THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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54 posts categorized "Buddhism"

15 January 2020

The Vessantara Jataka on the move

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This is the ninth of a series of blog posts accompanying the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 – 23 Feb 2020.

Stories about the Buddha and Buddhism are depicted not only in illustrated manuscripts, but also in other media such as wall paintings, vertical hangings and thousands of long, painted, narrative scrolls that are part of the Lao and Thai-Lao tradition. These scrolls, found in Laos and Northeast Thailand, usually depict the story of Prince Vessantara, the penultimate incarnation of Prince Siddhartha. Prince Vessantara’s life was dedicated to donating whatever was requested of him, most notably the gift to beseeching Brahmins of the white elephant that ensured the prosperity of his own kingdom. Later, while Vessantara was in exile due to this gift, the Brahmin Chuchok, who lived as a beggar, asked for his children, while the god Indra, disguised as Chuchok, asked for his wife.

01 Gift of white elephant Kalasin 2518
Vessantara’s gift of the white elephant, illustrated on a scroll from Kalasin, Thailand, 1975. At the lower left, Prince Vessantara pours water onto the eight Brahmins, sealing the gift of the white elephant. On the upper right, the eight Brahmins ride the elephant out of the city’s gate, threatened by a soldier disputing the gift’s authenticity. Photograph by Leedom Lefferts, courtesy of Ajaan Somroay Yencheuy.

02 OR_16552_f012v
Scene of Vessantara sealing the gift of the white elephant by pouring water onto the hands of the recipients. Illustrated in a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka and the Mahabuddhaguna. Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or. 16552, f. 24 Noc

Dr. Sandra Cate and I have termed these long painted scrolls – which are about a meter wide and can extend from 15 to 45 and more meters in length – “murals on the move”, because they translate the Vessantara story painted on the walls of Buddhist temples (wat) into a portable version, and parade it through the community to display it. We can also see these scrolls as “manuscripts on the move”, not only because most have captions and other details written on them to explain the story, but also because the painting itself allows people to “read” the story in its narrative totality.

03 scroll and mural Buriram 2016
A painted scroll of the Vessantara Jataka is shown hung below a mural painting of the Last Ten Jatakas. Photographed at a temple in Buriram, Thailand, 2016, by Leedom Lefferts

Illustrated manuscripts are rare outside major cities, and the usual medium for Buddhist sacred texts is narrow palm leaf manuscripts which are usually not illustrated. Older Northeast Thai-Lao and Lao wat were almost entirely constructed of easily available wood which is not amenable to murals. The oldest illustrated materials now found in Northeast Thai and Lao wat are colored lithographs produced by the S. Thammapakdi company, dating to the early 1900’s, and sets of these prints depicting the lives of the Buddha and of Prince Vessantara are often found mounted on the walls of wooden preaching halls. But the tradition of long portable painted scrolls is arguably earlier, and may have been brought to the Lao through long-standing connections with India.

04 OR_16101_f045r
Illustration of a monk giving a sermon in a Thai manuscript containing extracts from the Tipitaka, the legend of Phra Malai and illustrations of the Last Ten Birth Tales. Thailand, 1894. British Library, Or. 16101, f. 89 Noc

05 Khok Sanghaa 2005 tayok wat
Bundled palm leaf manuscripts kept in a wooden box are distributed to monks to recite their section. Roi-et, Thailand, 2005. Photograph by Leedom Lefferts.

The ingenuity of the Lao is that they have taken these scrolls, best seen “in motion”, and incorporated them into a two-day merit-making festival, the Bun Phra Wet (the Merit-making Festival for Prince Vessantara, Phra Wet). The first day, muu hom (Lao; Thai, wan ruam), the day of coming together, includes visits by friends and relatives from more distant villages to the celebrating community. More importantly, it culminates in welcoming the return to the community of Prince Vessantara and his family, the Prince embodied in the scroll which the people in procession carry aloft. In this way, the people re-enact the beginning of the story’s climax, when they recognize their belief in the justice of Prince Vessantara’s actions and invite him to return home.

06 OR_15925_f022r
Scene of Chuchok leading Vessantara’s children away through the forest. Illustration in a folding book containing the Mahabuddhaguna, Thailand, 1841. British Library, Or. 15925, f. 43 Noc

07 Chuchok procession 2008
Chuchok leading the children of Vessantara away, performed by lay people during a procession in Khon Kaen, Thailand, 2008. Photograph by Leedom Lefferts.

In the cooler late afternoon of muu hom the rolled-up long scroll is taken from its storage place in the wat to a nearby water source outside the village, monks are invited to attend, and villagers gather, sitting on the ground on mats. The water source replicates the surroundings of Vessantara and his family’s hermitage in their place of exile, on Mazeway Mountain. The villagers then begin the story’s celebratory end. The Prince’s children have returned to the palace, ransomed by their grandparents; Vessantara sits in meditation, accompanied by his wife, Matsi. An elderly man initiates the invocation to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha and the receipt of the five precepts, and then recites a special request, asking Phra Wet to return home. The elder’s recitation apologizes on behalf of the citizens who asked Vessantara’s father, the King, to exile his son. Sometimes a monk acting as Phra Wet, rejects the invitation two times, finally accepting it, reluctantly; sometimes a layman accepts it. A dish holding candles, incense, and leaves and flowers, meant as a token of the city, is offered. Phra Wet is reluctant to accept because he has found success and peace at the hermitage in this wild place “hidden in the mountains”; he finally agrees because it has been foretold that it is his duty to become king.

08 OR_16552_f038v
Vessantara is asked to return home and the family is reunited. Illustrated in a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka and the Mahabuddhaguna. Thailand, 19th century. Or. 16552, f. 78 Noc

09 V to come home KK 2014
Lay people and monks re-enact the scene in which Vessantara is asked to return to the Kingdom. Photograph taken in Khon Kaen, Thailand, 2014, by Leedom Lefferts.

At this point, the village’s celebration echoes the story. In the Jataka tale, the celebratory procession wends its way city-ward for thirty days. The village procession mimics this, walking from the water source outside the village with the long scroll unfurled and held high on sticks or by its upper edge, as participants proceed with laughter and jollity. Villagers say Phra Wet is in the scroll; “Vessantara comes home”, as the day’s name signifies. As the procession enters the community, more and more people join it, holding the scroll while dancing, singing, and generally exclaiming, bringing branches and flowers from the forest to the wat. The festive congregation enters the temple grounds and circles the preaching hall three times, placing the branches and flowers in baskets under waving flags. They carry scroll into the preaching hall and fasten it to pillars so that it surrounds the preaching and audience area, converting it into a transformative space.

10 procession NBLP 2011 Sandra Cate
Vessantara scroll procession, Nong Bua Lam Phu, Thailand, 2011. Photograph by Sandra Cate.  To download a short video of a scroll procession in Khon Kaen province, filmed by Leedom Lefferts in 2009, please click here.

That evening, the Phra Malai legend is read to the audience, ensuring that they know the importance of listening to the complete Vessantara Jataka. Phra Malai, a monk who had accumulated much merit, travels to the various Buddhist hells and to Tavatimsa heaven to worship the Culamani Cetiya, in which is enshrined the hair of Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, which he had cut off when he entered his seven years of exile. There Phra Malai meets Indra, King of the Gods, and Maitreya, the incarnation who will follow the Buddha of the present era. Maitreya enjoins Phra Malai to return to the human world and inform its citizens that, in order to be reborn when Maitreya comes, they must listen to the complete recitation of the Vessantara Jataka.

11 recitation KK 2006
Audience listening to the Phra Malai story, burning candles and incense over water in the transformative space created by the scroll and other meaningful objects. The sacralized water will be taken home to infuse bath water for children and older adults. Photograph taken by Leedom Lefferts, Khon Kaen Province, Thailand, 2006.

The next day, muu thet, the day of the sermon, monks recite the complete story from palm leaf manuscripts. This takes place in the transformative space created by the hanging scroll. Indeed, since he is present in the scroll, people say that Prince Vessantara hears the recitation of the story of his own life.

