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48 posts categorized "Thai"

28 September 2020

Tickling the trees, dancing with clouds: Birds in Thai manuscript illustration (2)

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In my previous article on Birds in Thai manuscript illustration I described depictions of natural birds in Thai Buddhist manuscripts. Images of birds can be found in scenes from the last ten Birth Tales of the Buddha, but also in illustrations of the mythical Himavanta forest at the foot of the mythical Mount Meru according to Buddhist cosmology. Such illustrations are used to accompany extracts from the Pali canon (Tipiṭaka), specifically text passages from the Seven Books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka contained in funeral or commemoration volumes.

Detail from a painting depicting a natural scene with a pair of unidentified birds in a Thai folding book containing the Mahābuddhagunā and extracts from the Tipiṭaka. Central Thailand, 18th century
Detail from a painting depicting a natural scene with a pair of unidentified birds in a Thai folding book containing the Mahābuddhagunā and extracts from the Tipiṭaka. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14068 f.52)
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Many birds depicted in manuscript illustrations however cannot be identified as real birds. Some of them may represent real birds that the painter never had seen in nature and only knew from descriptions. From early European depictions of life in Thailand dating back to the time before the invention of photography, for example, we know that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for an artist to create a realistic impression of something from just a verbal description.

Scene from the Bhuridatta Jātaka depicting the serpent Bhuridatta coiled around an ant hill next to a pair of birds which could represent Red-headed Trogons (Harpactes erythrocephalus, นกขุนแผนหัวแดง). Central Thailand, 18th century.  British Library, Or 14068 f.7
Scene from the Bhuridatta Jātaka depicting the serpent Bhuridatta coiled around an ant hill next to a pair of birds which could represent Red-headed Trogons (Harpactes erythrocephalus, นกขุนแผนหัวแดง). Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14068 f.7)
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The birds in the illustration above from the Bhuridatta Jātaka - a Birth Tale in which the Buddha in a previous life was a serpent (nāga) who followed the Buddhist precepts - have a mainly red coloured head and body with a white chest, black wings and long, black tail feathers. The description, to some extent, matches that of the Red-headed Trogon (Harpactes erythrocephalus, นกขุนแผนหัวแดง). This bird, described by John Gould in 1834, is found in all countries of Southeast Asia as well as Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. It has variations in coloration throughout its range, but always follows the same general color scheme: the male has a dark red head and belly, a white patch on the chest, a brown back, and barred black-and-white wings. The female has a more faded-red belly and a brown head. This is a typically stationary bird and difficult to see, and often one can only hear its high-pitched gulping hoots.

Detail of an illustration of the Himavanta forest with a pair of ducks, possibly Mandarin Ducks (Aix galericulata, เป็ดแมนดาริน). Central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or.14068 f.34
Detail of an illustration of the Himavanta forest with a pair of ducks, possibly Mandarin Ducks (Aix galericulata, เป็ดแมนดาริน). Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14068 f.34)
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Some of the bird illustrations in this manuscript are particularly colourful, which makes it even more difficult to establish whether they are real or imagined birds. One example is found in an illustration of the Himavanta forest accompanying text passages of the Mahābuddhagunā: two birds are depicted with long slender necks and pointed tails in yellow, brown, red, green, blue and white colours. Remarkable are the long red bills with red crests. Judging from their shape these birds are clearly ducks and the colours match to some extent those of the male Mandarin Duck, although in nature these ducks do not have long slender necks. In this case the painter may again have worked from a verbal description without seeing a Mandarin Duck in nature. However, it is possible that the painting had been inspired by Chinese representations of Mandarin Ducks on porcelain or textiles

The Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata, เป็ดแมนดาริน), described by Carolus Linnaeus in 1758, is a medium-sized perching duck originally found in East Asia, but nowadays with large populations in Europe and North America as well. The appearance of the adult male is striking: it has a red bill, a large white crescent above the eye and a reddish face. The breast is purple with two vertical white bars, and the flanks ruddy, with two orange tips at the back. The female is of a mainly brownish colour with some white. Both the males and females have crests, but the crest is more pronounced on the male. In Chinese culture Mandarin Ducks are regarded as a symbol of conjugal affection and fidelity, and are frequently featured in Chinese art.

