San San May, Jana Igunma. Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from South-East Asia. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018. Illustrations. 256 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-74378-3.
Reviewed by Jinah Kim (Harvard University)
Published on H-Asia (August, 2020)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)
Theravada Buddhist Treasures at the British Library
As a legacy of British colonial rule in different parts of Asia, the British Library is a prime research destination for many scholars working on Asia. The library’s Southeast Asian manuscript holdings are perhaps not the strongest outside Southeast Asia, as the British Empire’s direct rule did not go beyond today’s Myanmar in mainland Southeast Asia. The strength of the Southeast Asian collection has been steadily growing since the 1970s, thanks to the late Dr. Henry D. Ginsburg (1940-2007), who dedicated his career to studying Thai manuscripts and promoting Thai art and culture. The publication of Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia helps make this important collection of manuscripts more widely known and invite scholars to study them. Written by two curators of the British Library, San San May, curator of Burmese collections, and Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao, and Cambodian collections, the book is fittingly dedicated to the memory of Ginsburg.
The book opens with an introduction that explains the scope and nature of the British Library’s Southeast Asian collections, which include over 400 Thai manuscripts, several thousand books of Thai origin, and about 1,800 Burmese items. Although many more Southeast Asian languages are attested in the British Library, the strength is in Thai and Burmese materials, the former thanks to Ginsburg’s legacy and the latter owing to the colonial rule of Myanmar as a province of British India following three Anglo-Burman wars (1824-26, 1852-53, 1885). A brief discussion of codicological features introduces two main types of manuscripts prepared and used in traditional Southeast Asia: the pothi-format that held together loose folios of palm-leaflet or tree bark with cords or metal sticks, a format that originates from the Indian subcontinent, and the concertina-format or folding book (known as parabaik in Burmese and samut khoi in Thai), also known as accordion type, which probably originates from China. Materials used for manuscript production from palm-leaflets to bamboo to different types of paper (mostly made of mulberry or mixture of mulberry and bamboo pulps) to pigments and tools are also discussed.
It is clear from the introduction that Buddhism in the book’s title, Buddhism Illuminated, is Theravada Buddhism, which emphasizes the monastic ordination lineage and the teaching of the historical Buddha going back to the earliest monastic community (“thera” refers to monastic elders) based on the Pali canon. Dominance of Theravada Buddhism in mainland Southeast Asia as we know today gradually rose after the twelfth century. This happened through multiple moments of reforms prompted by different political and historical circumstances, like the intervention by King Dhammaceti of Pegu (r. 1471-92) that sought the authority of Lankan (Sinhalese) monastic ordination lineages. The book, then, aims to present the central Theravada Buddhist tenets as “explored through the eyes of local and royal artists from Southeast Asia, mostly anonymous, who created these outstanding and unique works of art” (p. 9). The subsequent chapters are organized through a Buddhist thematic order, starting with the three jewels of Buddhism (triratna), “Buddha” (chapter 2), “Dhamma” (chapter 3), and “Sangha” (chapter 4), followed by chapters on two central Buddhist concepts: “Kamma” (cause and effect, chapter 5) and “Punna” (religious merits, chapter 6).
Chapter 2 introduces the ten birth-tales of the Buddha with accompanying illustrations drawn from various manuscripts. The ten birth-tales of the Buddha’s previous lives, known as jatakas, are popular in manuscript illustration throughout mainland Southeast Asia. The ten tales illustrate the perfection of ten Buddhist virtues (Renunciation-Temiya, Perseverance-Mahajanaka, Devotion-Suvanna Sama, Resolution-Nimi, Wisdom-Mahosadha, Moral practice-Bhuridatta, Forbearance-Canda Kumara, Equanimity-Narada, Truthfulness-Vidhura Pandita, and Generosity-Vessantara), and a number of delightful examples like Mss Burmese 202 and Or 13538 illuminate these stories with richly colored, landscape-filled scenes. In chapter 3, which collects manuscript examples that relate to the main Buddhist teaching of morality (sila), meditation (samadhi), and wisdom (panna), the authors make one of the important observations about the types of manuscripts that were commissioned with illustrations: many painted manuscripts are not of a single text but of a collection of excerpts from the Tipitaka, especially important passages from the Abhidhamma pitaka and the Mahabuddhaguna along with apotropaic texts, such as the Unhissavijaya and the Mahasara (popular dhāraṇīs or sacred chants in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition), not unlike illuminated Christian manuscripts of the Book of Hours. These sampler manuscripts were commissioned “to make merit on behalf of a severely ill or dying person” (p. 109).
