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4.5 out of 5 stars67
4.5 out of 5 stars
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on 26 January 2001
The quality of a factual book should be judged by its lack of overt partiality, comprehensiveness, sources and ability to make you think and ask questions. This book scores well on all points and above all reads like an essay which you can zap through. It contains a good bibliography for follow up reading and includes details of the the award winning "Journal of Buddhist ethics" on the web which was partly established by the author. Apart from the author's erudition his book is backed up by other experts and has been reviewed by his students.
Above all the book analyses what is meant by religion (as Buddhism does not easily fit this classification) and provides a modern interpretation of this system of thought from all its major perspectives. The treatment of Mahayana Buddhism short, yet precise and on the whole Keown concentrates on highlights. Towards the end is a discussion on Buddhism in the West. The book also provides useful comparisons with other religions.
Compared to many small and "cheap" introductions to Buddhism, this book is fairly impeccable. It is not perfect (2 tiny errors I identified with regards to scriptural quotations) but will lead anyone interested to work out what Buddhism is for him or herself, rather than being spoon fed as it were. I was however, disappointed that the book ended so fast - and glad at the follow up leads left, by this trustworthy writer.
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on 4 August 2009
This book is a quick and easy read, and it attempts to give a very brief overview of Buddhism. The book provides some helpful information but I believe that it has some significant shortcomings which is why I have given it only two stars.

I'm not sure what audience the book is aimed at. It is too brief for an academic interest, and my personal view is that it would not be very interesting for anyone looking at Buddhism for personal interest. It might be helpful for a secondary school student doing a project on Buddhism.

I have been involved in Buddhist meditation for many years and I wanted to gain a better general knowledge of Buddhism. I thought that this book might give an interesting overview of the history and cultures of Buddhism, and some insight into the nature of the Buddhist belief system and an overview of the different Buddhist meditation practises.

The Pros:

The author helpfully provides a very brief and balanced overview of the history of Buddhism, and of the different lineages.

And the book succinctly explains some confusing aspects of Buddhism which I have touched upon when learning meditation, but which I had not properly understood before, as follows:
1) An explanation of the meanings and origins of some of the Buddhism-specific words which crop up regularly when learning Buddhist meditation;
2) An explanation of the history of the two main Buddhist texts (Pali and Sanskrit); and
3) The explanation of the differences between the two main schools of Buddhism (Theravâda and Mahâyâna).

The book takes an academic approach, and so the subject is explained dispassionately, which has some value in some of the chapters. There is no esoteric jargon to decipher, and there are no cryptic passages to try to unravel, there is no complex language or indecipherable texts. There is no promoting Buddhism as the best path to take, and there is no sectarianism, nor any sight of a preachy, lofty holy man who talks in riddles.

So I found some parts of the book educational and useful.

The Cons:

However, it is such an extremely brief introduction to Buddhism, that after reading it, I felt I had learned almost nothing. The book does not do justice to Buddhism's complex history, many rich cultures and deep philosophies and belief systems. I know it is a 'very short introduction', but the book on Carl Jung, in the same series, gives a very rich and absorbing overview of the subject which left me very satisfied.

This book is written in a dry academic style, and I came to the conclusion that the author has no personal interest in the subject, except for a purely academic interest. That might not seem like a problem for the purposes of writing a balanced overview of a religion, but the author does not go into any depth about the nature of Buddhist beliefs, philosophy, meditation practise, or meditation experience.

For example, `enlightenment', the single `purpose' of Buddhist meditation practise is not explained, and I don't remember seeing it mentioned at all. Religions build their foundations on beliefs and subjective experiences. This is especially the case with Buddhism, which bases its philosophies on the first-hand subjective experiences gained in mediation practise. So the book misses out some essential aspects of Buddhism, which are full of interest, curiosity and insight

The book did not stimulate my curiosity about Buddhism, which I think would be a major shame for anyone reading about the subject for the first time. The subject is so interesting that it would be a shame if a reader never looked at Buddhism again as a result of reading an uninspiring book.