Detail of an illustration of the Himavanta forest with a pair of birds which may represent Mrs. Hume's Pheasants (Syrmaticus humiae, ไก่ฟ้าหางลายขวาง). Central Thailand, 18th century.  British Library, Or.14068 f.33
Detail of an illustration of the Himavanta forest with a pair of birds which may represent Mrs. Hume's Pheasants (Syrmaticus humiae, ไก่ฟ้าหางลายขวาง). Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14068 f.33)
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One last example of outstanding painting quality in this manuscript is a pair of colourful birds appearing in another illustration of a scene in the Himavanta forest, in which the birds are placed above a pair of mythical lions (Rajasiha, ราชสีห์). These bird illustrations stand out for the detail of the long and pointy wing and tail feathers in red, brown and green colours. The chest is white and the upper part is dominated by red and orange tones with darker spots on the back. The colour of the head, or crest, matches the green in the wings and tail. The long, pointed wing and tail feathers may be a hint that the painter tried to depict Mrs. Hume's Pheasants (Syrmaticus humiae, ไก่ฟ้าหางลายขวาง) , a species of a rare pheasant found throughout forested habitats in southwestern China, northeastern India, Burma and Thailand. Allan O. Hume described the bird in 1881 as a large, bar-tailed forest pheasant with a greyish brown head, bare red facial skin, chestnut brown plumage, yellowish bill, brownish orange iris, white wingbars and metallic blue neck feathers. The male has a long greyish white, barred black and brown tail whereas the female is a chestnut brown bird with whitish throat, buff color belly and white-tipped tail.

It is quite remarkable that the painter of this manuscript tried to include some real birds in the illustrations which depict scenes from the last ten Birth Tales of the Buddha and of the Himavanta forest. Although these birds are purely decorative elements, they give viewers some sense of reality and connection with their own lives. They also show that there was good knowledge of certain species of birds, whereas others may have been rarely seen and painters had to work with verbal descriptions of very rare birds.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections
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Further reading

McDaniel, Justin: "The Bird in the Corner of the Painting: Some Problems with the Use of Buddhist Texts to Study Buddhist Ornamental Art in Thailand." Moussons 23, 2014, pp. 21-53

13 July 2020

Suthon and Manora: A jewel of Thai literature, art and performance

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The poetic story of Suthon and Manora (สุธนมโนห์รา) is one of the most popular Thai literary works and has inspired fine art and the performing arts in Thailand. The theme of the story is rooted in an early Sanskrit text with the title Sudhanakumāravadāna which is included in the Divyāvadāna, a collection of biographical narratives of important figures in early Buddhist history, dating back to the third or fourth century CE. Another related Sanskrit source is the Kinnarī Jātaka in the Mahāvastu, a preface to the Buddhist monastic code. Based on a Pali translation of the Sudhana Jātaka, an extra-canonical Birth Tale of the Buddha (Paññāsa Jātaka) created in northern Thailand around the fifteenth century, two poetic versions (klon suat) of Suthon and Manora were then composed in the Thai language: one showing a central Thai origin and another with a southern Thai cultural context. However, the story is also known in the Lao, Khmer, Mon, Shan and Burmese literary and performing traditions. Scenes from the legend based on the early Indian sources are depicted in a painting in cave 1 at Ajanta (5th century CE) in India and on twenty relief panels on the first terrace of Candi Borobudur (8th/9th century CE) in Indonesia, the largest Buddhist monument in the world.

Text passage from the story of Suthon and Manora in a Thai folding book
Text passage from the story of Suthon and Manora in a Thai folding book. Thailand, 19th century (British Library, Or.8851 f.15)
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At the centre of the story is Kinnari Manora (กินรี มโนห์รา), a female mythical figure with a human head and upper body and the lower body of a bird. Kinnari, and their male counterparts, Kinnara (กินนร), are believed to live in the the mythical realm of half-bird-half-human beings beyond the Himavanta forest, which is inaccessible for humans whereas Kinnara and Kinnari have the ability to enter the human realm. Manora lives happily as a princess in the world of Kinnara (plural). However, one day while taking a bath in a lake of the human realm, she is captured by a hunter with a magic noose and is forced to remain in the world of humans. Here she meets Prince Suthon, heir to the kingdom of Uttarapancala, and subsequently the two fall in love and get married.

