In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Western scholars viewed Buddhism as an austere, monolithic religion focused upon meditation and nirvana - the escape from the cycles of rebirth.
Such a portrayal ignores the realities of religious systems in Myanmar (Burma), where people combine homage to the Buddha with such activities as spirit worship, making offerings, and divination. People select these rituals according to their personal needs in everyday life, and also to form spiritual pathways to pleasurable rebirths and to help them strive for nirvana.
This exhibition draws on the British Museum’s Myanmar collections to explore how the variety of Buddhist ideas is revealed in lively daily practices.
The Buddhist universe has 31 levels. All beings are reborn in one of these levels as a result of past behaviour. Good actions, such as paying homage to the Buddha, can lead to an individual being reborn on an upper level, conferring high social status, power and eventually supernatural abilities. Anger, ignorance and hatred, however, can result in rebirth in an unpleasant existence, as an animal or ghost, or even in one of the hells. This is the law of cause and effect that governs the universe, and the Buddha’s lives show it in action. In his past lives, the Buddha perfected the ten virtues necessary for enlightenment and in his final life he became an awakened being and exited the cycle of rebirth.
Representations of the cosmos, the life of the Buddha and the Buddha’s previous lives have been popular for over a millennia and can be seen on objects ranging from buildings to popular prints. Commissioning, producing and donating such images are acts of generosity and create merit for the donor, contributing to a good rebirth.
Model stupa (Late 1700s to early 1800s)British Museum
Model stupa with the 28 Buddhas of the Past
A stupa is a Buddhist structure containing relics that devotees ritually walk around. People commission model stupas to make merit and ensure the maintenance of the religion, resulting in better future rebirths. In the past, there have been countless Buddhas (awakened beings), and in the Burmese tradition, there are 28 named individuals. They are particularly important because during previous lives, Gotama the historical Buddha received a prophecy of his future Buddhahood from each of them.
Carved elephant tusk (Late 1800s)British Museum
Elephant tusk with the Buddhas of this era
Buddhists believe that time is cyclical, and in each round, which can last millions of years, a number of Buddhas arise. In the current cycle, there have already been four Buddhas, and one is yet to come. Commissioning sculptures of the Buddhas generates merit for the donor and promises better future rebirths.
In the current cycle, there have already been four Buddhas. These encircle the tusk.
The fifth Buddha of this era, Maitreya, who is yet to come, stands in the upper cagework at the tip.
A cosmology manuscript
This Burmese manuscript displays the structure of the Buddhist universe...
...and places associated with the Buddha.
This panel shows the Buddha eating by Lake Anottata.
Cosmology manuscript panel showing Mount Meru and Ananda the cosmic fish (Late 1800s)British Museum
Here, Ananda the cosmic fish encircles the base of Mount Meru in the surrounding ocean.
This shows the seven mountain ranges surrounding Mount Meru, as well as the sun (peacock) and moon (rabbit).
The Buddha’s footprint (1700s to early 1800s)British Museum
The Buddha’s footprint
In Myanmar, footprints are honoured as the main image in a temple or are placed to point towards a main image. They mark the Buddha’s presence and demonstrate the importance of pilgrimage. The 108 symbols on the footprint include such imagery as major cosmological features of the universe and royal symbols, indicating the totality of the Buddha’s teachings and the connection between Buddhism and kingship.
The conch shells in the toes represent the spread of the Buddha’s teachings...
...and the lotus in the heel stands for purity. The surrounding mythical serpents, now missing their heads, symbolise protection and homage.
There are three regions of the universe - the realm of non-form with the four highest heavens, the realm of form with 16 heavens, and the realm of worldly desires with six heavens, four worlds of the humans, demons, ghosts and animals, and eight hells. The 22 heavens of the realms of form and desires are represented by the series of 22 palace buildings with tiered roofs seen in the centre of the footprint.
Mount Meru is the central axis of the universe, uniting the three realms of non-form, form and worldly desires. It is represented as a central pillar topped by Tavatimsa Heaven and surrounded by seven mountain ranges and seven oceans. The seven hill shapes in the second row from the right are the mountain ranges, and the seven boxes of wavy lines are the seven oceans that alternate with the mountains.
