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34 posts categorized "Burmese"

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

Ccownwork

15 July 2019

Asalha Puja or Dhamma Day: the start of the Buddhist Lent

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

Buddhists celebrate Dhamma Day on the full moon day of July, signalling the beginning of the period of vassa (rainy season retreat or Buddhist Lent). Dhamma Day reminds Buddhists to express their gratitude to the Buddha and his teachings. It is one of the most important days in Buddhism as it marks the beginning of the Buddha’s teaching, for it was on the full moon day of July that the Buddha preached his first sermon in the deer park at Sarnath to the group of five ascetics who had previously been his companions. In the sermon, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, Discourse on Turning the Wheel of the Dhamma, the Buddha advocates a middle way between sensual indulgence and self-mortification. The essence of his teaching concerns: the truth of suffering; the truth of the cause of suffering; the truth of the cessation of suffering; and the truth of the way of life that is free of suffering. The original Teachings are found in the ‘Pali Canon’, the ancient scriptures of Theravada Buddhism written in the Pali language. While listening to his discourse, the ascetic Kondanna achieved the first level of sanctity (Sotapanna), and became the first disciple of the Buddha to take ordination as a monk. Soon afterwards, the other four ascetics followed him into the Buddhist order. Therefore, Asalha Puja or Dhamma Day – which falls this year on 16th July – is a very important day for Buddhists.

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The Buddha gives his first sermon Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta to five ascetics - Kondanna, Vappa, Bhaddiya, Mahanam and Assaji - in the deer park at Sarnath on the full moon day of July. This sermon contains the essential teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. After listening to his sermon, the five ascetics became the Buddha’s disciples. British Library, Or. 14823, f. 38 Noc

Vassa: the Buddhist Lent
Vassa is an annual monastic retreat practised especially in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, which lasts for three lunar months from July to October. In the early days of the Sangha – the Buddhist monkhood – the monks had no fixed abode, but wandered throughout the year and dwelt under the shade of the forest trees to meditate. After attaining Enlightenment and proclaiming the dhamma, the Buddha spent the first vassa at Sarnath. There are practical reasons for why the Buddha instructed his monks not to make long journeys for the three months of the rainy season. During the monsoon season it was extremely difficult for the monks to travel as the paths and lanes were covered with water and mud, and walking at this time along muddy paths could also damage the grass and kill or injure countless tiny creatures. Therefore the three months rainy retreat, from the full-moon day of July to the full-moon day of October, came to be observed by monks on the recommendation of the Buddha himself.

When the Bodhisatta Siddhattha Gautama had renounced the world, and in the course of walking around accepted offerings of food at Rajagaha, King Bimbisara, ruler of Magadha, requested that he visit him as soon as he achieved his goal. In accordance with this promise the Buddha visited Rajagara after attaining enlightenment. The king donated his bamboo grove and built the Veluvana monastery, or arama, for the Buddha and his monks. The term arama refers to a dwelling place for monks during the annual rains retreat. Veluvana was the first arama accepted by the Buddha, and a rule was passed allowing monks to accept such aramas. After the great donation, the king became the royal patron of the Buddha during his life time. The Buddha spent three rainy seasons in his first monastery of Veluvana, and numerous Jatakas, or birth stories of the Bodhisatta, were recited there. The Buddha’s disciples Sariputta and Moggallana joined the Order at this first monastery. During these three months monks remain inside monasteries, devoting their time to intensive meditation, proclaiming and learning the doctrines, and reciting the patimokkha or teaching dhamma to lay people who come to them to observe the uposatha sila (Eight precepts).

The Buddha ascended to Tavatimsa heaven. He spent three months there in retreat, teaching his mother, who was then reborn as a deva in Tusita heaven to fulfil a debt of gratitude. He expounded the Abhidhamma or higher teachings to his mother deva and other celestial beings at Tavatimsa heaven. He also repeated these teachings to his disciple Sariputta, and Sariputta then became a master of the Abhidhamma. Abhidhamma Pitaka (literally ‘the basket of the Buddha’s Higher Doctrine) is one of the principal sections of the Buddhist canon, or Tipitaka. It explores the profound philosophy of the teaching and is a most important work.

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The Buddha spends the seventh vassa at Tavatimsa heaven to preach the Abhidhamma (higher teaching) to his mother, who was reborn as a deva, and other celestial beings. British Library, Or. 14405, f. 81 Noc

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While the Buddha was spending the tenth vassa in the Parileyyaka Forest, an elephant and a monkey ministered to his needs. British Library, Or. 14823, f. 30  Noc

Ordination ceremonies
Ordination ceremonies can take place in any month of the year, but are especially important during the Buddhist Lent. The ordination ceremonies take place with all possible kinds of giving. Buddhists believe that the giving of one’s own son to join the Order is the most meritorious act possible. It is also a meritorious deed for the person who enters into the Buddhist monastic order (Sangha) themselves. The ceremony is not necessarily big or grand but the eight requisites are essential. There must be an assembly of five monks who sponsor the ordination. The Kammavaca – the Buddhist ordination text – is uttered at the ceremony by the presiding monk and the novice or candidate monk-to-be.

Soon after attaining enlightenment the Buddha founded the order of monks or Sangha. Yasa came from a wealthy background, but left his home as he was dissatisfied with his life. After hearing the teachings of the Buddha, Yasa became the sixth bhikkhu or monk. After the Buddha ordained Yasa, his closest friends Vimala, Subahu, Punnaji and Gavampati followed him into the Sangha. Within two months a further fifty of Yasa’s friends had joined the Sangha. The Buddha’s son the Venerable Rahula who was still a novice received his Higher Ordination (Upasampada) at the Jetavana Monastery.

