The Path to Enlightenment

The Chester Beatty presents its exceptional collection of Thai Buddhist manuscripts dating to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In this special exhibition, they unfold a selection of these beautifully illustrated books, providing a rare opportunity to explore the Buddhist tales depicted within.

Extracts from the Pali canon (Tipitaka) and Story of Phra Malai. Thailand, late 19th century. © Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.

A Kind of Illustrated Bible for Buddhists

Handsomely decorated folding books were used by monks as teaching aids and for chanting during religious ceremonies. Many were commissioned following the death of a relative and then donated to a temple. This earned religious merit for the donor and deceased and also for those who made the book.

Presented as colourful illustrations alongside sacred texts, some of the most popular Buddhist stories within the books are the birth tales of the Buddha and the legend of the monk Phra Malai.

The Last Ten Lives of the Buddha

The Buddha had many past lives, but stories of his last ten are particularly important in Thai culture. Known as jatakas, or ‘birth tales’, these stories tell of the Buddha’s moral evolution over countless incarnations as he attained the ten perfections required for Buddhahood. Well-known scenes from these stories are featured in Thai folding books of the 18th and 19th centuries. They are presented as paired paintings, flanking the passages of sacred text.

The life of the historical Buddha was much less frequently depicted in Thai folding books, but the museum has several examples which show scenes from his life before and after he became the Buddha.

Scenes from the story of the monk Phra Malai. Thailand, 18th century. © Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.

A Monk Named Phra Malai

The legend of a monk named Phra Malai was one of the most popular subjects of 19th century Thai illustrated folding books. The pious monk Phra Malai visited heaven and hell using powers he earned through meditation and acts of merit. On his return to earth he reported what he had seen.

The tale was often recited at wakes. Its detailed descriptions of hell and heaven served as powerful reminders that actions in this life determine one’s next life.

Illustrated folding books continued to be made in Thailand into the early twentieth century. However by the 1920s, the availability of inexpensive printing meant their production had almost completely come to an end. Introducing cherished stories and preserving the devotion of their makers and the communities who used them, these beautiful books offer a unique window onto Thai Buddhist heritage.

 

The exhibition is curated by Laura Muldowney, researcher of the museum’s East Asian collection.

The exhibition at the Chester Beatty is supported by The Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation.

 

Other things you might be interested in:

Further information on the exhibition and accompanying events is available on the Chester Beatty website. On their website you can even take a step inside and take a virtual tour of the gallery.

You can view a digitized version of an illustrated manuscript featuring the Phra Malai story here.

Buddha has recently been the motif for a coin series of Singapore, read more on it in this CoinsWeekly.com article.

Buddhism not only inspired tales but also architecture – feast your eyes on this gallery of Buddhist temples.