THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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34 posts categorized "Buddhism"

17 February 2017

Kammavaca: Burmese Buddhist ordination manuscripts

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Kammavaca is a Pali term describing an assemblage of passages from the Tipitaka –  the Theravada Buddhist canon –  that relate to ordination, the bestowing of robes, and other rituals of monastic life. A Kammavaca is a highly ornamental type of manuscript usually commissioned by lay members of society as a work of merit, to be presented to monasteries when a son enters the Buddhist Order as a novice or becomes ordained as a monk. The novitiation ceremony of a Buddhist monk is an important family ritual, the main purpose being to gain merit for their future life. A novice may remain a monk for as long as he wishes, whether for one week or one season of lent or even for life, and he may undergo the initiation ceremony as many times as he likes. The most important Kammavaca were prepared for the upasampada (higher ordination), the ritual for the ordination of a Buddhist monk. 

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British Library, Add. 15289, f. 1v, top outer leaf  noc
Add15289
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script on gilded and lacquered palm leaf, 18th century. The outer leaf, shown above, has eight octagonal panels with lotus patterns within circles, while the leaf below shows the beginning of the ordination text (upasampada), flanked by similar larger lotus patterns. British Library, Add. 15289, f.1.  noc

Kammavaca manuscripts are written on a variety of materials, primarily on palm leaf but also on stiffened cloth, or gold, silver, metal or ivory sheets in the shape of palm leaf. Thickly applied lacquer or gilded decoration appears on the leaves themselves and also on the cover boards. The Pali text is written in black lacquer in ornate Burmese characters known as ‘tamarind-seed’ script, also refered to as ‘square’ script, which differs from the usual round Burmese writing. Some attractive and unusual Kammavaca may be made from discarded monastic robes thickly covered with black lacquer, with inlaid mother-of-pearl letters.

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British Library, Or. 12010H, f.1v  noc
Or12010H
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script on ivory, 18th century. The outer leaf shown at the top is lacquered and gilded with birds and lotuses in octagonal panels, while  the opening leaf of the ordination section (upasampada) shown below has black lacquered text and gilded lotus patterns. British Library, Or. 12010H, f. 1r  noc

In the 12th century, the Sihala Ordination was introduced into Burma by Chappaṭa who had studied the canon and commentaries in Sri Lanka. In the 15th century, Sri Lanka was again turned to as the source of orthodoxy, and in 1476, twenty two disciples and chosen bhikkhus (monks) were sent in two ships to the island. They were duly ordained by the Mahavihara monks at the consecrated sima or ordination hall on the Kalyani River, near Colombo. Upon the return of these monks, King Dhammaceti (1471-1492) built the Kalyani Sima in Pegu (Bago), to which bhikkhus from neighbouring countries came to receive ordination.

Two types of ordination ceremonies are held in sima: ordination for novices (Pabbajja), and ordination for monks (Upasampada). To become a novice, the follower has to recite the Ten Precepts as well as the Three Refuges for a monk.  In order to become a monk, the Sangha or monastic community will perform the Upasampada ordination on fulfillment of the five conditions: Perfection of a person, Perfection of an assembly, Perfection of the Sima, Perfection of the motion, and Perfection of the Kammavaca. The most senior monk will lead the assembly for the newly-ordained monk, while selected monks will recite the Kammavaca taking great care with articulation and pronunciation.

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British Library, Or. 12010E, front board  noc
Or12010E
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, written on palm leaf, 19th century. Shown at the top is the binding board, with lacquered and gilt lotuses in roundels; below is the text written in black lacquer on a red lacquer ground. British Library, Or. 12010E, f. 1r  noc

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British Library, Or. 13896, f. 1r  noc
Or13896.2
British Library, Or. 13896, f. 16r  noc
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Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, written on metal gilded and lacquered in red, 19th century. British Library, Or. 13896, f. 1v  noc

The outer sides of the first and last leaves of the Kammavaca manuscript shown above (Or. 13896) have unusual and fine decoration in gold and red of scenes from the Buddha’s life. At the top, Prince Siddhartha cuts off his hair with his sword, the symbolic gesture of the renunciation, and Sakka, the king of the celestial abodes, receives it, while on the right devas present a robe and alms bowl to Prince Siddhartha. On the final leaf shown in the middle, when Prince Siddhartha becomes a monk, Sakka plays the harp to show Siddhartha the way to the Middle Path, and devas come to pay respects. The outer margins of text leaves are decorated with deva.

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British Library, Or. 12010A, f. 1v, outer front board   noc
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British Library, Or. 12010A, inner front board with donor's name  noc
Or 12010A
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, lacquered cloth, with gilded and lacquered boards, 19th century. British Library, Or. 12010A, f. 1r.  noc

The leaves of this manuscript (Or. 12010A) consist of cloth thickly covered with lacquer to provide a rigid surface, which is then gilded with background decoration of floral sprigs. In the margins are depicted kneeling deva or celestial figures with their hands clasped in reverence for the Kammavaca text. The text leaves are stored between a pair of bevelled binding boards, red on the inside, and lacquered and gilt on the outside, with devas within panels. A Burmese inscription on the inside of the top board of this Kammavaca records that the manuscript was a pious gift of lay devotee U Tha Hsan and his wife Ma Lun.

The manuscript contains the following Kammavaca texts: Upasampada  (Official Act for the conferment of the Higher Ordination), Kathinadussadana (Official Act for the holding of the Kathina ceremony), Ticivarena-avippavasa (text for the investiture of a monk with the three robes), Sima-sammannita (Official Act for the Agreement of boundary limits), Thera-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon the seniority of theras), Nama-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon a name), Vihara-kappa-bhumi-sammuti (text of the dedication of a Vihara), Kuṭi-vatthu-sammuti (Official Act to search and agree upon a site for a hut), Nissaya-muti-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon relaxation of the requisites). 

The leaves of the various Kammavaca manuscripts illustrated in this post range are made of various materials including palm leaf, ivory, metal and lacquered cloth, and range in size from 50 to 60 cm in length, and from 10 to 15 cm in width. The outer sides of the first and final leaves of the Kammavaca are usually decorated with panels of birds, lotus, flower and leaf designs, devas, figures of the Buddha and geometric patterns. The leaves have two holes in them in which small bamboo sticks are usually inserted in order to hold the leaves together, and the leaves are bound between decorated binding boards. Kammavaca were usually wrapped in woven or silk wrappers, and secured with a woven ribbon and placed in a gilded box.