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The ordination of Yasa, a son of a rich man who went to the deer park near Varanasi to become a bhikkhu (ordained male monk). Within two months a further fifty of Yasa’s friends had joined the Sangha. British Library, Or. 14297, f. 27  Noc

This Lenten season is the time for Buddhists to do meritorious deeds, and to fast and observe special precepts. Lay supporters offer robes to the monks which will be worn during Lent. They also look into the bhikkhus’ other needs. On the full moon day, the processing with offerings of robes and other gifts to the monasteries is another meritorious deed. Young people also join the procession with music troupes to celebrate the giving of offerings to the Sangha as a way of making merit. Lay communities of Buddhists come together at monasteries, and participate in the ceremony of chanting conducted by the monks.

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Procession of offerings for the Sangha: The wooden stands, upon which offerings for the monks are placed, are set within the processional boats carried by lay people. British Library, Or. 15021, ff. 13-14 Noc

Further reading:
Dickson, J. F. Ordination in Theravada Buddhism. Edited by Piyadassi Thera. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1963.

San San May, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

10 May 2019

The Buddhist Vesak Festival or Buddha Day

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

Every full moon day is an auspicious day for Buddhists, but the most important of all is the day of the full moon in May, because three major events in the life of the Gotama Buddha took place on this day. Firstly, the Buddha-to-be, Prince Siddhattha was born at Lumbini Grove on the full moon day in May. Secondly, after six years of hardship, he attained enlightenment under the shade of the Bodhi tree and became Gotama Buddha at Bodh Gaya also on the full moon day of May. Thirdly, after 45 years of teaching the Truth, when he was eighty, at Kusinara, he passed away to nibbana, the cessation of all desire, on the full moon day of May. Therefore, Vesak or Wesak - the day of the full moon in the lunar month of Vesakha, which falls this year on 19 May - is a very important day for Buddhists to celebrate the birth, enlightenment and parinibbana of the Buddha.

The birth of Siddhattha Gotama
The Buddha-to-be was born in about the year 563 BCE in the kingdom of the Sakyas (in present-day southern Nepal) on the full moon day of the month of Vesakha. His father was King Suddhodana and his mother was Queen Maya. They named their son Siddhattha, which means ‘He who achieves his Goal’. Soon after the birth, the king's wise men predicted that the little prince would become either a universal monarch, or a Buddha, ‘awakened one’. His father tried to prevent his son from coming into contact with any religious path, as he wanted his son to be his successor.

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The king took his little son, Prince Siddhattha, to the royal ploughing ceremony and left him to sleep in a tent under a nearby Eugenia tree. Instead, the boy seated himself cross-legged on the bed, and entered into his first state of meditation. On seeing this, the king was amazed, and paid homage to his son. British Library, Or. 14297, f. 8 Noc

Enlightenment
The young prince Siddhattha was brought up in great luxury and at the age of 16 married his cousin, princess Yasodhara. At the age of 29, when he encountered four signs - an old man, a sick man, a corpse and an ascetic - he decided to leave his life of luxury, and set out in search of truth and peace. He thus left the city of Kapilavastu and became a wandering ascetic. For nearly six years, in the course of his search for the truth, he practised various forms of severe austerity and extreme self-mortification, until he became weak and realised that such mortifications could not lead him to what he sought. He changed his way of life and followed his own path, the middle way. He sat cross-legged under the foot of the peepal bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) and determined not to rise without attaining enlightenment.

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Prince Siddhattha rides out of the palace after encountering the Four Signs: an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a monk. British Library, Or. 14297, f.11 Noc

Siddhattha continued to search for the solution to the true meaning of life. After six years of hardship, working to find the right spiritual path and practising on his own to seek enlightenment, the prince reached his goal. After forty-nine days, at the age of 35, he attained enlightenment and became a supreme Buddha, on the full moon day of the month of Vesakha at Bodh Gaya. He also became known as Siddhattha Gotama, Gotama Buddha, Sakyamuni Buddha or simply the Buddha.

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The Buddha preached his first sermon to five ascetics (left) and gods (right) in the deer park at Isipatana. British Library, Or. 14297, f. 26 Noc

Soon after his enlightenment he gave his first discourse, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta or Turning the Wheel of Dhamma, to five ascetics in the deer park at Isipatana in Benares. After hearing his teaching, the five ascetics became his first disciples. His teaching attracted many followers and they joined the Sangha, the community of monks. He then visited his father, who was ill, to preach the Dhamma. After hearing the Buddha’s teachings the king attained arahatta (perfect sanctity) before he passed away. The Buddha then preached the Abhidhamma or the Higher Doctrine to his former mother, who was reborn as a deva with other deities in the Tavatimsa heaven. He also founded the order of Buddhist nuns. During his long ministry of forty-five years, the Buddha walked throughout the northern districts of India, and taught about the suffering of life, how to end it, and how to attain peace and nibbana, to those who would listen.

Mahaparinibbana (Death)
At the age of 80 the Buddha set out on his last journey with Ananda, his cousin and beloved disciple, and a group of bhikkhus from Rajagaha to Kusinara. The Buddha arrived at Vesali and stayed there during the rainy retreat (vassa). After leaving Vesali, on his way to Kusinara, he arrived at Pava where he had an attack of dysentery. The Buddha then arrived at Kusinara and lay down on a couch between two sal trees in the grove of the Malla kings. Though he was very weak, he addressed Ananda and the bhikkhus, and preached the Mahasudasana Sutta and made one last convert. Then the Buddha attained parinibbana or entry into the final nibbana on the full moon day of the month of Vesakha (May).