After the day-long recitation, villagers clean the preaching hall, and the scroll is taken down and rolled and stored for the ceremony the following year. A scroll endures considerable wear and tear in the course of the procession and while hanging. Most new scrolls are produced in just two villages in Northeast Thailand, but the fluorescence of scroll production by local artists appears to have occurred in the period following World War II to the mid-1980’s. The Buddhist year 2500 (1957CE) seems to have resulted in a peak of production, as Buddhists realized that the 2,500 years to follow have been predicted to witness a decline in the following of the Dharma. The continuing popularity of annual Bun Phra Wet festivals in the thousands of Northeast Thai and Lowland Lao temples indicates the vibrancy of this religious practice among these people.

12 Ban Khok Sanghaa 2005
An elderly monk reading from a palm leaf manuscript. Photograph taken in Roi-et Province, Thailand, 2005, by Leedom Lefferts.

References and further reading
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, and Somroay Yencheuy, Buddhist Murals of Northeast Thailand: Reflections of the Isan Heartland. Chiang Mai: Mekong Press, 2010

Kaiser, Thomas, with Leedom Lefferts and Martina Wernsdörfer, Devotion: Image, Recitation, and Celebration of the Vessantara Epic in Northeast Thailand. Zurich: Ethnographic Museum, University of Zurich and Arnoldsche Art Publishers. 2017

Lefferts, Leedom, and Sandra Cate, Buddhist Storytelling in Thailand and Laos: The Vessantara Scroll at the Asian Civilisations Museum. Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum, 2012.

Leedom Lefferts Ccownwork

Leedom Lefferts is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Drew University, Madison, New Jersey, and Visiting Scholar at the Carolina Asia Center, The University of North Carolina. His studies have focused on Northeast Thai Lao and Southeast Asian material culture, including indigenous pottery production, the Vessantara epic and its scrolls, and issues of rural development and political inclusion.

 

12 December 2019

Three fish with one head (2): from the Buddha’s footprints to Beat poetry

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The first part of this blog post explored diagrams of three fish with one head in manuscripts association with the Shattariyah Sufi order in Java. In this second part the motif is traced through nearly four thousand years, from ancient Egypt to contemporary Buddhist Japan via the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

The earliest known manifestation of the three-fish-one-head symbol is in ancient Egypt, where it was a familar motif on ceramic dishes from the New Kingdom period between the 16th to 11th centuries BC. Representing the tilapia fish and found together with depictions of the lotus, it is associated with the Goddess Hathor.  

Gallop-Fig.23
Three fish with one head, on an Egyptian bowl, New Kingdom, 16th-11th centuries BC (Image source: G. Maspero, L'archeologie egyptienne. Paris: Maison Quantin, 1887; p. 255, fig. 228).

Two millenia later the motif appears well entrenched in Christian contexts in Europe: it is clearly portrayed in the famous album of Villard de Honnecourt, a French architect active between 1225 and 1250 who worked for the Cistercian Order of monks, and who left a sketchbook full of architectural drawings and geometrical diagrams now held in the. Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, MS 19093. In Christian circles the fish is a symbol of Christ, and the three fish were believed to represent the Trinity.

F.19v
Three fish with one head, together with other geometrical patterns in the sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, ca. 1240.  Bibliotheque nationale, MS 19093, f. 19v

Around the same period the motif was also known in Yuan China, as attested by a brown-glazed stoneware jar excavated at Hancheng City, and now on display at the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi'an.

Hancheng-city-brown-glazed-jar-three-fish-yuan
Jar with motif of three fish, Yuan dynasty, on display in Shaanxi History Museum, Xi'an, 2011, photograph by John Hill.

Intriguingly, what may be an early Buddhist use of this motif seems to have been brought to attention by the American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), who adopted it as his logo.  According to Ginsberg, he first saw this symbol in 1962, engraved on a stone sculpture of the footprint of the Buddha at Bodh Gaya in India.  He describes the incident in a letter published in the Catholic Worker in May 1967, along with his sketch: ‘I saw the three fish one head, carved on insole of naked Buddha Footprint stone at Bodh-Gaya under the Bo-tree. Large – 6 or 10 foot size – feet or soles made of stone are a traditional form of votive marker. Mythologically the 32 signs – stigmata, like – of the Buddha include chakaras (magic wheels symbolic of energy) on hands and feet. This is a sort of a fish chakra.’ In 1982, Ginsberg’s sketch was reworked by Harry Smith and in this form appeared on the front cover of his books. [Source of quote and images below: The Allen Ginsburg Project: Buddha's Footprint, 1 April 2010).

Buddha27sFootprint    Footprint harry smith
(Left) Allen Ginsberg’s sketch of three fish with one head, from in his Indian Journals (1982).  Reproduced by permission of the Ginsberg Estate.
(Right) Harry Smith’s design of three fish with one head, based on Ginsberg’s sketch, published on the front cover of Allen Ginsberg, Collected poems (1985). Reproduced by permission of the Ginsberg Estate.

In recent years, there has been an upsurge of interest in Buddhist circles in Japan in this particular manifestation of the Buddha’s footprint at Bodh Gaya – said to be dated to the 5th century AD – and some replicas have been created; one such Buddhapada was erected in 2010 at Nanshoin temple at Kasaoka City in Okayama Prefecture.

DPP_0021 (683x1024)
Representation of the Buddha’s footprint (Buddhapada) with symbol of three fish with one head, 2010, Nanshoin temple, Japan. Photograph Midori Kawashima, October 2013.

There are many unanswered questions though, for while the fish by itself or in pairs is commonly encountered in Buddhist iconography, the three fish with one head is not a standard Buddhist symbol, and the footprint at Bodh Gaya does not appear to be firmly established in the scholarly literature. Nor is the ‘three fish’ symbol mentioned in a study of footprints of the Buddha by Anna Quagliotti, who found no early stone footprints of the Buddha in Indonesia. 

In fact, a different origin altogether for Allen Ginsberg’s logo is asserted by Malay Roy Chaudhury (b. 1939), one of the Bengali ‘Hungryalist’ poets of the 1960s who influenced Ginsberg during his Indian travels.  According to Roy Choudhury, it was he who pointed out to Ginsberg the design of three fishes with one head on the floor of the tomb of the Mughal emperor Akbar, and they later saw the same design in Patna Khudabaksh Library on the leather cover of a Persian book on Akbar's 'composite' faith, Din-i Ilahi, combining the major tenets of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam (Tridib & Alo Mitra, Hungryalist influence on Allen Ginsberg, 9 May 2008). However, these references to the motif on the floor of Akbar's mausoleum and on the book binding appear just as elusive as the Buddha footprint at Bodh Gaya, for no corroborative documentation can be found. 

The symbol of three fish with one head does, however, appear occasionally in a variety of later non-Buddhist contexts in India, notably in the southern region of Karnataka.  It is found on the 13th-century Hindu Harihareshwara temple in Harihar and in a flat schematic depiction on the wall of the  Bangalore Fort - fortified between the 16th and 18th centuries, latterly by Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan - as well as in a few other visible architectural contexts linked to the Muslim ascendency in the south.

Three Fish
Three fish with one head, low relief on the wall of Bangalore Fort.  Photograph of 2012, reproduced courtesy of Siddeshwar Prasad, from his evocative blog, ‘Journeys across Karnataka’

In two examples from Hindu contexts - carved in stone, in the Hanuman temple in Munvalli Fort, and in a 19th-century drawing from Oudh (Awadh) of Krishna with two Gopis, standing on a lotus - the fish are depicted with wavy tails, unlike all the other straight-tailed examples shown.

BostonMFA-Krishna
Krishna with two Gopis, standing on a lotus, with a design of three fish on a triangle, watercolour on paper, Oudh, 19th century. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Ross-Coomaraswamy Collection, 17.2680

Returning to Southeast Asia, the question remains about how and when this motif of three fish with one head reached Sufi circles in Java.  If it was indeed familiar as an early Buddhist or Hindu symbol, we would expect to find manifestations in pre-Islamic antiquities from Java, but none are known so far.  Perhaps the image was introduced from southern India through mystical networks, but it is also equally possible that a chance encounter with this motif resonated so deeply with one individual in the Shaṭṭārīyah chain of transmission in Southeast Asia that it was incorporated into the guidance texts. Indeed, citing the 16th-century Malay mystical poet Hamzah Fansuri, the scholar Karel Steenbrink noted the profound attachment to fish imagery in the region: ‘The fishes, of course, remind us of the frequent use of the symbolism of the ocean, the waves and the fishes in the mystical poetry of the Southeast Asian divines. […] This is imagery far away from the sand of the Arabian Desert: it developed when the Indian Ocean became an Islamic Mediterranean and the Indonesian archipelago the most populous Islamic civilisation’ (Steenbrink 2009: 70).