On the footprint, the row directly beneath the toes and the beginning of the first row on the right contain imagery associated with kingship. These include the accoutrements of royal power, including white umbrellas and fans that indicate high rank, weapons showing the strength of the kingdom, marks of a great man that demonstrate the personal abilities of the king, particular flowers associated with spirituality, and golden palaces, offering trays and thrones that prove the wealth of the king and therefore the kingdom.
The god Indra (Sakka)
The god Indra keeps a record of each being’s good and bad deeds, which determines the quality of a person’s future lives. Images of Indra became popular in the 1700s, and modern examples are still placed at the entrances of religious sites today.
Gotama Buddha in the gesture of Enlightenment
This image shows the Buddha on the night of his awakening. When challenged by Mara, he demonstrated his worthiness to become enlightened by touching the ground and calling the Earth Goddess to witness his good deeds. Mara fled before the evidence, leaving the Buddha-to-be to become the enlightened Gotama at dawn.
Manuscript chest with scenes from the life of Gotama Buddha (Late 1800s to early 1900s)British Museum
Manuscript chest with scenes from the life of Gotama Buddha
Before he could become enlightened, the Buddha-to-be had to reject worldly life. Depicted on the chest’s front are the events associated with his renunciation of his life as a prince: the sights that persuaded him to seek Buddhahood...
...a last look at his family...
...his departure. On the right side of the chest the prince is depicted cutting off his hair in order to become a monk. On the left side is a palace scene. Such chests were gifts made for monastery libraries to hold donated religious texts.
Stupa deposit showing the Buddha in his coffin
The Buddha died and attained his final nirvana (the end of rebirth) at the age of 80. Here, nine figures, a numerologically significant number, honour him around his coffin. Miraculous events attended his death, and his cremation resulted in large quantities of relics that were placed in stupas for worship. This sculpture of the Buddha’s coffin would also have been placed in a relic chamber as an offering.
Cloth hanging of the Nemi Jataka (1890-1910)British Museum
Cloth hanging of the Nemi Jataka
In this past life, the Buddha-to-be is the virtuous King Nemi, whose reward is an invitation to view the blissful existences of the heavens and the tortures of hell.
The hells were popularly depicted as heads being boiled in a cauldron, as seen in the lower left.
Afterwards in Indra’s heaven, Nemi preaches about the behaviour needed to escape the cycles of rebirth. Decorated cloth hangings like this were donated to embellish monasteries.
Water bowl with the Mahosadha Jataka (Around 1930) by Workshop of Hsaya Bay and Daw Ma Ma AungBritish Museum
Water bowl with the Mahosadha Jataka
In this birth story, the Buddha-to-be was a minister called Mahosadha, who made numerous wise judgements, advised King Videha, and assisted the king to defeat his enemies. The scenes here all simply show Mahosadha in a typical Myanmar palace, indicating his high rank and therefore advanced spiritual status. This vessel could be used to hold water in the home, but such objects were also donated to monasteries or used to carry offerings to monks.
Paying homage is a major form of religious activity in Myanmar. The merit gained from homage to the Buddha improves a being’s 'karma' (the combination of his or her good and bad deeds over all lives) and can result in better future lives for the donor. Ways to pay homage include making offerings, donating money and travelling to pilgrimage sites. People establish personal shrines and sponsor temple construction and ceremonies. Producing representations of the Buddha and texts of his teachings are also highly meritorious activities. Offerings include flowers, incense, the Buddhist flag, pennants, umbrellas (a sign of rank), banners, food, daily requisites, candles and incense. Donation boxes are scattered inside temple precincts for cash offerings, and water vessels for people to drink from are placed around temples, along pilgrimage routes and in front of homes. The Buddha is usually considered the source of the greatest power in the universe, but there are other beings who can protect and provide assistance in achieving personal or communal goals and resolving difficulties. People also offer them homage. Some spirits can become displeased if not treated appropriately, and people try to appease them to avoid misfortune. Because of the wide variety of ways to pay homage to powerful beings, individual methods can be eclectic, depending on established personal practices, current needs and financial abilities.
Religious tablets are made by pressing clay into a pre-formed mould. Such tablets were popular religious objects produced at pilgrimage sites for over a millennium. This example displays the eight great events from the Buddha’s life, including his awakening when he became a Buddha at the centre. Clockwise from the left are the Parileyyaka retreat, his first sermon, the taming of the Nalagiri elephant, his final nirvana, the descent from Tavatimsa Heaven, the twin miracles, and his birth from his mother’s hip. People from all classes of society purchased and donated such tablets in order to improve their levels of merit.
