Buddhism at the British Library – review


This exhibition is not only enlightening – it highlights the British Library’s lesser known treasures from across the world



This major autumnal show feels long overdue. Within its short series of low-lit, rather atmospheric dark red rooms, it explores the roots, philosophy and contemporary relevance of one of the world’s major religions.

From its beginnings in north India in the 6th century BC to having over 500 million followers across the world today, the exhibition starts with the fascinating story of Prince Siddharta Gautama’s journey to become the historical Buddha 2500 years ago. Here you can pore over rare and colourful scrolls, painted wall hangings and folding books.

There’s also a handy summary of the main tenets of Buddhism, too, should you be new to its practices. The essence of the Four Noble Truths, for example, is that life is unsatisfactory and there is suffering; and that the cause of suffering is desire, and that in turn suffering can be overcome. This liberation is possible by following the Noble Eightfold Path.

Exploring the three main schools – Mahayana, Theravada and Vajrayana – across twenty countries over 2,000 years, the exhibition goes on to highlight the theory, practice and art of Buddhism, examining the enduring iconography of Buddha and consider what it means to be Buddhist today.

The Life of Buddha c. British Library Board

Encompassing what the curators call “one of the richest collections of Asian manuscripts in the world”, there are illuminated copies of Buddhist scriptures, literary works, historical narratives, and works on Buddhist cosmology, ceremonies and ritual practices.

From sacred scriptures written on tree bark, palm leaves and gold to silk scrolls of major sutras – at one point you can feel the textures of each of these materials with your hands – Buddhism was pivotal in developing writing and printing techniques to transmit ideas and educate people across Asia.

In short, this is a spellbinding moment of calm alongside the madness of King’s Cross and the Euston Road. Not to mention the festive season, of course.

This is box title
Until 25th Feb, British Library, Euston Road NW1. Info and tickets : bl.uk

Main image: Gold painting of Amitabha Bodhisattva Amida Buddha in a scroll containing the Lotus Sutra Japan 1636 c: British Library Board.


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