MSS Jav 50  f.6v
Three fish with one head, in a Javanese manuscript containing a spiritual genealogy of the Shattariya Sufi order from Batavia, Java, ca. late 18th c.  British Library, MSS Jav 50, f. 6v  noc

In short, just like the equally enigmatic 'three hares', the motif of ‘three fish with one head’, which may have originated in ancient Egypt, appears to have so been universally appreciated as such a perfect graphical manifestation of threefold unity that at certain times and in certain places it has been appropriated by almost every great world religion – Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam – yet without ever having evolved into a recognized essential component of the respective religious iconography.

Further reading:

This study of the motif of ‘three fish with one head’ was initiated as part of a research project on Mindanao manuscripts coordinated by Prof. Midori Kawashim, which resulted in the publication: A.T.Gallop, Cultural interactions in Islamic manuscript art: a scholar's library from MindanaoThe library of an Islamic scholar of Mindanao: the collection of Sheik Muhammad Said bin Imam sa Bayang at the Al-Imam As-Sadiq (A.S.) Library, Marawi City, Philippines:  an annotated catalogue with essays, edited by Oman Fathurahman, Kawashima Midori and Labi Sarip Riwarung.  Tokyo: Institute of Asian, African and Middle Eastern Studies, Sophia University; pp. 205-248.

Karel Steenbrink, Circling around an unknowable truth: on the flexibility of Islamic art.  Visual arts and religion, eds Hans Alma, Marcel Barnard & Volker Küster; pp. 65-78.  Berlin: LIT, 2009.

5 December 2019, Three fish with one head (1): Sufi sources from Southeast Asia

Following the publication of Part 1 of this blog post, through Twitter I was alerted to the images of the Yuan jar and the drawing of Krishna shown above, for which I would like to thank Alfan Firman @alfanfirmanto and Sanjeev Khandekaar @Chemburstudio.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Head, Southeast Asia section  ccownwork

21 November 2019

Buddha From Kashgar to Istanbul

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This is the eighth of a series of blog posts accompanying the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 – 23 Feb 2020.

In 1911-12, Ahmet Refik (Altınay) published the Büyük Tarih-i Umumî, a compendious history of the world. Much of the material was far from ground-breaking. Similar to broader Ottoman historiography of this period, the sections on the ancient Mediterranean and the cultures and civilizations of Europe were taken, largely unchallenged, from French, English and German sources. What is noteworthy, however, is the self-assured manner in which the ancient history of the Turks as a nation is outlined in the Tarih. This was a continuation of a new trend in history-writing stemming from the mid-19th century. As Büşra Behar Ersanlı explains, it was based upon Western European sources – especially the work of Léon Cahun – but it was clearly repurposed for the growth in national consciousness among Turkic intellectuals in the Ottoman Empire.

Among these new perspectives was a fresh look at religion. Islam was a key component of Ottoman statehood, especially since Sultan Murad I declared himself Caliph in 1517. Ahmet Refik, however, problematized these links, highlighting the fact that, despite a clear overlap between Turkicness and Islamic identity, the two were far from identical. In addition to Islam, different Turkic peoples had embraced Animism (sometimes in the form of Tengrism), Zoroastrianism, Manichæism, various forms of Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism over the course of their recorded history. Indeed, Ahmet Refik remarks that:

“The Turks and the Mongols are not a religious people. The religious imagination, zeal and abundant inquiry that was so strong among the Arabs, Iranians and Slavs was unable to have an important influence on the thoughts of the Turks, Mongols or Manchus. The religion that was most appropriate to the nature of the Turks was the faith of the Buddha. In nature, thought and temperament, the Turks were Buddhist. The one encompassing [space] that would have kept the Turks living in complete comfort would have been the faith of the Buddha.” (Ahmet Refik, Büyük Tarih-i Umumi: IV Cilt, 277)

Contemporary understandings of the history of the Turkic peoples, and of religion across Eurasia, assign much of Ahmet Refik’s supposition and the assumptions upon which it is based to the realm of untruth. Nonetheless, it does highlight a fact that cannot be ignored: for a millennium and a half, Buddhism has and continues to be a core component of many Turkic communities across the Central Asia and Siberia.

Cover page of the Büyük tarih-i umumi, Ottoman history of the world. Passage on Buddhism the Büyük tarih-i umumi, Ottoman history of the world.
An early 20th-century view of Buddhism’s impact on the Turkic peoples, from an Ottoman perspective. (Ahmet Refik, Büyük Tarih-i Umumi: IV Cilt (Istanbul: Kitabhane-yi İslam ve Askeri, İbrahim Hilmi, 1328 [1912]), p. 277. ORB.30/8834) CC Public Domain Image

The Turkic peoples had likely encountered Buddhists and Buddhism by the middle of the first millennium CE. Chinese accounts from as early as the 6 th century speak of the translation of Buddhist texts into a language used by the Turks (although this was likely Sogdian). At least one inscription, as well as the construction of temples and statuary, testify to Buddhism’s importance during the Second Kök Turkic Khaganate (678-747 CE). It likely coexisted with Tengrism, the Turkic animistic belief system, during the early period, and later competed with Manicheanism for followers among the Uyghurs, Qarluqs and other Turkic peoples. It was eventually Buddhism that won out as the primarily religion of the Uyghurs in the 10th century, motivating the creation of numerous Buddhist religious manuscripts, some of which survive into the present.

The Uyghurs came to prominence after overthrowing the Qarluq and other Turkic polities in the 8th century CE and entering into an alliance with the Chinese monarchy. The earliest probable Turkic Buddhist texts, which come from Uyghur settlements in present-day Mongolia, made use of an archaic Turkic dialect also seen in the Runic texts of the Orkhon inscriptions . Such examples are exceptionally rare, leading some scholars to suppose that Buddhist production in Turkic languages during this period was minimal. This contrasts with later items from the Tarim Basin in present-day Xinjiang – including those found in the British Library’s collections – which demonstrate a much more contemporary dialect. This dialect is not directly related to today’s Uyghur language, part of the Karluk sub-family of languages. Rather, it is likely an earlier form of Western Yugur , a small language belonging to the Siberian sub-family, spoken today in Gansu Province, China. As can be seen from the images below, the British Library texts are far too fragmentary to provide a clear picture of Buddhist practice in Uyghur, but they do establish that it existed.

Turkic Buddhist fragment in Uyghur script. Turkic Buddhist fragment in Uyghur script.
Fragments of 9th-century Buddhist texts in Uyghur (Or. 13085A and Or. 13085C). CC Public Domain Image

The letters of the Uyghur alphabet with pronunciation.
A guide to the Uyghur script, used in many Turkic Buddhist texts. (Khoja Abduqayyam, Qădimqi Uyghur yazma yadikarliqliridin tallanma (Urumchi: Shinjang Khălq Năshriyati, 1983), p. 125). ITA.1990.a.20). CC Public Domain Image

In the late 10th and early 11th centuries CE, the Qarakhanids, a Turkic community to the west of the Uyghur state, converted to Islam. This placed them in opposition with the primarily Buddhist Uyghurs, adding a religious element to socio-political and economic conflict in Central Asia. The Qocho Kingdom – a successor state of the Uyghur Khanate – continued to be a stronghold of Buddhist practice even after the conversion of the Qarakhanids and the invasion of the Mongols – themselves Buddhists – in the 13th century. The ultimate blow was dealt by the Chagatai Khanate in the late 13 th and early 14th centuries. A successor state of the Golden Horde, the Chagatai state was a fierce defender of the Chinggisid legacy. Nonetheless, the ascension of Muslim Khan Tughluq Timur to the throne in the second half of the 14th century spelled the beginning of the end for widespread Buddhist practice among the region’s Turkic peoples. It also saw a linguistic shift in which the Siberian Turkic language of the original Uyghur populations was gradually supplanted by a Karluk one closely linked to Chagatai, the literary language of Turkic Central Asia .

