Buddhism at the British Library poster c British Library Board

Buddhism at the British Library poster© British Library Board

Buddhism (25 October 2019 – 23 February 2020) is a major exhibition, spanning 20 countries over 2000 years, exploring the roots, philosophy and contemporary relevance of one of the world’s major religions, from its beginnings in north India in the 6th century BCE, to having over 500 million followers across the world today.

Sacred scriptures written on tree bark, palm leaves, gold plates, illuminated texts and silk scrolls of major sutras will demonstrate Buddhism’s pivotal role in developing writing and printing techniques to transmit ideas and educate people across Asia.  

Exploring the three main schools of Buddhism –Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana – the British Library’s largest ever display of Buddhist collection items highlights the theory, practice and art of Buddhism, examines the enduring iconography of the Buddha and considers what it means to be Buddhist today.

Visitors will explore rare treasures from the Library’s collection, from colourful scrolls, painted wall hangings to embellished folding books, highlighting the outstanding art contained within Buddhist manuscripts and early printed works.

The exhibition also features contemporary art from Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Taiwan as well as ritual objects used in Buddhist practice that provide a window into everyday life in Buddhist communities in the 21st century.

Encompassing the life of the Buddha, Buddhist philosophy, the spread of Buddhism and Buddhist practice today, highlight items include:

A 7.6 metre-long 19th century Burmese illustrated manuscript, going on display at the Library for the first time, detailing the early life of the Buddha

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Over 7 metre long 19th century Burmese illustrated manuscript© British Library Board 

The most comprehensive woodblock-printed work depicting and describing scenes from the life of the Buddha, including 208 beautiful hand-coloured illustrations from China, created in 1808.

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Woodblock printed work depicting and describing scenes from the life of the Buddha dated 1808© British Library Board

A copy of the Lotus Sūtra in a lavishly decorated scroll from Japan, written in gold and silver ink on indigo-dyed paper dating back to 1636, one of the most popular and most influential Buddhist texts of Mahayana Buddhism

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A copy of the Lotus Sūtra in a lavishly decorated scroll from Japan, c.1636© British Library Board

A rare Buddhist manuscript in the shape of a bar of gold from Thailand dated 1917, known as Sankhara bhajani kyam, going on display for the first time

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A rare Buddhist manuscript, known as 'Sankhara bhanjani kyam,' from Thailand dated 1917© British Library Board

A unique contemporary artwork depicting scenes from the Vessantara Birth Tale in the style of Thai mural paintings created especially for the exhibition by Irving Chan Johnson, Lim Su Qi and Rungnapa Kitiarsa, Singapore, 2019

The Hyakumantō darani or ‘One Million Pagoda Dharani,’ the oldest extant examples of printing in Japan and some of the earliest in the world, dating 764-770 CE

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The Hyakumantō darani or 'One Million Pagoda Dharani,' dating 764-770 CE© British Library Board.

One of the oldest illustrated extant palm leaf manuscripts, Pancharaksha, an illustrated ritual text on the Five Protections from Nepal, dated 1130-1150 CE

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One of the oldest illustrated extant palm leaf manuscripts, Pancharaksha, dated 1130-1150 CE© British Library Board.

A lavishly gilded and lacquered Thai palm leaf manuscript with new research revealing it was commissioned by a queen of Siam, with a silk cover designed by her, demonstrating the role of women in Buddhism, 19th century

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Gilded and lacquered Thai palm leaf manuscript commissioned by a queen of Siam, 19th century© British Library Board.

Gilded palmleaf manuscript with motherofpearl decorated covers commissioned by the Thai king ca 1860 c British Library Board

Gilded palm-leaf manuscript with mother-of-pearl decorated covers commissioned by the Thai king ca. 1860 © British Library Board

An 18th-century copy of the Tibetan Book Bar do thos grol, a guide through the stages between death and rebirth, commonly known in the West as ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead,’ which helped popularise Buddhism in the 20th century in Europe

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An 18th century copy of the Tibetan Book 'bar do thos grol', known in the West as 'Tibetan Book of the Dead'. © British Library Board.

An illustrated manuscript of the Guanyin Sutra from Dunhuang, showing a rare early depiction of a woman giving birth after she and her husband have prayed to the bodhisattva Guanyin, 9th – 10th century.

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An illustrated manuscript of the Guanyin Sūtra from Dunhuang, 9th–10th century© British Library Board.

Jana Igunma, lead curator of Buddhism at the British Library, said: Buddhism is the first show of its kind at the British Library, showcasing treasures from one of the world’s richest collections of Asian manuscripts. Visitors will be able to see for themselves the range and richness of this beautiful art that spans 2,000 years of Buddhist texts such as illuminated scrolls, painted palm leaves and banner paintings. They will learn about the life of the Buddha and his teachings, and discover what it means to be Buddhist today, bearing in mind the growing contemporary relevance of mindfulness, compassion and loving kindness.’

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Manuscript fragment from Gandhara (modern East Afghanistan North-West Pakistan), image taken from Kharosthi Buddhist text, 1st century AD© British Library Board.

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Manuscript fragment, part of a rare Yōgavacara meditation manual found in the Theravāda tradition, 18th century© British Library Board.

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Two of the Sacred Books of the Buddhists 18-19th century© British Library Board.

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Painting of the Annual Procession of Buddha's Tooth Relic, Asala Perahera, at Kandy. Sri Lanka, 1796-1815© British Library Board.

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Scenes from the Buddha's previous incarnations, in a 19th century Burmese manuscript. © British Library Board.