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Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations (The Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices) Paperback – 11 Jul 2008

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Product details

  • Paperback: 456 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge; 2 edition (11 July 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415356539
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415356534
  • Product Dimensions: 15.6 x 2.6 x 23.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 57,492 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


‘The publication of Paul Williams’ Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations in 1989 was a milestone in the development of Buddhist Studies, being the first truly comprehensive and authoritative attempt to chart the doctrinal landscape of Mahayana Buddhism in its entirety. Previous scholars like Edward Conze and Etienne Lamotte had set themselves this daunting task, but it had proved beyond them. Williams not only succeeded in finishing the job, but did it so well that his book has remained the primary work on the subject, and the textbook of choice for teachers of university courses on Buddhism, for 20 years. It is still unrivalled. This makes a second edition all the more welcome. Williams has extensively revised and updated the book in the light of the considerable scholarship published in this area since 1989, at the same time enlarging many of his thoughtful discussions of Mahayana Buddhist philosophical issues. The result is a tour de force of breadth and depth combined. I confidently expect that Williams’ richly detailed map of this field will remain for decades to come an indispensable guide to all those who venture into it.’ - Paul Harrison, Stanford University, USA

About the Author

Paul Williams is Professor of Indian and Tibetan Philosophy and Co-director of the Centre for Buddhist Studies at the University of Bristol. The author of six books and an editor of a further eight, he is a former President of the UK Association for Buddhist Studies. Among his other books for Routledge is Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition (2000).

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
The Best Introduction to the Mahayana. Nothing else touches it.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0x9c568eac) out of 5 stars 15 reviews
61 of 63 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9c1b0448) out of 5 stars Buddhism with a Slight Spin 21 April 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Mr. Williams has done a fantastic job of clearly and effectively laying down the foundations of the Mahayana movement. This movement, arguably the most colorful of the incarnations of Buddhist thought and theory, has a convoluted past, and Mr. Williams has expertly shown the reader the origins of the Mahayana and the origins of modern Buddhism. The only criticism that would in any way deter the reader from thinking this work to be one of the definitive in the doctrine is William's unfortunate tendency to mix his opinions which are for the most part religiously based, with philosophical quandries. Mr. Williams is the European Secretary for the International Association of Buddhist Studies, and I feel as such his opinion surfaces on several issues, most notably in the chapter on the Saddharmapundarika Sutra. The educated reader, or at least the reader able to assimilate William's position, can, however, easily overcome the minor references to academia based on faith rather than empirical knowledge. All minor biases aside, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations is a superior work when compared to many mainstream texts used in Buddhist study, which tend to be more esoteric, or treat only specific facets of the huge diaspora that spawned Buddhist practice in so many countries. Mr. Williams has produced a great work of fantastic merit in regards to understanding Mahayana Buddhism, and should be lauded for his work which makes, in my humble opinion, a stupendous read.
41 of 43 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9c200fe4) out of 5 stars A must buy for any academic Buddhist library 4 Mar. 2003
By Alan B. Cicco - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I found this book extremely helpful on mutiple levels. Beyond the fact that Mahayana Buddhism suffers from a lack of cohesive literature combined, Williams counters this problem in his gathering of doctrine and his own insight on the history, evolution, and spread of Mahayana. He shows great detail to the evolution of each "school" and how it was affected by the geographic, ethnic, and cultural environments that fomred each branches specifics.
A historical paper trail is fomed for many of the major works attributed to Mahayanist thought, so that we see roots formed. This grants immense clearity to many misunderstanding about certain school ideologies that might appear completely unrelated until all the details are shown within Williams book.
Although there are no actual sutras translated, the book is a perfect starting point for philosophies, history, and a listing of many of the great Mahayana sutras, which one could then find available to start forming an actual library for practice and reference.
As a Priest in the Pure Land tradition and trained in both Mahayana and Theravadin, this book stands apart in my findings of authors that spread knowledge in quanity and quality instead of minute chunks for only lineage lip service.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9c200c18) out of 5 stars Very clear writing style - great! 1 Jan. 2009
By Melinda McAdams - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
After a few years of practicing Buddhism and reading Dharma books, I am reading this as my first scholarly text, and I'm very impressed by it. It certainly is NOT an introduction for beginners, but Williams is careful to include just enough explanation to keep me reading without feeling a need to resort to Wikipedia (heh!).

His footnotes (endnotes) are amazing -- the book proper is only 266 pages, followed by 121 pages of endnotes. I'm skipping most of these, but when I do dip into them, I'm even more impressed by Williams's unusual ability to stick to a central idea and successfully separate out the interesting surrounding ideas (which need not muddy up the main text).

I also appreciate his ability to steer clear of Western philosophy. He is presenting the history, central texts and teachings, and disputes of the Mahayana with well-focused discipline. He does this with clarity, occasional stunning insights, and sometimes even a touch of humor! (I especially like it when he refers to "old and basic" ideas of Buddhism; he seems to have a particularly good sense of his audience for this book.)