Major shortcomings:

But, more importantly, and the reason that I gave the book only two stars, is because I thought that the book was misleading and biased in certain sections, as follows:

1. In my opinion, the section on meditation contains significantly misinformed and inaccurate information and analysis. I thought that this chapter, in particular, was unhelpful. It would be a shame if someone had bought the book particularly to find out about Buddhist meditation because, in my opinion, they would come away having been misinformed as to the nature and purpose of meditation, and also uninspired about the subject. The section on meditation is written with a lack of insight into the subject, giving a shallow and uninspiring account of meditation.
(I would have to re-read the chapter to give specific examples of inaccuracies. If I get around to it, then I'll post any further discussion in the 'comments' section, directly after this review.)

2. In another section of the book, the author discusses (questions) the validity, and justification, of Buddhist beliefs. He seems to dismiss some ancient Buddhist philosophies, in a rather flippant and patronising way, possibly because they don't fit in with his world-view formed by his apparent western Christian education. As he does not present evidence to support his discussions in this area, then I could only assume that the author was making assumptions, and presenting biased opinions as fact.

In such a short book, which is supposed to be a balanced (?) overview, I thought it was inappropriate to question the validity of Buddhist beliefs. A belief which is based on a subjective experience is a difficult and delicate subject to challenge, and should be done with care and skill. Buddhist beliefs have been formed over many centuries of deep philosophical thought, discussion and first-hand subjective experience through meditation practise.

As far as I can remember, the author did not explain how the Buddhist beliefs, which he questions, had come about, or on what evidence Buddhists base their beliefs.

It would have been enough for this book to lay out what the Buddhist beliefs are, and explain the different schools of thought. It did not seem appropriate for the author to question Buddhist beliefs in such a short book, especially without offering evidence, and when having such a seemingly narrow, academic, understanding of the subject. It felt, to me, like the author was undermining Buddhist philosophy, but without thorough investigation, evidence or explanation. It would take a very long book to do justice to a discussion about Buddhist beliefs and their validity, rather than a few dismissive remarks based on a personal world-view.

Buddhist monks spend their whole lives learning about Buddhism first-hand through years of meditating, and the author gives opinions on the subjective experiences of meditation when he probably hasn't had these subjective experiences himself. If a belief is based on a subjective experience, then it seems to me that it would be difficult to justify dismissing that belief, without a thorough investigation and discussion about the subject with someone who holds that belief.

3. The author appears to have a narrow western academic world-view which doesn't seem to sit entirely comfortably with Buddhism. This is demonstrated in one section of the book where the author attempts to explain Buddhism by comparing it to Christianity, in a dry academic way. In this section, the author seems to make the assumption that the reader is familiar with Christianity, and is aligned with the same fixed Western Christian establishment world-view, and background, as he apparently is. I found this frustrating and inappropriate for various reasons, one of which is because I have my own developed views on Christianity which I do not share with the author. I feel that Buddhism can be explained in its own right, and does not require comparison to another religion which the author assumes is more familiar to the reader.

4. The author devotes a whole chapter of the book to analysing, in an academic fashion, whether Buddhism is a 'religion' or not. He takes a whole chapter to come to the conclusion that it is a religion. This could have easily been done in a page or two. This just seemed like self-indulgent academic waffle purely to show off the author's academic prowess, rather than to enlighten the reader. Too much of the book is wasted on dry, unnecessary and overly academic argument, leaving little room for more interesting areas of Buddhism.


I did find some parts of the book helpful, and it has clearly been a helpful book for some of the Amazon reviewers. So I would not advise people to avoid this short book, but I would ask that people keep in mind the shortcomings that I perceived and have expressed an opinion about above. I suggest not using this book a sole source of information about Buddhism, but to also use other sources of information (e.g. read other books etc). It is such a short read, that it could be useful as a starting point for someone completely new to Buddhism, but I do worry that what I perceive to be misleading information, which I've highlighted above, could misdirect people away from a very fascinating and rich subject.
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Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
For anyone who has expressed an interest in Buddhism, or who is focused on finding more about the faith in general, this is an excellent purchase.

