Dealing With Cards

playing cards

Everyone is familiar with the modern deck of playing cards. Most households own at least one pack and they have become a part of traditional cultures and customs. Yet, these decks of cards have been completely transformed since their origins several centuries ago. What we now take for granted has taken hundreds of years to reach its current format: four suits, red and black, court cards etc. Looking back through history, it is fascinating to see how our standard hearts, spades, clubs and diamond suits developed and why playing cards have remained a conventional pastime.

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Ming Dynasty Playing Card

The origins of playing cards are widely contested, however, it is generally accepted they were invented in China during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). The earliest evidence of playing cards in Europe dates to around the late 14th century, however, a 9th-century text, Collection of Miscellanea at Duyang, describes the daughter of Emperor Yizong of Tang (833-873) playing Yezi Gexi, a “leaf” game. These “leaves” are believed to be card-like pieces of paper featuring special designs or symbols. Rather than suits or numbers, the pictures revealed instructions or a forfeit to the players.

The rules of this “leaf” game are unknown, as are the visual appearance of the cards. It was not until 1294 that they were actually described in written documents. A legal document records that Yan Sengzhu and Zheng Pig-Dog were caught playing cards that had been printed with woodblocks, and 36 taels (an old monetary unit), which suggests they may have been gambling illegally. Later, during the Ming Dynasty, a scholar called Lu Rong (1436-94) reports he was mocked at college for not knowing how to play cards.

British Sinologist and playing card enthusiast, William Henry Wilkinson (1858-1930), whose collection of Chinese cards can be found in the British Museum, undertook a comprehensive study of the history of playing cards in China. His results can be read in several books including Chinese Origin of Playing Cards (1895) and The Game of Khanhoo (1891). The latter explains the rules of a game developed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

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Money-suited cards, 1905

Khanhoo, which roughly translates as “Watching the Tiger”, was a trick-taking game using “money-suited cards”. This set of cards was made up of three suits known as coins, strings and myriads. The aim of the game was for the players to get rid of all their cards by melding them into certain sequences. The common meldings were known as “gibbons” (a sequence of three cards from one suit) and “Leopards” (three cards of the same number). Alternatively, players could hold onto their cards to create a special melding, for instance, a “Pangolin” (7 coins, 3 strings, 3 myriads) or “Tiger” (9 coins, 1 string, 1 myriad). Each melding was worth a certain amount of points and the player with the highest score at the end of the game was the winner.

Money-suited cards were only one form of playing cards to develop from the “leaf” game in China. Another type was Mahjong cards with which similar games to the tiled version of Mahjong could be played. The cards contained Chinese characters or suits representing circles, bamboos, characters, dragons, winds, flowers and seasons. Often an illustration was included with the Chinese characters to emphasise their meaning, however, others featured characters from popular stories, such as The Story of the Water Margin. This is not dissimilar from the novelty packs of cards sold in the western world today. Another type of playing card was the Domino card with pips (dots) representing numbers. These cards could also be embellished with cultural illustrations.

When the Chinese travelled abroad, they often took playing cards with them, either as a form of entertainment or something with which to trade. As a result, playing cards were introduced to people from other countries who began to print their own versions. In Persia, for example, a 48-pack of cards was developed, containing four suits made up of ten pip (number) cards and two court cards (king and vizier).

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Mamluk playing cards

By the 12th century, playing cards had been introduced to most countries in Asia and had just worked their way into Africa, in particular Egypt. In fact, the oldest surviving playing cards were produced in Egypt. The majority of surviving cards from Africa, however, were made during the 15th century.

Initially, Egypt copied the Asian style of playing cards but, during the Mamluk Sultanate period (1250-1517), they began to develop their own designs and games. Known as Mamluk cards, they contained colourful abstract designs and calligraphy, however, unlike Chinese playing cards, they never visually represented people. This is because Sunni Islam, which was the prevalent religion in Egypt, advocated Aniconism: the avoidance of images of sentient beings.

There were typically 52 cards in a Mamluk pack, ten pip cards and three court cards. Although the court cards could not visually depict a person, they could bear the names of ranks: king, viceroy and seconder. It is not certain what games were played with these cards, however, they were probably based on Chinese and Asian rules.

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Knave of Coins from the oldest known European deck (c. 1390–1410).