A painting of Chagatai Khan seated with his counsellors.
Chagatai Khan, seated amongst counsellors, from the 16 th-century manuscript called the Nusratname, also known as the Qissa-yi Chingiz Khan (Or. 3222). CC Public Domain Image

The collapse of the Qocho Kingdom did not mean the end of Turkic peoples’ relationship to Buddhism. For one, the Western Yugurs, linguistic if not ethnic descendants of the first Uyghurs, continue to practice the faith. But they are not the most numerous Turkic-speaking adherents. Buddhism also thrives among the Tuvans, a Turkic people whose titular homeland – the Tyva Republic – is nestled between Russia, China and Mongolia. Approximately 62% of the population of Tyva Republic identifies as Buddhist, with the most widespread practice a form of Buddhism similar to the one found in Tibet. As ethnic Tuvans make up 82% of the Republic’s population, the proportion of Buddhists among the Tuvans is likely far higher than the percentage of the entire Republic’s population. Buddhism co-exists with Tengrism and other forms of animistic belief, highlighting the blending of religious traditions among the region’s Turkic inhabitants. Materials within the British Library’s Turkic collections point to the revival and flourishing of various aspects of these belief systems following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Appreciation of the art, poetry and philosophy of Tuvan Buddhism shows up in both popular publications and in scholarly ones, as seen below.

A painting of the Balden Lhama by a Tuvan artist.
A painting of the Balden or Palden Lhama by a Tuvan artist. ( Shagaanyn︠g︡ dȯzu̇ bolgash ëzu-chan︠g︡chyldary : Shagaa baĭyrlalynga turaskaatkan Tȯgerik shirėėnin︠g︡ materialdary; Kyzyl, khooraĭ 2015 ch. (Kyzyl: Tuvinskiĭ institut gumanitarnykh i prikladnykh sot︠s︡ialʹno-ėkonomicheskikh issledovaniĭ, 2015). YP.2019.a.4289). CC Public Domain Image

Cover page of conference materials dedicated to Tuvan Buddhism.
Materials from a conference on Buddhist and other indigenous faith practices in Kyzyl, Tyva ( Tȯȯgu̇ge Dai︠a︡myshaan - Kelir U̇ezhe : Bėėzi kozhuunun︠g︡ 260 bolgash Khemchik kozhuunnun︠g︡ 250 oi︠u︡ncha turaskaatkan ėrtem-praktiktik konferent︠s︡ii︠a︡lardary. 2014 chyldyn︠g︡ okti︠a︡brʹ 24, 2015 chyldyn︠g︡ aprelʹ 29. Chadaana khooraĭ (Kyzyl: OAO Tyvapoligraf, 2015). YP.2019.b.473). CC Public Domain Image

The Tuvans, together with the Western Yugurs, as the two majority-Buddhist communities in the Turkic World. There is, however, another part to the story regarding the interaction between the Turkic peoples and the Buddhist faith. In the 17th century, a Buddhist Mongolic-speaking group known as the Oirots migrated from present-day eastern Kazakhstan to the Volga Region, where they established the Kalmyk Khanate. In doing so, they entered into an alliance with Russia, and pushed out Muslim Turkic communities, particularly the Nogais and the Karakalpaks. They battled the Kazakhs and Bashkirs and assisted in Russian campaigns against the Safavids and Ottomans, but under Catherine the Great their autonomy was eventually abolished and their Khanate absorbed into the Russian Empire. The great 17 th-century Ottoman chronicler Evliya Çelebi provided Ottomans with considerable information about the Kalmyks in the seventh volume of his Seyahatname, but nowhere does he mention that they were Buddhist. He frequently refers to them as küffar, or infidels, pointing out both their animistic beliefs and another belief system, which he equates with the “hulûlî” heterodoxy, combining a belief that God is inside the individual with reincarnation. He also gives a fairly comprehensive description of a pilgrimage site linked to Kalmyk ancestor worship. It houses the statue of an “angel without wings” and is topped by a bronze dome. Neither the Buddha, nor connections between this system of religious belief and those found further east, are ever mentioned. Nevertheless, it does appear that 17th century Ottomans were still introduced to the particularities of Kalmyk Buddhist practice thanks to the writings of this intrepid traveler.

Today, Kalmykia, found just south of Volgograd, is Europe’s only Buddhist-plurality territory. Nearly 48% of Kalmykia’s population identifies as Buddhist. Kalmykia’s capital, Elista, provides a centre for the practice of Tibetan-derived Buddhism as well as the publication of a plethora of Buddhist material. Examples in the British Library collections point to the increased importance afforded the documentation of these traditions, and of the role that Buddhism plays in the expression and development of contemporary Kalmyk cultural and spiritual life.

Images of Kalmyk Buddhist practitioners and stupas. Images of Kalmyk Buddhist practitioner and scholar.
Portraits of Kalmyk practitioners of Buddhism, along with descriptions of local interpretations and practices of the faith. ("Khranitel'nit︠s︡a vechnosti - Bochkaeva Nogan Kornusovna", (Elitsa?: [publisher not identified], [2016?]). YP.2019.a.1453) CC Public Domain Image

Ahmet Refik might have waxed lyrical about the similarities between Buddhist and traditional Turkic worldviews, but he clearly failed to grasp the living, dynamic nature of that linkage. Buddhism has impressed its stamp on the social, linguistic, political, economic and cultural development of the Turkic peoples. The British Library’s collections related to such topics, in turn, demonstrate that this is an ongoing relationship, one that is certain to continue motivating cultural production across Eurasia.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Collections Curator, British Library
CCBY Image

Further Reading:

Johan Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2010). YC.2015.a.4835
Johan Elverskog, Uygur Buddhist Literature, Silk Road Studies: I (Turnhout: BREPOLS, 1997). ORW.1998.a.251
Juten Oda, A Study of the Buddhist Sūtra called Säkiz Yükmäk Yaruq or Säkiz Törlügin Yarumïš Yaltrïmïš in Old Turkic, Berliner Turfantexte: XXXIII (Turnhout: BREPOLS, 2015). YD.2017.b.44
Margit Kőves, Buddhism Among the Turks of Central Asia (New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture and Aitya Prakashan, 2009). YP.2010.b.482
Xavier Tremblay, “The Spread of Buddhism in Serindia – Buddhism among Iranians, Tocharians and Turks before the 13th century,” in ed. Ann Heirmann & Stephan Peter Bumbacher, The Spread of Buddhism (Leiden: Brill, 2007), pp. 75-130.

07 November 2019

British Library receives gift of the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka

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On the occasion of the opening of the Buddhism exhibition, the British Library received a gift from the World Tipiṭaka Foundation, Thailand, of the Buddhist canon in the Pāḷi language. The recently published threefold edition consists of 120 volumes altogether. The official handover ceremony on 24 October 2019 was attended by representatives from the World Tipiṭaka Foundation, the Royal Thai Embassy in London and members of the Library’s senior leadership team who expressed their gratitude for this generous donation. All 120 volumes are currently on display in the Buddhism exhibition and will be added to the Library’s Buddhist collections after the exhibition closes on 23 February 2020.

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Representatives from the World Tipiṭaka Foundation, the Royal Thai Embassy in London and British Library staff at the handover ceremony of the threefold edition of the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka on 24 October 2019, led by Thanpuying Varaporn Pramoj, President of the World Tipiṭaka Foundation (centre).

