This book, whilst scholarly and thorough, is not the most user friendly introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. As a general reader, I would choose something somewhat different for my first reading material.
My own knowledge of Buddhism is somewhat limited, although it is now improved. I had always thought the faith emphasized enlightenment and kindliness, and it does, but there is much more than this and it would serve those interested in it as a chosen to faith to know further detail. This is well illustrated by this book.
I must confess that the mystical element was something I had not considered seriously but this introduction makes it very apparent from the first chapter. The author attended an interview with a Buddhist monk and witnessed him discussing the work of evil spirits with local peasants and this brought me up short.
The book goes on to describe the religion's history in some detail and we find that it has polytheistic elements and the faith has many brands. It is complex indeed and a world away from the traditional western view. I think, as does the author, that much of the religion's palatability in modern society is down to its current portrayal and the excellent work of the current Dalai Lama who promotes it so well in terms of offering a modern message to the West.
As with all this series, I particularly like the headings at the sides of each page and this means that the reader can locate sections quickly. Less attractive are the illustrations which are poor quality and add nothing to the narrative. I also found the emphasis on historical evolution muddied the waters when I tried to understand clearly what people believe now - in fact, I became a little confused. This made the book less useful from my point of view and certainly did not sell the faith to me.
My feeling is that this introduction is not for the novice (or those seeking a light read). It is written in a "scholarly" manner and I found it a little dry in parts, after a promising beginning, and the endless historical narration did not catch my imagination. The manner in which the topic was addressed may well please some readers but it did not sit well with me as I had expected something more evocative and less academic in feel. This should be taken into account when considering purchase.
I think it's necessary to start by clarifying that this isn't a Dummies Guide style easy introduction. Although just over a hundred pages long, this is a very thorough technical introduction to Tibetan Buddhism indeed. If you want a quick thumb-through book about mantras and loving kindness, this isn't it.
Next thing to be aware of is that this is Tibetan Buddhism (as the title says!), generally Buddhist temples in England follow Chinese Buddhism, so if you're planning to read this following a few meditation lessons or a visit to an English Buddhist temple you'll find the Tibetan Buddhism in the book a little different to what you've been shown/taught.
The book itself is extremely thorough, but for me it was a bit of a hard slog to get through. It's very technical and straight in with Sanskrit. It's not a book you can just dip in and out of parts you find interesting, you need to read from start to finish otherwise you don't have the knowledge required for the later chapters. You really do have to want to know the detailed workings of Tibetan Buddhism to get through the book, it's too complex for anyone with just a casual interest.
A brilliant, thorough book, but light years from a simple guide.
This is a great book but it's more of a condensed history than a detailed explanation, so I was initially disappointed. But I stuck with it and somehow arrived at a feel for how the religion developed, despite not being able to recall any of the specifics. For this reason I find it more of a pocket reference, and indeed there are highlighted reference paragraphs. The book didn't come alive for me until Chapter 4 on page 45, the earlier chapters being full of names and dates. So if, like me, you are interested in Buddhism due to its links to modern day thinking such as CBT, I would suggest skipping the first three chapters and reading them later.
I do have a soft spot for these VSI books and this one held a personal interest as well.
I was lucky enough to spend a couple of weeks in Tibet and went round many many Buddhist temples and learnt a lot about the history and the culture but I always wanted to learn meow, sow he is as offered this book it was perfect.
Of course it is going to be concise, there are many many other books on this subject you can look into after you have read this one, but what this VSI has done is get all the pertinent facts laid out in an extremely easy and friendly read
Highly recommended for anyone who has even a passing interest in this subject
Although a Christian, I'm fascinated by Buddhism and enjoy learning about it. Buddhism seems to have come to the west via intellectuals who have "westernised" it and made it more presentable and acceptable to our way of thinking, unlike for example Islam where our experience of it is typically of people who have been brought up in an Islamic culture. If you actually read more westernised Muslims they are able to make a very different sort of representation of Islam than the one presented in the media and popular culture.
