Manuscript fragment, part of a rare Yogavacara meditation manual found in the Theravada tradition, 18th century © British Library Board

Buddhism, one of the great religions on the world, is explored in this exhibition currently on show at the British Library, London

The British Library in London opened a major exhibition to explore the roots, art, and enduring popularity of one of the worlds, great religions – Buddhism. The exhibition comprises artefacts from 20 countries from over 2,000 years – more than 120 items – featuring a number of scrolls, painted wall hangings and folding books. The exhibition aims to highlight the outstanding art contained within Buddhist manuscripts and early printed works by using the library’s own Buddhist collections from across the world that rarely have the chance to be on public view. Using these manuscripts and works of art to discuss the theory, practice and art of Buddhism, taking into consideration what it means to be Buddhist today.

As Jana Igunma, lead curator at the British Library for the exhibition, points out in the introduction to the catalogue, ‘Buddhism is today one of the world’s major religions, thought to have more than 500 million followers worldwide and nearly 300,000 in the UK. These numbers can only be estimates since Buddhism does not propagate conversion. Embracing Buddhism, or a Buddhist lifestyle, is an individual decision that is not bound to formal membership of an organisation or a religious community. According to official statistics, the countries with the highest number of Buddhists in their populations are China, Thailand, Japan, Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Cambodia. The fact that China has recently re-embraced Buddhism accounts for a significant surge in numbers of practising Buddhists’.

The historical founder of Buddhism was Prince Siddhartha Gautama (Gotama in Pali), who was born circa 563 BC in the kingdom of Kapilavastu (now in Nepal). After meditating under a Tree of Wisdom at Bodhgaya, Prince Siddhartha attained spiritual Enlightenment and became Buddha, the Awakened One. The Buddha was awakened to the realisation that all life is suffering which is caused by attachment to this world. In the third century BC, the earliest form of Buddhism, the Hinayana (Small Vehicle) Buddhism, or Theravada Buddhism, was conveyed from India and Sri Lanka to Southeast Asia. The Buddha conceived a new doctrine capable of putting an end to suffering and bringing peace to the world and, with his teaching (dharma), attracted many followers, who formed a community of monks (sangha). The life of the Buddha is told in the great epic, The Jataka Tales, retelling the life and previous births of the Buddha and are moralistic in nature.

A new form of Buddhism, the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) Buddhism, was introduced from India via Central Asian trade routes to China as early as the 1st century and then to Korea and Japan in the 6th century. Buddhism was introduced to Tibet from Nepal and China no later than the 7th century, where a specific school of Buddhism, known as Vajrayana, or Tantric Buddhism, became the dominant religion.

In this exhibition, sacred scriptures written on tree bark, palm leaves, gold plates, illuminated texts and silk scrolls of major sutras demonstrate Buddhism’s pivotal role in developing writing and printing techniques to transmit ideas and educate people across Asia. Exploring the three main schools of Buddhism – Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana – this is the British Library’s largest ever display of Buddhist collection and the chosen works highlight the theory, practice and art of Buddhism and to explore the iconography of the Buddha and Buddhist related tales and iconography related to Buddhism.

On show are early manuscripts from east Asia, including the Hyakumanto Darani, or ‘One Million Pagoda Dharani,’ the oldest extant examples of printing in Japan and some of the earliest in the world, dating to 764-770, as well as a copy of the Lotus Sutra as a lavishly decorated scroll, also from Japan, written in gold and silver ink on indigo-dyed paper dating back to 1636, one of the most popular and most influential Buddhist texts of Mahayana Buddhism. From China, there is a comprehensive woodblock-printed work depicting and describing scenes from the life of the Buddha, including 208 hand-coloured illustrations, created in 1808 and an illustrated manuscript of the Guanyin Sutra from Dunhuang, showing a rare early depiction of a woman giving birth after she and her husband have prayed to the bodhisattva Guanyin, 9th/10th century. 

From the Theravada lands comes a 7.6 metre-long, 19th-century Burmese illustrated manuscript, going on display at the library for the first time, detailing the early life of the Buddha. A manuscript in the shape of a bar of gold from Thailand dated 1917, known as Sankhara Bhajani Kyam that is on display to the public for the first time. Also on display is a lavishly gilded and lacquered, Thai palm-leaf manuscript with new research revealing it was commissioned by a queen of Siam, with a silk cover designed by her, demonstrating the role of women in Buddhism, 19th century. 

In Nepal, there are three main Buddhist schools, Tibetan Buddhism, Newar Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism. The exhibition is showing one of the oldest illustrated extant palm leaf manuscripts, Pancharaksha (one of the important consecration Sutras that is till in practical use among the Newar Buddhists), an illustrated ritual text on the Five Protections from Nepal, dated 1130-1150. Elsewhere in the show is an 18th-century copy of the Tibetan book Bar do thos grol, a guide through the stages between death and rebirth, commonly known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which helped popularise Buddhism in the 20th century in the West. From Ceylon, comes a depiction of the largest religious ceremony of the year, the Asala perehera, organised by the Temple of the Tooth, in Kandy.

The exhibition also features contemporary art, to link the past to the present, from Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Taiwan, as well as ritual objects used in Buddhist practice that provide a window into everyday life in Buddhist communities in the 21st century. A unique contemporary artwork depicting scenes from the Vessantara Birth Tale in the style of Thai mural paintings was created especially for the exhibition by Irving Chan Johnson, Lim Su Qi and Rungnapa Kitiarsa, Singapore, 2019.

To coincide with Buddhism a display entitled Sacred Laos in Photographs: The Monks’ Gaze, is on show in the second-floor gallery, where the images capture everyday monastic in Luang Prabang, the historic town situated alongside the Mekong River. Luang Prabang is famous for its monastic culture and has over 30 Buddhist temples, or wats, and monks are often seen walking through the streets collecting daily alms. The 18 prints were selected from the Buddhist Archive of Photography, a collection of 35,000 photographs that were identified, preserved and digitised as part of the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme.

Buddhism, until 23 February, 2020 at The British Library, London, bl.uk and Sacred Laos Photographs,
to 9 February, 2020. Catalogue available and more information on related events are published on the library’s website


There is a conference on Buddhism, 7-8 February, in partnership with SOAS, for academics, students, practitioners and non-specialists alike