Some time ago, when I was studying at Royal Holloway, I met a man called Howard Skempton, a minimalist composer (and national treasure) who helped me immensely in several ways. Having listened to me babble about how I was struggling with my composition practice, he gave me some excellent advice – if you have a problem describing or defining something clearly, maybe try defining what it isn’t. He recommended a read a book called Simplicity and Complexity in Games of the Intellect, by Lawrence Slobodkin. Professor Slobodkin defines four oppositions: simple/complex, simplified/complicated, simplistic/obfuscated and minimal/ornate. The book discusses how human nature takes simple things, makes them more and more complex or ornate, and then feels compelled to strip them back to simplicity again. Some good examples of this can be found in religion – simplifying Catholicism during the Protestant Reformation, for example. This book quite literally changed how I look at everything in my life.
But to our mission for today – a beautiful example of that process of building complexity is to be found at the British Library’s excellent Buddhism exhibition.
Being the British Library, there are obviously some beautiful books to be admired, but not only books. The exhibition runs until 23 February, and contains enough material to remind you (if you needed reminding) that it’s possible to leave the constant cacophony of modern life – 24 hour news, career, family, whatever bad habit is getting you through the night – and find a different path. And even if you’re not likely to achieve enlightenment in a single visit to these red rooms, filled with beautiful objects celebrating Buddhism, soundtracked by birds singing, monks chanting and water moving, I hope, like me, you’ll take a nice deep breath as you leave, in through the nose, out through the mouth, and smile.
My only reservation isn’t even about this exhibition – it’s my usual atheistic position, which is why don’t these religions sell all their gold and silver and feed the poor? And Buddhism is far from the worst at that, but I couldn’t help but notice the transition between writing the Buddha’s teaching on leaves to hammering them into 5.5 kilos of silver. Oh well, I guess I’m a long way from Nirvana.
Simplicity and Complexity in Games of the Intellect by Lawrence B. Slobodkin · Harvard University Press · ISBN 0674808266