Further reading:
To Cin Khui, The Kalyani Inscriptions erected by King Dhammaceti at Pegu in 1476 A.D. Rangoon: Superintendent, Government Printing, 1892.
Sao Htun Hmat Win, The initiation of novicehood and the ordination of monkhood in the Burmese Buddhist culture. Rangoon: Department  of Religious Affairs, 1986.

San San May, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

20 December 2016

Old Javanese copper charters in the British Library

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One of the greatest periods of building in stone ever known commenced in central Java in the late 7th century, and reached a climax with the construction of Borobudur – the largest Buddhist monument in the world – in the 8th century, and the Prambanan temple complex in the 9th century. During the 10th century, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, the centre of activity shifted from central Java to east Java, where Hindu-Buddhist temples were built in stone and then brick through to the late 15th century, until halted with the spread of Islam throughout the island. Neglected and uncared for, the temples fell into disuse and thence decay, hastened by the unchecked growth of vegetation and volcanic and seismic activity.

The traditional writing material in Java was palm leaf or paper made from the beaten bark of the mulberry tree. Although if treated with great care organic materials may survive for several hundred years in the tropical climate, most of what we know about the early Javanese civilisations responsible for these great monuments is necessarily gleaned from a study of inscriptions engraved on more durable materials such as stone and copper.  The earliest known inscriptions from Java were written in Old Malay and Sanskrit, but by the 9th century Old Javanese was used. The Old Javanese language differs from modern Javanese in the very high proportion of Sanskrit words, while Old Javanese script, sometimes known as Kawi script, also differs from that used for modern Javanese. The earliest dated inscription in Old Javanese is the Sukabumi inscription of 804 AD, and Old Javanese continued to be used until the 15th century.  Hundreds of inscriptions survive, engraved on stone and copper. Some of the copper charters are later copies of earlier inscriptions, or more portable copies of inscriptions originally engraved on stone.

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Mount Sumbing, a volcano in central Java, shown with a selection of Javanese antiquities in the foreground. From the Java-Album by Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn (1809-1864). Leipzig: Arnoldische Buchhandlung, 1856. British Library, 1781.a.21, Plate 5.

The British Library holds three separate copper charters in Old Javanese, all of which have now been digitised.  The two charters held as Ind. Ch. 57, both incomplete, relate to a man named Ugra in a village called Pabuharan. Although undated, there are textual indications that these charters may date from the 9th century. The plate which can properly be termed the ‘Pabuharan inscription’ (Prasasti Pabuharan), Ind. Ch. 57 (B), records a grant of the attributes of the Brahman-order and Kṣatriya-order by the king to Ugra's children named Dyah Kataywat and Dyah Nariyama in the domain (sima) of Pabuharan.  On this occasion several ceremonial gifts of cloth and gold were presented to various officials, and are listed in the inscription.

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Pabuharan inscription, copper charter, in poor condition, possibly 9th century AD. British Library, Ind. Ch. 57 (B), f. 2v.

The accompanying plate, Ind Ch 57 (A), records the making of a canal in the lěmah asinan of Pabuharan by Ugra, who is described as a a teacher, with some rights and regulations to be maintained for it.

Both plates were in the possession of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant-Governor of Java from 1811 to 1816, but there is no information on how Raffles acquired them in Java. The plates were originally held in the British Museum before being transferred to the British Library.

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Old Javanese charter recording the digging of a canal in Pabuharan. British Library, Ind. Ch. 57 (A), f. 1r.

The third charter was issued by King Siṇḍok, who reigned in Java from ca. 929 to 947, and it was probably during his reign that the main shift from central to east Java took place. Known as the Sobhāmṛta inscription (Prasasti Sobhāmṛta), the complete charter consists of seven plates, of which the first and third plates are held in the National Museum of World Cultures in Leiden, while the five remaining plates are held in the British Library as MSS Jav 106.  On the basis of the style of script, this is clearly a copy made sometime between the late 13th and 15th centuries of the original charter.  The inscription records that on 11 Suklapaksa in the month Waisakha 861 Saka ( 2 May 939 AD), the king – named in the text as Sri Maharaja Rake Hino Mpu Sindok Sri Isanawijaya Dharmottunggadewa – gave orders that rice fields, orchards, and house lands in Sobhāmṛta were to become a freehold area, in return for the duty of maintaining a temple.  The charter was discovered in 1815 in a village south of Surabaya in East Java during work on a water supply.  The name of this village was Betra, which could possibly be a corrupt version of the Sanskrit name Sobhāmṛta, meaning ‘splendid holy water’, from nine centuries earlier.

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The beginning of Plate 2 of the Sobhāmṛta inscription, dated śāka 861 (A.D. 939), in Old Javanese. A copy made in the Majapahit period (1293 - ca.1500). British Library, MSS Jav 106, f. 1r

The last plate ends with a series of decorative motifs marking the end of the text, including two floral motifs probably derived from the lotus blossom.

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Floral motifs marking the end of the text of the Sobhāmṛta inscription. British Library, MSS Jav 106, f. 5v  noc

For a full list of digitised Malay and Indonesian manuscripts in the British Library, click here.

Further reading:
M.C. Ricklefs, P. Voorhoeve & A.T.Gallop, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain. New Edition with Addenda et Corrigenda. Jakarta: EFEO, 2014; p. 257.

Ind. Ch. 57
Albertine Gaur, Indian charters on copper plates. London: British Museum, 1975; p. 32.
OJO (Oud-Javaansche Oorkonden) no. CXV in: J.L.A. Brandes, 'Oud-Javaansche oorkonden: nagelaten transcripties', edited by N.J. Krom. Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen, 60 (parts 1 and 2), 1913. Batavia; ’s-Hage: Albrecht; Nijhoff; pp. 250-251.
Boechari, and A.S. Wibowo. Prasasti Koleksi Museum Nasional. Vol. 1. Jakarta: Proyek Pengembangan Museum Nasional, Departemen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan, 1985-1986; inscription E.1.II (reading based on a cast).

MSS Jav 106
A.T. Gallop with B. Arps, Golden letters: writing traditions of Indonesia. London: British Library; Jakarta: Lontar, 1991; pp. 74-75.
Titi Surti Nastiti. Prasasti Sobhāmṛta. Jakarta: Pusat Penelitian dan Pengembangan Arkeologi Nasional, Departemen Kebudayaan dan Pariwisata, 2007

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

12 December 2016

O graceful fawn, o gentle doe: Deer in Thai manuscript art

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Among the most gorgeous images in Thai manuscript painting are those of forest animals. Illustrations of the heavenly forest Himmaphan (Pali: Himavanta), which in Buddhist cosmology is thought to surround the base of the mythical Mount Meru, are unthinkable without squirrels, rabbits, birds, lions, tigers, monkeys, elephants and deer. Scenes involving birds, elephants and deer, usually against a background of trees, plants and rocks, express an atmosphere of tranquillity and peace. Deer seem to be of particular importance as they often feature in funeral books containing extracts from the Pali canon. In Thai Buddhism, symbolic meanings of deer include harmony, happiness and serenity, but also sensitivity and watchfulness. According to the Buddhist scriptures, there could have been no better place for Gautama Buddha to give his first sermon than in the tranquil landscape of the Deer Park at Sarnath.         

