his life are open to extensive debate).

He renounced his privileged life and spent years travelling, learning, observing. One day he sat under the banyan tree and had a religious vision. He realised that all of life as commonly accepted amounts to duḥkha or suffering, and that only complete detachment from the wishes of the ego, the mind and body can bring complete detachment from self, and so achieve the end of dukkha – the state called Nibbāna or Nirvana.

‘Buddha’, by the way, is not a name but an adjective or title, meaning ‘Awakened One’ or the ‘Enlightened One’.

Siddhartha – part one

With fairy tale simplicity Hesse describes the efforts of Siddhartha, son of a worthy Brahmin in north India at the time of the Buddha, to attain wisdom. He meditates, he practices the ablutions and the rituals required of a high-caste Hindu Brahmin, and also reads the holy books, but he is discontent. He feels he will never attain wisdom this way.

And so he asks his father if he may leave in search of wisdom, Initially reluctant, his father lets him and, as he walks out of his ancestral village, Siddhartha is joined by his faithful friend, Govinda.

They spend ‘about three years’ (p.16) with the Samana, a sect of monks or spiritual devotees who live in the jungle, learning their ways. Then rumours arrive of a man named Gotama who is also known as the Buddha or enlightened one. Siddhartha asks the head Samana for permission to leave the community to go see this Gotama. This makes the head Samana angry, but Siddhartha (once again) overcomes all objections, and leaves.

Siddhartha and Govinda come to the town of Savathi, where Gotama has established a community of monks and followers, living in the Jetavana Grove just outside town, which a rich follower has given him.

In the morning they watch Gotama going to beg food for his mid-day meal, looking much like any other yellow-cloaked devotee. In the afternoon they hear him preach the four main points and the Eightfold Path, the way to escape the eternal recurrence of reincarnation into lives of suffering and pain, the way to escape from the cycle into the bliss of Nirvana.

Govinda is entranced and goes forward, with other pilgrims, to ask Gotama to take him into his community, and he is accepted. However, Siddhartha doesn’t. Siddhartha explains to Govinda that he has no doubt Gotama’s teachings are correct but he doesn’t wish to follow another man’s teachings, he wants to know.

Later he bumps into Gotama himself and politely asks permission to talk to him, and explains this conviction, that the Buddha’s teachings can be communicated and followed by others; but this isn’t what he’s after. He isn’t after teachings, the world is full of teachings. He is after the Buddha’s experience but that experience is, by definition, incommunicable.

Thus Siddhartha must leave the community and must find his own way. Gotama warns him against the chains of opinion and knowledge, and against being too clever.

‘Be on your guard against too much cleverness.’

But Siddhartha is determined and leaves the community, and his best friend Govinda behind.

Walking alone he has a revelation of his own – all this time, pursuing the teachings of the ancients or gurus, he has been motivated by one thing: fear of his Self, fleeing from his Self. What would happen if he accepted his own Self, his selfness, as supreme, as the basis of his existence.

‘I do not want to kill and dissect myself any longer, to find a secret behind the ruins. Neither Yoga-Veda shall teach me any more, nor Atharva-Veda, nor the ascetics, nor any kind of teachings. I want to learn from myself, want to be my student, want to get to know myself, the secret of Siddhartha.’

This is connected with a revelation of the multitudinousness of life, the blue sky and the green forest. Everything has a distinct itness. Trying to abolish the many in order to penetrate through to The One – as the Brahmins do – is a mistake.

Cleaving to his Self for the first time he feels genuinely alone, not a member of his caste or a pilgrim among pilgrims or a scholar among scholars. The world melts away and he stands like a star in the heavens. He is just Siddhartha, the one and only Siddhartha and the realisation makes ‘a feeling of icy despair’ go through him, but at the same time he is more awake than he’s ever been before. He is awakened. He is reborn.

Siddhartha – part two

Siddhartha walks through the world, enlightened. No longer does he reject and spurn the things of the world as a veil to be penetrated. The reverse: now he celebrates the amazing diversity, colour and beauty of the natural world.

But this second part is dominated by what happens next. Siddhartha takes a ferry over a river and comes to a town where he admires a beautiful woman being carried by four bearers on an ornamented sedan chair. He makes enquiries. It is Kamala the noted courtesan. He is struck. He goes into the town and has his beard cut off and his hair cut and oiled. He bathes in the river. Then he presents himself to Kamala’s people and she grants him an audience.

Long story short: he becomes her lover and best friend. She teaches him the forty ways of love, finding pleasure in every look, word and every part of the human body. She tells him she needs her lover to be rich and well-dressed and gives him an introduction to the town’s leading merchant, Kamaswami.

Siddhartha impresses Kamaswami with his education and calmness. He is hired into the business. He does well, but never really gains a taste for it, the business itself. Instead he brings calm, detachment, education and a winning manner which pleases clients.