A pair of Kinnara in the mythological Himavanta forest depicted in a collection of drawings on Thai cosmology and mythology
A pair of Kinnara in the mythological Himavanta forest depicted in a collection of drawings on Thai cosmology and mythology. Thailand, 1824 (British Library, Add MS 27370 sheet 3)
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However, because of conflict in the kingdom Prince Suthon is sent away to subdue a rebellious vassal. A jealous court counselor misinterprets a dream of the king and requests the sacrifice of Manora. She flees the kingdom and returns to the realm of Kinnara, leaving her beloved Suthon behind. When he returns and discovers that Manora was forced to leave, he chases after her. Despite the perilous journey to the realm of Kinnara, he proves his love for Manora to the king. Finally, the two lovers are reunited and return to the human realm and live happily ever after.

The two poetic versions in Thai language adhere to the Pali version of the Sudhana Jātaka in all major and minor details, however, they are not actual translations, but versified re-tellings of the story. The Thai texts also emphasize and embellish the natural setting of the tale in line with the characteristics often found in Thai literature and art. While the figure of Suthon enjoys the status of a Bodhisatta (Buddha-to-be), the figure of Manora represents ideal beauty, set in a Thai stylistic framework for the story that employs description and digression, epithets, metaphors and similes.

Front cover of the book "Phra Suthon Manora"
Front cover of the book "Phra Suthon Manora", retold by Phongchan and published by Sermwit Bannakhan publishing house, Bangkok, in BE 2524 (1981 CE)
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Numerous print publications containing the story of Suthon and Manora have appeared in Thai language in the past hundred years, mainly for pleasure reading and as juvenile literature.

Various translations were made into European languages: a French translation by Jean Drans was included in his publication with the title "Histoire de Nang Manôra et histoire de Sang Thong: deux récits du Recueil des cinquante Jâtaka. Traduits du siamois" (Tokyo, 1947). A translation into German by Christian Velder appeared in the book "Muschelprinz und Duftende Blüte: Liebesgeschichten aus Thailand" (Zurich, 1966). Henry Ginsburg, while working on his dissertaion "The Sudhana-Manohara tale in Thai: a comparative study based on two texts from the National Library, Bangkok and Wat Machimawat, Songkhla" (SOAS University of London, 1971) made a translation of the story from Thai into English, now held at the British Library (Or.16758).

The southern Thai tradition of Suthon and Manora also relates to a popular dance-drama known as manora or short nora (โนรา), which appears to borrow its name from the heroine, Kinnari Manora, although the story itself is not re-enacted in the dance performance. While carrying out research for his dissertation in Thailand, Henry Ginsburg was able to attend a nora performance, which is documented in his photo collection (Photo 1213).

Traditional nora performer in southern Thailand, late 1960s
Traditional nora performer in southern Thailand, late 1960s. Photograph by Henry Ginsburg (British Library, Photo 1213(233))
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There are two types of nora dance: one is performed in a ceremonial context, known as nora rong khru (โนราโรงครู), and the other is for entertainment.

Nora rong khru is an important ritual dance for professional nora performers. Its purpose is to invite the ancestral spirits of the great nora masters of the past in order to pay homage to them. The ritual involves making votive offerings to the ancestral spirits, and the initiation of novice dancers. The full version of the ritual dance, which lasts three days and nights, is a highlight of events in the community. It usually is performed once in a year, or every three or five years, depending on the traditions of the different nora schools. A shorter version of the ritual can be performed more frequently and lasts only one day and one night.

Nora performances for entertainment can be held at any time, and they can have a competitive character. They allow dancers - novices and masters alike - to demonstrate their talents and their skills which can combine the dancing with singing. The dance is characterised by striking body poses which require many years of practice. Normally such performances do not focus on telling a story, but the dancers may decide to include episodes from well-known stories like Suthon and Manora to entertain the audiences. One of the most popular scenes to be performed is the scene of the huntsman capturing Manora. Entertainment performances always include at the beginning a song to pay homage to the teachers and the great ancestral masters of nora, and a solo performance of the current master of the school or dance troupe.