It's a neat summary of the teachings of the Buddha, but as well as this, it looks at how the practice of the faith may be incorporated into daily life. It's an examination, not rigourous, but still remarkably thorough on what it means to be Buddhist.

Many introductions to Buddhism lose themselves in deep descriptions of mindfulness and meditationary practices which can be confusing and too much to absorb. This book steers well clear of that trap and offers something far more readily accessible.

It points out the major features of Buddhism that distinguish it from other religions; it also looks at the spread of the faith and its development over the centuries. Recommended.
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on 13 July 2013
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is a new edition of the introduction to Buddhism from the Very Short Introduction series which now has well over 300 books in its collection. It is intended as a short introduction for someone looking to gain a basic understanding of the subject but is far too basic for academic or religious interest.

For me, as someone reading this out of interest rather than academic necessity or religious endeavour, I found at the end of the book I had developed a basic understanding of the core principles and history of Buddhism. I did find some of the history heavy going though, especially the Sanskrit and Pali transliteration which is included throughout. The end chapter which describes the impact and uptake of Buddhism in Western countries was particularly interesting.

I will definitely read other books from this series, although I cannot say this book is entirely satisfactory. It felt a bit overly academic in its tone yet the audience for the book would not in likelihood be that.
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on 10 September 2003
This VSI strikes an excellent balance between being concise & covering the essential elements of Buddhism. I have >20 books on Buddhism & find this one of the best. Particularly good chapters are:
Ch 1 discusses whether Buddhism is a religion and the different dimensions of Buddhism - practical, emotional, mythical, philosophical, ethical & social.
Ch4 on the Four Noble Truths (the Buddha's description of the way the world is) is particularly clear compared to many other books on Buddhism.
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This book, although short, has all the key concepts and ideas a beginner would wish to explore with regards to Buddhism. Most questions are answered and the various schools are explained and touched upon. It is clear to read and understand and a good place to start if you wish to learn more about this wonderful path.

Feel free to check out my blog which can be found on my profile page.
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Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
If you are looking for something simple and short to read about Buddhism then you could do worse than start with this interesting little book. It is well written in relatively simple language and illustrated with relevant, black and white illustrations.

The book gives information about Buddha's life, a history of the belief system, explains karma and dharma and the four noble truths. It explains Buddhist ethics and looks briefly at Buddhism in the West and meditation.

There is a useful timeline, a helpful list of further reading and an index. The book is part of a series of `Very Short Introductions' to a wide range of subjects produced by Oxford University Press. This is the second book in this series that I've read and I find them well written and produced and they do exactly what they claim to do - provide a very short introduction.
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on 11 July 2013
I really cannot fault this book. The Oxford University Press describe their 'Very Short Introductions' as a "stimulating and accessible way in to a new subject". You don't have to worry too much about the authenticity of the expertise in these books (Damien Keown is a prominent bioethicist and authority on Buddhist bioethics); the connoisseurs that are selected have an undeniable passion in their said subject.

The issue when it comes to these books is whether the book is written lucidly and appropriately enough to be "accessible" to the layman. Generally, the temptation is that most qualified experts feel the need to indulgently show off their scope of knowledge in a subject. Fortunately in this case Keown hits the sweet spot. The introduction poises an acute balance of detail and intrigue without distancing the newbie via excessive terminology and waffle; Proff Keown has given a fair few other authors in this series a stern lesson.

There are some fascinating areas covered in this book and its beyond my review to cover them all so if you are interested in this subject and want to learn more then go ahead and buy this book. Keown is kind with his references to further reading too should the appetiser leave you hungry for more. This is how the book progresses:

(1) Buddhism and Elephants
(2) The Buddha
(3) Karma and Rebirth
(4) The Four Noble Truths
(5) The Mahayana
(6) The spread of Buddhism
(7) Meditation
(8) Ethics
(9) Buddhism in the West

The introduction defines Buddhism as a religion highlighting the emphasis on the experiential dimension and self-transformation, harnessing the power of the mind through meditation and equanimity. We then move on to the Buddha (the religion's deceased sage) and his personal journey and subsequent Dharma (teachings). Within these teachings are the 'Karma and Rebirth' that define the cosmology of the Buddhist existence and the desire that can lead the mind into suffering.