Chapter 4 succinctly explains workings of sangha, Buddhist monastic community, through various manuscripts that show monks in action, either as disciples of the Buddha or as teachers themselves. The whole question of bhikkhuni (Buddhist nuns) ordination in the Theravada tradition is glossed over, but at least one nineteenth-century Burmese manuscript (Or. 14405) introduced in chapter 3 includes depiction of two bhikkhunis in pink monastic robes (p. 100). Just as the Buddha’s life stories painted in manuscripts show distinct local interpretations and pictorial elements, the cosmological understanding of the Buddhist universe with many “bhums” (planes) of existence from various heavens to hells introduced in chapter 5 is also depicted through localizing pictorial programs and languages. An exquisitely painted Thai manuscript (Or. 14838) of the excerpts from the Tipitaka and the Phra Malai story includes an image of Tārā, a popular Mahayana Buddhist goddess in completely Thai garb depicted in-flight with an entourage of flying celestial devatas (p. 178). The last chapter deals with patronage. A mid-nineteenth-century Burmese manuscript (Or. 13681, dated 1857) is a particularly striking example that can help us understand the social and cultural contexts of royal donations of manuscripts. Chapter 6 also explores Buddhist manuscripts’ function to support laity to deal with the dead, introducing more pages illustrating the story of Phra Malai, a monk who travels to visit various heavens and hells through his supernatural power, popular in Thai manuscripts. The book ends with three short appendices with handy lists (the twenty-eight Buddhas of the past, the auspicious symbols on the Buddhapada, and overview of the Tipitaka), a glossary of terms, a short bibliography, and an index.
While the book largely succeeds as a pictorial guide to Theravada Buddhist traditions of Southeast Asia, it unfortunately sacrifices depth and rigor for easy comprehension. A tendency to simplify and generalize without footnotes or references along with a slim bibliography (less than a page long) gives little confidence on the academic rigor of the research behind the book. In a sweeping narrative about Buddhism of Khmer and Thai peoples, the authors take Angkor Wat as a Buddhist monument and Khmer King Suryvarman I (r. 1006-50) as one of the “greatest supporters of Buddhism in mainland Southeast Asia,” which is an overgeneralization at best (pp. 13-14). Angkor Wat was an initially Vaishnavite monument built by Suryavarman II (r. 1113-45 or later) that was later reanimated as a Buddhist temple in the sixteenth century by Khmer King Ang Chan (r. 1516-1566). Suryvarman I’s posthumous title, “Nirvanapāda (belonging to nirvāṇa),” may suggest his Buddhist affiliation, but to call him one of the greatest supporters of Buddhism in mainland Southeast Asia would require more than a posthumous title as his reign did not leave any substantial Buddhist interventions, institutionally or architecturally speaking.
The thematic organization around the main tenets of Buddhism leaves little room to explore research questions on manuscripts’ production, function, and meaning. For example, it would have been useful to learn more about historical circumstances and religious meanings behind the funerary use of manuscripts. In Theravada Buddhism, it is known that the practice of “chanting the syllables from the titles of the texts of the Abhidhamma helps guide the consciousness of the deceased to a good birth.” This would have helped explain why there are many sampler manuscripts that contain Abhidhamma (doctrinal exposition) passages. Another important research question observed in passing but never explored is the function of manuscripts as mobile objects, that is, as gifts that traveled along monastic networks. Further research on this topic of the movements of manuscripts would be fascinating, along with comparative analysis of artistic styles and production methods. Buddhism Illuminated brings together an extraordinary number of illustrations from Southeast Asian manuscripts. Different styles of painting from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Southeast Asia are compiled. The frequent use of landscape and other pictorial conventions that seem to have been taken from European paintings would be a fascinating topic to explore further. Such an inquiry would help us understand early modern artistic practices in Southeast Asia and the impact of colonial rules and trades on them.
