Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

16 October 2023

New display of Buddhist manuscripts and block prints in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery

Following the success of the Buddhism exhibition (October 2019 - February 2020) at the British Library, a new display of Buddhist manuscripts and block prints has recently been installed in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery.

“Sacred Texts” display case on Buddhism in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery
“Sacred Texts” display case on Buddhism in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery in the British Library.

Buddhism, which originated in northern India in the 5th-6th century BC, is mainly concerned with universal liberation. The Buddha, born as Prince Siddhartha, renounced his worldly life to search for ways to end suffering. Through meditation and subsequently enlightenment he realised that the causes of all suffering are desire, ignorance and hatred. The Buddha’s teachings of the Noble Eightfold Path, or Middle Way, describe practices and morals of a follower that help to overcome the three causes of suffering and lead to liberation (nirvana). Buddhists believe that all actions have consequences resulting in karmic reward or retribution within the cycle of birth, death and rebirth (samsāra).

Devotees founded temples and monasteries and sponsored the dissemination and preservation of Buddhist teachings over the past 2,500 years. Buddhism has produced a wealth of philosophical and doctrinal literature  in numerous languages, and as the Buddha’s words spread across Asia and to the West, different schools like Theravāda, Mahayāna and Vajrayāna stressed particular aspects of the quest for liberation.

The Birth of the Buddha
The Birth of the Buddha, India or Nepal, 1970s. Purchased from Barbara Browne in 2013. British Library, Or 16921/17

A Tibetan block print depicts with great attention to detail episodes from the legendary account around the birth of the Buddha. In the centre, Queen Māyādevī is shown giving birth to the Buddha-to-be whilst standing under a Sal tree and reaching overhead to hold on to a branch for support. On the lower right she is also shown asleep having the dream that announces her pregnancy. On the left, the newly born prince Siddhartha takes seven steps into each direction causing lotus flowers to spring from the ground with each step. The print is based on a set of 18th-century prints from Derge in Eastern Tibet.

Life of the Buddha, Burma, 1875
Life of the Buddha, Burma, 1875. Purchased in 1988. British Library, Or 14405 

Scenes from the Life of the Buddha are a popular topic of illustrated Burmese parabaik manuscripts. This image from the Mālālaṅkāra vatthu shows the Kathina festival which signifies the end of Vassa, a three-month rainy season retreat for Buddhist monks. The festival that goes back to the lifetime of the Buddha is an occasion for the laity to bring donations, often food and robes, to the monks and to express dāna, or generosity. Dāna is seen as one of the main practices through which a layperson can gain merit and attain a fortunate rebirth.

Mahākāśyapa, the ‘foremost arhat in austerities’, China, 18th century
Mahākāśyapa, the ‘foremost arhat in austerities’, China, 18th century. Purchased from Mrs Lisa Francis Butler in 1901. British Library, Or 6245

Arhat is a Sanskrit word indicating a noble person who has achieved spiritual awakening and liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Mahākāśyapa was one of the Buddha’s first disciples who became a great arhat and played a crucial role in spreading the Buddha’s teachings, or Dharma. He trained his body and mind by giving up worldly comforts. Here he is shown holding a flower, referring to an event in which he was the only one who understood the Buddha’s words during a service. He then received the Dharma from the Buddha and became a leading figure in Buddhism.

Illustration of Mañjuśrī with prayer and incantation
Illustration of Mañjuśrī with prayer and incantation, Dunhuang, China, around 10th century. Obtained by Aurel Stein during his second expedition to Central Asia, 1906-08, part-funded by the British Museum. British Library, Or.8210/P.20 

In Mahayāna Buddhism, Bodhisattvas play an important role as celestial enlightened beings who assist ordinary humans out of compassion. Mañjuśrī, the bodhisattva of wisdom, is depicted riding a lion and accompanied by two attendants, a man and a boy. The texts underneath both advocate devotion to the deity. Prints such as this one were commissioned by Buddhist believers as an act of faith and were used for devotional practice, reflecting the popularity of Mañjuśrī.

Pañcarakṣā, The five protections
Pañcarakṣā (The five protections), Nepal, 1130-1150 AD. Purchased from James Singer in February 1981. British Library, Or 14000

The Pañcarakṣā is a collection of Sanskrit texts dedicated to the five Goddesses believed to be the personification of five protective spells (dhāraṇī) traditionally uttered by the Buddha himself. These texts deal with the power of each Goddess (and each spell) against various diseases, calamities and misfortunes and contain ritual invocations used for worship. Besides their textual value, manuscripts of the Pañcarakṣā also serve as amulets. The palm-leaf manuscript (fragment) shown above features illustrations of the Goddesses and is written in the early Nepalese script.

An Illustrated Guide to Mudrās, Japan, 1684
An Illustrated Guide to Mudrās, Japan, 1684. Acquired from Rev. A. Patton in 1906. British Library, 16015.a.25

The Japanese work depicted above, Shuinzu, contains depictions and explanations of the symbolic hand gestures, known in Sanskrit as mudrās, that are used in Buddhist rituals and iconography. The text describes the twelve principal mudrās of Shingon Buddhism, one of the leading Buddhist schools in Japan.

A volume from the Narthang Tenjur, Tibet, 1741-42
A volume from the Narthang Tenjur, Tibet, 1741-42. Donated to the India Office Library by the Government of India in 1904. 14310.a.RGYUD 1 

In the Tibetan Buddhist canon there are two primary collections of works: the Kanjur, the translated teachings of the Buddha, and the Tenjur, the translated commentaries. The volume on display is one of some 220 volumes of a Tenjur that was printed between 1741 and 1742 in Narthang. It is one of the most important printing houses in Central Tibet, located about 15 km west of the town of Shigatse. This volume opens the section of commentaries on Tantra that have been translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan.

Jātaka, the Buddha’s Birth Tales, Central Thailand, 1894
Jātaka, the Buddha’s Birth Tales, Central Thailand, 1894. Purchased from Robert Stolper in 2005. British Library, Or 16101 

Jātaka tales recollecting the 547 previous lives of the Buddha are an important part of the Tipiṭaka, the Buddhist canon in the Pali language of the Theravāda school. The last ten Birth Tales, six of which are illustrated in the image above, highlight ten virtues of enlightened be-ings: compassion, good conduct, renunciation, wisdom, diligence, tolerance, honesty, preseverance, kindness, equanimity. They accompany Pali text passages in Khmer script written in gold ink. This folding book was originally commissioned by a couple, Nāi Am and Am Daeng-Di.

A Commentary on Higher Teachings. Northern Thailand, 1917
A Commentary on Higher Teachings. Northern Thailand, 1917. Donated by Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection in 2004. British Library, Or 16079 

Commentaries written by followers and Buddhist scholars after the passing of the Buddha are an important source for practising Buddhists to better understand canonical scriptures. Shown above is a copy of the Saṅkhāra, a commentary on the Abhidharma-piṭaka or ‘Higher Teachings’ of the Buddha. The text, in the Shan language, emphasises that everything is subject to impermanence: birth, growth, decline, decay, and rebirth. The mind, citta, perceives impermanence as suffering. This manuscript was commissioned by Sarngjah and his wife Nang Lah as an offering to preserve the Buddha’s words.

The Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery showcases some of the greatest works from the Library’s literary, scientific, music, art and sacred texts collections. It is open to the public Monday to Sunday during the regular opening times of the Library. Entry is free for everyone.

Curators from Asian and African Collections