The Buddha’s word was initially transmitted orally. After the Buddha’s physical passing and attainment of parinirvana, his disciples and later followers gathered in several councils to recite and preserve the Buddha’s teachings. It is thought that in the first century BCE, during the fourth Buddhist council held in Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, an early version of the Buddhist canon was written down in the Pāḷi language. The Pāḷi canon, or Tipiṭaka, is regarded as the corpus of Buddhist scriptures closest to the original words of the Buddha. It consists of “three baskets” of teachings: the Sutta Piṭaka (discourses of the Buddha), the Vinaya Piṭaka (monastic discipline) and the Abhidhamma Piṭaka (further teachings). Each of the major Buddhist traditions has their own body of scriptures that may differ from others in contents, number and order of texts. In Sanskrit, the corpus of canonical scriptures is known as Tripiṭaka. A complete set of scriptures of the Buddhist canon can include from around 40 volumes in the Theravada tradition to 108 in the Vajrayana tradition and over 200 volumes in the Mahayana tradition. Maunggan gold plates
Text fragments from the Tipiṭaka in Pāḷi , written in Pyu script, on gold plates which were excavated at Maunggan, Burma. Pyu kingdoms, 5th century. British Library, Or.5340/A–B Noc

The oldest extant text fragments of the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka in form of Pyu inscriptions on gold plates date back to around the 5th century CE. They were excavated at Maunggan, Burma, in 1897. The Pāḷi Tipiṭaka was transcribed into Sinhalese, Burmese, Khmer, Thai and Northern Thai, Lao, Shan and other scripts of Southeast Asia. In the nineteenth century Western scholars together with monks from Sri Lanka began to Romanise and to translate scriptures of the Tipiṭaka into English and other European languages. The first Romanised publication of the Jātaka tales from the Sutta Piṭaka by V. Fausbøll and R. C. Childers appeared in six volumes between 1875-1896.

Jatakas
Title page of the first volume of a Romanised version of the Jātaka tales published in London in 1875. British Library, 14098.d.23

The world's first printed set of the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka was the 39-volume Chulachomklao of Siam Pāḷi Tipiṭaka Edition which was commissioned by King Chulalongkorn Chulachomklao of Siam (Rama V) in B.E.2463 (1893). After six years of preparation under the leadership of the Buddhist monk and scholar Vajirañāna-varorasa, the king presented 1000 sets of this historic edition to Buddhist monasteries all over the kingdom of Siam (now Thailand). More sets were presented later as royal gifts to 260 leading institutions all over the world. These royal gifts of Tipiṭaka in Pāḷi language printed in Syām script are now still held at libraries in 30 countries.

1893 edition
Front cover of a volume of the 1893 Chulachomklao of Siam Pāḷi Tipiṭaka Edition with the royal coat of arms of Siam used by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) embossed in gold. Photo courtesy of the World Tipiṭaka Foundation

In 1956 an international Buddhist Council held in Burma brought 2500 erudite monks of the Theravada tradition together and resulted in the publication of the Chaṭṭhasaṅgīti Council Edition containing the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka in Burmese script. Based on this edition, a Romanised version was edited on the initiative of the Supreme Patriarch of the Sangha of Thailand, Venerable Vajirañānasaṁvara, who himself had attended the Buddhist Council in 1956. The work was published in 2002 by the M. L. Manīratana Bunnag Dhamma Society Fund in Thailand, or present-day, World Tipiṭaka Foundation, comprising of forty volumes with the title Mahāsaṅgīti Tipiṭaka Buddhavasse 2500 (The Great International Tipiṭaka Council Buddhist Era 2500).

Pali notation
Front cover of a volume of the 2016 Queen Sirikit’s Sajjhāya Pāḷi Notation edition with the emblem of Queen Sirikit, the Queen Mother of Thailand. Photograph courtesy of the World Tipiṭaka  Foundation

Based on the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka edition in Roman script that was completed in 2002, the World Tipiṭaka  Foundation published two further 40-volume sets of the Tipiṭaka specifically for the correct pronunciation and recitation of the Pāḷi text. The King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Sajjhāya Pāḷi Phonetic and the Queen Sirikit’s Sajjhāya Pāḷi Notation editions, published in 2016, are the culmination of half a century of international efforts to preserve the words of the Buddha. The use of sound technology made it possible to record the recitation of the Pāḷi texts, amounting to 3,052 hours. A special feature of the digital Sajjhāya recitation is the sound technology reference, which electronically refers to any one of over nine million Pāḷi syllables in the Tipiṭaka to the Kaccāyana Pāḷi grammar, the oldest grammar used in ancient Pāḷi literature. Digital recitation samples are available online at www.sajjhaya.org/node/26.

The presentation of the Romanised version of the Tipiṭaka together with the Sajjhāya Pāḷi Phonetic and the Sajjhāya Pāḷi Notation editions to the British Library as a Dhamma gift from the World Tipiṭaka Foundation heralds a new era of sharing ancient Buddhist wisdom and making the Pāḷi Buddhist canon available to a wider audience in the UK.

DSCF6589 (photo credit@D_Meng)
Display of the threefold edition of the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka in the Buddhism exhibition, with (from left to right) Mrs Thipayasuda Suvanajata, Dr Lalivan Karnchanachari, Mr Phornsake Karnchanachari (Patron of the World Tipiṭaka Foundation) and H.E. Mr Pisanu Suvanajata (Ambassador of Thailand in the UK). Photograph courtesy of D. Meng.

Jana Igunma, Lead Curator, Buddhism exhibition Ccownwork

25 October 2019

BUDDHISM at the British Library

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This is the seventh of a series of blog posts accompanying the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 – 23 Feb 2020

Buddhism is a new British Library exhibition exploring the origins, philosophy and contemporary relevance of one of the world’s major religions, from its beginnings in north India over 2500 years ago, to having around 500 million followers across the world today. The show has just opened its doors to the public following an opening ceremony with blessings from two Buddhist temples, Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in Hemel Hempstead and London Fo Guang Shan Temple.

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Blessings from members of the London Fo Guang Shan temple, at the opening ceremony of the Buddhism exhibition on 24 October 2019 at the British Library. Photo courtesy of D Meng.

Displaying over 120 exhibits, this is the first major exhibition in the UK with Buddhist scriptures and manuscript art at its heart. Colourful scrolls containing Buddhist texts, embellished books, painted silk banners and rare artefacts invite the visitors to discover the story of the Buddha and his teachings, and to go on a meditative journey through 2000 years and twenty countries.

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Prince Siddhartha’s birth in a block-printed book illustrating the Life of the Buddha, China, 1808. British Library, Or. 13217 f. 5 Noc

Early texts like sutras written on tree bark in the first century CE in the ancient kingdom of Gandhara, or scriptures composed in multiple languages during the first millennium CE found in caves near Dunhuang in northwest China, tell how Buddhism spread from its heartland in north India across Asia and beyond.

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Water vessel with an offering inscription, that contained some of the oldest surviving Buddhist texts written on birch bark, Gandhara, 1st century. British Library, Or. 14915B (2) Noc

Represented in the exhibition are the three main schools of Buddhism, each of which have their own version of the Buddhist canon: Theravada mainly practised in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, Mahayana in East Asia, and Vajrayana in Central Asia. Illuminated manuscripts and fine works of art from all three schools show how Buddhism tolerated and integrated local art forms, ideas and practices. They reflect the great diversity of Buddhist art across Asia, and at the same time the continuity of the Buddha’s teachings.

Thangka painting of Padmasambhava, the ‘Lotus-Born’, who is one of the most popular teacher figures in Tibet. India 1788-1805. British Library, Add. Or. 3048, from the collection of Sir Gore Ousely
Thangka painting of Padmasambhava, the ‘Lotus-Born’, who is one of the most popular teacher figures in Tibet. India 1788-1805. British Library, Add. Or. 3048, from the collection of Sir Gore Ousely Noc

The first part of the exhibition highlights the Buddha narrative and the concept of being a Buddha or “Enlightened Person”, which play a major role in all Buddhist traditions. Although the Buddha was initially not depicted in human form but symbolically, throughout the first millennium CE a rich artistic tradition emerged of depicting not only the Buddha, but also Bodhisattvas (persons seeking enlightenment), and important monastics and Buddhist teachers. Painted wall hangings and illustrated books from Nepal, China, Thailand and Burma reveal events in the life of the historical Buddha and his previous incarnations.