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A pair of deer, one looking watchfully backward, frolicking in a rocky landscape with a blossoming tree and flowers. Illustration from a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language, late 18th or early 19th century. British Library, Or 14027, f.54 Noc
 
Some of Buddha’s Birth Stories (Jataka) also involve deer, like for example the King Banyan Deer Jataka or the Suvannasama Jataka. The King Banyan Deer Jataka tells of one of Buddha’s former incarnations as a golden deer king whose herd was captured and held in a park for the King of Benares to hunt. The king granted the golden deer immunity, but wished to hunt the other deer and eat venison meat every day. When it was the turn of a pregnant doe to be slaughtered, King Banyan Deer sacrificed himself and laid his golden neck on the butcher’s block. The King of Benares was surprised to see this and asked why the deer king offered his own life. When he heard that King Banyan Deer had taken upon himself the plight of the pregnant doe, the king prohibited hunting of deer and all other animals in his kingdom.       

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Scenes from the Sama Jataka in a rare 18th century folding book from Thailand. This manuscript contains short extracts from the Tipitaka, including a text on the great qualities of the Buddha (Mahabuddhaguna) which are illustrated by scenes from the Ten Birth Tales. British Library, Or 14068, f.5 Noc

A popular Jataka involving deer is part of the circle of the last Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha with the title Sama Jataka (in Thailand also known as Suvannasama Jataka). Illustrations of this Jataka can often be found in Thai funeral or commemoration volumes in folding book format containing a text on the Buddha’s great qualities, and sometimes the legend of the Buddhist saint Phra Malai. The painting style and preference of certain colours varies according to the period in which a manuscript was created. Whereas deer in 18th century illustrations usually appear static, a century later they are often shown in motion.

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Naturalistic scene from the Sama Jataka with deer fleeing the violent event of Sama being shot by the King of Benares. Illustration from a 19th century Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka and the legend of Phra Malai. British Library, Or 14559, f.6 Noc

The Sama Jataka tells of a son who, with great devotion, cared for his parents who had lost their sight as a result of snake bites. Every day, he fetched water from the forest. Because of his gentle, peaceful character the deer in the forest would always follow him. One day the King of Benares went hunting in the same forest and accidentally shot Sama in the chest. Realising his mistake, he went to Sama’s parents to inform them and to apologise. The parents, however, remained calm and asked him to lead them to their dead son’s body where they pleaded with the gods to restore his life, and due to his extraordinary merit he did indeed come back to life and the king was forgiven. The parents also regained their eyesight.

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On the left, an illustration in an innovative, dynamic style shows Sama who was shot in the chest stumbling into the river. Two deer are by his side, the spilling water pot between them. On the right are Sama’s blind parents waiting for their son’s return from the forest. From a 19th century Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka. British Library, Or 16552, f.9 Noc

The Jataka best known Thailand is without doubt the Vessantara Jataka, the last of the Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha. This Jataka symbolises the virtue of generosity and narrates the life of prince Vessantara who from early childhood on showed a great sense of charity. He gave away all his possessions, including an elephant that he grew up with, his horses, even his children and finally his beloved wife Maddi. However, as a result of his great merits, his sacrifices and acts of generosity were always rewarded. For example, when he gave away his horses that were pulling his carriage to a forest hermitage a marvellous deer appeared immediately to replace the horses. In the end, the whole family and their animals got together again with a great celebration.   

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Scene from the Vessantara Jataka showing a marvellous deer with gold decorations replacing the horses that Vessantara, standing on the carriage, had given away. From a 19th century Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka. British Library, Or 16552, f.26 Noc

Not only in Thai manuscript paintings can one find images of deer, but also on manuscript covers and manuscript chests in the form of gold-on-lacquer decorations. These would usually represent scenes from the heavenly forest Himmaphan. The lavishly decorated manuscript cover below shows a deer in the centre, standing gracefully between two mythical lions and smaller forest animals, perhaps squirrels, before a delicate background of flowers and foliage.     

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Gilt and lacquered cover of a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka and the legend of Phra Malai, 19th century. British Library, Or 15257, front cover  Noc

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Ccownwork

11 July 2016

Female figures in Thai illustrations of Buddha’s Birth Tales (Jātaka)

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Written texts in Thai Buddhist manuscripts may not always pay much attention to female figures, but the illustrations often depict male and female beings, and sometimes the relationships between them, in a well-balanced manner. Many Jātaka stories of the Birth Tales of the Buddha are unthinkable without female figures, be they Maddi, the wife of Prince Vessantara; or the sea goddess that rescues Prince Janaka; or the young naga maidens who entertain Bhuridatta while meditating.

Although all of the last Ten Birth Tales are very popular among Thai Buddhists, the Vessantara is the best known Jātaka since it is frequently performed on theatre stages set up at annual Buddhist festivals or during temple fairs throughout the country. The Vessantara Jātaka portrays the virtue of charity. It narrates the life of prince Vessantara who from early childhood on shows true generosity and a great sense of charity: he gives away all his possessions, including an elephant that he grew up with, his children, and finally his beloved wife Maddi. However, in the end they all get back together again.

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19th century folding book from Central Thailand containing a collection of Buddhist texts and illustrations from the Ten Birth Tales. British Library, Or 16552, f. 26 Noc

The people of his kingdom find Vessantara’s generosity distressing and frightening. They persuade Vessantara’s father to take back the kingdom from his son and drive him into exile, where eventually his wife and children follow him. Before their departure, they pay a visit to Vessantara’s mother, Phusati, shown in the illustration above. Phusati, sitting on a high pedestal on the left side, faces Vessantara together with Maddi and their two children sitting on Maddi’s lap. Vessantara pays respects to his mother with a wai gesture, while she pats her son's right shoulder to console him, and to give her blessings for their departure.     

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Thai illustrated manuscript of the Ten Birth Tales, 19th century. British Library, Or 16552, f. 52 Noc

After their departure from the kingdom, Vessantara and his family decide to live in a forest as hermits. While Maddi collects fruits in the forest for her family, the Brahmin Jujaka meets Vessantara to ask for his two children to become servants for the Brahmin’s wife. Vessantara brokenheartedly gives his children away in an act of ultimate charity. As Jujaka drives the wailing children through the forest, the gods imagine Maddi’s anguish if she were to see them in this state, and so three gods take the form of wild animals in order to block Maddi's path, thus preventing her immediate return to the hermitage. Maddi, kneeling down in front of the three animals, greets them with a wai fearlessly and respectfully, showing her still calm and peaceful state of mind.

