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British Library Exhibition Explores the Roots and Relevance of Buddhism


The British Library in London is hosting a landmark exhibition that explores the roots of the Buddhist spiritual tradition, offering insights into the history and philosophical foundations of Buddhism, and considering the relevance the teachings continue to hold to the modern day to hundreds of millions of followers around the world.

Featuring contemporary art from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, and ritual objects used in contemplative practice, the exhibition, described as the largest of its kind ever held at the British Library, aims to “provide a window into everyday life in Buddhist communities in the 21st century,” and to “understand current customs and beliefs, gain insight into meditation, and experience the feeling of stepping into a monastic library.” (British Library)

The exhibition, which opens tomorrow, includes rare books, manuscripts, scrolls, and objects from 20 countries and spanning more than 2,000 years and the three major schools of Buddhism. The exhibits include ancient scriptural and literary works, as well as commentaries and historical narratives, tree bark and palm leaf manuscripts to 20th century literature from the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions.

“Buddhism continues to inspire diverse artistic expression and lifestyles and, with the concept of mindfulness becoming mainstream, we are excited to host the British Library’s largest-ever display of Buddhist collections, shining a light on the Library’s lesser-known treasures from across the world,” stated the British Library’s curator of Buddhism, Jana Igunma. (British Library)

Gold painting of Amitabha in a scroll containing the <i>Lotus Sutra</i>. Japan, 1636. From
Gold painting of Amitabha in a scroll containing the Lotus Sutra. Japan, 1636. From

Among the highlights to be placed on display is a copy of the Lotus Sutra from Japan, written in gold and silver ink on indigo-dyed paper, and dated to 1636.

“Meet the women whose stories are told through Buddhist scripture. Admire artifacts made by hand in a setting inspired by a Buddhist temple,” The British Library said in an announcement. “From sacred texts written on tree bark, palm leaves, and gold plates to exquisite silk scrolls of major sutras, follow the life of the Buddha and his previous incarnations. Find out how Buddhism was pivotal in developing writing and printing techniques, transmitting ideas and stories across Asia. Lose yourself in a natural soundscape.” (British Library)

In concert with the exhibition, the British Library will publish an illustrated book, Buddhism: Origins, Traditions and Contemporary Life, and host a program of events, including: a six-week study course titled “Discovering Buddhism;” a wide-ranging series of talks and discussions on subject as diverse as Buddhist art, history, philosophy, and engaged Buddhism; the creation of a sand mandala; a scriptural conservation workshop; and music and dance performances.

The exhibition will be on view from 25 October until 23 February 2020.

Earlier this year, the British Library launched a new website titled Discovering Ancient Texts, which offers online access to more than 250 digitized texts, manuscripts, films, and articles from several spiritual traditions, and makes them freely available for study. (British Library)

With resources created by academics, faith leaders, practitioners, library curators, and cultural leaders, the website offers insights into the six most practiced faiths in the UK—Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism—as well as less widely practiced spiritual traditions such as the Bahá’í Faith, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism.

“The site gives free access to an incredible range of texts, videos and curated articles relating to some of the world’s major faiths, which we hope will provide an invaluable tool for students, teachers and lifelong learners all over the world,” said Alex Whitfield, head of learning at the British Library. (British Library)

The British Library, the national library of the United Kingdom, was created in 1973 after being separated from the British Museum. It is a major multi-language research library, with space for more than 1,200 readers, and the largest national library in the world, housing an estimated 170–200 million items from around the world, including a collection some 14 million books, as well as manuscripts and historical items dating to 2000 BCE.

See more

Buddhism (British Library)
Major exhibition on Buddhism will open at the British Library this autumn (British Library)
Discovering Sacred Texts (British Library)
British Library launches sacred texts online resource (British Library)

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