Illustration in a Burmese folding book depicting a scene from the Life of the Buddha, Burma, 19th century. British Library, Or. 13534, ff. 23-24
Illustration in a Burmese folding book depicting a scene from the Life of the Buddha, Burma, 19th century. British Library, Or. 13534, ff. 23-24 Noc

Buddhist doctrine developed from philosophical and cosmological concepts of ancient India which are represented in cosmology treatises and paintings displayed in the second part of the exhibition. The Buddha’s teachings are based on the idea of Karma, the principle of cause and effect. Karma determines the cycle of birth, death and rebirth (Samsara), which is regarded as a continuation of worldly suffering. His teachings about the Four Noble Truths and the “Middle Way” that leads to liberation from suffering are laid down in the Buddhist canon, Tripitaka. Some of the most important texts are written in outstanding calligraphy on gilded scrolls and in elaborately decorated books from East Asia, others are incised on palm leaves, gold, silver or ivory from Nepal, Bengal, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.

Painting of Guanyin (Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara) on a leaf from a Bodhi tree in a book containing the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, two of the most popular texts of Mahayana Buddhism. China, 18th or 19th century. British Library, Add. 11746, f. 2
Painting of Guanyin (Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara) on a leaf from a Bodhi tree in a book containing the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, two of the most popular texts of Mahayana Buddhism. China, 18th or 19th century. British Library, Add. 11746, f. 2 Noc

For 2000 years the creation of manuscripts and printed books has been an important religious activity to preserve and to disseminate the Buddha’s words. Buddhists continue to be keen adopters of new technologies, with monasteries being centres of research, translation and the production of scriptures. Early printed scrolls and books from China, Korea and Japan demonstrate the importance of the printing technology in the spread of Buddhism.

Illustration from the Japanese story Tengu no dairi depicting the tragic hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune while copying sutras. Japan, 1560-1600. British Library, Or. 13839 vol. 1
Illustration from the Japanese story Tengu no dairi depicting the tragic hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune while copying sutras. Japan, 1560-1600. British Library, Or. 13839 vol. 1 Noc

One of the many highlights of this exhibition is an arrangement of intricately gilded and lacquered manuscript furniture which gives an impression of a monastic library in Southeast Asia. Calm soundscapes from the Library’s Sound Archive and a light installation specially created for this show will take visitors on an immersive journey into the world of Buddhism. Contemporary art from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, as well as short films and interviews, illustrate why Buddhism is relevant in our time as many people are seeking alternative ways of life. The popularity of Buddhist art, and publications on Buddhist themes, has increased immensely in the past hundred years, and Buddhism is now part of the UK national curriculum. Mindfulness and meditation practices have become mainstream and are practised by many not only at home, but also in the workplace, in health care and in education.

Illustrations of Buddha Ratnasambhava (top) and Bodhisattva Mahamayuri (below) in a manuscript containing the Pancharaksha, a collection of Sanskrit texts relating to five protective goddesses, Nepal, 1677. British Library, Or. 13946, ff. 62r-62v
Illustrations of Buddha Ratnasambhava (top) and Bodhisattva Mahamayuri (below) in a manuscript containing the Pancharaksha, a collection of Sanskrit texts relating to five protective goddesses, Nepal, 1677. British Library, Or. 13946, ff. 62r-62v Noc

Thanks to digitisation and international cooperation, as for example in the International Dunhuang Project, the Lotus Sutra Manuscript Digitisation project, and the Endangered Archives Programme, numerous Buddhist scriptures have recently been identified and described in detail. Many have also been translated into Western languages and published. The exhibition is the outcome of the combined effort of scholars and Buddhist practitioners from across the world who have been working with the Library’s curators for many years.

Palm leaf manuscript with painted wooden covers containing a manual for learners of Pali, the lingua franca of Theravada Buddhism, Sri Lanka, 19th century. British Library, Or. 6608/43
Palm leaf manuscript with painted wooden covers containing a manual for learners of Pali, the lingua franca of Theravada Buddhism, Sri Lanka, 19th century. British Library, Or. 6608/43 Noc

The exhibition is accompanied by a wide range of events including performances, workshops on art and mindfulness, talks on the history of Buddhism and aspects of contemporary practice, as well as a family day, the creation of a sand mandala and an early morning meditation session followed by musical performance. The exhibition book, which is available from the British Library shop, provides deeper insights into the origins, traditions, material culture and contemporary practice of Buddhism in five main chapters and twelve short essays written by leading scholars, Buddhist practitioners and Library curators.

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Thai folding book containing selected suttas and other extracts from the Pali Tipitaka written in Khmer script, with illustrations of the gods Brahma and Indra (Sakka) who asked the Buddha to reveal his insights to all sentient beings. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or. 16009 f. 5 Noc

Jana Igunma, Lead Curator, Buddhism exhibition Ccownwork

18 October 2019

The Buddhist Kathina Festival

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This is the sixth of a series of blog posts looking forward to the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 – 23 Feb 2020

This month, October, marks the end of vassa or the Buddhist Lent, the three months rainy season retreat observed by the Sangha or Buddhist monastic communities. The end of vassa is celebrated by Buddhists with Pavarana, the inviting ceremony, followed by Kathina, the robe offering ceremony, which take place on Uposatha (Observance) day. At the end of Buddhist Lent, Buddhist monks are free to travel again, but before parting they should maintain monastic discipline and punish offenders, in order to purify the Sangha. At the Pavarana ceremony, each monk invites the other monks to point out to him any faults he has committed during the vassa retreat period.

Kathina robe-offering ceremony
The word kathina denotes a cotton cloth offered by lay people to bhikkhus (monks) annually, after the end of the vassa rainy retreat, for the purpose of making robes. On the termination of vassa, the Kathina robe offering ceremony is usually held at the monastery. This practice started quite early in Buddhist society, with the approval of the Buddha himself. When the Buddha was staying at Jetavana monastery at Savatthi, he granted permission for the bhikkhus to accept kathina robes from the laity, as several bhikkhus only had old and torn robes. It is the Sangha as a whole which receives these gifts of robes or plain cloth from the laity: the cloth must be offered to the whole Sangha, and not to individuals, and the bhikkhus will then decide which of the monks should receive the gifts. If the kathina offered is plain cloth, selected monks will do the cutting, sewing, and dying of the cloth in a single day. The gifts are then distributed to the individual monastics who have properly observed the rainy retreat.

Jivaka, the Buddha’s physician, is described as the first layman to offer robes to Buddhist monks.
Jivaka, the Buddha’s physician, is described as the first layman to offer robes to Buddhist monks. Before that, Buddhist monks made their robes themselves from pieces of rag cloth. Jivaka also requested the Buddha to allow the monks to accept robes donated by lay people. The Buddha appreciated that it was very hard for the monks to make their robes themselves and he allowed his monks to accept kathina robes donated by the laity. British Library, Or. 14405, f. 32 Noc

The Buddha is sitting at the centre, surrounded by monks and lay people
When the Buddha granted his disciples permission to accept kathina robes, lay people from the city of Rajagaha brought the garments and other requisites to the monastery. The Buddha is sitting at the centre, surrounded by monks and lay people. Rows of monastic gifts, such as kathina robes and other requisites, are depicted in front of the Buddha. British Library, Or. 14405, ff. 36-37 Noc

Dana, or giving, is a practice essential to Buddhism, and the offering of kathina robes is considered to be one of the most meritorious deeds. Offering kathina robes to the Sangha is thus valued as a way of keeping alive the true spirit of offering, as taught by the Buddha, and at the Kathina ceremony monks will chant the Kammavaca for Kathina robes. Kammavaca is a Pali term and it refers to collections of passages from the Tipitaka concerning 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.

A leaf of a Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, on lacquered cloth with gilded and lacquered boards. British Library, Or. 12010A, f. 1r
A leaf of a Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, on lacquered cloth with gilded and lacquered boards. British Library, Or. 12010A, f. 1r Noc

The manuscript shown above (Or. 12010A) 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), and Nissaya-muti-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon relaxation of the requisites).

