Buddhism exhibition at the British Library

- through Fabrice Groult

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The British Library in London is hosting an exhibition until February 23 that explores the roots of Buddhism and offers an overview of the history, philosophical foundations and practices that punctuate the daily life of this spiritual tradition from Asia. The famous London library exhibits more than 120 pieces from its collections – some presented to the public for the first time – inviting the visitor on a journey to 20 countries over a period of more than 2000 years.

Something is happening right now on the other side of the Channel. No, it's not about the never-ending Brexit soap opera… It's more about all the events dedicated to Buddhism organized in the British capital. We have already mentioned the launch by the British Library of a website entitled " Discovering Sacred Texts », which gives access to the textual sources of the major religions, including Buddhism. The British National Library is still at the helm, organizing a series of events around Buddhism, including a wonderful exhibition simply titled “Buddhism”. The exhibition, described as the largest of its kind ever held at the British Library, aims according to the official program to "give insight into the daily life of Buddhist communities in the XNUMXst century" and "to understand current customs and beliefs, to better understand meditation and to generate the feeling of entering a monastic library”. The exhibits include ancient literary and scriptural works, manuscripts printed on all sorts of media – tree bark, palm leaves, etc. – from the Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions. The British Museum and other London museums also help by lending magnificent statues or ritual objects.

An invitation to contemplation and introspection

In deep red rooms alternately filled with birdsong, sacred chants or the sound of peacefully flowing water, the British Library manages to transport the visitor, the believer, the curious, into an environment which invites introspection. The journey begins with a richly illustrated Burmese manuscript dating from the XNUMXth century, presented for the first time to the avid gaze of visitors. Measuring more than seven meters long and showing scenes from the beginning of the life of the Buddha, it captivates the visitor and gives the measure of the quality of the pieces presented. Jana Igunma, curator of the British Library and curator of the exhibition, confirms in substance: “We have so many breathtaking Buddhist manuscripts in our collections that we simply lack space. It would take us hundreds of years to present all these treasures”.

This exhibition vividly demonstrates how Buddhism is ONE, while being able to adapt to each of the countries in which it has spread.

Through the particularly didactic route, we discover the main stages of the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, the teachings he gave, Buddhist cosmology and philosophy - life, death and rebirth, compassion and suffering -, but also Buddhism as practiced today. With more than 120 pieces from 20 countries covering a period of more than 2 years, this exhibition is dizzying as the shimmering golds, deep blues or earthy reds captivate and fascinate. Here, a fierce black protective deity stands on a 000th-century Tibetan scroll; there, it's a sacred mountain rising from the sea in a magnificent Thai painting, or even over there, it's the benevolent and gilded figure of Amida Buddha on the Japanese copy of the Lotus Sutra, dated 1636, which invites us to contemplation. This exhibition vividly demonstrates how Buddhism is ONE, while being able to adapt to each of the countries in which it has spread.

This exhibition is not only museographic, it also aims to present Buddhism as it is still practiced today. Jana Igunma hopes that the various events will encourage people to learn more about Buddhism: "It's something that can seem very distant and people usually have in mind a figure of Buddha sitting in meditation, but there is much more that. We want to show the diversity of all the different traditions, the different cultural influences and the different aspects of Buddhist practice.” Thus, in addition to the manuscripts, the exhibition also offers contemporary works of art from Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, as well as ritual objects used in everyday practice. If there was only one example of this Buddhist modernity, it would be this painting made for the occasion by the Singaporean artists Irving Chan Johnson, Lim Su Qi and Rungnapa Kitiarsa, the nods to the present world are particularly successful.

Throughout the duration of the exhibition, a series of events is also offered in parallel: the creation of a sand mandala, a scriptural conservation workshop... The most curious can attend a seminar intended for the general public entitled "Discovering Buddhism which includes: a discovery of Buddhism, short lectures on subjects as diverse as Buddhist art, history, philosophy and committed Buddhism. Artists' souls will be carried away by music and dance performances, early risers can indulge in an early morning meditation session in the library. As the end of year celebrations approach, there are so many good reasons to cross the Channel, right?

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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