Kanit Sripaoraya, a Ph.D. candidate and a nora practitioner performs one nora movement in the pose of ‘the sitting of Kinnara’
Kanit Sripaoraya, a Ph.D. candidate and a nora practitioner performs one nora movement in the pose of ‘the sitting of Kinnara’ (in Thai 'Kinnon-nang', กินนรนั่ง), 29 September 2014. © Photograph courtesy of Kanit Sripaoraya.

Nora dances are often performed on a makeshift stage made specifically for this purpose in the community. The back of the stage is formed by a large colourful painting on cloth or a curtain. An orchestra which comprises mostly of percussion instruments determines the speed and rhythm of the dance. The most striking element of the requisites for nora performances are the costumes of the dancers who can be male or female. The costume of the principal performer who is called nora yai is made of beads in various colours which are arranged in geometric patterns. Other components include an elaborately decorated headgear, a pair of wings attached to the costume, a pendant, a decorative tail, a wrap-around skirt, a pair of calf-length trousers, additional pieces of cloth hanging down from the waist, bracelets and fingertip extension pieces. The other dancers do not usually have a pendant and wings. The attributes related to birds (wings and decorative bird tail) can be seen as a reference to Kinnari Manora, the half-bird half-human heroine of the tale of Suthon and Manora.

Nora Thanakorn Bandisak (right) recites the verse, and leads the nora practitioners, Nora Ekachai Numsawat (left) and Nora Nipaporn Namsuk (center) perform one of the movement of ‘Bot Prathom’
Nora Thanakorn Bandisak (right) recites the verse, and leads the nora practitioners, Nora Ekachai Numsawat (left) and Nora Nipaporn Namsuk (center) perform one of the movement of ‘Bot Prathom’ (บทปฐม) for the ceremony of nora (nora rong khru, โนราโรงครู) at Baan Lak chang, Nakorn Si Thammarat, Thailand, 1 May 2013. © Photograph courtesy of Kanit Sripaoraya.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections
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Bibliography

Baker, Chris and Pasuk Phongpaichit, From the fifty Jātaka: Selections from the Thai Paññāsa Jātaka. Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 2019.
Drans, Jean, Histoire de Nang Manôra et histoire de Sang Thong : deux récits du Recueil des cinquante Jâtaka. Traduits du siamois . Tokyo: Presses salésiennes, 1947.
Ginsburg, Henry, The Sudhana-Manoharā tale in Thai: a comparative study based on two texts from the National Library, Bangkok and Wat Macimāwāt, Songkhla. London: University of London, 1972.
Horner, Isaline B. and Padmanabh S. Jaini, Apocryphal birth-stories : (Paññasa-jātaka). London: The Pali Text Society, 1985-1986 (2 vol).
Levin, Cecelia, Sudhana and Manoharā, “A Story of Love, Loss and Redemption at Candi Borobudur,” In From Beyond the Eastern Horizon: Essays in Honour of Professor Lokesh Chandra. Ed. Manjushree. Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 2011, pp. 191-204.
NORA, Intangible Cultural Heritage  (retrieved 20.04.2020).
Padmanabh S. Jaini, “The story of Sudhana and Manohara: an analysis of the texts and the Borobudur reliefs,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. London: University of London, vol. 29, pt. 3, 1966.
Schlingloff, Dieter: Prince Sudhana and the kinnari, an Indian love-story in Ajanta. Torino: Istituto di indologia, 1973.
Velder, Christian: Muschelprinz und Duftende Blüte: Liebesgeschichten aus Thailand. Zürich: Manesse, 1966.

 

05 June 2020

A Thai royal edition of Pannasa Jataka (ปัญญาสชาดก)