Playing cards reached Europe around the 14th century and were first described in writing by Johannes of Rheinfelden, a German Dominican friar also known as John of Basle (b.1340). Playing cards had evidently been in Europe long before he wrote his treatise in 1377, which was a response to the decision in Florence to ban card games. Johannes began by describing the cards then went on to say he believed they could be used as a means of understanding the world, in particular how social standings worked in court and how this could be applied to social orders throughout the rest of humanity. Despite his writings, bans continued to be enforced across Europe and playing cards were denounced in churches as forms of gambling.

Nonetheless, playing cards continued to be designed and printed. The first European versions are believed to have been created in Italy, which were divided into four suits: swords, clubs, cups, and coins; these are still used in Italy and Spain today. In Italy, court cards within these “Latin suits” were a king, queen and knave/servant, although the latter may have been a prince. In Spain, on the other hand, the court cards became a king, knight and knave. Whereas the Italian version had ten pip cards, the Spanish only had nine and, in some games, they only used numbers one to seven.

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Italian Cards

When playing cards were first produced in Italy, they were only intended for the upper classes. Each card was hand-painted, making them an expensive, luxury item. As their popularity grew, however, card makers sought methods of producing them quickly and cheaply. As a result, playing cards began to spread across the rest of Europe.

Between 1418-1450, professional card makers set up woodcut factories in the Germany cities of Ulm, Nuremberg and Augsburg. Although the woodcut process printed the designs onto the cards, the colours were added later by hand, therefore, these 15th-century cards were mostly handpainted. To establish themselves as card manufacturers of Germany, the designers changed the Latin suits to reflect the rural lifestyle of the country. These new suits were acorns, leaves, hearts, and bells. The court cards were changed to a king and two knaves: Obermann and Untermann. The pip cards, however, only numbered two to nine as they did away with the ace.

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German Cards

Although the new suits became the norm in Germany, some factories produced novelty version to appeal to people of particular professions and interests, for instance, animals and kitchen appliances. In Switzerland, they adopted the Germanic suits but tended to use flowers rather than leaves and a shield rather than hearts.

Germany was one of the key countries involved with developing printing techniques, which helped them to produce larger quantities of playing cards. Soon, they became more famed for the playing card trade than Italy. Subsequently, German suits became more dominant throughout Europe than the Latin versions.

In France, the Germanic suits were altered to clovers, hearts, pikes and tiles, which led to the development of the modern suits – clovers being clubs, pikes being spades and tiles being diamonds. Not only this, but the French also simplified the designs to make them quicker to print and divided the four suits into two colours: black and red. They also simplified the images on the court cards, reintroducing the queen and the ace to the pack. This meant stencils could be produced and used multiple times in printing presses, such as the Guttenburg press that was developed in 1440.

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French Cards

French playing cards quickly surpassed Germany in popularity and spread across Europe, thus familiarising the continent with a design similar to the cards used today. In the 16th century, the French also drew attention to the court cards by naming them after people from the Bible and popular works of literature. The kings became known as King David (Spades), Alexander the Great (Clubs), Charlemagne (Hearts), and Julius Caesar (Diamonds), consequently representing the four major empires up to that date: Jews, Greeks, Franks, and Romans. The queens were designated Greek goddess Pallas Athena (Spades), Judith (Hearts), Jacob’s wife Rachel (Diamonds), and Argine (Clubs). It is not certain who the latter is but Argine may be the French name for Argea, wife of Polybus and mother of Argus.

The knaves were assigned the names of La Hire (Hearts), Charlemagne’s knight Ogier (Spades), Hector the hero of Troy (Diamonds), and King Arthur’s knight Lancelot (Clubs). Hector and Lancelot are the more famous of the set, whereas, La Hire and Ogier were only celebrated in France. La Hire was the nickname of Étienne de Vignolles (1390-1443), a French commander during the Hundred Years’ War. Ogier the Dane was a legendary knight of Charlemagne (748-814) who featured in many medieval French stories.

France was made up of nine regions and the appearance of the kings, queens and knaves differed slightly from place to place. It was not until playing cards became popular in Britain that a common design was developed.