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The Buddha’s body was placed in a golden coffin upon a pyre, and a gilded and white umbrella was held above. Mahakassapa, the Buddha’s senior disciple, kneels before the Buddha’s coffin, uncovers the Buddha’s feet and pays homage with full prostrations. The grieving monks are gathered at the Buddha’s funeral in respectful adoration. The Malla kings also gather together to pay their respects to the Buddha with perfume, incense, dancing and music. British Library, Or. 14298, f. 20 Noc

The sacred relics of the Buddha were divided and enshrined across Asia in monuments called stupas. These stupas are considered by Buddhists to be the living presence of the Buddha. These sacred places became centres of pilgrimage where people come and honour the Buddha, who taught the Dhamma and established the Sangha.

The Vesak Festival
Vesak, also known as Buddha Day, is observed by Buddhists in South, Southeast and East Asia, as well as in other parts of the world, as "Buddha's Birthday". The festival of Vesak commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death (parinibbana) of Gotama Buddha in the Buddhist tradition. As the Vesak full moon day is the most important day in the Buddhist calendar, many Buddhists go to the pagodas in procession to pour water at the foot of the sacred tree in remembrance of the Buddha’s Enlightenment. The Peepal Bodhi tree is the most sacred tree for Buddhists as it was under this tree at Bodh Gaya that Siddhattha attained Enlightenment and became a Buddha. Buddhists celebrate these historically significant events by going to monasteries, giving alms, keeping precepts and practising meditation. In return, the monks chant the scriptures, lead periods of meditation and give teachings on the themes of the festival. Vesak is widely celebrated across much of the Buddhist world, but especially in Southeast Asia, where it is considered an especially important time to perform meritorious deeds.

Further reading:
Herbert, Patricia M. The Life of the Buddha. London: British Library, 1993.
San San May and Jana Igunma. Buddhism Illuminated. London: British Library, 2018.

San San May, Curator for Burmese  Ccownwork

 

21 November 2018

Beautiful Burmese Barges and Boats

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A recently digitised Burmese manuscript in the British Library (Or. 14005) contains images of different types of royal barges and boats, illuminated in red and gold. The barges are carved and decorated elaborately with figures of mythical creatures such as the garuda (bird), naga (serpent), and manuk siha (half-lion half-man), and some bear structures resembling palaces or pavilions. The paintings of the vessels are as finely excecuted as those of scenes found in other Burmese folding books but, unusually, this book has no captions at all. Nonetheless, each boat is so stylistically and symbolically distinctive that it can easily be identified. 

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A Pyigyimon boat, which consists of two conjoined gilded boats, with a seven-tired roof (pyatthat). There are two separate dragon-headed hulls, while on the bow are figures of a garuda (mythical bird) and a naga (mythical dragon), with Sakka (a celestial king and the ruler of Tavatimsa heaven) standing between them. British Library, Or. 14005, f. 1  Noc

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Shown above are the golden state barges Nawayupa and Nagadeva, for carrying ministers and royal officers. The Nawayupa golden barge (top) has the mane of a karaweik (mythical bird), the hump of bull, the tail of a nga gyin fish, two elephant tusks, the trunk of a makara (sea creature), two horns of a toe naya (mythological creature), two wings of parakeet, and a front and hind leg of a horse. The Nagadeva barge (bottom) is adorned with the figure of the snake king. British Library, Or. 14005, f. 7  Noc

Other state barges used for royal river journeys depicted in the manuscript include the Pyinsayupa golden barge, used by the chief queens, which has the mane of karaweik bird, the tusk and trunk of an elephant, the hump of bull, the tail of a nga gyin fish, two horns of a toe naya and two ears. The Eni barge is adorned with the figure of a deer, while the Hintha barge, which was used by princes, is adorned with the figure of a hamsa (mythical bird). The Udaung boat, also used by princes, was adorned with the figure of peacock.

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Hlaw ka-daw (above) are the king’s dispatch boats. They are gilded all over, even including the paddles, and the stern rises high up in the air. These boats carried canons, drums and gongs. British Library, Or. 14005, f. 16 Noc

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Shown above are the Nawaraja and Manuk siha boast. The Nawaraja boat (top) has figures of five Brahmas in the prow and four in the stern, in memory of the nine Brahmas who appeared on earth in the beginning of the world. The Manuk sika boat (bottom) is adorned with the figure of a mythical creature with a human face and hands, and the body and legs of a lion. British Library, Or. 14005, f. 36  Noc

The other kings’s boats are Thone lu pu saw and Thone lu tot pa. The Thone lu pu saw boat has figures of the king of Brahmas, the king of devas (deities), and the king of men affixed on the bow, and three umbrellas hoisted on the stern. Thone lu pu saw means three sentient beings (Thone lu), namely humans, devas, and Brahmas, who all pay homage to the Buddha. This boat was stationed in front of the royal barge when the king travelled in state. The Thone lu tot pa boat has the figure of a deva on the bow and figures of a human, a deva and a brahma on the stern.

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Pyi kone (top) is the king’s boat, with figures of the moon and the sun adorning the bow and stern. Lokabihman boat (bottom) is also for the king's use and has two pavilions, one at the bow and one at the stern. Or. 14005, f. 37 Noc

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The boat at the top is adorned with the figure of a Kinnera, a mythical half bird-half woman, and the Thuwa hle (bottom) is a boat with the figure of parrot. British Library, Or. 14005, f. 44 Noc

Among the variety of boats many were named from the places whence their models were taken, such as the Zimme, In-ma, Tha-byu, etc. Other notable boats were the Thingan-net and the Lin-zin boat, with a low bow and lofty stern. The Azalon or Azalompani boat had the figure of a goat with an aubergine in its mouth and its forefeet resting on the prow of the boat, and its two hind legs and tail at the stern.

