The British Library unveils a diverse and vibrant perspective on Buddhism with its new exhibition. wonder | wander | women couldn’t wait to see this amazing collection for ourselves.
The fourth largest religion in the world began in India around the 6th century BCE and spread throughout the Asian continent, generating a wildly diverse body of texts, art, scripture and practices.
Now the British Library brings together many of these distinct works to tell the story of a faith that evolved from ancient rituals to modern-day lifestyles.
Buddhism has a rich visual language; through repetition and ritual, its symbols and holy aspects are inscribed in the memory of its followers.
Like Christianity in Europe, Buddhism was pivotal in driving literacy outward through Asia. Scriptures were written on palm leaves and bound into stacks of manuscripts with covers of ivory, inlaid wood, or even silver or gold.
Sinhalese palm leaf manuscripts spread the religion throughout Southeast Asia. A scribe incised the text of the sutras, often with translations for learners of the Pali language, with a stylus onto palm leaves and then rubbed them with soot and oils to darken the letters.
The spread of Buddhism through China and Japan began a wild variation of styles, as each culture interpreted the Buddhist stories and principles through their own culture. One famous example is the bodhisattva Padmapani, who evolved into the Chinese Guanyin and Japanese Kannon.
Japanese Buddhist temples produced mekurakyo, a chanting guide for illiterate congregations using symbols and pictures to ‘pronounce’ a Sanskrit chant. These are still in use today.
Chinese paper amulets, like the Christian scapulars, were printed with Buddhist proverbs and images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and carried everywhere.
Present-day Buddhism, contrary to popular misconceptions about the practice, is above all about compassion, and as much about action as prayer. Thich Nhat Hanh, founder of the Order of Interbeing, developed guidelines for what he called Engaged Buddhism: ‘Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting…’
Dishu (地書) is the art of ‘ground writing’ or water calligraphy practiced by hobbyists in the streets of Beijing. Calligraphy is an art long practiced by Zen Buddhists in East Asia to achieve a meditative state, and a calligrapher working in a public park can create an island of peace in a noisy city.
Christianity begins with ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ Buddhism reminds us that there was a truth before words, before even pictures. Civilizations have attempted to portray this truth through countless visual forms, but Buddha himself displayed the best sign of the religion he founded: a kind smile and an outstretched hand.