Richard H. Robinson and Willard L. Johnson


A Historical Introduction: Third Edition

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2000).

This is a comprehensive overview of Buddhism in 'The Religious Life of Man' series, by two American academics; it also contains an appendix on Buddhist meditation by Shinzen (Steven) Young, of the International Buddhist Meditation Centre, Los Angeles.

The book starts with the life and teaching of the Buddha, and then goes on to look at how Buddhism developed in India after his death. During the second century of the Buddhist era a number of sects arose; this complicated subject is well summarized here. Most of these later disappeared, but the Mahayana, one of the main divisions of modern Buddhism, developed from within certain sects that held that phenomena are illusory (maya) and empty (sunya). The Mahayana adopted the idea of bodhisattvas (Buddhas-to-be) and proclaimed that anyone could aspire to becoming a bodhisattva by following the Mahayana path. They also created a cosmology of superhuman bodhisattvas and cosmic Buddhas who respond to the pleas of devotees.

As well they might given, its complexity, the authors devote a lot of space to the Mahayana. They also provide a chapter on the difficult question of Tantrism. Tantra is not exclusively Buddhist; there were also Hindu and Jain Tantrisms, but many people feel it is singularly inappropriate to mix Buddhism with magic, yoga, and bhakti (devotionalism), which is what happened in Buddhist Tantra. It is often said that Tantrism was a degeneration, grafting the Hindu cult of female energies on to Buddhism, and that Buddhism was eventually destroyed thereby. But the authors hold that the reverse is the case: if anything, they say, Buddhism crushed the Tantras. The practices of Tantra were gradually transferred from the physical to the mental level and, after a time most Tantric schools ceased to perform those rites that infringed the Buddhist precepts.

Indian Buddhism died out gradually after the seventh century, though it did not disappear completely until the fifteenth. The rest of Buddhist history is therefore concerned with events outside India. The authors describe how Buddhism developed in different directions in South-East Asia, Tibet, and the Far East (China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam). This is particularly interesting because probably few Westerners, even those with a prior interest in Buddhism, know much of how it developed in China. In fact, the authors say that it was a singular chance that Buddhism became established in China. But translating Indian religious ideas into a Chinese context was a difficult task. A number of sects arose and these are discussed in some detail. One of these was the Cha'an, which gave rise to Zen in Japan. Cha'an Buddhism had a lot in common with Taoism and provided a similar alternative to Confucianism; the consequence was fierce rivalry between Cha'an Buddhism and Taoism.

A final chapter looks at the growth of Buddhism in the West. Two curious facts emerge about this. One is a prophecy that Buddhism would die out in the lands of its birth but survive among the 'people with red faces'. The other is that the Christian saints Barlaam and Josaphat (a corruption of the word 'bodhisattva') derive from the Buddha legend, which became increasingly garbled as it travelled west from India.

Like the rest of the book, the appendix on methods of meditation is comprehensive; it describes both Theravada and Mahayan approaches and concludes with some practical advice on how to meditate and some pitfalls to avoid.

This book probably tells most readers rather more than they really want to know about Buddhism. Probably few will read it from cover to cover; it is best regarded as a mini-encyclopaedia of Buddhism, to be dipped into and used as a source of information about any particular aspect of the subject that you want to read up. There are ample notes for each of the chapters, providing plenty of suggestions for further reading.

%T The Buddhist Religion
%S A Historical Introduction: Third Edition
%A Richard H. Robinson and Willard L. Johnson
%I Wadsworth Publishing Company
%C Belmont, California
%D 1982
%G ISBN 0-534-01027-X
%P x + 290 pp
%O The Religious Life of Man Series
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