It's very nice to get a sense of how certain issues were divisive (or not) without being lost in excessive detail about each and every school's (or lineage's) take on the matter. That is not to say Williams is treating the subject superficially but rather another indication of his clear focus.

Don't consider this book if you know very little about Buddhism at present. But if you are well-grounded in the teachings and have some idea of the "place" of Mahayana, and you want to experience an academic approach to the subject, this book will not disappoint you.

P.S. I'm reading (more than halfway through) the new second edition.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9c200c9c) out of 5 stars A Landmark Book! A Treasure Trove of Buddhist Scholarship! 22 July 2009
By Ted Biringer - Published on Amazon.com
Some here may be thoroughly familiar with the landmark book published in 1989 by Paul Williams. This second edition has been thoroughly revised, updated, and expanded to reflect the scholarship of recent years.

The initial publication of this work, 20 years ago, was highly acclaimed by Buddhist scholars across the board; widely regarded as the best overall introduction to Mahayana Buddhism in English (and several other languages). This new edition, with its total revision and expansion, brings its information up to date with the latest discoveries and revelations of modern scholarship. In my view, it is by far the best book available for English readers seeking a comprehensive overview of Mahayana Buddhism's doctrinal foundations.

Having said that, this book is a work of scholarship, an "Introduction" to the major schools and doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism and does not claim to be an "interpretation" of Buddhism. Williams' contribution, for the most part, consists of organizing the literary, archeological, and historical facts from the wide field of scholarly research in Buddhist studies. When Williams does offer his own views, he follows the highest standards of scholarship, explaining his reasoning and presenting the alternative or opposing views of others.

The multitude of long end-notes (especially in the new edition), as well as the vast annotated bibliographical section of the book testify to the meticulous care utilized by Professor Williams in his presentation of the doctrinal foundations of Mahayana Buddhism.

The following excerpt from the Introduction to this milestone book, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations (Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices), offers us all a profound reminder on the importance of maintaining an awareness of the fact that Mahayana Buddhism (which includes Zen) is not, and never was, an overall single unitary phenomenon.


From the Introduction:

There is a Tibetan saying that just as every valley has its own language so every teacher has his own doctrine. This is an exaggeration on both counts, but it does indicate the diversity to be found within Buddhism and the important role of a teacher in mediating a received tradition and adapting it to the needs, the personal transformation, of the pupil. This diversity prevents, or strongly hinders, generalization about Buddhism as a whole. Nevertheless it is a diversity which Mahayana Buddhists have rather gloried in, seen not as a scandal but as something to be proud of, indicating a richness and multifaceted ability to aid the spiritual quest of all sentient, and not just human, beings.

It is important to emphasize this lack of unanimity at the outset. We are dealing with a religion with some 2,500 years of doctrinal development in an environment where scholastic precision and subtlety was at a premium. There are no Buddhist popes, no creeds, and, although there were councils in the early years, no attempts to impose uniformity of doctrine over the entire monastic, let alone lay, establishment. Buddhism spread widely across Central, South, South-East, and East Asia. It played an important role in aiding the cultural and spiritual development of nomads and tribesmen, but it also encountered peoples already very culturally and spiritually developed, most notably those of China, where it interacted with the indigenous civilization, modifying its doctrine and behaviour in the process. Some scholars have seen this looseness and adaptability of its doctrinal base as a major weakness in Buddhism... While Buddhists themselves lament the disappearance of the Dharma, the Doctrine, from its homeland, however, they tend to see this as an inevitable occurrence in an epoch when, as the Buddha predicted, spirituality is on the decline. From earliest times in Buddhism there was a strong tendency to portray the Doctrine not as a series of tenets to be accepted or rejected, but rather as a medicine for curing quite specific spiritual ills. Mahayanists in particular see adaptation, and perhaps even syncretism, as a virtue in the Dharma, enabling the teachings to be adapted to the needs of hearers, and thereby indicating the wisdom and compassion of e Omniscient Buddha.


Bottom Line:

Paul Williams', Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, is a veritable treasure trove of Buddhist scholarship; essential reading for all practitioners and an essential reference for Buddhist teachers and students.
23 of 29 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9c0a6f54) out of 5 stars Massive compendium of facts and insights--too much of a good thing? 24 Nov. 2011
By Craig Shoemake - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As the back of the book will tell you, the 1989 publication of this work's first edition made quite a stir and, I quote, "It is still unrivalled." Indeed, it has become a foundational text for courses on Mahayana Buddhism at the university level, and since almost two decades of burgeoning scholarship in the field had passed, a second edition was considered necessary.

