Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Donald W. Mitchell's "Buddhism": Book Review

This textbook "Introducing the Buddhist Experience" covers the essentials that a Western reader might expect, but it goes deeper than a recitation of facts, dates, and names from the past 2,500 years. Anyone curious about the beliefs, the culture, and the practitioners of dharma will benefit from this attractively designed presentation. It covers its origins, Theravada and Mahayana "vehicles," and then explores in separate sections how Buddhism spread into Southeast Asia, Korea, Japan, China, and Tibet.

Included you'll find additional aids for understanding what can be for a newcomer like me (therefore I cannot pass judgment on doctrinal or academic debates that may arise from a specialized familiarity with this subject) daunting obstacles. The textual legacy of each national expression of Buddhism gains elucidation, with excerpts from verses, illustrations (unfortunately all monochrome, but the costs are kept down as a result), and the best part: testimonies from current practitioners of the Thai, Tibetan, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and American-- from a convert who became a monk-- "cultural experiences." These, as well as panel sidebars with brief narratives or anecdotes by scholars and believers that retell stories or lessons, enrich this volume.

I also like the attention given to morality throughout the text; this concentration, blended with more focus in the second edition on the U.S. transformation of Buddhist practice, makes the mentions of the influences of feminism, ecumenism, ecology and globalization also relevant. In fact, I wish more space had been devoted to each of these topics, but the limit to eleven chapters, so as to fit a semester or even a quick quarter of a course, may have necessitated a narrower scope. However, each part concludes with an up-to-date reading list. There's also a technical glossary of terms with accent and vowel markings to guide pronunciation of what can be formidable terms for teachers and students alike.

Again, while I cannot weigh in on the demerits (if any) of this textbook's scholarly claims, for an introduction, this deserves attention beyond the required textbook list on a syllabus. Libraries and seekers and followers all can find, I predict, valuable information made more accessible. Westerners often think Buddhism's detached, secretive, or nihilistic, but a careful grasp of the multiplicity of how its precepts come into daily practice to assist others, and its emphasis on the social impact of its teachings, may help change many prejudices we may have about this ancient, resilient, and flexible approach towards compassionate wisdom and spiritual fulfillment.

(I review the 2nd ed. (c) 2008, on Amazon today.)

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