It is not certain when playing cards arrived in Britain but it is likely they came via Belgium, where many French people had fled to avoid heavy taxes. Without having been influenced by Latin or Germanic playing cards, the English were happy to use the French designs, although they renamed the suits clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds.

The biggest difference between French and British cards was the Ace of Spaces. This card tends to have some form of design, signature or marking to make it appear more important than the other aces. There was, however, no difference in value. This tradition began sometime after 1588 when the English government placed a tax on playing cards. To indicate they had been taxed, the manufacturers were required to sign or stamp the Ace of Spades, which was usually the top card in a brand new pack.

To avoid paying tax, some people began to forge signatures, which led the government to enforce more drastic measures. From 1828, the Ace of Spades had to be purchased from the Commissioners for Stamp Duties. The card had to be stamped with the manufacturer’s name and the amount they had paid. Initially, manufacturers had no say in the appearance of the Ace of Spades, however, after 1862 they were allowed to design their own ace to complement their signature. Although this tax law no longer applies, playing card manufacturers have stuck to tradition, giving the Ace of Spaces more attention than the other cards.

The court cards, which feature detailed illustrations of bearded kings, flower-holding queens and clean-shaven knaves, began to become less elaborate as manufacturers sought to find a way to produce playing cards quickly and cheaply. Thomas de la Rue (1793-1866), a printer from Guernsey, was the first to drastically reduce the prices of playing cards and increase productivity.

Thomas de la Rue moved to London in 1818 to set up a shop, initially for straw hat-making, but soon expanded to include bookbinding and paper manufacturing. By 1828, De la Rue had become interested in playing cards and used all his skills, including letter-press printing, to modernise the designs. In 1831, De la Rue was granted a patent for his improvement and has since been regarded as the inventor of the modern English playing card.

The early version of De la Rue’s court cards, which were produced using the letterpress, were still highly detailed full-length figures, however, he had used a limited palette of red, yellow, blue and black. A second attempt at modernisation resulted in a flatter, two-dimensional design and, in the 1840s, he combined both styles together to produce an intricate design, opting to use blue ink for the outlines rather than black.

“The whole of Messrs De la Rue’s establishment is carried out in a manner perfectly unique. Steam power wherever practicable is applied to the various departments of the business.” (Bradshaw’s, 1842) De la Rue’s modern designs were made possible by developments in technology. Not only was hand-painting the cards time-consuming, but the ink also took a long time to dry. So, De la Rue found a quicker drying ink and glazed the cards to prevent them from losing their pigment. Wherever he could, he replaced jobs that were originally done by hand with steam-powered machines, which sped up the manufacturing process.

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Card Backs designed by Owen Jones

In 1844, De la Rue hired Owen Jones (1809-74), a Welsh graphic designer who had trained at the Royal Academy Schools. Jones’s task was to produce designs for the backs of playing cards and, in the two decades he spent with the company, it is estimated he made 173 different designs. Jones was influenced by foreign cultures and many of his designs were similar to Moorish, Chinese and other art styles from antiquity. Fruit and flowers were a typical feature in the designs.

Owen Jones’s playing cards were much sought by the upper classes, including the Royal Family. Unfortunately, they were also quite expensive. Nonetheless, sales continued to do well and Jones received a lot of praise for his work, including from the Victorian author, Charles Dickens (1812-70). It is also said the Arts and Crafts artist, William Morris (1834-96), was influenced by Jones’s work.

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De la Rue, 1860

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De la Rue, 1885

Around the 1860s, double-ended court cards were designed so that they would always be the right way up. Previously, serious card players could work out if their opponent had a court card by watching to see if they turned a card around when adding it to their hand. The court cards now had two heads and joined together in the middle where their legs once began.

Another alteration was the inclusion of indices (a number or letter indicating the value of the card), in the top corner of the card. This allowed players to easily see which cards they had by fanning them out in one hand. The corners of the cards, which were originally sharp, were rounded off to limit wear and tear. A ripped corner could make it harder for players to tell what cards they had in their hand or even reveal the value to their opponents. The design on the back of the cards was another way of preventing other players from seeing what cards their opponents had; wear and tear caused cards to thin, revealing the design through the paper.