There is little effort made to historicize manuscripts through historical research, and we learn little about each manuscript. Even the information about each manuscript’s material composition and format is vague at best, and one gets little sense about each manuscript’s structure, codicology, and iconographic program. Pages from a single manuscript are selected and dispersed throughout the text to illuminate Buddhism, but without ever connecting back to the manuscript’s original context. The reader is left to scramble to create a concordance to identify which images belong to a single manuscript and how they relate. Even a simple hand-list of all manuscripts reproduced in the book with figure numbers would have saved the day. This is an unfortunate omission that compromises the usability of this book as a research guide. Given the long-standing tradition of stellar publications on Buddhist manuscripts from the British Library, such as Jeremiah P. Losty’s Art of the Book in India (1982), Buddhism: Art and Faith (1985) edited by W. Zwalf, and even Thai Art and Culture: Historic Manuscripts from Western Collections (2000) by none other than the late Henry Ginsburg to whom the book is dedicated, it is difficult not to lament the absence of rigorous catalog information about each manuscript. Buddhism Illuminated is ultimately not a publication out of the British Library, and perhaps the decision to reduce information on each manuscript may have been due to the restraints of a different publication environment.
Despite my laments about missed opportunities, Buddhism Illuminated should be a delight for anyone interested in Theravada Buddhism and the manuscript art of mainland Southeast Asia. The authors successfully “illuminate” Theravada Buddhism with outstanding visual articulations of Buddhist doctrine and practices in the British Library’s manuscripts. The book is lavishly illustrated with nearly two hundred color illustrations taken from the British Library’s manuscripts, creating a visual feat.
. On the term “Theravāda” and its historical meaning, see Peter Skilling, “Theravāda in History,” Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, 3rd. ser., no. 11 (2009): 61-94. Also see, Peter Skilling, Jason A. Carbine, Claudio Cicuzza, and Santi Pakdeekham, eds., How Theravāda is Theravāda?: Exploring Buddhist Identities (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2012).
. Pink is actually worn by thila shins, not fully ordained female monastics in Burmese sangha in today’s Myanmar. According to Bhikkhu Anālayo, pink is not a color that a fully ordained monastic would be allowed to wear. Although the authors describe the robes in the painting as purple, possibly to sidestep this issue, we may take this painting as making an implicit claim of direct lineage between thila shins of nineteenth-century Burma and first-generation nuns, especially given female royal patronage recorded in nineteenth-century Burmese manuscripts. On the issue of bhikkhuni ordination in the Theravada vinaya, see, for example, Bhikkhu Anālayo, “The Theravāda Vinaya and Bhikkhunī Ordination,” in Rules of Engagement, Medieval Traditions of Buddhist Monastic Regulations, ed. Susan Andrews, Jinhua Chen, and Cuilan Liu (Bochum: Projekt Verlag, 2017), 333-67.
. Further research on the goddess Tārā in Thai Theravada Buddhism is necessary to determine if this image should be identified as Tārā.
. See, for example, Jinah Kim, “Unfinished Business: Buddhist Reuse of Angkor Wat and Its Historical and Political Significance,” Artibus Asiae 70, no. 1 (2010): 77-122.
. The title “nirvaṇapāda” is known from an undated inscription from Preah Khan of Kompon Svay. Louis Finot, “Notes d’Épigraphie,” Bulletin De L'École Française D'Extrême-Orient 4, no. 3 (1904): 672-79. “Nirvaṇapāda” may in fact not be exclusively a Buddhist term, either. On Suryavarman I’s reign, see the discussion in Michael Vickery, “The Reign of Sūryavarman I and Royal Factionalism at Angkor,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 16, no. 2 (1985): 226-44.
. Justin McDaniel, “Illuminating Archives: Collectors and Colections in the History of Thai Manuscripts,” Manuscript Studies: A Journal of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies 2 no. 1 (Spring 2017): 8
. Some of these manuscripts are digitally available on the British Library’s Digitized Manuscripts program (http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/). For example, Or. 14405, a nineteenth-century Burmese manuscript is available for full viewing at http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=or_14405_fs001r.
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Jinah Kim. Review of May, San San; Igunma, Jana, Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from South-East Asia.
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