Among the many festivals held throughout the year in Burma (Myanmar) is the Regatta festival which is held Burmese month of Tawthalin (late September) due to the favourable weather conditions. According to the Burmese chronicles, royal regatta festivals were held by eleven monarchs beginning with King Anaukphetlun (r.1605-28), and ending with King Thibaw (r.1878-1885), the last King of Konbaung dynasty (1752-1885). During the regatta, the king surrounded by his entourage would watch the event from his royal barge, which often headed the procession down the river. The king and his nobles and courtiers often raced each other in their boats, accompanied by the songs of the rowers. The very oars of the royal boats were gilded, and as the boats circled the spray flew from their blades, and the sun blazed upon their magnificence. High officials supervised preparations for boat races along the shore of rivers throughout the country, and these races were also regarded as good tests for improving the skills of the royal navy.

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Racing boats in the river during the Regatta festival. In the foreground, the King and Queen watch from a grandstand on the bank. Or. 6779, ff. 9-12 Noc

Royal barge processions were held for the Coronation and other religious ceremonies on the Irrawaddy River or Ayeyarwady River. It is the main river of Burma, flowing from north to south through the centre of the country, and one of the great rivers of Asia. Burmese chronicles recorded that King Alaung Sithu (r.1112-1167) was a great traveller as he spent much of his time on water journeys.

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This illustration depicts a royal water procession. The barge is tugged by golden Letpyi boats paddled by a full complement of oarsmen in the Irrawaddy River. People are gathered on the banks of the river to watch the royal barge and boats. British Library, Or. 14031, ff. 9-13  Noc

From 1975 to the present day, the Karaweik golden barge - based on the design of the Pyigyimon royal barge - has floated on the Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon. This barge is adorned with the figure of a karaweik  bird, and has a covered area with a pyatthat tiered roof.

Further reading:
Zayyathinkhaya, Minister of King Bodawpaya (1782-1819). Shwe bhon nidan. Yangon, Hkit lu, 1957

San San May, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

09 November 2018

Buddhism Illuminated through Southeast Asian Manuscript Art (2)

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Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia is a lavishly-illustrated book published  earlier this year by the British Library in collaboration with Washington University Press. The book aims to share many years of research on the British Library’s unique collection of Southeast Asian manuscripts on Buddhism, which illustrate not only the life and teachings of the historical Buddha, but also everyday Buddhist practice, life within the monastic order, festivals, cosmology, and ethical principles and values.

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Extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language, written in Khmer script. Folding book from Central Thailand, second half of the eighteenth century. British Library, Or 14027, f. 4 

The first two chapters, which introduce the outstanding art of Southeast Asian Buddhist manuscripts as well as the Life of the Buddha, were discussed in our previous blog. The third chapter of the book focuses on the teachings of the Buddha, or Dhamma, also known as the “righteous way”. Gotama Buddha spent more than half of his life walking around northern India over 2500 years ago, teaching his ever growing group of followers. Shortly after the Buddha’s parinibbana and physical death, the first Buddhist council was held at Rajagaha. Five hundred of the most senior Buddhist monks are said to have convened to recite and verify all the sermons they had heard during the Buddha’s forty-five years of teaching. They began to systematically arrange and compile the Buddha’s teachings called Tipitaka, or the 'Three Baskets', which include the Sutta Pitaka (the basket of discourses), the Vinaya Pitaka (the basket of discipline and monastic rules), and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (the basket of higher teachings of the Buddha). Five more councils were held over the centuries, with the most recent one taking place in Rangoon at Kaba Aye Pagoda from May 1954 to May 1956 to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s parinibbana.

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This manuscript, written in Pali - the canonical language of Theravada Buddhism - in yellow Burmese square characters, is inscribed on 49 palm leaves coated with lacquer. It contains fragments of Atthakathas, or commentaries on the Tipitaka. The manuscript is bound up with a green velvet wrapper and a ribbon, or sazigyo. Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 3672

Buddhist texts that were compiled in addition to the Tipitaka are commentaries by important Buddhist scholars like for example Buddhaghosa, a fifth-century scholar who played a defining role in the development of Theravada Buddhism. Commentaries as well as translations were crucial for the spread of Buddhism to mainland Southeast Asia, where it is widely practised up till today.

Chapter four of the book provides information about the Sangha, the Buddhist monastic community. Themes in this chapter include aspects of monastic ordination in Theravada Buddhism, how the Buddha founded the Sangha, and the rules of monastic discipline and interaction between the Sangha and the lay community. Soon after attaining enlightenment the Buddha founded the order of monks, or Bhikkhu-sangha, which was later extended to the order of nuns, or Bhikkhuni-sangha.

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This image shows the Buddha’s ordination of Yasa, who went to the deer park near Varanasi
to become a Bhikkhu. Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 14553, f. 2

After listening to Buddha’s first sermon, his five closest followers joined the Buddha and became his disciples, forming the first Sangha. Yasa, the son of a wealthy man, left his home as he was dissatisfied with his life. After hearing the teachings of the Buddha, Yasa became the sixth disciple to achieve the first stage of perfection. Yasa’s 54 friends followed his example. Later on, three brothers of the Kassapa family asked to be ordained into the Sangha after the Buddha tamed a naga (serpent).

The book’s fifth chapter deals with Kamma, or the principle of cause and effect that tells us that every action produces an effect, and the effects of all our actions will return to us in the future. Our accumulated positive Kamma will come back to us in the form of blessings and the opportunity to lead a good future life or to experience a better rebirth, while negative Kamma will result in deterioration and lower forms of rebirth. Burmese and Thai artistic expressions of Kamma often include scenes of the Buddhist heavens and hells and the sixteen sacred lands of Buddhism.

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Paper folding book featuring extracts from the Tipitaka and Phra Malai, written in Khmer script, with illustrations of Mahabrahma bhum (the Brahma heaven) and Tavatimsa bhum (heaven of the Four Kings). Thailand, 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f. 1

The illustrations portray the god Brahma with his four-faced head and a red aura (left) and the god Indra, or Sakka, also with a red aura (right). Both are seated on a marble pedestal before a red background decorated with delicate flower ornaments. Brahma and Indra are considered to have converted to Buddhism, therefore they are depicted in a respectful pose facing the Pali text passages from the Tipitaka that lie between them.