Playing cards eventually reached the Americas through European exports and quickly became a commercial success. Lewis I. Cohen (1800-68), who had spent some time in England between 1814 and 1819, returned to America with fresh insight into technological developments. As a result, he became the first American to introduce lead pencils and steel pens, which replaced the out-dated quill pens. He also became a manufacturer of playing card printing, developing a colour-printing machine that was able to print more than one colour at a time, thus speeding up production.

When playing cards became popular in the USA, they were already in the final stages of the design that would become commonplace across the world. It was in the USA, however, that one final card was added to the pack: the Joker. Samuel Hart (1846-1871), a playing card manufacturer from Philadelphia, is credited with the invention of the Joker, which was initially called “Best Bower” or “Imperial Bower”. The name came from the German word Bauer, which is what they called the Jack in Germany. (Knaves had become known as Jacks to make it easier to differentiate them from the Kings.) Jacks were often used as the highest trump cards in many games, including a trick-taking game called Euchre. Hart’s idea was to make an even higher trump card.

Around the late 1860s, the Imperial Bower was renamed the Joker, which is believed to have come from Juckerspiel, the German name for the game of Euchre. In Britain, the USA was still one of its biggest exports, so card manufacturing company Chas Goodall and Son began adding jokers to the packs produced for the American market. Eventually, the idea caught on in Britain and the first Joker for the British market was sold in 1874. The Joker also spread to mainland Europe where, in Italy, it became known as the “Jolly”.

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Unlike the rest of the playing cards, a uniform design was never developed for the Joker, therefore, companies could be as creative as they wished. For some manufacturers, the Joker became their trademark, however, they are usually depicted as jesters. It is common nowadays to have two jokers in a pack, often one coloured and one black and white. This was so there could be a trump card for the red suits (hearts and diamonds) and the black suits (clubs and spades). Usually, the two Jokers are different in appearance as well as colour to differentiate between them. The United States Playing Card Company (USPCC), established in 1867, prints their guarantee on one of the joker cards as a way of telling them apart.

The Joker has been introduced to many card games as the trump card, although, in Britain, older rules tend to be followed and the Joker discarded. For instance, in Britain, it is more common to play Old Maid rather than Chase the Joker.

Over time, nicknames have been invented for certain cards. The court cards (King, Queen and Jack) are also known as face cards but some of these cards have earnt other names due to their visual appearance. The King of Hearts and King of Diamonds, for instance, are sometimes known as the Suicide Kings. This is because the King of Hearts holds a sword to the back of his head as though stabbing himself. The King of Diamonds does a similar action with an axe.

The Jack of Hearts, the Jack of Spades and the King of Diamonds have been referred to as the One-Eyed Royals because they are traditionally drawn in profile rather than face on. The rest of the court cards are drawn in such a way that both eyes can be seen. The Jack of Diamonds is sometimes known as the Laughing Boy but this may be due to previous illustrations rather than the traditional British design.

The Queen of Spades, often known as “the black lady” or “black Maria”, is the undesirable card in the game of Old Maid. She is shown holding a sceptre, which has led to the nickname “the bedpost Queen”. The Queen of Clubs was, at one point, the only Queen holding a flower, therefore, she became known as the “Flower Queen”. Today, however, all four Queens are usually depicted holding flowers.

The Ace of Spades, with its unique design, is often designated the trump card in certain games. As a result, it has earned the nickname “the death card”. Most of the pip cards are known by the numbers, however, on occasion, the twos have been referred to as “deuces” and the threes as “treys”. The Nine of Diamonds, on the other hand, has become known as “the Curse of Scotland” but no one agrees on the reason why. One suggestion was every ninth king of Scotland was “a tyrant and a curse to that country”, and another suggestion was nine diamonds were stolen from the crown jewels during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87), which resulted in the whole country being taxed to recoup the costs.

New theories, names and meanings of playing cards have continued to be invented over the years. At one time, the four suits were said to represent the four major pillars of the economy in the Middle Ages: Church (Hearts), military (Spades), agriculture (Clubs), and merchants (Diamonds). Since then, the suits have also been assigned the four seasons, the four solstices and the four natural elements: water (Hearts), fire (Clubs), earth (Diamonds), and air (Spades).

There are 52 cards in a traditional pack of cards (discounting the jokers), which is the same number of weeks in a year. There are 13 cards in each suit and 13 weeks in each season and there are 12 Royals and 12 months of the year.

