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Mapping the Way to Nirvana: a Burmese Theravada Buddhist Carving

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In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.  –Guatama Buddha

Recently, the Library of Congress’ Geography and Map Division, acquired a rare eighteenth century carving of a Theravada Buddhist cosmography that originally came from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). The panel, which is more than 9 feet high when its three parts are fully assembled, displays in low relief carving, both schematically and in Burmese script, the many heavenly levels that are temporary resting places for living beings as they make their way to the ultimate goal of nirvana. The carving shows the levels through which beings transmigrate as humans, animals, or gods, and pictures these heavens as floating palaces, giving their names and what it means to temporarily reside in each of them.

Theravada Heavens Panel, 18th Century. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Theravada is the earliest surviving form of Buddhism still practiced today and is found mostly in Southeast Asia, in countries from Myanmar to Cambodia and Laos, with about 150 million adherents across the globe. The doctrine of this particular form of Buddhism stems directly from the teachings of the Guatama Buddha (480-400 BCE), who is thought to have lived and taught in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent.

Close-up of the base of the Theravada Heavens Panel. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The teachings of the Guatama Buddha, from which the engravings on the panel derive, are found in a series of writings that are known as the Pali Canon. The canon is the earliest record of the orally transmitted Buddhist scriptures to have been committed to writing. This large body of texts, written in the ancient Indian language of Pali, is divided into discourses of various lengths and treats the metaphysics, psychology and cosmology of the Buddhist path.

The Library of Congress collections contain many examples of writings from Theravada Buddhism, including a rare screenfold book of the Tavatimsa, the Heavenly Abode, which is a manuscript written in both Burmese and Pali. The book, like the engraved panel, shows the various levels of the heavenly world as floating palaces.

Floating Heavens of Theravada Buddhism from Burma dating from the eighteenth century. Asian Division, Library of Congress

Although this may not seem to many readers to specifically be a “map” in the classical Western sense, the Library’s Geography and Map Division strives to collect a wide range of cartography, cosmography and the mapmaking arts from around the world. This map and many others in our collections constantly remind us how difficult it is to actually answer the question: What is a map?

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