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Illustration of Tiracchana loka, the world of animals. Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 14004, f. 37

The idyllic scene above shows the legendary region of Himavanta. Located in the animal realm of Tiracchana loka, it is covered in forests with great lakes and mountain ranges. It is inhabited by wild animals such as tigers, monkeys, deer, bears, birds, rabbits, cockerels and buffaloes who live together peacefully. Groves of mangoes, bananas and bamboo are featured in this illustration; all play a critical role as the animals’ survival depends almost entirely on these plants.

The final chapter in the book provides details around “making merit” in every-day Buddhist life, which include activities that aim to support the Sangha, like the Kathina robe-offering ceremony, Uposatha or observance ceremony, and royal donations, but also rituals related to death and after-life, as well as communal festivals around the year which are open to everyone.

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Scenes from the Uposatha observance ceremony. Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 16761, ff. 25–6

This painting depicts the Uposatha ceremony, held on new and full moon days of every month. Lay people bring food and other offerings to the Buddhist monastery and observe five or eight precepts on these days. Three Buddhist monks, shown seated in a pavilion with their large fans, administer eight precepts to the lay community. These precepts are: not to kill, steal, engage in sexual activity, lie, become intoxicated, eat after noon, adorn their bodies or sleep on luxurious beds. Uposatha days provide time for people to listen to the teachings of the Dhamma and the chanting of special Suttas, as well as to practise meditation.

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Scene from the Vessantara Jataka in a book containing drawings from the Ramayana and the Ten Birth Tales on European paper, with captions in Khmer script. Thailand or Cambodia, 1880. British Library, Or 14859, ff. 182–3

During the Bun Phawet festival in January the Vessantara Jataka is recited by monks or performed in puppet or shadow puppet theatres in the monasteries, mainly in Laos and northeast Thailand. In preparation for Bun Phawet lay people create long paper or cotton scrolls and banners decorated with paintings of scenes from the Vessantara Jataka. These scrolls, often tens of metres in length, are hung on the indoor walls of monasteries while recitations of the Vessantara Jataka are being performed. The illustration shown here depicts a scene from the Vessantara Jataka which typically features on scrolls made for the festival: the final grand scene in which Prince Vessantara and his wife Maddi are reunited with their children who had been taken away by the Brahmin Jujaka. This happy occasion is celebrated with music (right).

The book also contains a detailed bibliography, a glossary and three appendices providing a list of the 28 Buddhas of the past, explanations of symbols of the Buddha’s footprint, and an overview of the scriptures of the Tipitaka.

San San May and Jana Igunma, Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia, London: British Library, 2018. (ISBN 978 0 7123 5206 2)

The book is available from all major booksellers and online.

San San May, Curator for Burmese
Jana Igunma, Henry D. Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian

12 September 2018

A new display of Southeast Asian manuscripts from the Sloane collection

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In 1753 the British Museum was founded through the bequest of the vast collections of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), including over four thousand manuscripts, which are now held in the British Library. Sloane's manuscripts originate from all over the world, and among them are 12 from Southeast Asia. Eight of these can now be seen in a new display in the exhibition case next to the Asian and African Studies Reading Room in the British Library at St. Pancras.

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Bust of Hans Sloane by Michael Rysbrack (1693-1770), on display in the British Library

At first glance the eight exhibited manuscripts appear to be a rather random selection linked by nothing other than their Southeast Asian origin and their ownership by Sloane. But viewed through another lens, these eight manuscripts evoke vividly the two main preoccupations of the age in which they were collected: the global mercantile thrust which led to the founding of the English and Dutch East India Companies at the beginning of the 17th century, as reflected in trading permits and financial accounts, and religious zeal, manifest in an interest in the canonical and liturgical works of the major world religions which had taken root in Southeast Asia: Buddhism and Hinduism which had travelled from India, Islam from its birthplace in Arabia, and most recently Christianity by way of Europe.

Despite their small number and in some cases fragmentary state, the manuscripts on display also encompass an astonishing array of scripts: Balinese, Javanese, Lampung, Burmese, Khmer, Arabic in its original form as well as extended versions for writing Persian and Javanese, the Vietnamese Han Nom characters derived from Chinese, and Roman script. The languages found in these eight manuscripts range from indigenous languages of Southeast Asia, namely Malay, Javanese, Old Javanese, Burmese and Vietnamese, to the foreign languages which served the spread of both faith and trade in the region: Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Pali and Dutch. Four different calendrical systems are utilised – Burmese, Gregorian, the Javanese Saka era, and the Chinese zodiac calendar – and writing supports range from palm leaf and bamboo to Javanese beaten tree-bark paper (dluwang) as well as European and Chinese paper.

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Sloane manuscripts from Southeast Asia on display outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room  noc

On the top shelf of the exhibition case are grouped manuscripts relating to faiths of Southeast Asia. The Hinduized court culture of early Java is represented by a fragment of the Arjunawijaya, a court poem (kakawin) composed by Mpu Tantular in the 14th century in the kingdom of Majapahit (Sloane 3480). The lines on this small fragment of palm leaf, representing part of the right-hand half of a single leaf, describe a confrontation between Śiva’s attendant Nandīśvara and the ten-faced demon Rāvaṇa. The manuscript is in Old Javanese – an early form of the Javanese language characterised by an exceptionally high proportion of Sanskrit words – written in Balinese script, and is undated.  Since its entry into the British Museum this Old Javanese fragment had remained unidentified until it was digitised and highlighted in a recent blog; within 24 hours the text had been read and identified by a group of scholars located in different parts of the globe, and their report can be read here.

