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.