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Buddhism Illuminated – A new book on manuscript art from Southeast Asia

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I would like to draw your attention to a new book with the title Buddhism Illuminated – Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia which is a fully illustrated guide to Southeast Asian Buddhist manuscript art based on the British Library collections. Many years of research and digitisation have resulted in this major publication that goes far beyond Buddhist manuscript illustration. The book consists of six chapters covering all aspects of Buddhist manuscript art in mainland Southeast Asia. A brief overview of the contents is below:

  • Introduction: The British Library collections – Some aspects of Buddhism in SEA – The Burmese manuscript tradition – Manuscript production in Khmer and Tai cultures
  • Buddha: The Enlightened One – The names of 28 Buddhas – Previous Lives of the Buddha – The Life of Gotama Buddha – The future Buddha
  • Dhamma: The Righteous Way – The Tipitaka and commentaries – Kammavaca ordination texts
  • Sangha: The Monastic Community – Ordination in Theravada Buddhism – Interaction between the Sangha and the lay community
  • Kamma: Cause and Effect – The thirty-one planes of existence – The sixteen sacred lands of Buddhism
  • Punna: Making Merit in Everyday Life – Royal donations – Death and afterlife – Pagodas and monasteries – The Buddha’s footprints – Monasteries during Buddha’s long ministry – Communal festivals

Buddhism Illuminated – Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia includes over 200 coloured photographs of Buddhist manuscript art from the British Library’s collection, relating each manuscript to Theravada tradition and beliefs, and introducing the historical, artistic, and religious contexts of their production. It is the first book in English to showcase the beauty and variety of Buddhist manuscripts in Southeast Asia and reproduces many works that have never before been photographed.

The book is available from British Library Press and University of Washington Press, as well as all major book sellers and online suppliers (ISBN 9780712352062).

A free review copy can currently be requested from Newbooks Asia.

Read a short article revealing some more details about the book on the British Library’s website, and a short promotional film (part 1) can be viewed online.

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Burmese manuscripts on ‘The Life of the Buddha’ online

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Although the details of the life of the Buddha are not known for certain, there is scholarly consent that Gautama Buddha was an actual historical figure who lived around the 5th century BCE. Certain events of the Buddha’s life were recorded in the Buddhist traditions of South and Southeast Asia. The life of the Buddha is a favorite subject of Buddhist art, including manuscript painting.

In the Burmese manuscript tradition, ‘The Life of the Buddha’ plays an important role although it is not known when exactly the first manuscripts on this topic were produced due to the fact that few pre-18th century manuscripts have survived. However, narrative representations of the Buddha’s life can be traced back at least to the 11th century when episodes from the Buddha’s life were depicted on sculptured friezes, plaques and mural paintings in the ancient capital Pagan.

By the 19th century, series of manuscripts illustrating the life of the Buddha were produced and re-produced due to their great popularity. In this context, the Burmese manuscript tradition stands out among the Buddhist countries in Southeast Asia. The format of these manusripts is usually the parabaik, a paper folding book.

The British Library holds various illustrated parabaik manuscripts dedicated to ‘The Life of the Buddha’. Two of them  were described in detail by Patricia Herbert in her book ‘The life of the Buddha’ (British Library, 1993). Three more ‘Life of the Buddha’ manuscripts have been fully digitised recently in a digitisation project funded by the Henry Ginsburg Legacy. All three manuscripts are now available to view online on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts page (Or.14197, Or.4762Or.5757). More details about these manuscripts can be found in an article by San San May, Curator for Burmese at the British Library, with the title ‘Burmese scenes from the Life of the Buddha’.

Scene from 'The Life of the Buddha', British Library Or.5757

Scene from ‘The Life of the Buddha’, British Library Or.5757