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Paññāsa Jātaka are extra-canonical Birth Tales of the Buddha. Their origin is usually associated with northern Thailand, or the former kingdom of Lānnā. However, many such extra-canonical Birth Tales found their way into the literatures of neighbouring peoples, such as the Thai of central Thailand and the Lao of Laos and northeast Thailand. Motifs that appear in some Paññāsa Jātaka can also be found on ninth-century reliefs at the Borobudur monument in Java, which suggests that some Paññāsa Jātaka may be derived from older pre-Buddhist Southeast Asian folklore. Various Paññāsa Jātaka have parallels with Sanskrit literature as well as Tamil, Chinese, Tibetan, Khotanese and Southeast Asian folk tales (Fickle, 1978).
Wooden covers of a Thai royal manuscript containing a selection of Paññāsa Jātaka from central Thailand, c.1851-1868
Wooden covers of a Thai royal manuscript containing a selection of Paññāsa Jātaka from central Thailand, c.1851-1868 (British Library, Or 12524)
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Detail from the black lacquered back cover with gilt floral decoration of a Thai royal manuscript containing Paññāsa Jātaka
Detail from the black lacquered back cover with gilt floral decoration of a Thai royal manuscript containing Paññāsa Jātaka. Central Thailand, c.1851-1868 (British Library, Or 12524)
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The Pali expression Paññāsa Jātaka literally means “fifty Birth Tales”. Varying in numbers and order of arrangement, several collections of Paññāsa Jātaka are known in the northern Thai (Lānnā), Lao, Tai Lue, Tai Khuen, central Thai, Cambodian, Burmese and Mon traditions. Although there is no evidence as to which is the original or standard collection, it is thought that most of the Paññāsa Jātaka were written down by Buddhist monastics in the Lānnā kingdom between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, mostly in the local northern Thai (Lānnā) dialect, with some phrases in Pāli language. Centres of Buddhist scholarship in the Lānnā kingdom were Wat Pā Daeng, Wat Phra Sing, Wat Mahābodhi in Chiang Mai and Wat Phra Thāt Haripunjaya in Lamphun, but many of the learned monks fled to Luang Prabang before and during the Burmese conquest of Chiang Mai in 1558, and others were taken to Burma. This explains not only the spread of the Paññāsa Jātaka but also the increase in production of manuscripts containing Paññāsa Jātaka across mainland Southeast Asia. The collections of Paññāsa Jātaka are also known as Jātaka nǭk nibāt and Hāsip chāt in the Lānnā and Lao traditions, and Zimmè pannātha in the Burmese tradition (Zimmè referring to Chiang Mai). Most of the surviving manuscripts containing one or more Paññāsa Jātaka date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but many of them appear to be copies from older manuscripts. Pali language versions of Paññāsa Jātaka can be found in the central Thai, Khmer and Burmese traditions.

Paññāsa Jātaka in Khmer script on palm leaves in ten bundles
Paññāsa Jātaka in Khmer script on palm leaves in ten bundles, written in ink on gilt background (first leaf of each bundle) and incised on plain palm leaves. With small lacquered and gilded illuminations in ovals on the second leaf. Central Thailand, c.1851-1868 (British Library, Or 12524)
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A royal edition of a selection of Paññāsa Jātaka was commissioned by King Mongkut (Rama IV, r.1851-1868). The text was written mainly in Khmer script which was commonly used for Pali Buddhist scriptures in central Thailand up until the end of the nineteenth century. Only a few words on the first two leaves are written in Khom script, a variant of Khmer script used in Thailand. The manuscript consists of ten bundles with altogether 235 palm leaves, held between two wooden covers which were decorated with black lacquer and gilt floral patterns. The text was incised and blackened on the plain dried palm leaves, except the first leaf of each bundle which are gilded with text applied in black ink or lacquer. All the palm leaves have gilded edges. The title leaves of each bundle are decorated with two illuminations in ovals; one on the left side showing a vihāra (Buddhist assembly hall), and one on the right depicting the royal seal of King Mongkut (Rama IV) with a crown between two parasols (below).

Royal seal of King Mongkut (Rama IV)
Royal seal of King Mongkut (Rama IV) on the title leaf of the first bundle of a royal manuscript containing Paññāsa Jātaka. Central Thailand, c.1851-1868 (British Library, Or 12524)
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A set of northern Thai Paññāsa Jātaka transliterated from Dhamma script into Thai script was published in 1998 under the auspices of Chiang Mai University. The international team of researchers involved in this project point out that the original manuscript version written in northern Thai Dhamma script is mainly in the Lānnā dialect with added words and phrases in Pali. The text of these Paññāsa Jātaka is in prose and largely follows the structure of the Jātaka in the Pali canon. Whereas central Thai manuscript versions of the Paññāsa Jātaka were compiled in Pali language, early printed works usually contain translations of these stories in Thai language to make them available to wider audiences in central Thailand. The first printed Thai translation was published in 1923 under the direction of Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, a son of King Mongkut (Rama IV) and founder of the modern educational system of Thailand.

