Exhibition Review: Buddhism, The British Library, London

The British Library’s new exhibition, Buddhism, sees the “world’s most comprehensive research collection” delve into its own vaults to provide a visual account of the Buddha and his teachings.

What visitors are treated to is a collection of rare and colourful scrolls, painted wall hangings, embellished folding books and gold plates from Thailand, Nepal, Burma, China, Japan, and India. Exhibited in a room decorated in a rich red – symbolic in Buddhism for lifeforce, preservation, fire, and sacred items and places – Buddhism in its entirety as an exhibition spans 20 countries over 2000 years.

The exhibition begins with a look at the life of the Buddha, where a 19th century Burmese manuscript seeks to illustrate his early life in a 7.6 metre long depiction featuring an infant Buddha laying next to his mother in a temple. The manuscript with its radiant reds and gold gilding is as eye-catching as it is an interesting piece of storytelling. While a second Burmese manuscript, also from the 19th century, visualises scenes from the Buddha’s previous incantations where elephants feature in various landscapes. From China, a woodblock-printed work, dated from 1808, features 208 beautiful hand-coloured illustrations.

Buddhism appears to have its own soundtrack too – as visitors navigate the exhibition space, sounds including sacred chants, nature and the elements can be heard, providing soothing and relaxing background soundscapes. The exhibition’s exit even offers the opportunity for visitors to strike a Tibetan bell with a soft mallet, producing a calming tone.

Moving on from the life of the Buddha, the exhibition takes visitors through three other sections including Buddhist philosophy, the spread of Buddhism, and Buddhist practice. Each section features various scriptures, scrolls and manuscripts including books from a recent Buddha Manga series, and a stunning Thai-style mural painting depicting scenes from the Vessantara Birth Tale, commissioned by the Library specially for the exhibition.

Further in to the exhibition, Buddhism showcases Buddhist texts inscribed on to a range of materials including palm leaf and indigo-dyed paper. Among these include one of the oldest illustrated extant palm leaf manuscripts, Pancharaksha, an illustrated ritual text on the Five Protections from Nepal, dating from 1130-1150 CE. And 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.

The notable presence of manuscripts, scriptures and scrolls throughout the exhibition seeks to show visitors how Buddha’s spiritual teachings were documented by people over the centuries. It is understood that the sutras or literary traditions weren’t written until almost 500 years after the Buddha taught, and for the best part of those 500 years the Buddha’s teachings were spread through oral tradition. Through this, The British Library’s exhibition illustrates how vital text and print was to Buddhism’s development.

In spite of the birth of “Buddhism”, the Buddha never intended for his spiritual teachings to be embraced as a religion, as it is often observed today. Buddha’s spiritual teachings highlighted the practice of mindfulness and meditation – those things that more and more people are becoming aware of to be the gateway to inner peace, love, joy, harmony and abundance. These are practices that are as crucial to life as, and as natural as, breathing. What Buddha did intend for was that his knowledge be shared with anyone and everyone with an interest – after all, “knowledge is power”.

While the marketing and the press attention handed over to the Buddhism exhibition has centred on Buddhism as a religion, what I especially liked about the exhibition is that it appeals to a wider audience. Buddhism is just as likely to capture the interest of those who identify themselves as Buddhist, as it does art and history fans alike, and then there’s the likes of me, who resonates with the teachings of the Buddha simply as a way of life and a way of being.

Buddhism is on at The British Library from now until 23 February 2020

Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She writes about lifestyles including sustainable and green living. She also offers content services to businesses and individuals at Rosamedea.com

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