I can say this much: it is quite a book. If you are smitten with a lust for all things Mahayana--its history, people, practices, and philosophies--look no further. In fact, this book may even cure you of your unwholesome desires. What I mean is that the page count does not give you any idea of what you're getting into.

By the numbers: 438 total pages; 266 pages of main text; 122 pages of end notes; 32 pages of bibliography. You can do the math for the rest. Every page is dense with names, dates, terms, unpronounceable sutra titles (if you can actually say Bodhisattvagocaropayavishayavikurvananirdesha Sutra you must already be enlightened) and who knows what else. And just look at the notes to main text pages ratio: 0.46! I scrounged around my shelves, where I have a great many scholarly books on a wide array of topics, but could find nothing comparable. Even Bhikkhu Bodhi's monumental translation of the Samyutta Nikaya clocked in at an anemic 0.25. Usually I'm an assiduous reader of notes (though I confess to loathing endnotes--why oh why did the publishing industry quit on footnotes??), but this time I just gave up. Many of the end notes are so lengthy by the time you finish one you've forgotten where you were on the main page. All of which leads me to my chief complaint about Williams' opus:

Loss of control.

Sometimes you want to lose control (think sex--especially if you're a woman). But when you're writing something touted as a textbook--and an intro textbook to boot--you want to be measured in just how much data you dump on your audience. One hundred twenty-two pages of endnotes are not only unhelpful, they're positively sadistic--or self-indulgent, which in this case comes to the same thing. Let me put this in perspective: I have a fair education in Buddhist literature under my belt. I'm not as deeply read as most scholars, but I would wager I understand a few things as well as anyone. I will admit though I began to get dizzy in places as I read this book (lack of oxygen?), and resorted to skipping to those areas where I felt greater interest and surer footing. So...reader beware: you are in for a sensory overload with this one; bring the Dramamine. I'll now return to my ordinarily more professional reviewing style.

Williams starts with an introduction the likes of which I've never seen. Introductions are usually, well, introductory, but by page 17 (it goes on for 44 pages) he was already enumerating the numbers and types of dhammas according to the Abhidhamma classification scheme! Needless to say, this sort of material is not ordinarily considered introductory. At times I wondered if I'd somehow skipped into the first chapter and missed something, but no...on checking I found I was still in the introduction. I think this is where I started to get worried.

To sum up the above complaint and how it affects the text as a whole: it appears Williams felt compelled to put everything he knew into this book, not to mention the obscure article he read the night before. He mixes social history, philosophy, biographies, the history of specific texts and schools, all in a jumble. (See, e.g., p. 67, where a chart would have been so much more helpful.) You can't write a book in this fashion; or at least, I advise against it. Different areas need to be kept separate, or integrated with great care, but that is clearly not what happened. In other words, I don't suggest discussing a sutra's history and provenance, its philosophy, the school that formed around it, and its effects on later readers and its place in the grand scheme of things all on the same page. It's just too much. But this is really the best way to characterize how Williams has gone about summarizing fifteen hundred years of Mahayana doctrinal history. Like I said, "loss of control"...

The upside of this avalanche of information is that there's something for everyone. And if you need the latest scholarly speculation on this text or that school, chances are you'll find it in here (somewhere). So this is the other edge of the sword--an abundance of fact and insight (yes, Professor Williams has carefully and intelligently considered his material) that is there if you have the patience and fortitude to dig it out. I'll offer a random list of what were, for me, eye opening or especially intriguing passages:

-Page 43 on how the Mahayana began to develop a separate identity vis-à-vis "mainstream" Buddhism;
-Pages 48-9 on Conze's outline of Mahayana intellectual history;
-Pages 60-1 on some of the internal logical inconsistencies besetting Mahayana Buddhology (authors rarely think out loud like this--I found the honesty refreshing);
-Pages 68-9 make clear the meaning of svabhava;
-Pages 71-2 indicated to me that Nagarjuna was first and foremost a deconstructionist, not a nihilist as opponents have charged;
-Page 74 reassured me that Nagarjuna did not abrogate the teaching of anatta;
-Pages 108ff suggested where notions of a True Self in Buddhism came from;
-Pages 122ff on the debate over not-self in Thai Buddhism was fascinating, something I was previously unaware of;
-Pages 132ff are a wonderful discussion of the Avatamsaka Sutra, the most profound if not most influential of Mahayana scriptures;
-Chapter seven on the Lotus Sutra reminded me many times over why I so detest this particular scripture;
-Page 184 has an excellent chart on the three bodies of the Buddha;
-Chapter nine on the bodhisattva was at once inspiring and comical (on account of all the contradictions found in the texts);
-Chapter ten offers a detailed who's who of bodhisattvas and buddhas for all you folks out there who can't figure out which statue is for whom and why.

And that about does it. As I said, not only will you be punished in the course of this text, you will be rewarded as well. There is a lot of pleasure and pain to go around.
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