The art, origins and enduring relevance of one of the world’s major religions: Buddhism opens at the British Library

Scenes from the Buddha's previous incarnations, in a 19th century Burmese manuscript. (c) British Library Board
  • Buddhism is a major British Library exhibition, spanning 20 countries over 2,000 years and more than 120 items, opening tomorrow

  • Featuring rare and colourful scrolls, painted wall hangings and folding books, Buddhism highlights the outstanding art contained within Buddhist manuscripts and early printed works by shining a light on the Library’s Buddhist collections of treasures from across the world
  • Drawing on one of the world’s richest collections of Asian manuscripts, the exhibition highlights the theory, practice and art of Buddhism, examining the enduring iconography of the Buddha and considering what it means to be Buddhist today

  • The exhibition is accompanied by a programme of events, including workshops on art and mindfulness, as well as a conference on Buddhism taking place on 7 - 8 February 2020

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

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.’


There will be a series of events inspired by the exhibition, featuring workshops on art and mindfulness, talks on the history, art and culture of Buddhism and aspects of contemporary practice, as well as early morning meditation sessions followed by musical performance.

On 7 – 8 February 2020, the British Library will host a conference on Buddhism, in partnership with the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, for academics, students, practitioners and non-specialists alike. Topics to be discussed include the materiality, translation and transmission of Buddhist practice, how manuscript collections from across the world shed light on Buddhist practice, and the role of digital technology in preserving and disseminating Buddhist texts in the world today.

Around the Library

To coincide with Buddhism there is a free display entitled Sacred Laos in Photographs: The Monks’ Gaze in the Second Floor Gallery of the British Library from 1 November 2019 – 9 February 2020. The images capture everyday monastic life at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang. The 18 prints were selected from the Buddhist Archive of Photography, a collection of 35,000 photographs that were identified, preserved and digitised as part of the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme.

As part of a new online learning resource, Discovering Sacred Texts, which invites visitors to explore the world’s major faiths through the Library’s extensive collection of sacred texts, a curated selection of the spectacular collection items representing these faiths will be on physical display in the British Library’s free, permanent Treasures Gallery, including Buddhist texts.

Buddhism is accompanied by Family Trail brochure, Footsteps of the Buddha, and a richly-illustrated book, Buddhism: Origins, Traditions and Contemporary Life, which is available in hardback and paperback from the British Library shop and online.


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