THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

24 December 2015

Scenes from the Life of the Buddha

Among the recently digitised Burmese manuscripts from the British Library collections are six illustrated manuscripts of the Life of the Buddha.  Two of these manuscripts are in fact single parts from  separate multi-volumed accounts of the Buddha's life. Or.14405 comprises the fourth part of one such account, and starts with the story of the Buddha's physician Jivaka, followed by depictions of the Buddha’s defeat of the heretics and his performance of the twin miracles, and ends with scenes from various rainy seasons spent by the Buddha. Or.14553 constitutes part nine of another mulitpart manuscript on the life of the Buddha, and contains 12 openings with scenes of Yasa joining the monkhood, the defeat of the heretics, and the serpent king. Two other manuscripts (Or.14297 and Or.14298) contain scenes from the Buddha’s early life, his enlightenment and his later life. Also digitised are a manuscript containing scenes from the lives of previous Buddhas as well as of Gotama Buddha (Or.14823), and a Jataka manuscript (Or.14220) on the previous lives of the Buddha.

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The First Sermon at the Deer Park. British Library, Or. 14823, f.38. Noc

The Buddha gave the first sermon called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta to his five disciples (Panca Vaggi) – Kondanna, Vappa, Bhaddiya, Mahanam and Assaji – at the Deer Park near Benares (Varanasi) on the eve of Saturday, the full moon day of July (Waso). A deva (deity) is depicted next to the disciples paying respects to the Buddha. This sermon contains the essential teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths are: the truth of suffering (Dukkha Sacca), the truth of the cause of suffering (Samudaya Sacca), the truth of the cessation of suffering (Nirodha Sacca), and the truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering (Megga Sacca).

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The Fire Sermon at Varanasi. British Library, Or. 14297, f.36. Noc

The Buddha addressed the Third Sermon, the Fire Sermon (Adittapariyaya Sutta) to a thousand previously fire-worshipping bhikkhus (ascetics) at Varanasi in Gaya several months after his Enlightenment. In this discourse the Buddha preached about achieving liberation from suffering. Pleasure or pain, or the non-existence of pleasure or pain, are all flames from the fire of lust (raga), the fire of hate (dosa) and the fire of delusion (moha). Upon hearing this Fire Sermon all hundred bhikkhus attained arahantship (perfect sanctity). This third discourse can be found in the Samyutta Nikaya in the Pali Canon.

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Yasa joins the monkhood. British Library, Or. 14553, f.3. Noc

Yasa was a son of a rich man, but he left his home as he was distressed with his life. He went to the Deer Park to become bhikkhu (ascetic). He was the sixth bhikkhu to achieve the first stage of arahanthood when he heard the teachings of the Buddha (dhamma). After the Buddha ordained Yasa, his closest friends, Vimala, Subahu, Punnaji and Gavumpati followed him into the sangha (monkhood) and they too became arahants (perfected persons). After two months, a further fifty of Yasa’s friends joined the sangha and attained arahantship.

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The Buddha and King Bimbisara. British Library, Or. 14405, ff.28-29. Noc

King Bimbisara, ruler of the kingdom of Magadha, offered his Bamboo Grove (Veluvana) to the Buddha and his disciples when the Buddha visited him at Rajagaha, the capital of Magadha, in accordance with a promise made by him before his Enlightenment. This was the first monastery (arama) accepted by the Buddha, and a rule was passed allowing monks to accept such an arama. After the Great Donation of Veluvana monastery, King Bimbisara became a lay-disciple (Upasaka) of the Buddha. The Buddha spent three rainy seasons - the second, third and fourth Lents (vassas) - in this first Buddhist monastery, and numerous Jatakas were recited there. The two most distinguished of the Buddha's disciples, Sariputta and Moggallana, joined the Order. The Buddha had spent the first vassa in the Deer Park at Isipatana, near Benares, where there was no building where he could reside.  

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The Buddha in Parileyya Forest, British Library, Or. 14823, f. 30.  Noc

While the Buddha was spending the tenth rainy season (vassa) at Kosambhi, a dispute arose between his followers. When they could not be reconciled he spent the rainy season at the foot of a Sal-tree in Parileyyaka Forest. During his stay in this forest an elephant and a monkey ministered to his needs. The monks came to Savatthi and begged pardon of the Buddha at the end of the vassa.

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Jivaka, the Buddha’s physician. British Library, Or. 14405, ff. 22-23. Noc

Jivaka, the most renowned physician, was the son of Salavati, of Rajagaha. He was adopted by Prince Abhaya, a son of King Bimbisara and brought up with the greatest care. He studied medicine and became eminent through his extreme proficiency in the profession. Although he was the royal physician he provided free medical care to the Buddha and other monks during the Buddha’s time. He also built a monastery in his mango garden and donated it to the Buddha and his monks. In this scene the Buddha’s physician is being summoned from his home by the Buddha’s disciple and steward, the monk Ananda, to treat the Buddha at a monastery.      
 
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Dhatu ceti at Jetavana, British Library, Or. 14298, f.5. Noc

After the Buddha’s passing (Parinirvana) his relics were enshrined in a stupa, so that people could pay respects to him and reflect upon his virtues. A ceti or stupa is a symbol of Buddhist culture; they were built of stone or brick, and contain a relic chamber beneath. After Sariputta and Moggallana, two chief disciples of the Buddha, attained Parinirvana, their relics were gathered and enshrined in Dhatu ceti in memory of them.
 
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Mittavindaka Jataka, British Library, Or 14220, ff.9-10.

Mittavindaka, the son of a rich man, agreed to keep eight precepts (uposatha sila) when his mother bribed him. He went to the monastery and slept all night. His mother asked him not to go on a voyage but he did not listen to her. When the ship refused to move in the middle of the ocean, lots were cast to identify the likely culprit. Three times the lot fell to Mittavindaka, who was then fastened to a raft and cast adrift. He arrived at an island which appeared to him to be a most beautiful place. When he saw a man with a lotus bloom on his head on the island, he asked the man to give it to him. As soon as he put it on his head he suffered the torments of hell as the wheel was as sharp as a razor. He was told by the Bodhisatta, born as a deva, that it was the result of his wickedness to his mother.

These manuscripts are painted in strong colours and an accomplished style. Some of the scenes in the Burmese Life of the Buddha manuscripts portray the gilded splendour of a monastery setting and the elaborate wooden architecture.

Further reading:
Patricia M. Herbert, The life of the Buddha. London: British Library, 1993.

San San May, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

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