The Festival of Light
This festival celebrates the anniversary of the Buddha’s return from the celestial abode where he had spent Lent, giving the sermon on Abhidhamma or the Higher Doctrines to celestial beings and his former mother, who had been reborn as a deva. It was on the full moon day of the month of October that the Buddha descended from the Tavatimsa heaven to the abode of humans. Humans on earth therefore illuminate their homes, and paper lanterns dazzle the streets, to welcome back the Buddha, and candles and lighted little bowls of oil are placed on the terraces of the pagodas. The event is celebrated with lights, which is why it is called the Festival of Light. People pay obeisance to their parents and elders, following the example of the Buddha who paid a visit to his former mother to repay his debt of gratitude.

On the full moon day at the end of vassa, the Buddha was ready to descend to the human world.
On the full moon day at the end of vassa, the Buddha was ready to descend to the human world. Sakka, the god who rules over Tavatimsa heaven, created a triple stairway of gold, silver and jewels. At the base of the stairway lay people from the city of Sankassa on earth wait to pay obeisance to the Buddha. British Library, Or. 14297, f. 44 Noc

The Kathina festival held at the conclusion of the rainy retreat originated 2,500 years ago and is still celebrated by Buddhists, with alms giving and offering of robes to the monks who observed the retreat. Buddhists believe that the offering of kathina robes is a great act, but in addition to giving robes, lay supporters also consider the bhikkhus’ other needs. The bhikkhus who receive the kathina robes deliver sermons to the lay supporters. The Festivals thus bring ordinary people together with the Buddhist orders, in a joyful spirit of shared devotion. In some places fire balloons rise up in the sky in order to pay homage to the Culamani Pagoda in Tavatimsa heaven, where the relic of the Buddha’s hair is believed to be enshrined. According to Theravada tradition, these offerings take place over a period of one month, from 19th October to 16 November.

Further reading:
H. Bechert and R. Gombrich, The world of Buddhism, London: Thames and Hudson, 1984.

San San May, Curator for Burmese  Ccownwork

30 September 2019

Buddhism in Practice: The Yogacara Food Offering Service

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This is the fifth of a series of blog posts looking forward to the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 – 23 Feb 2020

One of the distinctive features of the Mahayana (Eng: Great vehicle; Chi: 大乘) school of Buddhism is the emphasis on practising the compassion of bodhisattvas and acting for the benefit of not only individual but all sentient beings. One popular type of practice that embraces other sentient beings is that of offering food. The prime reason for offering food is to extend Dharma teachings to hungry beings while providing them with meals and releasing them from their suffering. As a result they can connect with the Dharma and be reborn in a better realm. This blog post will look at four items held in the British Library that are related to one of the most popular food offering services: the Yogacara Food Offering Service.

The Yogacara Offering Service or Yogacara Burning-Mouth Service (Chi: 瑜伽焰口法會) is a Dharma service that offers food to beings in the hungry ghost realm (Chi: 餓鬼). Yogacara (Skt: Yogācāra; Chi: 瑜伽) is the name of a school of Buddhism and was interpreted by Master Deji (Chi: 德基大師) in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) as “the forming of gestures (mudra), together with the chanting of dharanis and mantras, and the mind in contemplation. When the body, mouth and mind connect, it is the Yogacara.” Burning-Mouth describes the appearance of the hungry ghost. According to the book Faxiang by the Venerable Tzu Chuang, there are ten negative behaviours that lead a being to be reborn as a hungry ghost: minor acts of negative physical, verbal, and mental karma, having many desires, having an ill-intentioned desire, jealousy, holding wrong views, dying while still attached to the necessities of life, dying from hunger, and dying from thirst. Negative karma furthermore results in three ways that hungry ghosts becomes unable to take food: water transforms into blood which they cannot consume; their narrow throats and burning-mouths prevent swallowing; and anything they try to eat will turn into charcoal. Only by relying on the Dharma (or ending the cycle of suffering) can these beings be rescued and leave the realm.

The Sutra of Ten Kings showing different realms a sentient being can be reborn into, including the Hungry Ghost Realm
The Sutra of Ten Kings showing different realms a sentient being can be reborn into, including the Hungry Ghost Realm (5th path from the right) (BL Or.8210/S.3961) Noc

The origin of the offering can be traced back to the Dharani Sutra for Saving the Burning-Mouth Hungry Ghosts (Skt: Pretamukhāgnivālāyaśarakāra-dhāraṇī; Chi: 佛說救拔焰口餓鬼陀羅尼經). One day, Ananda, one of the Buddha’s ten great disciples, was studying until late at night. Suddenly, a horrifying ghost named burning mouth (Chi: 焰口) appeared and said to Ananda: “You will die in three days and will fall into the realm of hungry ghost.” The ghost was extremely hideous – his body was emaciated, in his mouth burned a hot and foul-smelling fire, his neck was thin as a needle, his hair was messy, and he had claws that were long and sharp. Ananda asked the ghost how he could escape from this suffering. The ghost said: “You need to offer food to all the hungry ghosts and make offerings to the Triple Gem for me, then you can earn more years to live.” After hearing from the ghost, Ananda immediately went to see the Buddha and asked for help. The Buddha consoled Ananda and taught him the Dharani which holds significant power and can fulfil the ghost's request. The origins of most food offering services can be traced back to this sutra.

Dharani Sutra for Saving the Burning-Mouth Hungry Ghosts
Dharani Sutra for Saving the Burning-Mouth Hungry Ghosts (BL Or.8210/S.4119) Noc

The fundamental content of the Yogacara food offering are the mantras from the Dharani Sutra for Saving the Burning-Mouth Hungry Ghosts and the Ambrosia Sutra (Skt: Amṛta-rāja; Chi: 甘露經), which was translated into Chinese by Master Shichanantuo (Skt: Śikṣānanda; Chi: 實叉難陀) (652-710) during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). However, due to various factors including turbulent social conditions and the rising of different schools of Buddhism, it was not until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that more standard procedures of the food offering service started to be documented with commentaries by some popular branches. One of the well-known versions of this text was compiled by Master Tianji (Chi: 天機禪師) and was commonly known as the Tianji Burning-Mouth Service (Chi: 天機焰口). Afterwards, Master Zhuhong (Chi: 袾宏大師) (1535-1615) added annotations and explanations to the Tianji version in the Altar Etiquette of Yogacara Food Offering (Chi: 修設瑜伽集要施食壇儀). In the Qing Dynasty, Master Deji (Chi: 德基大師) deleted some parts of Master Zhuhong’s version and made some changes based on his own school. This became commonly known as the Huashan Burning-Mouth Service (Chi: 華山焰口). Both the Tianji and Huashan versions are widespread, and are probably the main sources for the practice in circulation today.

Altar Etiquette of Yogacara Falming-Mouth FooAltar Etiquette of Yogacara Food Offering (BL 15101.c.24)
Altar Etiquette of Yogacara Food Offering (BL 15101.c.24) Noc

Although different schools might have different approaches to the food offering Dharma service, the central core of the content is mostly fixed. The principle components are as follows:

  • Purifying the altar (灑淨): Purifying the venue is necessary at the beginning of a big Dharma service. This section sometimes comes with restricting the area (結界) to set up the boundary for the service. Only those who are invited can come within this platform.
  • Inviting the Triple Gem (奉請三寶): The Triple Gem – consisting of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha – is the main principle that Buddhists need to follow. The Buddha and Boddhisattvas are the teachers, the Dharma is the vehicle for delivering the principle doctrines to all sentient beings, and the Sangha is the medium for expressing the spirit of the Buddha and the Dharma. It is essential that all parts of the Triple Gem attend the service.
  • Opening the gates to hell (破地獄): There are eighteen hells, and beings endure different forms of suffering in each of them. Opening the gates to hell is not easy – only Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are powerful enough to approach the boundary.
  • Summoning (召請): In order to invite the hungry souls, permission from the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva and Ten Kings of hell is compulsory. After their agreement, the service can welcome the souls to the altar.
  • Opening the throat (開咽喉): It is crucial to open the ghosts’ throats. Otherwise, they cannot eat food.
  • Encouraging the Bodhi mind (勸發菩提心): After the meal comes the primary purpose. In this section, the Venerables will encourage the hungry ghosts to listen to the Dharma and hope that they can cultivate their Bodhi mind (the mind striving toward awakening and compassion) which will lead them to liberation.
  • Completion & Sending Off (圓滿奉送): This informs everyone that the service is approaching the end. Everyone should return to their original realms.
  • Taking refuge in the Triple Gem (皈依三寶): This is a reminder to take refuge in the Triple Gem: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The Triple Gem is the light shining in the dark ocean of suffering which we need to follow, practice and remind ourselves not to lose our way on the path to liberation.
  • Dedication of merits (迴向): In Mahayana Buddhism, although the individual can earn merit from practicing, the Dharma also teaches practitioners to embrace all sentient beings in their mind. In this way, the participants dedicate the merit they have earned during the service to all beings, not just themselves.