The years pass. The awakening he experienced after leaving Gotama slowly fades. He acquires wealth, a house by the river, fine clothes. No longer a vegetarian, he eats meat, gets drunk on wine. His face grows lined and corrupt. He becomes addicted to gambling with dice, gambling for immense stakes, loses fortunes, wins back fortunes – all to show his contempt for ‘riches’ and all the things the little people value. His inner voice has grown silent. He is in his forties with his first grey hairs (p.65).

He goes to see Kamala and she, also, is upset. They make love deeply. He goes back to his house, feels sick and glutted, wishes he could vomit up his corrupt life. Goes into his pleasure garden, sits under his mango tree, reviews his life, thinks he has lost all the fire which motivated him to learn the Brahmin scriptures, to outdo Govinda in wisdom, everything he learned with the Samana and understood about the Buddha – and yet though he has gained the outer trappings of Kamaswami’s people, people of this world, he is not one of them. He is lower than them. They give themselves to their loves and passions and work and anxieties. Siddhartha only pretends, in this as in everything else.

He looks up at the stars above his mango tree and realises all this is dead to him. He says goodbye to his mango tree and his pleasure garden and his town house and walks away, leaving everything behind. Kamaswami sends out searchers but never hears of him, Kamala is saddened but gladdened that he has been true to himself. A few months later she realises she is pregnant with his child.

Siddhartha wanders. He comes to a river and is so overcome with disgust at what he has become that he leans over the river as if to fall in and drown. He is contemplating suicide. Then out of some remote part of his soul comes the word Om, the beginning and end of Brahmin prayers, the syllable of reality. And he stops, repeats the syllable, is suddenly overcome by tiredness, sinks down onto the roots of the tree and sleeps, the word Om echoing through his unconscious.

When he wakes he feels a new man, refreshed and cleansed. A monk is watching him. It is his old friend Govinda, who was passing with fellow Buddhist pilgrims and saw Siddhartha sleeping in this place which is dangerous for its snakes and wild animals, and decided to stop and look over him. Now he has awoken, Govinda will join his colleagues. Siddhartha says, Don’t you recognise me? The short answer is, No, because Siddhartha has become fat and lined and worn and is wearing rich man’s clothes. Siddhartha tells his old friend all of those attributes are fleeting. Beneath them all, he is still following his quest. Govinda digests this, then bows and goes his way.

Siddhartha reflects on how far astray his old life had led him. In fact he reviews his entire life and all its changes. He realised he was over-educated when he was young, fenced in with prayers and ablutions and meditation. He had to get out and experience the futility of riches and sensual love for himself. Now he knows. Now he has awoken refreshed, a new man, as if his long sleep was one long Om-based meditation.

It is the same river he was ferried across 20 years ago. It is the same ferryman who, after a bit of prompting, remembers him. Siddhartha says he wants to give the ferryman his fine clothes and in return become his apprentice. The ferryman’s name is Vasudeva. He accepts. Siddhartha moves in to share his humble house and food and learn the trade. Slowly the two men come to look alike, taking turns to ferry people across the wide river, or sitting in silence for hours listening to it, learning from its wisdom.

One day Siddhartha articulates to the ferryman what the river has taught him: it has surpassed Time. Its beginning, middle and end are all simultaneously present. It is always changing but always the same. Nothing is past or future, everything exists in a permanent present, including Siddhartha. The river is the voice of life, the voice of Being, of perpetual Becoming (p.87).

Then news comes. The Buddha is dying. The couple of old men find themselves ferrying increasing numbers of monks and pilgrims who want to see the Enlightened One before he attains Nirvana. Among them is Kamala who has long since abandoned her trade as courtesan, given her money and troth to the Buddha. Now she is travelling with her son by Siddhartha.

They stop to rest on the far side of the river and Kamala sleeps, but wakens with a cry. She has been bitten by a poisonous snake. Siddhartha and Vasudeva hasten to her side. They try to cleanse the wound but it is already turning black. Kamala is dying. She lingers long enough to recognise Siddhartha and say how pleased she is to see the old sparkle and happiness in his eyes. She proclaims the boy is his son. She had wanted to see the Enlightened One before she died, but is content to see Siddhartha, who has a wisdom of his own.

Kamala dies. They burn her body on a funeral pyre.

Soon Siddhartha realises that his 11-year-old son is a spoiled mummy’s boy. He thinks that by love and patience he can reconcile him to living with two ageing rice-eating poor men. But he can’t. The boy has tantrums, breaks things, is nothing but trouble.

One day Vasudeva takes him aside and tells him he must take the boy back to his own kind. There is a lesson here. Did not Siddhartha have to immerse himself in the destructive element of life, did it not take him decades to find his own path and his own wisdom? Well, he can’t short-circuit it for the boy. The boy should be returned to his own kind, to his mother’s house or to a teacher, to grow up among other rich children and find his own path.