The book also covers the geographical and historical development of the religion in Asia and the 'Great Schism' leading to the distinction of the Theravada ('Doctrine of the Elders') / Mahayana ('Great Vehicle') schools. Keown makes a light comparison here to the Protestant/Catholic divide in Christianity, which is a refreshing and enlightening regularity in the book reminding us of the similarities in religious endeavor that simultaneously occurred in separate and unrelated movements throughout the world.

But perhaps the most insightful area in this book is the persistent departure to meditation that crops up in all chapters - this is without doubt the central point of this anthropological religion; meditation is the route to enlightenment that all Buddhists should seek to achieve. It's difficult in this new age not to find personal interest in meditation and its potential benefits when reading this book. In fact once you have concluded the book you will see this as a Very Short Temptation, rather than just an Introduction.

A compelling subject and a wonderful short book.

[Note: This review is for the second edition, in Kindle format. The kindle production was faultless - but for (currently) just one pound less than the book format, it may be neater to own the real thing. One issue with the kindle productions in these VSI books is that the pictures do not correspond very well to the text]
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on 1 August 2013
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The OUP Very Short Introduction series more often than not hits the mark and this is a worthy, updated part of the series.

As an introduction to the religion- and it starts with a chapter that defines exactly why it is a religion and not just a philosophy as so many in the West try to interpret it- it is clear, concise and thought provoking.

Towards the end the author tackles the complex issue of how Buddhism is being practiced, promoted and interpreted in western societies which is a tall order for such a small book, but one needing addressing. On the whole Keown gives it a good shot and rightly points out that Buddhism has happily schismed and set up new schools since the Buddha transcended and so there is no problem with a western one evolving too. This is fair enough but still I felt stands shy of criticising a lot of people who profess to follow Buddhism in the West, but do so in a supposedly 'secular' way i.e. picking out the bits they like that they can use even whilst calling themselves atheists i.e. using the religion as psychological self-help programme more than anything else. This perhaps, debateably, is not a problem... and to be fair probably outside the scope of such a small book. It is however becoming an increasingly prevalent aspect of western Buddhism and begs the question of whether true Buddhism is being practiced this way or not.

Whatever, this is on the whole a balanced and fair representation of the Buddhist faith and well worth a look if you are starting from a standing point with regard to your understanding of its theology, and a good companion to the Buddhist Ethics volume.
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VINE VOICEon 10 June 2013
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The Oxford's 'Very Short Introduction to...' series of books delves into all sorts of historical, theological, and philosophical (to name but a few) subjects that might usually seem a bit out of reach to the masses. They offer a brief insight into these often difficult subjects and this one on Buddhism is no different.

Written by a Professor of Buddhist Ethics, this short introduction to Buddhism is less than 150 pages (the book itself is smaller than A5, almost pocket-sized) but is packed with useful information and background details to this somewhat mystical religion. Damien Keown's expertise is evident, although I'm an absolute novice when it comes to Buddhism so wouldn't really know if it was wholly accurate. What I do know is that this book offers an interesting and accessible insight into the history of Buddhism, its general principles and its future prospects in the East and the West.

The book is broken down into manageable chapters, each one concise and focused. It touches on the better known elements such as karma, meditation and nirvana, as well as exploring the different major types of Buddhism and the foundations of the religion such as the Four Noble Truths. Keown also spans the life of the Buddha himself (and consequently the 'birth' of Buddhism) as much as is possible with the limited information available.

Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction won't 'instruct' you on how to become a Buddhist, nor will it offer any kind of clear definition of what it means to be Buddhist. However, if you're contemplating dipping your toe in the proverbial water, and are interested in finding out more about this most intriguing of religions, you might want to grab a copy of this book. It will provide you with an intelligent foundation on which to make an informed decision and could be the perfect springboard to help you find your own sense of peace, whether that's through Buddhism or not.
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