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The history of playing cards is long and varied and will likely endure forever. Over time, novelty versions of the cards have been produced, such as those featuring images from popular literature, to appeal to new generations. Playing cards have also been redesigned for coronations and special events and sold as limited editions.

Despite cultural differences, playing cards are something most countries have in common. Across Europe and America in particular, language barriers can be overcome through the playing of a well-known game. Even with the development of digital technology, playing cards are not at risk of being forgotten. Digital versions of solitaire are proving to be popular amongst all generations and casinos across the world continue to make lots of money from a simple pack of cards.

It is impossible to determine how many card games have been invented or how many styles of playing cards have been produced, but what we do know is they have all derived from games played in China during the 9th century. Who knew something so simple as a few strips of paper could grow to affect the whole world?

Buddhism: Morality, Wisdom & Meditation

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Types of Buddhism in Asia

With over 500 million followers, Buddhism is one of the world’s major religions. Approximately 300,000 of these followers live in the United Kingdom alone, however, the majority live in contemporary Asia with the highest numbers in China, Thailand, Japan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Cambodia. Until 23rd February 2020, the British Library is exploring the spread of Buddhism, its philosophy, and practice with an exhibition containing manuscripts and artefacts, including rare treasures such as 2000-year-old scrolls and books. Full of inciteful information, the British Library breaks down the three types of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana; and reveals the consistency of the religion since the 6th century BCE.

Entering the exhibition, visitors are welcomed by the sounds of the natural world, which is a major theme within Buddhism. The songs and noises of cicadas, amphibians, oriental magpie robins and gentle streams set the scene for the first quarter of the exhibition, which focuses on the Buddha.

Born 2500 years ago in Lumbini in modern-day Nepal, the historical Buddha or Shakyamuni Buddha was born as Prince Siddhartha Gautama. His mother, Queen Maya, passed away seven days after his birth and he was raised by his aunt, Prajapati Gotami. His father, King Shuddhodana, arranged tutors to teach his son in the palace and kept all troubles and hard work away from Siddhartha. The king showered luxuries on his son, providing him with everything he could want. A prophecy stated that if Siddhartha left the palace he would become a religious leader, however, if he remained inside, he would grow up to become a great king. Naturally, King Shuddhodana wished his heir to be a strong and powerful leader, therefore, used his wealth to make sure his son would never want to leave the palace.

As well as all the luxuries, when Siddhartha turned 16, his father found him a wife, Yashodhara, and they soon had a son, Rahula. Yet, despite the comfortable, rich lifestyle, Siddhartha yearned to see what life was like outside of the palace.

 

The life of Prince Siddhartha is recorded in two Sanskrit scriptures: Buddhacarita and Lalitavistara Sutra. Both describe Siddhartha’s childhood of luxury beginning before he was born when his mother dreamt of a white elephant. Some legends say that when Siddhartha was born, he took seven steps forward and at each step, a lotus flower appeared where his foot had been. He then announced that this was his last birth, implying he had been reincarnated several times. In one of his previous lives, it is believed he was an elephant.

Desperate to escape the confines of the palace, the young adult Siddhartha went on four journeys where he saw “four great sights”. Whether or not Siddhartha got out of the palace against his father’s will is debated but the things he saw on the trips changed his life forever. The four great sights were an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a holy man with no home. The knowledge of these forms of suffering made Siddhartha sad that he lived in such comfort when others did not. From that moment onwards, he decided to reject extravagant luxuries.

The British Library displays several illuminated pages from two manuscripts showing the story of Prince Siddartha. One volume was produced in China and the other in Burma, however, they both tell of the same events. In one picture, Prince Siddartha takes a final look at his sleeping wife and new-born son before leaving the palace on horseback. At the age of 20, Siddhartha had become a leader of the Shakya clan who were by tradition sun worshippers, however, they soon fell out with another clan and proposed a war. Siddhartha, averse to causing people to suffer, opposed this proposal and was given an ultimatum by the clan: stay and fight or leave the country and never see his family again. At the age of 29, Siddhartha left his family, his home, and his land.