Another of the last Ten Jātakas, the Narada Jātaka, tells of the generous King Andati who was deceived by a false ascetic and ceased giving alms to the poor. His only daughter, Ruja, prays for help from the gods to bring her father back to his senses. The Buddha, who exists in this Jātaka as the celestial deity Narada, appears before the king to warn him that those who follow false doctrine will be condemned to a horrific existence in hell.  The king shows remorse and asks Narada for forgiveness, and finally resolves to provide for those living in poverty.

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Central Thai folding book containing a collection of Buddhist texts including the Mahābuddhagunā on the qualities of the Buddha, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f. 9 Noc

The painting shown above depicts Ruja, King Andati’s daughter, kneeling on a pedestal. She is drawn with a red aura, which is similar to the aura that in Thai manuscript paintings is often associated with the future Buddha, Maitreya, or the saint Phra Malai. Ruja prays to the deity Narada while one of her four female attendants carries an offering bowl. The four-armed deity Narada can be seen in the upper right quarter of the painting, floating in the air.  Ruja is seen as an example of a good daughter and a strong believer in and upholder of Buddhist moral standards, hence her decoration with the aura of a saint.

The Bhuridatta Jātaka tells of the Buddha in a former existence as a naga (serpent) prince, who practices meditation every night under a Banyan tree. He earned the name Bhuridatta because of his wisdom and goodness, and he aims to follow the Eight Precepts. An evil Brahmin and snake charmer named Alambayana obtains magic spells from a hermit in order to capture Bhuridatta and force him to perform in market places so that the Brahmin would earn fame and wealth. The naga prince represses his shame and anger in order to follow the Eight Precepts. Eventually, he is freed by his three brothers.

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Thai folding book dated 1841 A.D. containing extracts from the Abhidhamma, Suttas and the Mahābuddhagunā. British Library, Or 15925, f. 12 Noc

Nagas are believed to be magical serpents who can assume human form when they wish. This painting depicts Bhuridatta practising meditation while coiled around a huge ant hill. In front of the serpent are two naga maidens in human form. The duty of the maidens is to wake up Bhuridatta from his meditation every morning and to escort him back to the realm of the nagas where he spends the daytime, before coming back at night to resume his meditations.    
     
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Thai manuscript of Mahābuddhagunā and other Buddhist texts, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f. 7 Noc

The rather dramatic 18th-century illustration above shows a hunter on the left, pointing toward where the Brahmin Alambayana can find the naga prince. Alambayana is on the right, carrying a magic jewel from the naga world. The hunter’s wife is standing behind bushes, trying to hide from the men. Her left hand holding her ear, she seems to be eavesdropping on the two men. She does not want her husband to get involved with the Brahmin, for her utmost concern is the well-being of her family. The painter may have decided to include the hunter’s wife in the scene - holding a machete prominently in her right hand - in recognition of her potential to prevent the capture and humiliation of Bhuridatta.   

Another Jātaka tells of Prince Janaka, who was born in exile after his father was killed by his brother. When grown up, he undertakes a sea voyage to his homeland, but suffers a shipwreck. He struggles to stay alive in the ocean for seven days until he decides to follow the Eight Precepts. Then, the goddess Manimekhala, guardian of the seas, comes to rescue and carry him to his late father’s kingdom Mithila. In the meantime, his uncle - his father’s murderer dies - and the vacant throne will be given to the man who marries the sharp-minded Princess Sivali. Janaka passes many tests and finally wins the throne and Sivali’s heart.

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Janaka Jātaka in a Thai folding book, dated 1841. British Library, Or 15925, f. 7  Noc

In the manuscript above, the lively illumination on the right depicts the disastrous event when Prince Janaka’s ship is sinking, with giant fish ready to swallow the seamen. Prince Janaka can be seen on  the left with the goddess Manimekhala by his side. She is adorned with a red aura that is usually an attribute of the future Buddha or Buddhist saints, or sometimes kings who actively support Buddhism. She is reaching out to Janaka to rescue him from the dangerous waters after Janaka has vowed to follow the Eight Precepts.  

Further reading:

Ginsburg, H. 1989. Thai manuscript painting. London: The British Library.
Ginsburg, H. 2000. Thai art and culture. Historic manuscripts from Western collections. London: The British Library.
Napat Sirisambhand and Alec Gordon. 2001.  Seeking Thai gender history: Using historical murals as a source of evidence. IIAS Newsletter 24: 23.
Thongchai Rakpathum. 1983. Rattanakosin painting. Bangkok: Krom Silapakorn.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Ccownwork

01 July 2016

The Sixteen Sacred Lands of Buddhism

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Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was brought up to become a king, but he left his life of great comfort after encountering the ‘four signs’: an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and an ascetic. After six years of hardship, working to find the right spiritual path, he attained his ‘Great Enlightenment’, and became the Buddha. During the following forty-five years of his mission until he passed into Mahaparinirvana (the state of reaching the end of suffering) at the age of eighty, the Buddha walked widely throughout the northern districts of India, delivering his teachings to the bhikkhus (Buddhist monks) and laity in the places that he visited. The sixteen lands where he spent time during his long ministry can often be found illustrated in Buddhist cosmology manuscripts. In this post we present nine such Burmese manuscripts held in the British Library, all illustrated in the Mandalay style and dating from the mid-19th century.  Eight are written on paper in folding-book (parabaik) format and these have all been digitised, and one is written on palmleaf.

Shown below is a depiction of the sixteen sacred lands in a Burmese folding-book paper manuscript, Or. 14004. The Buddha is seated in Bhumisparsa mudra (earth-touching posture) on a throne under the Bodhi tree at the centre. Around him are depicted the sixteen lands, with indications of the distances between the centre and each of these regions, varying from one day to two months of travel. The sixteen lands are labelled (clockwise from the top) Mithila, Sankassa, Jetuttara, Takkasila, Savatti, Kosambi, Kalinga, Mudu, Koliya, Kapilavastu, Campa, Varanasi, Rajagaha, Vesali, Pataliputta, and Pava.