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Fragment of the Arjunawijaya in Old Javanese in Balinese script, on palm leaf. British Library, Sloane 3480  noc

Also written on palm leaf is a manuscript of the Pātimokkha, the Buddhist code of monastic discipline, dating to around 1700 or earlier (Sloane 4099(4)). The single folio on display contains three main lines of text from the Pātimokkha in Pali, the canonical language of Theravada Buddhism, written in Cambodian (Khmer) script, accompanied by interlinear explanations.

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Section of one leaf of the Pātimokkha in Pali in Khmer script. British Library, Sloane 4099(4)

Islam is represented by an important Arabic text of the Shafi‘ī school of law, Masā’īl al-ta‘līm, ‘Questions for instruction’, by the 16th-century Yemeni scholar ‘Abd Allāh bin ‘Abd al-Raḥmān Bā Faḍl (Sloane 2645). This manuscript, copied by a scribe named ‘Abd al-Qadīm, has an interlinear translation in Javanese in Arabic (pegon) script, and is dated  1545 in the Javanese era, equivalent to 1623/4 AD. This complete copy. in excellent condition. is one of the earliest dated manuscripts written on dluwang, Javanese paper made from the beaten bark of the mulberry tree.

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Masā’īl al-ta‘līm, in Arabic with Javanese translation and notes, 1623. British Library, Sloane 2645, ff. 6v-7r  noc

The most recent world religion to arrive in Southeast Asia was Christianity, brought by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and on display is a Christian Psalter written in Malay in Roman script (Sloane 3115). The owner of this book was Cornelius van der Sluijs, a clergyman who served in the Moluccas and died in Batavia in 1715. This collection of hymns, psalms and Christian services in Malay was probably compiled in Ambon around 1678, following Van der Sluijs’s ordination as a full minister of the Dutch Calvinist church.

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The first page of the Psalms of David in Malay, showing the distinctive octagonal British Museum stamp designed for use on Sloane's library. British Library, Sloane 3115, f. 2r  noc

On the bottom shelf are documents relating to trade. The largest and most impressive visually is a royal letter from the ruler of Tonkin in the form of an illuminated scroll written in the Vietnamese language in Chinese (Han Nom) characters, probably despatched in 1673 (Sloane 3460). In 1672 the first English East India Company ship arrived in Tonkin in north Vietnam, and in March 1673 the captain, William Gyfford, was permitted to meet the ruler Trịnh Tac (r. 1657-1682). While the Company sought the establishment of commercial relations with Tonkin, the Vietnamese were interested in accessing new technology, and in his letter, Trịnh Tac requests iron or bronze cast cannons.

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The complete illuminated Vietnamese letter with red ink seal of Lord Trịnh Tac, 1673, with a detail showing the fine silver illumination; only a small section of the scroll has been unrolled for display. British Library, Sloane 3460  noc

The Chinese mercantile presence in Southeast Asia is reflected in a small piece of bamboo, with two lines of Javanese incised on one side with further annotations in Javanese and Lampung script, and on the other side a note written in black ink in Chinese (Sloane 1403E). The Chinese text appears to be a record of an account, and is dated in the Chinese zodiacal cycle with a date most likely equivalent to 1708.

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Front and reverse of a financial account, with text in Javanese, Lampung and Chinese, [1708]. British Library, Sloane 1403E  noc

Of particular interest are two trading permits issued by King Chandrawizaya (r. 1710-1731) of the kingdom of Mrauk U in Arakan in Burma (Myanmar). The permit written in Burmese, dated 1728, is the longest and the earliest dated palm leaf manuscript from Burma (Myanmar) in the British Library (Sloane 4098). Also found in the Sloane collection is a Persian edict (farmān) from the ruler of Arakan, dated 14 Sha‘bān 1090 (Sloane 3259). In his catalogue of Persian manuscripts in the British Museum, Charles Rieu assumed that the year inscribed was in the Hijra era, and thus dated the letter to 1679. Fortunately, just as we were preparing this exhibition, Arash Khazeni was preparing an edition of the Persian farmān, and noticed that the year was given as sanat 1090 Magi, referring to the Burmese era. The date was thus equivalent to 1728, revealing that the Persian document was in fact a counterpart to the Burmese permit! Both documents are addressed to the Armenian merchant Khwajeh Georgin (George) in Chennaipattana (Madras) across the Bay of Bengal, giving him permission to trade. Both bear the king’s round seal, inscribed in Pali, ‘Supreme Lord, Master of the Golden Palace’, which is blind-stamped on the palm leaf permit, stamped in black ink on the Persian letter, and in red wax on its cloth envelope and paper wrapper.

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The pointed end of the Burmese permit of the king of Arakan, with his round seal. Sloane 4098  noc

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The seal and date at the start of the trading permit in Persian from the king of Arakan, 1728. British Library, Sloane 3259  noc

Further reading:

Javanese manuscripts in the Sloane collection

Sir Hans Sloane's Old Javanese manuscript, Sloane 3480

Malay manuscripts in the Sloane collection

Arash Khazeni, ‘Merchants to the Golden City: the Persian Farmān of King Chandrawizaya Rājā and the elephant and ivory trade in the Indian Ocean, a view from 1728’, Iranian Studies, 2018, vol. 51.

From books to bezoars: Sir Hans Sloane and his collections, ed. Alison Walker, Arthur MacGregor and Michael Hunter (London: The British Library, 2012)

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

 

18 July 2018

Traditional games in Burma

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Manuscripts from Burma (Myanmar) in the form of folding books (parabaik) often contain depictions of traditional games and sports such boxing, martial arts, cock-fighting and chinlone, reflecting popular activities in daily life.

One of the national games of Burma is chinlone, or the cane-ball game, played with a ball made of six hoops of interwoven smoothly-cut cane or rattan. The idea of the game is to try to keep the chinlone up in the air for as long as possible by foot-work, and to not let it drop to the ground. The chinlone can be kicked by the instep, outer and inner sides of the foot, sole, heel and knee, but may not be touched with the hand. It can be played indoors and outdoors, in all seasons and by all ages, and is often played barefoot. Burmese people regard this traditional game as good for exercising leg muscles, building strength and developing body flexibility.

