Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 5, 2019
San San May and Jana Igunma Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia London and Seattle: British Library and University of Washington Press, 2018. 256 pp.; 198 color ills. Cloth $64.95 (9780295743783)

The British Library is home to one of the world’s most important collections of manuscripts from Southeast Asia. Buddhism Illuminated focuses on the library’s holdings from the Buddhist traditions of mainland Southeast Asia, particularly in the area that is today Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand. The book presents nearly two hundred high-quality reproductions from this deep and varied collection and describes Buddhist teachings, values, and practices in the region. This book is a significant landmark in Southeast Asian Buddhist manuscript studies. Its reproductions make it an essential reference source for scholars and, with its plain-spoken text, a rich and engaging overview for the general public.

Buddhism Illuminated is the work of San San May, curator of Burmese collections at the British Library, and Jana Igunma, the Henry Ginsburg Curator for the library’s Thai, Lao, and Cambodian collections. Among institutions around the world holding Southeast Asian manuscripts, the British Library has been a leader in facilitating access to these delicate items through various means. Many of the library’s manuscripts, which also come from Malay, Vietnamese, and other traditions, are freely viewable to those far from London through its Digitised Manuscripts web portal. The team of Southeast Asian manuscript curators also regularly posts analyses of specific manuscripts on the British Library’s popular Asian and African Studies Blog. Buddhism Illuminated fits into this ethos of promoting accessibility and sharing curatorial knowledge with a wide audience including scholars, students, and members of the public; scholarly jargon is avoided. There are no footnotes. At the back of the book is a thorough glossary of terms from Pali, Sanskrit, Thai, and other languages.

The book is organized around Buddhist concepts and values: following the introduction are chapters on each of the three jewels of Buddhism— Buddha, dhamma (dharma or Buddha’s teachings), and sangha (the monastic community)—and chapters on kamma (karma or intentional action) and punna (merit). Each chapter presents an overview of its title subject through the art and texts from the manuscripts.

As the introduction relates, the British Library has approximately 1,800 Burmese manuscripts and 400 Thai, Lao, Cambodian, and Shan manuscripts, mainly made of palm leaf or paper but also of gold, ivory, copper, and other materials. The works include Buddhist canonical and noncanonical literature as well as treatises on divination, grammar, history, and medicine. Languages represented include Ahom, Burmese, Khamti Shan, Khmer, Lao, Mon, Northern Thai, Pali, Shan, and Thai. Scripts include Ahom, Burmese, Khmer, Khom, Lao Dhamma, Northern Thai Dhamma, Shan, and Thai. In the collection there are also manuscript-related accessories, such as storage chests, textile ribbons and wrappings, pointers used for reading texts, and title indicators. These objects are sometimes decorated and may also bear donative inscriptions, some examples of which are translated by the authors and show wishes and concerns of devotees when making Buddhist donations.

The introduction (chapter 1) provides a history and description of the British Library collection. It also has a detailed discussion of the materials and production methods of the manuscripts, which is probably the best available description in English. The introduction also provides overviews, concise but with interesting detail, of the manuscript traditions of the Burmese, Khmer, and Thai cultures. Also discussed are the origination and history of Buddhism in the region as recounted in local treatises, such as Burmese accounts that relate that the Shwedagon Pagoda, in present-day Yangon, enshrines hair relics that the Buddha himself gave to two merchants.