But Siddhartha can’t bring himself to do it and the boy comes to hate him, defying him, speaking harsh words every day. Finally he steals their money, runs away, rows the ferry boat to the other side of the river and is gone. Vasudeva wisely counsels Siddhartha not to follow his errant son, but Siddhartha has to. The world and its pain are too much with him.

Siddhartha finds himself arriving at the edge of the town, by the old pleasure ground of Kamala. He stands transfixed, his mind full of memories of their young, ripe, hot-blooded time. He sits down in the dust, in a trance. He is only wakened when Vasudeva lightly touches his shoulder.

Back at the ferry, Siddhartha’s psychological wound – from the loss of his son – continues to chafe.

One day looking down into the river he realises his face reminds him of his father’s face, his father who he ran away from and never saw again and who probably died lonely, who probably suffered the same way Siddhartha is now suffering. How ridiculous, how absurd, the tragi-comic cycles of life, the endless repetition of suffering.

Vasudeva is getting old. He takes Siddhartha to sit by the river and listen. And Siddhartha hears all the voices of all the people, the plights, the lives as the river flows past, into the sea, evaporates into the sky, forms clouds over the hills, condenses and falls as rain which feeds a thousand springs which flow together to create the river. Eternal and ever-changing. And the thousands of voices converge to speak the syllable of perfection, Om.

Siddhartha feels healed, complete. He rises above his own personal suffering and becomes one with this vast unity of the world. And now Vasudeva stands and says it is time for him to slough off the skin of the ferryman Vasudeva and return to the unity of the cosmos. And he walks away from Siddhartha clothed in light.

In the final chapter Govinda arrives again. He had heard of a ferryman of great wisdom. Once again he doesn’t recognise Siddhartha till the latter announces himself. But the point of these last ten pages is that Govinda asks for help, for Siddhartha’s wisdom and when the latter explains it, it really is wisdom. It struck me with the force of a genuinely holy writing.

For Siddhartha explains that there is no such thing as time. All things are permanently present, all pasts and futures are contained in the now, and are part of a vast unity. If this is so then there are no real oppositions. Oppositions occur only in the words of teachings. To teach you have to take a view and be partial, separating x from y. But Siddhartha now scandalises Govinda by saying there is no real difference between Sansara, the Sanskrit word which betokens change and the eternal cycle of suffering, and Nirvana, the supposed heaven where the soul escapes the eternal cycle of suffering.

These, Siddhartha says, are just binary concepts required for clear doctrine and teaching. In reality everything is part of everything else. In this sense, there is no right or wrong, and certainly no good or bad. Good and bad are inextricably mixed, just as past and future are eternally present.

Therefore, the logical response, is to love the world as it is because it contains the entire future and all of heaven, here, now, implicitly. The correct attitude is complete compassion and complete love for everything as it is.

Govinda asks for a final word of help or advice and Siddhartha tells him to bend and kiss his forehead. And as he does so Govinda sees and hears all the voices of all the people in the world, all the babies, old people, lovers, warriors, priests and even gods and goddesses, a thousand thousand thousand voices and features, past and future, all contained in one vast cosmic unity. And he realises that only one other person has ever had the same level of wisdom and serenity and the same half-mocking smile on his lips. By a different route, Siddhartha has become as enlightened as the Buddha.

The personal quest

And so Siddhartha’s determination to go his own way is justified. The final wisdom, in practical terms, seems to be that everyone must find their own path:

There was no teaching a truly searching person, someone who truly wanted to find, could accept. But he who had found, he could approve of any teachings, every path, every goal, there was nothing standing between him and all the other thousand any more who lived in that what is eternal, who breathed what is divine.

Conclusion

This is a beautiful and inspiring book. You don’t necessarily have to agree with any of the Eastern philosophy on show, to find that many of the thoughts and ideas about life, about our paths through life, about trying to find meaning, ring a bell. Hesse’s novels have always been popular with the young, teenagers and students – but as a middle-aged parent I found much of what the characters discuss just as relevant to me, now, at this stage of my journey.

Above all, after over a thousand pages of bleakness, crudity, violence, rape, murder and madness in the novels of Hermann Broch and Alfred Döblin, it is a welcome relief to read a book in which people smile, enjoy the sight of the blue sky and the sound of a flowing river, are kind and wise and considerate and courteous to each other. It is like re-entering the real world after a prolonged visit to a lunatic asylum.

To put it another way, the longer Broch went on, the lengthier his dense and abstract and wordy philosophical disquisitions went on, the more impenetrable, hair-splitting, utterly academic and impractical they seemed. Whereas Hesse’s focused fable provides countless places where the character’s eloquent and strangely practical thoughts strike home to your heart and make you reflect on your own life and journey.


Related links

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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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