Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Buddhism by the Book: A Review of Foundations of Buddhism by Robert Gethin

Oxford University Press 1998
Robert Wright assigned a part of this book for his “Buddhism & Modern Psychology” course that I took through Coursera. The book serves as an excellent introduction to Buddhist tradition and thought. It addresses the life of the Buddha, the development of Buddhist scriptures, traditions, and lineages, and more recent developments. Through a patient consideration of scriptures and traditions, we gain insight into crucial Buddhist doctrines such as those of anatman (no self) and dependent origination. These ideas challenge our common assumptions and are crucial to understanding Buddhism. Gethin's work serves as an adept guide into this new worldview.

Gethin also spends a good deal of the book addressing the various paths that Buddhist thought and tradition have taken over about 2500 years. He divides Buddhism into three main groups:

  • southern Buddhism (the Theravadan tradition) centered Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos;
  • eastern Buddhism found in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam based on the Mahayana tradition; and
  • northern Buddhism based on the Vajrayana tradition of Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal, and Himalayan India.
Each of these traditions has now planted roots in the West:
  •  S.N. Goenka, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Stephen Levine have taught the Theravadan tradition of insight meditation;
  • D.T. Suzuki, Peter Matthiessen, the Beat Generation writers, and many others have promoted Zen Buddhism;
  • the Dalai Lama, B. Alan Wallace, and Mathieu Ricard are noteworthy proponents of Tibetan Buddhism.
And this is just a truncated list of those teachers whom I've encountered. The list of those now teaching and promoting Buddhism in the West continues to expand.

Gethin serves an important purpose in his academic treatment of the tradition: he allows those of us new to Buddhism to identify and better understand the diverse traditions. This provides us with the background appreciate how the traditions have adapted to their new, Western environments. All religious traditions—or at least those that have spread across diverse cultures and times—have changed and adapted in response to each new culture encountered. The same is true of Buddhism. Yet it’s helpful to take in the story from the beginning to get a sense of the whole. The genealogy of a set of ideas serves a genuine and important purpose, and needn’t make one into a fundamentalist—far from it!

Anyone wanting to gain a comprehensive understanding of Buddhism, its traditions, and development, would do well to start with this book.