05 first Thai publication
"Paññāsa Jātaka phāk thī 12 prachum nithān nai prathēt nī tǣ borān 50 rư̄ang worawong chādok". A translation of Paññāsa Jātaka into Thai published in Bangkok, Vajirañāna Library, 2470 (1923 CE). Source: National Library of Thailand (accessed 31/03/2020)

To understand the dissemination of a relatively small extra-canonical collection of stories with a Buddhist motif over a wider geographical area one has to take the role of oral tradition and performance into consideration. Although monks and novices may have collected folktales and written them down for the first time, and even translated them into Pali and then back into various other vernacular languages, the spread of these stories will also have to be credited to the oral traditions and performing arts. Not only monks travelled forth and back between centres of Buddhist worship, education and art, but also royals, artists, singers and musicians, theatre troupes, craftsmen, traders and ordinary people who would have helped to make their own folkloristic heritage known in foreign lands. And even when texts had been written down, the manuscripts did not necessarily stay in one place, but were often donated to Buddhist temples in faraway cities, regions and countries.

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

Bibliography

Baker, Chris and Pasuk Phongpaichit: From the fifty Jātaka: Selections from the Thai Paññāsa Jātaka. Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 2019
Fickle, Dorothy H.: An historical and structural study of the Paññāsa Jātaka. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1978
Niyadā Laosunthō̜n: Panyāsa chādok : prawat læ khwāmsamkhan thī mī tọ̄ wannakam rō̜ikrō̜ng khọ̄ng Thai. Bangkok: Mǣkhamfāng, 1995
Skilling, Peter: Jātaka and Paññāsa-jātaka in South-East Asia. Journal of the Pali Text Society vol. 27, 2006, pp. 113–174.
Udom Rungruangsri: Wannakam chādok thī mī laksana pen “Lānnā”. Wannakam phutthasāsanā nai Lānnā. Ed. Phanphen Khruathai. Chiang Mai, 1997, pp. 51-60

27 April 2020

The Buddha and his natural environment in Thai manuscript art

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Illustrated Buddhist manuscripts from mainland Southeast Asia are famous for their lavish and often very detailed depictions of scenes from the Life of Buddha and the Buddha’s Birth Tales, known as Jatakas. Although most of these manuscripts date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, their illustrations are based on much older Pali texts originating from Sri Lanka in the first century BCE. The outstanding beauty of these manuscript paintings results from the depiction of the natural environment in which the main character – the historical Buddha – is placed, highlighting the close relationship the Buddha had with nature and all sentient beings.

Scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka illustrated in a paper folding book with extracts from the Pali Tipitaka in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, IO.Pali.207 f.3)
Scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka illustrated in a paper folding book with extracts from the Pali Tipitaka in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, IO.Pali.207 f.3). Public domain

The Buddha’s Birth Tales (Jatakas)

The previous lives of Gotama Buddha - the historical Buddha - are the subject of a collection of Birth Tales (Jatakas). They show how he gradually acquired greater virtues and moral stature from one incarnation to the other. These stories, well-known in all Theravada Buddhist cultures, are attributed to Gotama Buddha himself and are included in the Pali Buddhist canon. He is thought to have narrated them during his ministry to his followers, using each Jataka to teach certain morals and values. There are 547 such stories, but more were created in the region of Northern Thailand and Laos at a later time and are known as Pannasa Jatakas.

The Jatakas are a major subject of Thai manuscript illustration, with the oldest extant manuscripts dating back at least to the 18th century. These stories are meant to teach the values of compassion, loving-kindness, generosity, honesty, perseverance and morality. In his previous lives Gotama Buddha was incarnated in form of human beings, various animals, benevolent spirits, or as deities residing in the heavenly realms of the Buddhist cosmos.

Scenes from the Bhuridatta Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 19th century (British Library, Or.16552 f.16)
Scenes from the Bhuridatta Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 19th century (British Library, Or.16552 f.16). Public domain

The Bhuridatta Jataka is a fine example that describes the moral abilities of sacred or mythical animals as sentient beings. The Buddha-to-be was reborn as a mythical serpent prince (naga), who practiced meditation and aimed to follow the Buddhist precepts. A greedy snake charmer named Alambayana obtained magic spells from a hermit in order to capture Bhuridatta. A hunter who in the past was taken by Bhuridatta to live in splendor in the serpent kingdom (right side) revealed the serpent’s secret meditation place to Alambayana. The snake charmer captured the serpent while he was coiled around an ant hill (left side) and forced him to perform in market places so that he could earn fame and wealth. Bhuridatta repressed his shame and anger in order to follow the Eight Precepts. Eventually, he was freed by his brothers.