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The illustration depicts a professional solo player playing chinlone in a court yard, while the king and queen in the pavilion watch the game. In the painting, the player has heavily tattoed legs, and his longyi (waist-cloth) is tucked up close round the middle, so that his legs may be quite free to play. In the game, the player sends the chinlone into the air again and again with decreasing force till he allows it to alight in the hollow of his shoulder, and he then rolls it down the back of the arm and jerks the chinlone off at his elbow to catch it on his knee. Up to seven chinlone may be tossed by master players; in this painting the player is playing with three chinlone. In the bottom right, musicians perform with a traditional orchestra and drum. British Library, Or 13291, f. 13 Noc

The game of chinlone can be played solo, but it more enjoyable with teams of six players. The team stands in a circle, the players standing three or four feet apart from one another and the chinlone is passed from one to another, by flipping it in the air using a succession of thirty techniques. There are rules for chinlone competitions between teams. The game exercises the body in a way that restores elasticity to the back and limbs, but it is believed that the game is good not only for physical exercise but also for mental control.

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The above scene shows a chinlone tournament. Court musicians play in a traditional Burmese orchestra while the king and queen under the white umbrellas watch a chinlone game. Four players each toss a chinlone with their feet, without touching it with their hands, trying to keep it in the air as long as possible. They may also touch or flip the chinlones with their knees, ankles, soles and shoulders. British Library, Or 14551, f. 8 Noc

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Four players play chinlone in the monastery compound, watched by a group of monks. Photograph of the national Burmese game of chinlone, taken by Watts and Skeen in the 1890s, British Library, Photo 430/15(63) Noc

Other games depicted in Burmese parabaik include polo, javelin throwing, horse racing and cock fighting. Illustrations in parabaiks show that historically, Burmese royals were very fond of watching polo.

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The above scene shows nine military men on horseback playing polo in a courtyard. According to  Burmese historical sources, this game was probably brought to Burma from Manipur in northeast India. British Library, Or. 6779, f. 8 Noc

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This painting depicts Burmese courtiers on horseback playing a game of polo, watched by the king and queen in the pavilion. The teams of four players on horseback try to hit the ball through the goal posts in order to score. In the illustration, the team wearing green (on the left) is competing against the team wearing red (on the right). British Library, Or 14963 f. 9 Noc

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Shown here are two large long legged fowls fighting each other, and people betting. Cock fighting was a favourite game of village people in the past, and despite being condemned by religion, people still bet heavily on their birds. British Library, Or 13291, f. 15 Noc

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The above painting shows the traditional Burmese form of boxing. The two boxers have their longyis gathered up over their groins to their waists, in order to move their knees and legs easily. Tattoos can be seen on their legs, but other parts of their bodies are left bare. No gloves are worn in Burmese boxing; instead, the skill in this game lies in leaping into the air and kicking each other with their bare feet. On the left, the royals watch the boxing tournament, while to the right, musicians  entertain them. British Library, Or 16761, f. 31 Noc

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An equestrian competition. This painting shows the king and queen watching a competition in martial skills. The competitors are princes, officials of ranks, and officers of the army, who are throwing spears from horseback at a gallop at targets placed on poles ranging from 15 to 50 or 100 cubits in height, standing at intervals one after the other. Under the monarchy, kings held equestrian competitions to select the best soldiers for the cavalry. British Library, Or 14963, f. 10 Noc

All the scenes of games in these Burmese folding books are painted in water colours and enclosed in yellow panels with a single line or a few words of explanatory text in Burmese script along the bottom border.

In Burma today, the game of chinlone can still be seen being played everywhere, by players young or old, male or damile, in fields and yards or in tournaments. Young girls play hop scotch at school or in playgrounds. Some seasonal festivals in Burma involve athletic competitions, with games such as climbing a greased pole, tugs of war, pulling a rope and pillow fights. In the mid-nineteenth century, western sports such as football, badminton, tennis, volleyball and golf were introduced to Burma.

Further reading:
'Chinlone: the Burmese Cane-ball game', by U Ah Yein. Guardian magazine, August 1960.

San San May, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

08 June 2018

Buddhism Illuminated through Southeast Asian Manuscript Art (1)

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Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia is a lavishly-illustrated book which has just been published by the British Library, in collaboration with Washington University Press. The book, by two curators in the British Library's Southeast Asia section, is dedicated to the memory of the Library’s former Curator of Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections, Dr Henry D. Ginsburg (1940-2007), who was a leading expert and one of the pioneers of research on Buddhist manuscript art in Southeast Asia. The purpose of this book is to share many years of research on the British Library’s unique collection of Southeast Asian manuscripts on Buddhism, which illustrate not only the life and teachings of the historical Buddha, but also everyday Buddhist practice, life within the monastic order, festivals, cosmology, and ethical principles and values.

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Front cover of Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia, London: British Library 2018.

The book contains six chapters and over 200 high-quality coloured photographs of manuscripts which have mostly been digitised with generous funding from Henry Ginsburg’s Legacy. The illustrations are mainly from eighteenth and nineteenth century Burmese and Thai manuscripts, and the book provides detailed background information on Theravada Buddhism in general and Buddhist art in mainland Southeast Asia in particular.

The first chapter is an introduction to Buddhist manuscripts in Southeast Asia and gives an overview of the British Library’s Burmese, Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections. It discusses not only the production and contents of Buddhist manuscripts in the region, but also all aspects of manuscript culture, including storage chests and cabinets, and manuscript wrappers and binding ribbons (sazigyo).