The illustrations show that Prince Siddhartha became a monk and ordered his charioteer to return to the palace and inform his family that he was well. Naturally, the king tried to entice Siddhartha back by offering half his kingdom, however, Siddhartha refused, saying he had renounced worldly life. In one of the images, Prince Siddhartha is shown receiving the eight requisites of a monk: three yellow robes, an alms bowl, a razor, a needle, a water strainer and a girdle.

Like many holy men at the time, Siddhartha was an ascetic, denying himself worldly pleasures for religion and spirituality. Siddhartha may have joined a group of Jains who, amongst other things, practiced self-denial and caused themselves to suffer. They believed this would free their soul from pain and sadness. Acts of self-denial may have included eating only six grains of rice a day, holding one’s breath for considerable lengths of time, and allowing the body to become so thin as to be on the verge of death. Despite partaking in this type of ritual, Siddhartha remained unsatisfied.

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Shakyamuni Buddha

Believing there was a better way to free the soul that did not involve hurting himself, Siddhartha decided to leave the monks. He found a large fig tree and decided to meditate under it. Determined not to leave the spot until he had found enlightenment, Siddhartha meditated for 49 days. During this time, his mind is said to have become pure. After practising this for a total of six years, Siddhartha became enlightened. He had become a Buddha.

The tree under which Siddhartha had meditated is known as the Bodhi Tree. Bodhi is the Sanskrit word for enlightenment, which refers to a full awakening where all limitations have been moved from the mind. The original tree is believed to have stood at the site of the Mahabodhi Temple in India. Whenever the tree was destroyed or died it was replaced by a new Bodhi tree. Saplings from the various trees have been taken to other places in India, such as Sravasti and Chennai, and across the world to Sri Lanka, Hawaii and California.

The manuscripts continue to document Siddhartha or the Buddha’s life after becoming enlightened. The Buddha now understood the purpose of suffering and how to defeat suffering. His answer was known as the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Dukkha – in life there is suffering whether we want it or not
  2. Samudaya – there is a reason for the suffering in the world
  3. Nirodha – people can be free from suffering when they no longer want things
  4. Magga – to stop wanting things, one must follow the Noble Eightfold Path
    1. Right Vision. A person should try to see things the way they really are
    2. Right Values. A person should try to turn their mind away from the world and towards the Dharma (cosmic law)
    3. Right Speech. A person should try to be truthful and kind when they talk
    4. Right Actions. A person should try to do good things. If they can not do a good thing, then they should try to not do a bad thing
    5. Right Livelihood. A person should not work at something that can hurt themselves or other people
    6. Right Effort. A person should try to increase their goodness and get rid of their evil
    7. Right Mindfulness. A person must remember the Dharma and use it all the time
    8. Right Meditation. A person must try to reach enlightenment through meditation

The illuminated manuscripts shows the Buddha teaching the Dharma to his disciples and other followers. Although he is occasionally depicted on a throne, he never pretended to be a god. He considered himself to be a man who had discovered the meaning of life and walked across Nepal and parts of India to teach people what he believed. For over 40 years he preached about enlightenment and started a Sangha – a group of Buddhist monks and nuns.

 

The Buddha lived to the age of 80 when he suffered a severe attack of dysentery. As seen in the illustrations, the Buddha consoled his most devoted disciple Ananda then called all his disciples together for one final message. He urged them to continue to follow the Four Noble Truths then passed away; or as the British Library describes it, he entered “Parinirvana, the final passage into Nirvana (liberation from the cycle of rebirth).” His death is remembered on the day of the full moon in May.

The Buddha’s body was cremated and enshrined in stupas (a type of reliquary), which were distributed across north India. Under the rule of Emperor Ashoka in 250 BCE, they were taken further afield to promote the spread of Buddhism. Later, during a war, the Sacred Tooth Relic was brought to Sri Lanka for safety. Every year a 15-day festival is held in memory of this event. The Sacred Tooth Relic procession includes a procession of elephants.

“You yourselves must strive. The Buddhas only point the way.”
Magga-vagga (The Path), Sutra Pitaka

 

Unlike western religions where there is only one God, the concept of being a Buddha is available to anyone who obtains enlightenment. Enlightenment is central to Buddhist philosophy, however, the path is not straight forward. The historical Buddha went through dozens of lives before he was born as Prince Siddhartha where he finally obtained enlightenment. Stories of the previous lives of the Buddha have been illustrated in manuscripts known as Jātakas (Birth Stories), of which a handful are displayed in the Library’s exhibition. Each story represents one of the virtues or qualities of a Buddha.