In both illustrations great care was taken to paint the serpent in great detail and in bright colours to highlight his sacredness, whereas plants, flowers, fish and different species of birds were added as decorative elements.

Scenes from the Suvannasama Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14068 f.5)
Scenes from the Suvannasama Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14068 f.5) . Public domain

The Suvannasama Jataka tells the story of the Buddha-to-be when he lived as the son of blind hermits. Suvannasama looked after his parents with great devotion until one day he was shot with a poisoned arrow by a king who was out hunting deer (right side). When the king realised his grave mistake, he went to ask the hermits for forgiveness (left side). When the parents heard about their son’s fate, they requested the king to guide them to their beloved son’s body so they could pray for his future rebirth. They appealed and called to witness all deities about their son’s merits as he had always looked after them dearly. When their pledge ended, Suvannasama stood alive and well, and the parents also regained their eyesight. This Jataka symbolises the perfection of devotion.    

These paintings are fine examples of the late Ayutthaya manuscript painting style of the eighteenth century with distinguished landscapes, rocks, foliage, birds and deer. Although the scenes depict a sorrowful event, the atmosphere seems calm and peaceful thanks to warm, pleasant colours, leaving a positive impression on the viewer.

Scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14255 f.2)
Scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14255 f.2). Public domain

The Mahajanaka Jataka symbolizes the virtue of perseverance. Prince Mahajanaka's father was killed in battle by his brother, Mahajanaka’s uncle. When the prince found out about his ancestry he vowed to regain his father’s kingdom. He set out on a seafaring voyage, hoping to build a fortune in a distant land and to set up a powerful army. However, the ship sank and everyone on board drowned or was killed by sea creatures - except the prince. He drifted in the water for seven days, but survived through the sheer strength of his perseverance. A goddess, Manimekhala, rescued him and carried him to his father’s kingdom, which he finally regained after his uncle’s death (funeral carriage, right side). Thereafter, he sought to follow the Noble Eightfold Path and went on to pursue spiritual attainment as an ascetic (left side).

The paintings illustrating the Mahajanaka Jataka are in the style of the late Ayutthaya period and are set before a magnificent natural scenery in bright colours most of which were derived from natural paints. On the left side, the prince is depicted while meditating under a tree, surrounded by rocks and blossoming plants, similar to Prince Siddhattha who eventually became the historical Buddha. On the right side, an exquisitely painted horse is shown pulling the uncle's funeral carriage.

Scenes from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, late 18th century (British Library, Or.14704 f.74)
Scenes from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, late 18th century (British Library, Or.14704 f.74). Public domain

Prince Vessantara was the Buddha’s last incarnation before he was reborn as Prince Siddhattha and eventually attained enlightenment. This last Birth Tale, also called the Great Jataka, is the most popular across Southeast Asia, symbolising the virtues of generosity and compassion. Prince Vessantara gave away his white elephant, bringer of rain, to Brahmins of a drought-stricken land as an act of compassion. He was then exiled from his kingdom because people feared that his generosity may bring poverty to the land. His wife and children followed him and they set up a forest hermitage. A Brahmin, Jujaka, found Prince Vessantara and asked for his children to become servants to the Brahmin’s wife to stop other villagers mocking her (right). Out of compassion for Jujaka’s wife Prince Vessantra agreed to give away his children while his wife was collecting fruit in the forest (left side). The greedy Brahmin later sold the siblings – unwittingly - to Prince Vessantara’s parents. Prince Vessantara and his wife were finally welcomed back to the kingdom and reunited with the children.

The excellent paintings in this Thai folding book depict scenes from the Last Ten Jatakas in the style of the late 18th to early 19th century. Warm colours are used to highlight the beauty of the natural environment and the serenity of the forest hermitage. Although this part of the story is sorrowful, it is one of the most popular scenes from all Jatakas in Thailand, and the painter minimizes the sadness by adding beautiful natural elements like plants and trees with every single leaf painted meticulously.