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A palm leaf manuscript of the Malalankara (the Burmese version of the Life of Gotama Buddha) from Burma, dated 1883. British Library, Or 16673 Noc

The palm leaf manuscript shown above has five bundles and is a fine example of Burmese craftsmanship and artistry. The leaves with gilded and lacquered edges are bound between a pair of red lacquered binding boards, together with a hand-woven sazigyo featuring Burmese script. The manuscript is wrapped in a cotton cloth with butterfly and flower patterns on a red coloured background. The text on the sazigyo states ‘May the merit of writing the scripture of the Buddha’s 45 years of glorious teachings help me to attain nibbana.’

The Library’s collections are particularly rich in illustrated folding books and palm leaf manuscripts featuring scenes from the Life of the Buddha, Jataka stories or Birth Tales, Buddhist cosmology, as well as festivals and rituals.

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A Thai paper folding book (samut khoi) from the eighteenth century containing extracts from the Tipitaka with illustrations from the Ten Birth Tales (or the last Ten Jatakas). British Library, Or. 14068, f. 4 Noc

Each of the last Ten Birth Tales illustrates one of the Buddha’s great qualities, mahabuddhaguna. Illustrated in the Thai folding book above is the Nimi Jataka, illustrating the quality of resolution through the story of Prince Nimi who, thanks to his great merits, was invited to visit the Buddhist heavens. On his journey there, the charioteer stopped briefly at one hell where Nimi learned of the torments and sufferings in the Buddhist hells. This is one of a small number of surviving eighteenth-century manuscripts from central Thailand with illustrations of outstanding quality.

The second chapter,  “Buddha – The Enlightened One,” introduces the concept of Buddhahood and shows how the historical Gotama Buddha, who lived and taught in northeast India over 2,500 years ago, is depicted in manuscript illustrations. An overview is given of the 28 Buddhas of the past, as well as examples of Jatakas, stories of previous lives of the historical Buddha. Also presented in this chapter are important episodes from the life of the historical Buddha such as his birth as Prince Siddhattha, his famous renunciation of worldly life, the miracles of the Enlightened One, the Buddha’s visit to Tavatimsa heaven, his passing into parinibbana and the coming of the future Buddha Metteyya.

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Folding book with scenes from the life of Gotama Buddha. Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 14297, f. 6 Noc

The birth of the Buddha-to-be (Prince Siddhattha Gotama) illustrated in the rare Burmese manuscript shown above depicts the procession of Queen Maha Maya through Lumbini Garden on her way to Devadaha, depicted at the bottom of the page. Above left we see Queen Maha Maya holding with her right hand a branch of the Sal tree for support and ease of pain while giving birth, with her left hand draped around the shoulder of Pajapati Gotami, the queen’s sister. The scene in the top right corner depicts the Brahmas receiving the new-born prince into the world. This is a fine example of Burmese artistic interpretations of scenes from the Life of Gotama Buddha.

After his enlightenment, the Buddha told his disciples and followers of his experiences in his previous existences, before he was born as Prince Siddhattha. The Buddha’s previous lives are the subject of a large collection of stories commonly known as Jatakas, or Birth Tales. The Jatakas show how he gradually acquired greater moral stature in passing from one incarnation to another. These stories are well-known in all Buddhist cultures of mainland Southeast Asia. The Buddha is thought to have narrated them during his ministry to his followers, using each Jataka to teach certain ethical principles and values.

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Illustration of the Dipankara Jataka from Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Mss Burmese 202, f.1 Noc

The Dipankara Jataka, the story of Dipankara Buddha, is special in the way that it tells of how the historical Buddha in one of his earlier incarnations met one of the 28 Buddhas of the past. The illustration above shows how the Buddha-to-be Sumedha receives his niyatha vivarana (prediction of future Buddhahood) from Dipankara Buddha, who had reached enlightenment aeons before Gotama Buddha. When he arrived at a place called Ramma, to honour him, local people cleaned the road for him to walk upon, and Sumedha took responsibility for one stretch of the muddy road. The Buddha Dipankara addressed the hermit Sumedha and foretells that in due time he will himself attain enlightenment and become a Buddha.

As well as the Buddhas of the past, the Buddha of the future, Metteyya, is also depicted in illustrated manuscripts. He is often portrayed in Thai manuscripts telling the legend of the monk Phra Malai, who, during his journey to the Buddhist heavens, learns about the coming of the future Buddha.

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Folding book containing the story of the monk Phra Malai. Central Thailand, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 6630, f. 42 Noc

These two generously gilded illustrations in the Thai painting style of the nineteenth century are set in two of the Buddhist heavens, Tavatimsa (left) and Tusita (right). On the left, the monk Phra Malai is shown seated, in orange robes, in front of the heavenly Culamani Ceti. This stupa houses the hair collected by the god Sakka when Prince Siddhattha cut his topknot on adopting the ascetic life. Phra Malai converses with Sakka (shown here as a green figure) and a deva attendant. On the right the Bodhisatta Natha, the future Buddha Metteyya residing in Tusita heaven, is depicted with a group of female attendant deities, all wearing glamorous outfits. Tusita heaven is thought to be the residence of divine beings (devata). The appearance of the future Buddha Metteyya forecasts a blissful future for those humans who follow the Dhamma, or Buddha’s teachings.

Although the life of Gotama Buddha, and those of the Buddhas of the past and the future Buddha, are often at the center of Buddhist manuscript art, there is much more to learn from Southeast Asian manuscript art about Buddha’s teachings, life in the monastic order and everyday Buddhist practice. All the details can be found in the newly published book, and a few more will be revealed in part two of this blog which will follow soon.

San San May and Jana Igunma, Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia, London: British Library 2018. (ISBN 978 0 7123 5206 2)

The book is available from all major booksellers and online.

San San May, Curator for Burmese
Jana Igunma, Henry D. Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian

Ccownwork