Thursday, October 13, 2011

Rupert Gethin's "The Foundations of Buddhism": Book Review

This was recommended to me as a scholarly but accessible introduction. While considerably advanced compared to other primers, Gethin explains the fundamentals persisting over 2500 years, across the various schools and philosophies, that unite Buddhists around a core teaching. For those wanting more than the usual summary found in other surveys, this fills a need.

While it takes you through the same basics as other guides, it may stress far less the Zen and Tibetan conceptions, for his goal is to examine how the scriptures and teachings emerged, how they are classified, what distinguishes interpretations, and how they are transmitted as monastic "vinaya," story "sutta," or Abhidharma "higher" teachings. The last category earns more coverage than is the norm in books for a general audience, and while it can be tough going even as summarized, it demonstrates the essence of the dharma as perpetuated into modern times worldwide.

He reminds us that there's no "pure" Buddhism. 19c British scholars tended to lean (erroneously, but perhaps given Protestant bias, I wonder?) towards the Theravadin, South Asian & Sri Lankan traditions as older and therefore truer to their founder than the richly populated gods and shrines of the Tibetan panoply, or the austere Zen. He hastens past what he admits are tangential concerns (regarding cultural differences or later developments in Buddhism) for his book, which is focused on the common rather than the distinctive elements of dharma. So, this may not serve the needs of those wishing for more contrasts among Buddhist practitioners.

But, Gethin emphasizes how mythic and Hindu elements filtered in and blended into Buddhism, from its earliest manifestations. It's not an "intellectual abstraction," no matter how elevated the teaching soars or roams. It's meant to cause a "radical change of heart," and the definitions in the end don't matter as long as the suffering eases, the mind is freed, and the ego gives way to the path towards enlightenment.

The Mahayana developments are not seen as some tainted, more attenuated form of the Hinayana or Theravada school, but as a mix of influences, always open as any other school to more innovation and fertilization than earlier scholars wanted to admit, based on recent scholarship. They may be very theoretical as presented here, but they mean to analyze progress away from the ego, and to erode the attachment to self. The terms may be foreign to us, but their message remains understandable.

Gethin also finds that Buddhist mental depictions, as in the Pali sources, mirror those of the cosmos, so the macrocosmic and microcosmic cultural perspectives differ from Jewish and Christian linear models. This is only touched upon, but it's a vast subject. His charts of "the thirty-one realms of existence" in karma-psychological and cosmic-world realms neatly show how complex this ancient mentality all is.

Meditation, he tells us in an extended and helpful analogy, is akin to playing a musical instrument. The self-conscious attitude of the newcomer gives way to pleasure as one loses one's self in the action, and the moment. The satisfaction gained resonates aesthetically and personally.

Dependent arising, "one thing leads to another" (not his phrase), is a core teaching. It is the way things are, regardless of a Buddhist label. Gethin presents this elusive truth and the related one of impermanence of "no self" in light of Nagarjuna, the Indian thinker, and how he tried to steer between the annihilationist and eternalist extremes to find a middle way that tended to deny any defining, enduring concept or thing or idea, even the dharma itself. By comparison, Yogacara, as Gethin sees it, offers a positive, practical approach that gives us the way, not what, things are. (Posted to Amazon US 2-21-11 & 2-27-11.)

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