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The sixteen sacred lands, in a Burmese Buddhist cosmology folding book manuscript, 19th c. British Library, Or.14004, f.28. Noc

A similar illustration is shown below, drawn across four separate leaves of a Burmese palmleaf manuscript, Add. 17699A:

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Add.17699A.f.84
Add.17699A.f.85
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Sixteen Sacred Lands, illustrated Burmese palmleaf manuscript, 19th c. British Library, Add.17699A, ff. 83-86 Noc

Described below are the Sixteen Sacred Lands in the order in which they were visited by the Buddha.

Jetuttara: Prince Vessantara (the Bodhisatta) was born in the capital city of Jetuttara.
Kalinga: When a severe drought occurred in the neighbouring kingdom of Kalinga, Vessantara fulfilled the Brahmins’ wish and presented his auspicious elephant.
Takkasila: This was the capital city of the Gandhara kingdom. Kings, Brahmins and other rich families sent their sons to Takkasila, a center of learning.  
Varanasi: The Buddha went from Bodh Gaya to Isipatana, Varanasi, about five weeks after his enlightenment and spent the first rainy season there. The ordination of Yasa and his fifty-four friends took place during this retreat. The Buddha and his disciples travelled from place to place and taught his Dhamma. He spent a great part of his life at Varanasi preaching to the people.

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The Buddha at Varanasi in a Burmese manuscript. British Library, Or. 14553, f. 4 Noc

Rajagaha: During the time of the Buddha, the capital of the Kingdom of Magadha was ruled by King Bimbisara and later his son Ajatasattu. When the Buddha visited King Bimbisara in Rajagaha, Bimbisara offered his Bamboo Grove (Veluvana) to the Buddha and His disciples. The Buddha spent three rainy seasons (2nd, 3rd, and 4th) in this monastery.

Or.4762.f.13
The Buddha at Rajagaha in a Burmese manuscript. British Library, Or. 4762, f. 13. Noc

Vesali: While the Buddha was staying at Rajagaha he informed King Bimbisara that he would pay a visit to Vesali. The king prepared a road for the Buddha. At the request of the Licchavi princes, the rulers of Vesali, the Buddha and his disciples went to Vesali and recited the Ratana Sutta discourse to purify the city, which was afflicted by plague.

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The Buddha at Vesali in a Burmese manuscript, from the Henry Burney collection. British Library, Or. 14298, f. 1. Noc

Savatti: The Buddha accepted Anathapindika’s invitation to visit Savatti, the capital of Kosala. Here the novice Rahula received his higher ordination at the Jetavana monastery, which was donated to the Buddha by Anathapindika, a great merchant at Savatti. The Buddha spent twenty-five years in Savatti where he delivered many sermons.

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The Buddha at Savatti, in a Burmese manuscript. British Library, Or 14405, f. 55. Noc

Sankassa: The Buddha descended to Sankassa from Tavatimsa accompanied by devas and brahmas. People of the city paid their homage to the Buddha.

Or.14297.f.44
The Buddha descending to Sankassa in a Burmese manuscript from the Henry Burney collection. British Library, Or.14297, f.44. Noc

Kosambi: The Buddha resided at the Ghosita Monastery in Kosambi and delivered his teachings to five hundred ascetics. The monastery was built by a rich man, Ghosita, for the Buddha and his disciples. While the Buddha was staying there, a dispute arose between some monks, and the Buddha departed alone from Kosambi.

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The Buddha at Kosambi, in a Burmese manuscript. British Library, Or.14823, f.31. Noc

Kapilavastu: Siddhartha Gautama was raised and lived in Kapilavastu, the capital of the Sakya country, until the age of 29 when he renounced worldly life. After he attained enlightenment and became the Buddha he visited many places to preach the Dharma. He went back to Kapilavastu at the invitation of his father Suddhodana, and in the fifth year he visited his father again who was very ill. After his father’s death, his foster mother, Mahapajapati Gotami, who desired to be ordained, requested the Buddha to ordain her as a Bhikkhuni. Although the Buddha initially declined, with the intercession of Ananda, he later granted this wish.

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The Buddha at Kapilavastu, in a Burmese manuscript. British Library, Or. 5757, f. 29. Noc

Koliya: When a quarrel arose between Kapilavastu and Koliya regarding the right to the waters of the river Rohini, the Buddha delivered a sermon of peace and advised them to live in harmony. The two rulers ended the long quarrel between them and peace was restored, and young men from both tribes entered Buddhist orders.
Mithila: The Buddha stayed at Mithila and preached the Makhadeva and Brahmayu suttas. Vasitthi, a theri (nun), entered the Order after listening to his teaching.
Campa: The Buddha with a large company of bhikkhus went to Campa on several occasions and dwelt there on the banks of the Gaggara, a lotus pond.
Pattaliputta: When Gautama Buddha and his disciples visited many villages near the Ganges River they passed through Pataliputta, the new capital of Magadha, built by King Ajatasattu, the second of the Magadha kings.
Mudu:  Mudu is listed in the diagram as one of the sixteen sacred lands, but little is known about it.
Pava: When the Buddha came to Pava, a city of the Mallas near Kusinara, and stayed in a mango grove, Cunda, the blacksmith invited the Buddha and his disciples to a meal. After the meal Buddha fell ill on his way to Kusinara on the same day. The Buddha gave his last teaching to the monks as he took a rest under the Sal trees. Then he entered Mahaparinirvana (reaching the end of suffering). 

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The Buddha in Mahaparinirvana (reaching the end of suffering) at Pava. British Library, Or. 14298, f.18. Noc

The body of the Buddha was taken by the Malla kings for cremation. The sacred relics of the Buddha were divided and enshrined in stupas.

Further reading:
Bimala Churn Law. Geography of Early Buddhism. New Delhi: Bhartiya Publishing House, 1973.

San San May, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

25 March 2016

“A bar of pure gold”: Shan Buddhist manuscripts

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The highlights among the Shan manuscripts held at the British Library are some Buddhist folding books whose beauty will catch anyone’s eye. At first sight, each of them actually looks like a bar of pure gold – and this was certainly the intention of the craftsmen who produced these books. However, the idea of pure gold rather refers in a figurative sense to the purity and the moral value of the sacred texts contained in these manuscripts. To followers of Theravada Buddhism, Buddha’s teachings (Dhamma) are worth much more than just gold.

Buddha’s Dhamma is not just regarded as a doctrine: it is the wisdom, moral philosophy, and truth as propounded by Gautama Buddha, the most recent Buddha, in his discourses; Buddha’s interpretation of the order of the world or immanent, eternal, uncreated law of the universe. The Buddha is the discoverer - by means of Enlightenment - of this universal law, in which rational and ethical elements are combined.  