The Life of Gotama Buddha

The historical Buddha, Gotama Buddha, was born in Lumbini (a place in modern-day Nepal) over 2,500 years ago. Throughout his life, he had an intimate connection with the natural world: he was born as Prince Siddhattha under a sal tree whose branches provided support to his mother giving birth, at the first seven steps he walked a lotus flower appeared, he lived in forests and in caves as an ascetic, meditated in the rain while a serpent protected him, gained enlightenment under the bodhi tree, gave his first discourse in a deer park, followed the River Ganges to teach the Dhamma, lived with his disciples in a bamboo grove, taught at forest monasteries, interacted with various real and mythical animals during his long ministry, and at the point of his physical passing he attained pari-nibbana between twin sal trees.

In the Sutta Pitaka part of the Pali canon over 13,000 species of animals and over 18,000 species of plants are mentioned which is evidence of the consciousness of early Buddhists about biodiversity. Manuscript illustrations give insight into how the Buddha and nature were benevolent and supportive to each other, and how the natural world supports and sustains humanity. The Buddhist belief that all sentient beings possess inherent Buddha nature is expressed through spectacular depictions of the natural world surrounding the Buddha.

Scenes of Buddha’s meditation and enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Pali Tipitaka and the legend of Phra Malai in Thai language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 1894 (British Library, Or.16101 f.2)
Scenes of Buddha’s meditation and enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Pali Tipitaka and the legend of Phra Malai in Thai language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 1894 (British Library, Or.16101 f.2). Public domain

The majority of Thai manuscript paintings are dedicated to Buddhist topics. However, instead of Gotama Buddha’s life these illustrations often highlight his former incarnations, particularly the Last Ten Birth Tales.

The manuscript above includes two illustrations of Gotama Buddha which combine Thai and European painting styles. It is a fine example where team-work of at least two artists can be assumed, one specializing in the traditional style of painting Thai figures, and the other experimenting with European landscape painting techniques. The paintings illustrate a central moment in the life of Gotama Buddha – his enlightenment. Once Prince Siddhattha had freed himself from all disturbances and distractions by way of meditation (right side), he was able to attain enlightenment while sitting under a bodhi tree on the full moon day of Visakha (in May). By touching the earth (left side) he called upon the earth goddess Dharani as a witness of his merits in his previous lives. The gods Brahma and Sakka witnessed his attainment of enlightenment and asked the Buddha to share his insights with all sentient beings.

Buddha’s attainment of pari-nibbana, or final liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Paper folding book, 19th century (British Library, Or.14115 f. 95)
Buddha’s attainment of pari-nibbana, or final liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Paper folding book, 19th century (British Library, Or.14115 f. 95). Public domain

The scene above, painted in rich colours, captures details associated with the story of the Buddha’s physical passing. At the age of 80 the Buddha fell ill and passed on at Kushinara, between Pava and Sal Grove. The illustration depicts the Buddha resting on his right side next to a sal tree (left side). A newly ordained monk conveys the message of the Buddha’s passing to his lay followers (right side), whom the Buddha had urged to work towards their own enlightenment with diligence. His body was cremated and the relics were placed in monuments (stupas). The presence of the sal trees in both the Buddha’s birth and death scenes symbolises the cycle of rebirths, samsara, a key concept in Buddhist philosophy.

Further reading

McDaniel, Justin, "The bird in the corner of the painting. Some problems with the use of Buddhist texts to study Buddhist ornamental art in Thailand", Moussons, 23/2014, pp. 21-53.
Igunma, Jana and San San May, "Buddha embracing nature – nature embracing Buddha. The Buddha and his natural environment in Southeast Asian manuscript art",  Arts of Asia, Jan/Feb 2020, pp.114-124.
San San May and Jana Igunma, Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript art from Southeast Asia. London, British Library, 2018.
Shravasti Dhammika, Nature and environment in early Buddhism. Singapore, Buddhist Research Society, 2015.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections
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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.

 

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.

RTE06311
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

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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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.

Blog2 01
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.

Blog2 02
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.

Blog2 03
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.

Blog2 04
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.

Blog2 05
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.

Blog2 06
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.

Blog2 07
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