The Jātaka tales claim the Buddha lived 547 lives before coming to the end of his spiritual path. The final ten lives are generally considered to be the most important because they illustrate the Great Paramita (perfections) of a Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be). In one previous incarnation, the Bodhisattva was an elephant who stood over a skylark nest to protect the birds. Unfortunately, an evil elephant arrived and destroyed the nest, however, the skylark, with the help of a crow, a fly and a frog, destroyed him. Despite being small and powerless, they caused the death of a powerful elephant.

In another incarnation, the Buddha was a golden stag who found himself caught in a hunter’s trap. His mate offered her life to the hunter in place of the stag’s, which so moved the hunter that he spared both of their lives.

The previous lives of the Buddha have different importance between Buddhist’s sects. There are three main divisions of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. Since the Buddha’s death, differing opinions have arisen concerning the correct teachings and practices of Buddhism. Theravada, meaning “way of the elders” is the oldest of the three traditions and states the best way to attain nirvana is to be a monk or nun and partake in regular meditation. They believe the path to enlightenment is a personal journey and is an individual experience. Mahayana, on the other hand, teaches people can help each other to gain enlightenment. It is not necessary to be a monk or nun but Bodhisattvas can work together to attain nirvana. The third tradition, Vajrayana, follows the majority of the Mahayana teachings, however, also believes it is possible to reach nirvana in a single lifetime.

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Twenty-Eight Buddhas

In the Theravada tradition, it is believed that twenty-eight Buddhas have attained nirvana. The history of these Buddhas is recorded in a text known as the Buddhavamsa. Although he is the most famous, Prince Siddhartha was the fourth Buddha. Preceding him were Kakusanda, Konagama and Kassapa. Despite living unique lives, each Buddha achieved enlightenment in the shadow of a particular tree.

 

In Buddhism, life is regarded as a series of impermanent manifestations; everything is subject to change. Although it is possible to be both a Buddhist and belong to another religion, Buddhism does not encourage belief in a creator or single deity. Buddhism incorporates cosmological theories that describe 31 realms of existence within the cycle of Samsara (rebirth). The Sutra of the Ten Kings describes the ten stages the soul passes through after death before reaching one of six forms of rebirth: hell, ghosts, wild animals, domestic animals, humans and Buddhas. Other traditions have slightly different forms of rebirth but they all agree there are a total of six. There are also 31 realms of existence: 4 formless realms, 16 pure form realms, 6 celestial realms, 1 human realm, 1 realm of jealous demi-gods and demons, 1 animal realm, 1 realm of hungry ghosts, and 1 realm of the underworld or hell.

The teachings of the Buddha were not written down during his lifetime, which is the prime reason for the different traditions that have formed. The oldest collection of Buddhist scriptures date back to over 2000 years ago, however, by then different opinions had already formed. Each Buddhist tradition has its own set of texts that differ in contents and number. A complete set of scriptures ranges between 40 to over 200 volumes depending on the particular division.

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Gandhāran Scroll

The British Library displays a variety of scrolls and manuscripts containing Buddhist texts. Dating from the 1st century CE is a fragment of the Gandhāran scrolls, which are among the oldest surviving Buddhist manuscripts. Written in black ink on birch bark, these scrolls demonstrate a range of Buddhist genres and styles, including poetry and stories. The kingdom of Gandhāra encompassed several cultures, for instance, Indian, Asian, Iranian, Greek and Roman, therefore, these scrolls were an important method of spreading the word of Buddhism between different societies.
Amongst the other manuscripts in the exhibition are the Kanjur: a Tibetan Buddhist canon containing the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in Eight Thousand Verses, the Sankhara: a commentary on the higher teachings, the Lotus Sutra: an influential Mahayana scripture, the Amitabha Sutra and the Diamond Sutra. The latter is written as a dialogue between the Buddha and his disciple Subhuti. It explains that people are intrinsically empty “like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow”. The Buddha is trying to help his disciple unlearn his preconceived notions of reality. An accompanying quote from the American Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön (b.1936) emphasises this idea:

“The truth you believe in and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.”
Pema Chödrön, 1991

As the exhibition reaches the halfway mark, the soundscape shifts from the natural world to audio recordings of rituals, ceremonies and the everyday lives of Buddhist communities across a range of geographic locations. This includes prayers being said in India, a ceremony in Cambodia, monks playing the drums in Laos and various recordings from China and Japan. These sounds signal the end of the Buddha and Buddhist Philosophy sections of the exhibition and the beginning of the Spread of Buddhism.