In the following chapters, the book highlights the images and stories from Buddhist literature and life that have been compelling to devotees in mainland Southeast Asia historically and presents the Buddhist meanings and values that were associated with them traditionally. Chapter 2, entitled “Buddha—The Enlightened One,” describes the story of the Buddha and his past lives (jatakas). Episodes from these stories are presented through painted images from the manuscripts and short summaries of the narratives. Of note is a rare Burmese manuscript that includes portraits of the twenty-eight past Buddhas. Chapter 3, “Dhamma—The Righteous Way,” provides a summary of Buddhist teachings and values and introduces the Pali canon. Among examples of manuscripts presented are those that illustrate the Buddha giving sermons in Sarnath, Tavatimsa Heaven, and elsewhere. The chapter discusses the tradition of paritta, passages of the Buddha’s teachings or other sacred texts that are chanted as protection against illness and other threats. Also presented is kammavaca, the set of texts relating to ordination. These texts were frequently sponsored by lay members on the occasion of a son’s entering the monkhood and so were often lavish in material and decoration. The chapter furthermore introduces the legend of Phra Malai, a monk of high spiritual attainments said to have visited heaven and hell and met the future Buddha, Metteyya (Maitreya). This centuries-old story became especially popular in the nineteenth century as a subject of illustrated Thai books for funerals. As the authors note, it also influenced Thai popular understanding of the workings of karma. Chapter 4, “Sangha—The Monastic Community,” focuses on the lives and work of monks, nuns, and upasika, female lay disciples who take certain vows. Canonical and commentarial texts on monastic discipline are introduced. Several manuscript images depicting the Buddha’s earliest disciples and aspects of monastic lives, such as ordination and examination, are presented. The chapter also discusses the role of the sangha in assisting lay communities through pastoral as well as practical support. The specialist knowledge possessed by monastics on medicine, divination, linguistics, history, and other subjects is the focus of many of the manuscripts. Chapter 5, “Kamma—Cause and Effect,” draws attention to manuscript images of the thirty-one planes of existence, from hell up to the realm of formlessness and the range of beings, such as gods, animals, kings, and mythical animals found in Buddhist art and literature. These illustrate a discussion of beliefs about the workings of karma on rebirth. Also introduced in this section are the sixteen sacred lands of Buddhism, the places where the Buddha visited or resided in ancient India and that are often featured in cosmological manuscripts. Chapter 6, “Punna—Making Merit in Everyday Life,” discusses the principles and practices of the undertaking of good deeds and the offering of donations to benefit the present and future lives of oneself and others. A variety of images from manuscripts are presented, including episodes from the Vessantara and Phra Malai stories and illustrations of sites of worship such as stupas, monasteries, and Buddha footprints. Buddhist holidays, which are major occasions for merit-making, are also described and illustrated with some meticulously detailed paintings from nineteenth-century Burmese manuscripts. The book closes with a glossary and three appendices: the list of the twenty-eight Buddhas of the past, the list of symbols on images of the Buddha’s footprint, and a diagram of the organization of the Pali canon.

The book touches only lightly on the topics of artistic styles and compositions and the interaction of text and image, but with perceptiveness. For instance, on pages 104–5 is a photograph of a two-page spread from an eighteenth-century Thai manuscript. The rectangular spread is divided into three panels. On the left-hand panel is a painting of three deer resting in a grove. In the middle is a panel of written text from the Pali canon. On the right-hand panel is a painting of a tiger stepping away toward the right but with its head turned back as if facing the text. The authors remark, “By portraying the tiger as if fearfully jumping over rocks in the direction away from the deer, the painter highlights the power of the Buddhist text, standing like a protective wall between predator and prey. At the same time, the deer symbolize watchfulness (sati), an essential aspect of Buddhist practice” (105).

The illustrations throughout the book are in color, numerous, and of high quality. Many are large with quite a few extending over more than one page so that fine details are easily visible. Sometimes the authors helpfully provide two photographs, a close-up of a painting as well as a shot of the entire manuscript page on which the painting appears. With their thoughtful approach to illustration, the authors and publisher make Buddhism Illuminated an extremely valuable resource for art historians.  Although “illustration” is the conventional term for pictorial images in manuscripts and is used in the book, it is perhaps standard for want of a better word: the images are often unrelated to the content of the text of the manuscripts, and, as the authors demonstrate, stand on their own as expressions of values and themes. With its superior reproductions and contextualization of the manuscripts within the Buddhist concepts, values, and practices of the devotees who produced and used them, Buddhism Illuminated is a vital contribution to the study of Southeast Asian Buddhist manuscripts. 

Angela S. Chiu
Independent Researcher

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