Buddhism has been the basis of Sinhala material and spiritual culture, including of course books. Books contained the Buddha's teachings; after the first four centuries of the Buddha Era, when books were preserved orally, the physical object passed Buddhist learning on from generation to generation. The manuscripts in this case (#s 1, 7, 37, 41, 42) are all versions of a particularly popular sermon, the Buddha's first, "The Sermon which Set the Wheel of Truth Rolling." But Buddhist manuscripts contained more than teachings: they also textualized practices in the form of meditation manuals and ritual prescriptions and monastic disciplinary law. Ms. #22 records a portion of the latter, together with commentary on its meaning.
Making books was itself a major practice of Buddhist monasticism, a time-consuming preoccupation for great numbers of monks through the centuries who committed themselves to "the way of books" (ganthadhura) rather than "the way of meditation" (vipassanadhura), a technical division in Sri Lankan monastic law. Monks acted as scribes, copying and recopying the very manuscripts which they, as monks, studied and memorized. The act itself, making books, was reckoned to be of the greatest merit. At the Buddha's death he reportedly declared that the teachings would henceforth stand in for him, constituting each letter of Buddhist literature as part of the Buddha himself. The oft-repeated Pali verse which equates writing even a single letter of a book with the making of an enormous monument is one among many aspirations which typically end the colophons of the manuscripts exhibited here: "By the merit of writing this book, let its purpose be accomplished! Let all beings be well and happy! Let it be a foundation for Nirvana!"
Other artistic traditions also served Buddhist thought and practice, including architecture to house it, painting to decorate it, and bronzework to supply the images necessary for its cult, such as the two eighteenth century bronze Buddha images, the two oil lamps, and the incense burner shown here. From the very beginning of the Colonial Period, British scholars of religion, history and language, like Dr. Adam Clarke (famed for making Methodists of the Buddhist monks in the engraving exhibited here), took great interest in Buddhist culture and great pains to represent it.