Lacquer offering vessel (hsun-ok)
Containers like this one are used to offer food to monks on special occasions and at festivals. Images in wall paintings show that similar vessels have been in use for more than two centuries.
Kammawasa manuscript (1929)British Museum
Kammawasa manuscripts contain texts used for formal acts by the community of monks, such as ordination. Families donate these manuscripts to monasteries when a son enters the monkhood, for which the mother particularly acquires merit. Kammawasa are made from lacquered metal, wood, ivory, or pieces of cloth, the latter often from the robes of highly esteemed monks. Decorated wooden end boards contain the pages.
Popular poster of Shwesettaw (Around 1990)British Museum
Popular poster of Shwesettaw
Shwesettaw is an important pilgrimage site in central Myanmar where there are two footprints of the Buddha. During the Buddha’s lifetime, the nagas (mythical serpents associated with water) asked him for something to worship, and in response he impressed his footprint into the riverbank. In this popular print, the nagas honour the Buddha and encircle the footprint. The conches in the toes and the lotus circle on the print are clearly visible (see the stone footprint also on display here). In the background is a map of the actual pilgrimage site in Myanmar.
Power and protection
A being with advanced spiritual status has power; those reborn in low existences, such as the realm of ghosts or in hell, lack it. Power can be acquired and shared. Those with it are in a position to use it for good or ill: to protect and strengthen followers or to cause harm.
There are many ways to place oneself under the protection of or draw upon another’s power. One is to acquire powerful objects, such as amulets associated with the Buddha and notable monks or yantra (protective diagrams). Another is to wear, via tattoos or charms, protective Buddhist scriptures or imagery of powerful beings, including particular animals, the Buddha and spirits. Divination and horoscopes are also connected with the Buddha and beings of power and determine auspicious and inauspicious times and dates for particular activities.
Standing Buddha with medicinal fruit (Mid to late 1800s)British Museum
Standing Buddha with medicinal fruit
Standing Buddhas often offer the myrobalan (a medicinal fruit) to devotees as a symbolic cure for their spiritual woes. Such images became particularly popular in the 1800s.
Jacket with protective and auspicious diagrams and imagery (1920-1940)British Museum
Jacket with protective and auspicious diagrams and imagery
This jacket is covered with protective and auspicious diagrams and imagery that draw on Buddhist figures, local spirits, numerology and potent diagrams. These designs are similar to those used in tattoos, power-enhancing diagrams and silver charms for insertion under the skin. Each feature has a specific result, such as protection from bullets or the ability to speak persuasively, and would be chosen by the wearer.
Here there are several numeric protective diagrams and two Buddha images in circles at the centre of the back. The two elaborately dressed figures may represent Sakka, the Lord of Tavatimsa Heaven, and Punnaka, a figure of power from the Vidhurapandita Jataka.
The feline-like creatures are also images of power. The texts around the figures and the edge of the jacket are composed of protective Buddhist scriptures.
Canopy with a protective diagram (Early 1900s)British Museum
Canopy with a protective diagram
Canopies painted with protective diagrams were hung in religious and secular buildings. This particular diagram combines the power of the Buddha, sacred and powerful beings and the number 12, which represented the zodiac and Buddhist concepts of space, to keep the room and the people using it free from danger. The Buddha sits at the centre surrounded by his foremost disciples and other potent beings arranged in two circles comprising 12 sections each. The outer ring displays figures of power, such as Punnaka from the Vidhurapandita Jataka story, mythical lions, naga serpents, deities and hermits. The guardians of the four directions appear in the corners.
The inner circle contains the Buddha’s most important disciples, the five monks who cared for him during his period of austerities, Sakka the Lord of Tavatimsa Heaven and a mythical monk called Shin Upago.
This exhibit was curated by Dr Alexandra Green, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Southeast Asia.
For more information about the Myanmar collections of the British Museum please see our online collection database.
Dr Green's most recent publication is Buddhist Visual Cultures, Rhetoric, and Narrative in Late Burmese Wall Paintings, 2018.