on 12 September 2002
Books on Buddhism can loosely be divided into two kinds: the first are popular books that answer the question "What could Buddhism mean to me", the other kind attempts to answer "What does Buddhism mean in its own cultural context". This is a book of the second kind. Although hardly a book for the beginner, it gives a clear exposition of Mahayana for readers who are already familiar with the basics. The two main sections cover the philosophical schools of Mahayana and the devotional traditions.
Williams manages to cover a lot of ground. The chapters on philosophy convey an impression of the complexity of Buddhist thought, and beside the "obvious" Madhyamaka and Yogacara schools also deal with less familiar traditions, such as the Chinese Hua-yen school. The chapters on devotional traditions give the other side of the picture, movements that claimed that even the most ignorant and sinful people could approach salvation by merely mentioning the name of a celestial Buddha.
As a scholarly book should, Williams manages to convey a picture of the diversity of the Buddhist traditions, including some less than savoury aspects that partisan books will tend to avoid. Although the respect for all sentient beings is a cardinal trait in many versions of Buddhism, some movements actively encouraged one to kill enemies of the dharma, i.e. of one's own sect/religion.
The two major gaps are mentioned at the outset by the author himself: Tantric Buddhism and Ch'an/Zen barely receive a mention. Nevertheless, this volume is a must for anybody seriously interested in the Buddhist traditions.