Or.15350
Buddhadanadipani pathama tvai, Shan Buddhist manual on the perfection of generosity, volume 1 only, dated 1911. Gold on red lacquer covers and edges. Soren Egerod collection. British Library, Or.15350.  noc

Although the Tipitaka, the actual collection of primary texts in Pali language, forms the doctrinal foundation of Theravada Buddhism, the complete body of classical Theravada texts consists of the Tipitaka together with extra-canonical texts (commentaries, chronicles, sub-commentaries etc.) However, complete collections of the Tipitaka in manuscript form are very rare, and extra-canonical texts were often added only locally. Usually, Buddhist kings requested and commissioned the compilation of as complete as possible Tipitaka collections in order to donate them to newly established temples, or to give them as gifts to Buddhist communities even outside their kingdom.
A common practice in Shan Buddhist culture was that selected texts, short extracts or translations from the Tipitaka were combined in one folding book (pap tup) for the purpose of teaching, giving sermons or chanting. Such folding books could be commissioned by individuals or families as offerings to Buddhist temples, and often they were commemorative volumes in order to make merit on behalf of a deceased family member. For aesthetic reasons and to add value and prestige to these manuscripts, their covers could be embellished in various ways. Covers made from several layers of thick paper could be lacquered and gilded, with added lacquer high relief ornaments and coloured mirror-glass inlay. In rare cases of very prestigious royal manuscripts, jewels could be inlaid in relief-moulded and gilt lacquer. Ornaments frequently used for the decoration of such covers were flowers, plants and foliage, as well as flame-like and hourglass-like designs. Commemorative gilt folding books are known in Shan language as lik ho, i.e. recitation texts or the texts composed in a typical form of Shan poetry for reading out loud to members of audience at ceremonies.
   
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Sangkhara bhajani kyam, Shan manuscript dated 1916. British Library, Or.16079, front cover   noc

Embossed gold covers studded with multi-coloured pieces of mirror glass and lavish floral decoration in high relief protect this paper folding book, which probably is a copy of an older manuscript, made in a Shan community in in the area of "Muang Lakon Pa Kham" in Northern Thailand. It contains a sermon on aspects of the Abhidhamma and meditation in Shan language, with some sections in Pali. This manuscript was bequeathed to the British Library from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection.

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Decorative ornaments drawn in the same black ink as with which the Shan text is written. British Library, Or.16079, f.259  noc

Small decorative elements drawn in ink are sometimes inserted to separate sections of text. Usually this is just a small floral or geometric shape, but in rare cases such decorative illustrations can take up to a quarter of a folio. The illustration above resembles flowery ornaments which can also be found carved on wooden elements of Shan and Northern Thai temples.

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Buddhanussati, Shan manuscript dated 1885. British Library, Or.12040, front cover  noc

The folding book above with embossed gold covers with red, green, blue and silver coloured mirror glass inlay contains a text on recollections of the Buddha, explaining mindfulness with the Buddha’s virtues as objects. This is the first of ten kinds of recollection (anussati), which help to give faith and encouragement to practising Buddhists before taking up the more arduous task of vipassana meditation.

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Nemi jat to kri vatthu, Shan manuscript dated 1913. Soren Egerod collection. British Library, Or.15353, cover and f. 1.  noc

A folding book containing the Nemi Jataka, one of the Last Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha, has red lacquered covers with added gold leaf which has worn off due to frequent handling. This less elaborate technique of cover decoration is certainly the most recurring method used for making lik ho. The front cover is followed by the first folio, which bears the title and the first section of the text. However, when folded up, a large book like the one shown above with 185 folds has the shape of an impressive huge gold bar.

Or.14572
Anagatavan arimitayya vatthu (Anagatavamsa), manuscript dated 1893 in Shan and Pali. British Library, Or.14572, front cover.  noc

The Anagatavamsa is an important extra-canonical text on the coming Buddha, Buddha Metteyya, which is said to date back to the 12th-13th centuries. To create a bar-like shape of a book, the paper which is relatively tough must be folded up very carefully in an absolutely even manner. The book must then be pressed evenly before the lacquer and eventually the gold and multi-coloured mirror glass inlay decorations can be added. The creation of such a stunning piece of art required great care and much time. Folding books like the one shown above, weighing over 2 kg, are the pride of every collection of Shan Buddhist manuscripts.

Further reading:

Jotika Khur-Yearn, Richness of Buddhist texts in Shan manuscripts. Seven Shan versions of Satipa hĀna Sutta. In: Contemporary Buddhism, vol. 10,1, pp. 85-90.
Jotika Khur-Yearn, Shan manuscripts collections outside the Shan State. Preservation and cataloguing. In: SEALG Newsletter, 40/2008, pp. 12-16
Rhys Davids, T. W. and William Stede (eds.), Pali-English dictionary. Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1999
Terwiel, Barend J. with the assistance of Chaichuen Khamdaengyodtai, Shan manuscripts part 1. VOHD vol. 39,1. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2003

Tipitaka

Jana Igunma, Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian  ccownwork

17 March 2016

Buddhist rebirth in different planes of existence

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Kamma is a Pali word and it covers all kinds of intentional actions, whether mental (mano kamma), verbal (vaci kamma) or physical (kaya kamma). The Buddhist doctrine “Paticcasamuppada” is demonstrative of the process of kamma. It tells us that we all are responsible for our actions, and that most of our present conditions are the result of our actions in the past, and that present actions will determine our future condition. Every action produces an effect, and the effects of our actions come back to us. Our good kamma will come back to us as blessings and lead to a good next life, while bad kamma will lead to lower forms of rebirth. A person can be born again as a different person or animal or any kind of living being after death depending on his or her kamma. Each birth is based on the actions or kamma accumulated in previous lives. Therefore people seek to gain merit by doing deeds in order to improve their kamma. Three types of kamma can be defined: meritorious acts (kusala kamma) such as generosity, morality and meditation, which will help to attain Nirvana, the path of liberation; demeritorious acts (akusala kamma), such as greed, hatred and delusion, which cause rebirth in hell; and neutral acts (kusala-akusala kamma) which are devoid of ethical substance. Rebirth takes place within the three realms (lokas) of the universe - Arupaloka, Rupaloka and Kamaloka - depending upon a being’s kamma. This blog will elucidate the planes of Buddhist rebirth, with illustrations from two Burmese cosmological manuscripts held in the British Library, Or. 14004 and Or.14550, which have recently been fully digitised.

