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It can be hard to see sometimes, but there are other ways to live. We’re all so focused on trudging through the swamp of our everyday lives – on our careers, families, stresses, hobbies and drinking habits – that it can feel like that’s all there is. But this in-depth, absorbing show about Buddhism at the British Library is here to smack you around the head a bit and make you see that there are other paths (eight of them, actually).
In deep red rooms filled with bird sound, sacred chanting and the tinkling of flowing water, the British Library takes you on a journey through the texts and objects of one of the world’s biggest religions. It starts with gorgeous, long, folded illustrations from Burma. The collection is eye-popping – all shimmering golds, flowing blues and earthy reds. Across the panels we learn about the Buddha’s journeys and teachings, about life and rebirth, compassion and suffering. Every text glimmers with light and the promise of a better way to live.
Scrolls and palm leaf manuscripts take you through Buddhist cosmology and philosophy. A fierce black protector deity writhes on a sixteenth-century Tibetan scroll, and a mountain bursts out of the sea in a beautiful Thai painting. Buddhism was – and is – huge, spanning massive chunks of south and east Asia. So the work is as varied as you’d expect; small and intricate or big and bold, colour or monochromatic.
Obviously, summing up a whole religion – a whole culture – in a few rooms is impossible, and a lot of this requires more than just a few hours’ attention to grasp, so I can’t say I left feeling much more enlightened or educated than when I went in. But by the time you’ve hit the singing bowl on your way out and its tones have followed you onto Euston Road, you’ll just be glad to have had a chance to crawl out of the swamp of your everyday life for a little while. You might not actually start walking a different path, but it’s nice to know the option’s there.