Opening the throat section in the Altar Etiquette of Yogacara Offering Service demonstrating the hand gestures (mudra) and mantras
Opening the throat section in the Altar Etiquette of Yogacara Offering Service demonstrating the hand gestures (mudra) and mantras (BL Or.2179) Noc

It is evident that the purpose of this Dharma service is to feed the hungry ghosts. However, the deeper significance is giving those who are suffering a chance to listen to the Dharma, initiate their Bodhi mind and liberate themselves from the realm. In addition, the service also gives the opportunity for practitioners to cultivate their Bodhi mind. This is an embodiment of the great compassion from all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that Buddhists need to learn about and practice as well.

Further reading:
Venerable Tzu Chuang & Robert Smitheram, Faxiang: A Buddhist Practitioner’s Encyclopedia. Los Angeles: Buddha’s Light Publishing, 2012.


Han-Lin Hsieh, Curator, British Library Chinese Collections, with thanks to Emma Harrison
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22 August 2019

Monastic ordination in Theravada Buddhism

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This is the fourth of a series of blog posts looking forward to the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 – 23 Feb 2020

The Buddhist rainy season retreat or Buddhist lent, which started on Dhamma Day last month (17 July), is used by many Theravada Buddhists to enter the monastic order, Sangha, for the whole three months of the Buddhist lent. Ordination can also be for a shorter or longer period of time, depending on personal circumstances and decisions.

The practice of monastic ordination goes back to the time of the historical Buddha. Soon after he attained enlightenment, the Buddha founded a community of disciples called the Sangha. He started to form his bhikkhu-sangha with only five monks; but because of the rationality of the Dhamma he soon gained a large number of followers.

Yasa, the son of a rich man, joins the monkhood to become the sixth bhikkhu after the Buddha’s five chief disciples. Fifty of Yasa’s friends followed his example and joined the Sangha. Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, Or 14553, f. 2
Yasa, the son of a rich man, joins the monkhood to become the sixth bhikkhu after the Buddha’s five chief disciples. Fifty of Yasa’s friends followed his example and joined the Sangha. Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, Or 14553, f. 2 Noc

The Sangha is central to Theravada Buddhism. In the context of Buddhist monasticism, one who enters into a monastic life should for all purposes aim at the extinction of the three root causes of suffering (dukkha) – ignorance, aversion and greed – in order to put an end to the cycle of rebirths (samsara). Monastics shave their heads, wear robes in a shade of yellow, orange or ochre, study the Buddhist doctrines, observe a particular number of precepts depending on their religious advancement, practice meditation and spread the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teachings. Eight requisites (attha parikkhara) allowed to a monastic include three yellow, orange or ochre robes (i.e. the lower loincloth, the upper inner robe and the large top robe), an alms bowl, a razor to shave the head, a needle for mending clothes, a water strainer, and a cloth girdle.

Maha Mulasattha text on the principles of making merit written in Northern Thai Dhamma script on palm leaves with wooden covers, dated 1851 CE British Library, Or 16077. From Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection
Maha Mulasattha text on the principles of making merit written in Northern Thai Dhamma script on palm leaves with wooden covers, dated 1851 CE British Library, Or 16077. From Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. Noc

The eight requisites of monastics and some additional items like a ceremonial fan and a shoulder bag for travelling are normally donated by the lay community as acts of merit, along with food, medicines and objects for daily use. Making merit is at the centre of Theravada Buddhism and shapes the interaction between Sangha and the lay community. High levels of merit-making are regarded as a sign of peace, happy relationships and prosperity within the community or the entire country.

During the rainy season retreat, vassa, the Buddha stayed in one place of residency to teach the Dhamma. The rains retreat is a three-month period (July to October) where the Buddha did not travel from one location to another. The Buddha ordered his disciples to avoid travel for this three-month period during the rainy seasons. Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, Or 14823, f. 29
During the rainy season retreat, vassa, the Buddha stayed in one place of residency to teach the Dhamma. The rains retreat is a three-month period (July to October) where the Buddha did not travel from one location to another. The Buddha ordered his disciples to avoid travel for this three-month period during the rainy seasons. Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, Or 14823, f. 29 Noc

The Sinhala Ordination was introduced into Burma from Sri Lanka in the 12th century. In 1423 CE, twenty-five monks from Chiang Mai and eight monks from Angkor travelled to Sri Lanka and brought the Sinhala Ordination to Thailand. In 1476 CE, twenty-two monks from Burma were sent in two ships to the island. They were duly ordained by the Mahavihara monks at the consecrated sima (ordination hall) on the Kalyani River, near Colombo. Upon the return of these monks, King Dhammaceti (1471-1492 CE) built the Kalyani Sima in Pegu (Bago), where monks from neighbouring countries received their ordination.

In mainland Southeast Asia, two types of ordination ceremonies are held in the 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 of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. In order to become a monk, the Sangha or monastic community will perform the upasampada ordination on fulfilment 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 elder leads the assembly for the newly-ordained monk, while selected monks will recite the upasampada Kammavaca ordination text taking great care with articulation and pronunciation.

Upasampāda Kammavācā in Dhamma script on red lacquered and gilt palm leaves or paper, northern Thailand or Laos, 19th century. British Library, Or.16454, cover and first leaf
Upasampāda Kammavācā in Dhamma script on red lacquered and gilt palm leaves or paper, northern Thailand or Laos, 19th century. British Library, Or.16454, cover and first leaf Noc

There are 227 monastic rules for a bhikkhu (monks) and 311 monastic rules for a bhikkhuni (nuns) as described in the Vinaya Pitaka under the section of Patimokkha, which includes abstaining from eating after midday and refraining from handling money. After the death of King Suddhodana, father of the Buddha, the widowed queen Mahapajapati Gotami went to the Buddha and asked him to allow women to be fully ordained. The Buddha initially refused her request as the reality of living nunhood posed a hardship for the women. After the Buddha’s disciple Ananda pleaded, the Buddha granted the request of Gotami on her promise to accept certain important rules to qualify her for ordination. Gotami, the Buddha’s foster mother was the first woman to be ordained in Buddhism to become a bhikkhuni. After Gotami’s ordination and the ordination of her five hundred followers, more and more women became nuns during the life time of the Buddha.

Folios of the Bhikkhuni-patimokkha in black lacquer on gilded leaves, Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, IO Man/Pali 21
Folios of the Bhikkhuni-patimokkha in black lacquer on gilded leaves, Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, IO Man/Pali 21 Noc

Although there is currently no formally acknowledged Order of Bikkhuni in Burma, Thailand or Laos, upasika (women who take vows) play important roles in society. They shave their heads, wear light yellow or white robes, keep eight or ten precepts, study the Buddhist doctrines, practice meditation and spread the Dhamma. They are also educators for women who wish to become upasika. They help carry out religious rituals and ceremonies, and they give support to elderly women, widows and orphans who are left without family. Currently, there are strong endeavours to revive full ordination of women and to get formal acknowledgement of the bhikkhuni-sangha in several Southeast Asian countries. It is said that the bhikkhuni-sangha and ordination of nuns in the Theravada tradition had died out about 1000 years ago. Nonetheless many manuscripts containing the entire Bhikkhuni-patimokkha were still produced in Southeast Asia during the 18th and 19th centuries, and this leads to the question as to why this was done, if the Order of Bhikkhuni had indeed been non-existent for centuries.

San San May, Curator for Burmese
Jana Igunma, Lead curator, Buddhism exhibition

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