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The four great islands, from a Burmese Buddhist cosmology manuscript. British Library, Or.14004, f.27 Noc

The universe contains the earth and other planets, and the sun and moon.  Mount Meru is in the centre and is encircled by seven concentric rings of mountain ranges, with seven great rivers in between. Beyond them lies the vast ocean with four great islands named after the huge trees that grow on them: circular Uttarakuru in the north, lozenge-shaped Zambudipa in the south, semi-circular Pubbavideha in the east and square Aparagoyana in the west. Uttarakuru has a wishing (padesa) tree which supplies its inhabitants with all their needs; these fortunate islanders have the most enviable existence: they never fall ill, and they live a thousand years.  The islanders of Pubbavideha and Aparagoyana are always born back to the same island.  The southern island, Zambudipa, is our earth and it is where twenty-eight Buddhas appeared, culminating with the Bodhisatta Prince Siddharta.

The Thirty-One Planes (bhuṃ) of Existence                                                                             Buddhists believe in reincarnation, namely that all beings go through many cycles of birth, life, death and rebirth. Death is followed by immediate rebirth in one of the 31 planes of existence as a result of each being’s previous kamma. These 31 planes of existence comprise 20 planes of supreme deities (brahmas); 6 planes of deities (devas); the human plane (Manussa); and lastly 4 planes of deprivation or unhappiness (Apaya). The 31 planes are divided into three separate levels or realms: Arupaloka, Rupaloka and Kamaloka.

The first level, the Realm of Formlessness (Arupaloka), consists of four planes of brahmas who have no physical body, consisting entirely of mind, but who may create a physical body if they want to be seen. They are not completely free from the fetters of suffering (dukkha), but the dukkha experienced here is much less intense than that suffered in the Rupaloka. These brahmas are unable to hear the teachings of the Buddha (dhamma) and they can never become enlightened.

31. Nevasaññānāsaññāyatana bhuṃ (Realm of neither perception nor non-perception)
30. Ākiñcaññāyatana  bhuṃ (Realm of nothingness)       
29. Viññānaññcāyatana bhuṃ (Realm of infinite consciousness)
28. Ākāsānaññcāyatana  bhuṃ (Realm of infinite space)

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Nevasaññānāsaññāyatana bhuṃ, the highest of the four planes of the Arupaloka. The celestial pavilion is an elaborate structure with tiered roofs, with two white umbrellas on either side. British Library, Or. 14550, f.9. Noc

The second level, the Realm of Form (Rupaloka), is inhabited by brahmas who have a physical body but do not enjoy sensual pleasures, and it is a place of less intense dukkha. This realm consists of 16 planes inhabited by Rupa brahmas divided into four categories according to their status of meditative absorption (jhana).  These Rupa brahmas can become enlightened if they come to know the dhamma.  

Catuttha jhana bhuṃ (Fourth jhana realm): consisting of seven planes, of which the first five are called Suddhavasa or the heavens of purity, where only the enlightened ones at the anagami (non- returner) stage can reborn.
             27. Akaniṭṭha bhuṃ (Realm of peerless devas)
             26. Sudassī bhuṃ (Realm of clear-sighted devas)
             25. Sudassā bhuṃ (Realm of beautiful devas)
             24. Atappā bhuṃ (Realm of serene devas)
             23. Avihā bhuṃ (Realm of durable devas)
             22. Asaññasatta bhuṃ (Realm of mindless devas)
             21. Vehapphala bhuṃ (Realm of very fruitful devas)

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Vehapphala bhuṃ (21) and Asaññasatta bhuṃ (22): the two heavens are depicted as twin pavilions with seated Brahmas. British Library, Or. 14004, f. 11. Noc

Tatiya jhana bhuṃ (Third jhana realm): these three planes harbour brahmas who have a body with an aura.
            20. Subhakiṇṇā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with radiant glory)
            19. Appamāṇasubhā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with unbounded glory)
            18. Parittasubhā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with limited glory)

Dutiya jhana bhuṃ (Second jhana realm): the brahmas of these three planes have a body with different degrees of lustre.
            17. Ābhassara bhuṃ (Realm of devas with streaming radiance)
            16. Appamāṇabhā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with unbounded radiance)  
            15. Parittābhā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with limited glory)

Pathama jhana bhuṃ (First jhana realm): the planes of the lowest grade of Rupa brahmas.
            14. Mahābrahmā bhuṃ (Realm of the great Brahma)
            13. Brahmaparorita bhuṃ (Realm of the Brahma’s ministers)
            12. Brahmapārisajja bhuṃ (Realm of the Brahma’s retinue)

The third level, the Realm of Desire (Kamaloka), contains seven planes of happiness (six heavenly planes of devas and the human plane) and four planes of unhappiness.

The six heavenly planes

11. Paranimmitavassavatī bhuṃ (Realm of devas who enjoy sensory pleasures created by others for them)
10. Nimmānarati bhuṃ (Realm of devas who delight in creating)
9. Tusita bhuṃ (Realm of devas of  happiness and contentment)
8. Yāmā bhuṃ (Realm of blissful existence)
7. Tāvatimsa bhuṃ (Realm of the thirty-three gods)
6. Cātummahārājika bhuṃ (Heaven of four great kings)

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On the right, Tusita bhuṃ (9), where a deva is entertained by a harpist and a dancer. All future Buddhas (bodhisatta) are born in this heaven before their penultimate human existence. Beside the Tusita bhuṃ to the left is the Sudhammā rest house, where a deva is surrounded by ten other devas paying reverence. Tusita bhum is the most beautiful of the celestial worlds. British Library, Or. 14004, f.17. Noc

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Cātummahārājika bhuṃ (6), the lowest of the deva worlds, is a third of the way down the cosmic pillars. This is the heaven of the four great kings who watch over the quadrant of the cardinal directions. One of the four kings is seated on one side and Devadhita  (a female deity) is seated on the other side. Matali, Sakka’s charioteer takes King Nemi on a trip to see the heavens and hells. The other dwellers are celestial musicians and the yakkas, tree spirits. The sun is on the right and the moon is on the left. British Library, Or. 14550, f.28 Noc

The plane of humans

5. Manussa bhuṃ (human beings). Both dukkha (suffering) and sukha (happiness) are found here, but this plane is the most fortunate of all because it is the only sphere in which moral initiative occurs and the only one in which perfect Enlightenment can be achieved. The beings here are endowed with a measure of merit and can find protection on their own. They can listen to and learn all the teachings of the Buddha. Bodhisattvas prefer the human realm as it is the best plane in which to serve the world and perfect the requisites of Buddhahood.

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Manussa bhuṃ. British Library, Or. 14004, f.36. Noc

The four planes of deprivation (Apāya)

These lowest four unhappy planes are infernal states, in which beings pay the price for akusala (demeritorious acts) committed in their previous life. Buddhists believe that beings are born as animals on account of evil kamma. Sprits and ghosts possess deformed physical forms of varying magnitude, generally invisible to the naked eye.