The spread of the Buddha’s teachings coincides with the adaptation of writing systems and printing techniques, which allowed Buddhist scriptures to reach more people than oral accounts could achieve. The manuscripts were also translated from the original Sanskrit into local languages across Asia, allowing a greater population to become familiar with Buddhism.

 


In the Theravada tradition, Buddhist scriptures were usually inscribed on carefully prepared palm leaves and held together by a cord. A carved wooden cover was attached either side to protect the fragile leaves, turning the manuscript into an early form of a book. This is known as pothi. Ink made from soot and plant oils was applied with a metal stylus. This technique was used up until the early 20th century. Other materials were also used, although very rare, for example, gold and silver plates. The British Library also displays a pothi made from ivory.
Folded and bound paper books came much later, however, they were still individually written by hand. This was usually done by a Buddhist monk who would use a special calligraphy set consisting of brushes, paperweights, ink sticks, ink stones, seals and seal paste. Although tradition is a very important aspect of Buddhism, monks are not afraid to embrace new technologies, therefore, by the 6th century CE, manuscripts were being mass-produced using wood-block printing. As a result, Buddhism began to spread more rapidly across the continent.

The British Library is fortunate that so many of these early manuscripts have survived to date. This is largely thanks to the monastic libraries that played and continue to play a central role in Buddhist education. Due to the Asian climate, the fragile manuscripts needed to be stored carefully to avoid damage from the changing weather, humidity, mould, insects and rodents. Special furniture and containers were designed specifically to hold these scrolls and books.

“When the mind is not trained, it is like a monkey. Meditation helps you focus.”
Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, 2018

 


The final section of the exhibition focuses on Buddhist practices, particularly the lives of monks. Buddhist life revolves around Karuna (compassion) and Metta (loving-kindness), which are to be expressed through behaviour and generosity to reduce the suffering of others. Buddhists must reject natural egotism and self-centeredness to demonstrate these practices. Buddhists achieve states of awareness and mindfulness by participating in meditation, which heightens concentration and insight. Mantras and chanting help to focus the mind and protect it from negative thoughts. Many of these techniques have been incorporated into everyday non-Buddhist life through activities such as yoga.

Although many Buddhists do not believe in the notion of gods, they use a variety of shrines. Many of these are used in ceremonies and often depict the historical Buddha, however, there are a few that are reserved for specific practices. The shrine of Jizō Bosatsu from Japan, for example, is a representation of the guardian and saviour of the dying, deceased and stillborn. The shrine, therefore, is used only when appropriate.

Portable shrines, such as amulet boxes, offer the bearer protection when travelling. An example on display is ornately decorated and contains a small window where a figurine or picture of a respected lama (teacher) could be displayed. Inside the box, Buddhists keep items that are deemed to carry blessings.

Buddhists occasionally wear protective clothing, such as a silk jacket, that they believe will protect them from physical and spiritual harm. The clothing is usually adorned with hand-drawn images and written texts from Buddhist mantras.
Emphasised by the figure of Sitatārā or White Tara, both males and females can receive enlightenment. Although Buddhist monks seem to be more common than Buddhist nuns, Buddhism is not a religion that alienates anyone based on gender. They believe everyone can reach nirvana if they strive hard enough.

Visitors are invited to strike a gong on exiting the room in a similar way one might exit a Buddhist monastery. Thus ends the multi-sensory exhibition. Decorated with red drapes and walls, the exhibition room resembles a contemporary Buddhist monastery or temple. Low lighting emphasises the preciousness of the artefacts and manuscripts plus causes people to talk in respectfully hushed voices. With so much information accompanying all the exhibits, the British Library has done a phenomenal job piecing together the exhibition.

The Buddhism exhibition is open until 23rd February 2020. Tickets are priced at £14 although concessions are available.