4. Asura loka (demon world): the inhabitants of this plane are powerful and are opposed  to devas.
3. Peta loka (world of spirits and hungry ghosts): this plane is known as the “state of woe.” People share their merits with these beings when they do good deeds.
2. Tiracchāna loka (animal world): this is not a pleasant plane as beings have to search for food and fight each other to stay alive.

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World of animals. British Library, Or. 14004, f. 37. Noc

1. Niraya (world of hell): this plane is below the earth, in the deepest recesses of the Southern Island. There are eight different degrees of punishment: Sanjiva, Kalasutra, Sanghata, Roruva, Maharoruva, Tapana, Mahatapana and Avici. There is no happiness, only suffering, in this realm and it is the worst place to be reborn.

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States of punishment, depicted in a Burmese manuscript.  The guard has tied up the denizens of hell with hot iron chains as they learn their fate from the inflictor of hell; many are being burned in a great cauldron of molten metal; one is having red molten metal poured down his throat; some are hacked to pieces along the markings made by the black thread; some are running on very hot ground; and one is climbing up a tree which is full of thorns while the dog of hell waits below to eat him alive if he falls down. British Library, Or. 14004, f. 47 Noc

Good or evil kamma will bring rebirth in the plane of happiness (sugati) or the plane of suffering (duggati). After many cycles, if people manage to sever their attachment to desire and the self, they can attain Nirvana, which is a state of liberation and freedom from suffering.

Further reading:
Ledī Cha rā toʿ. Paṭiccasamuppāda dīpanī. Ranʿ kunʿ: Haṃsāvatī, 1961.
Maing Kaing Sayadaw. Vithi puṃ, bhuṃ cañʿ, chanʿʺ puṃ, simʿ puṃ. Yangon: Yadanawadi, 1966.

San San May, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

14 March 2016

More than a Book: a new display of Southeast Asian manuscripts

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Visitors to the British Library building at St Pancras will recently have noticed a new display in the Southeast Asian exhibition case by the entrance to the Asian and African Studies Reading Room on the third floor. ‘More than a Book’ presents examples of writing from Southeast Asia in a range of unusual formats and materials, with texts incised on bamboo and gold, painted on paper with a brush, written on gilded wood, printed on silk, and even woven into cotton binding tapes to be wound around a book of palm leaves.

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More than a Book: a new display of writing from Southeast Asia, at the British Library Noc

In pride of place is the Burmese 'Butterfly Book’ (Or. 16052), as we have named what is actually a printed petition presented to a colonial official.  No government officer could ever have received a more beautiful document than this formal address, created in around 1907 on the occasion of the first visit to Mergui of the British Governor of Burma. Mergui (Myeik) is a coastal town on the Tenasserim Coast (the present-day Taninthayi Division), the southernmost district of Lower Burma (Myanmar). Technically this is not a hand-written manuscript, for the Burmese words have been typeset and printed onto ‘wings’ of silk, and bound within a large oyster shell.  In the petition, local residents offer sincere thanks to the Government for the construction of roads, and express their belief that the expansion of transport networks will bring more benefit to the region. Included in their long ‘shopping list’ is a request for a marine ferry to ply between adjacent coastal towns, a telegraph office, and aid in building a new hospital.

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Burmese 'Butterfly Book', printed petition of 1907 from the residents of Mergui presented to the visiting British Governor of Burma. British Library, Or. 16052 Noc

Also from Burma are two sazigyo, or woven binding tapes for winding around sacred texts.  Among the ways in which Burmese Buddhists believe that merit can be gained is by commissioning and donating a sazigyo to a Buddhist monastery. There are many types of sazigyo: some are purely decorative but others are woven with texts recording the names of the donors, their titles and distinctions, and their deeds of merit. The donors usually call on devas and humans to applaud their meritorious deeds.

The larger red sazigyo is from a manuscript of Pacitʿ Pāli, a canonical text of Theravāda Buddhist monastic rules (Or. 4846). The text on the sazigyo is in verse, and begins with the word Zeyatu which means ‘success’. The donors call upon the universe to hear the news of their donation of the scripture of the Buddha’s glorious teaching, and express their hope that by the merit of this donation they may swiftly and directly reach the cessation of afflictions (Nirvana).  The inscription on the smaller yellow sazigyo (Or.15949/2) suggests that both the manuscript and the binding tape were donated to the Sayadaw (Abbot) of Bangyi monastery.

Exhibition Case 2016 (11)
Two sazigyo, manuscript binding tapes woven with Burmese texts. British Library, Or. 4846 and Or. 15946/2 Noc

From northern Thailand come two wooden title indicators, written in Thai in Dhamma script, decorated with red lacquer and gold leaf. The titles of the palm leaf manuscripts to which the title indicators were attached with a cord are incised on the gold background, together with the names of donors and honoured persons. The small title indicator was made for a manuscript containing the Vessantara Jataka copied in 1925 (Or.14528), while the larger one belonged to a text from the Abhidhamma dated 1930 (Or.14529). These title indicators were used to help retrieve manuscripts when they were stored in large chests or cabinets at Buddhist temple libraries.

On the lower shelf is an imperial Vietnamese scroll (Or. 14817/A). In 1793 a British embassy to China led by Lord Macartney ran into a storm while off the coast of central Vietnam, and issued a plea for help. In response, the Tây Sơn ruler of Vietnam, Emperor Cảnh Thịnh (1792-1802), sent a welcoming party to the British delegation, with food supplies and this beautiful scroll.  The scroll is written in Han Nom characters on orange paper decorated with a large dragon, and bears the royal seal stamped in red ink.

Or14817a
Vietnamese imperial scroll, 1793. British Library, Or. 14817/A

At the back of the case is an example of Batak writing on bamboo (MSS Batak 1), from north-east Sumatra. In 1823, at the request of his British visitor John Anderson, the King of Bunto Pane wrote on this piece of bamboo the Batak numbers one to ten, and a reminder to Anderson to send him two dogs once he had returned to Penang. In the bamboo container are found a knife – which may have been used to inscribe the Batak letters – and four poison-tipped blow-pipe darts.

Lastly, but catching all eyes at the top of the display, is a letter written on a sheet of pure gold, from Bali (Egerton 765). This letter in Balinese was sent in 1768 from the princes of Badung and Mengwi to the Dutch Resident of Semarang, on the north coast of Java.  Inscribed in Balinese language and script with a sharp stylus on a piece of gold in the  shape of a palm leaf – the usual writing material in Bali – the princes affirm their friendship with the Dutch East India Company.

Annabel Gallop, San San May, Jana Igunma, Sud Chonchirdsin Ccownwork
Southeast Asia section