This book begins with some recognition of this gap between the way a religion may be presented to a more intellectual, westernised culture and how it might be practised by the mass of its believers. The author is in Tibet discussing some philosophical/theological understanding of the self with a respected religious leader. There is a knock on the door - a local farmer is having trouble with evil spirits disturbing his cattle and needs assistance. He is given instructions on how to rid himself of the spirits - involving the burning of incense, offerings to the gods and chants to be repeated and sent away, whereupon the author and religious leader are able to return to their discussion.
I was hoping that this recognition of the gap between popular Tibetan Buddhist belief and a more westernised version of Buddhist belief would be a sign that the book would acknowledge this Very Short Introduction was geared to western readers. Unfortunately this is not the case.
There are around 134 pages of text, and I think it was on around page 34 it really dawned on me the book was hard going. Here is a typical bit of what I was wading through:
"Notable amoung the four "senior" orders was that of the Karmapa, whose first representative was Dusum Khyenpa (1110-93). The eight "junior" orders prominently included the Drigungpa, following the brilliant and charismatic Drigung Kyobpa Jiktensumgon (1143-1217), and the Lingje Kagyu of Lingje Repa Pemadorje (1128-88). It was the disciple of the latter, Tsangpa Gyare (1161-1211), who established the Drukpa Kagyu order, which in the seventeenth century became the state religion of Bhutan, a nation whose proper name, Drukyul, the "Dragon Land", is in fact derived from that of its preeminent religious order."
So basically a lot of the book is like this - and hopefully this paragraph gives a taste - the little bit at the end makes some sense but most of it is really fairly if not quite meaningless to most readers then consists of information that isn't going to stay in the mind.
There are some snippets - did you know the mantra "om manipadme hum" doesn't mean hail to the jewel and the lotus but pay homage to the one holding the jewel and the lotus? But by far the most important thing that stood out for me was how much superstition is involved in all this - mantras that must be said, offerings, forms of speech, clothing, gestures, diet, behaviour and so on are all prescribed in order not to offend the spiritual powers, all of life seems to be lives in fear of going to hell or being reborn in some hellish state. The society is very hierarchical - indeed reincarnation seems to reinforce this hierarchical state - everyone is in their place due to former misdeeds, those at the top are there through merit, not the luck of birth. Obedience is the primary virtue.
This made me wonder about how bad the communists really were. After all, imagine you are living in a society based on fear and terror, mindless obedience, following meaningless rules day in and day out, little or no real education, the people living in poverty, living their lives in fear of demons and evil spirits and paying the monks to keep them from hidden dangers. Isn't a programme of modernisation, even forced modernisation, worthy of some consideration as an alternative to all this?
Imagine if in Europe at the time of the witch trials, where there was burning for heresy, suppression of science and learning some foreign power had come and abolished all these superstitious terrors and had taught people about democracy and freedom of speech, education and equal fights, that doesn't seem entirely a bad thing. Obviously in the current climate of Iraq and Afghanistan there are ways of doing this that basically amount to shooting yourself in the foot so many times that the witch trials and burnings start to take on a certain attraction, nevertheless things aren't entirely black and white here.
A few other points.
Around page 67 there are some interesting details of philosophical schools that sound similar to the rationalist and empiricist thinkers in the west, unfortunately these aren't gone into in much detail.
On page 70 is an suggestion that the Great Perfection is only "emptiness" in that it is empty of the things of this world - in fact it is eternal, absolute and pure - something which caused great controversy.
On page 84 are details of tantric practices which are very important to Tibetan Buddhism.
On page 96 is some explanation of Pure Land Buddhism - very important for Tibetan Buddhism, which is quite similar in some respects to the idea of being "Born Again" in Christianity - instant enlightenment obtained from the grace of God, without going through long cycles of rebirth.
Towards the end are details of the rituals of the dead - from The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the importance of performing certain rites to ensure safe passage into the other world. Much of this will probably appear extremely superstitious to most western readers.
In conclusion the book can be hard work - the world view reflected is very superstitious, with hungry ghosts, demons and spirits appearing regularly, but there are some useful details of Tibetan Buddhism and I'm certainly not going to say the author has in any way misrepresented his subject matter, only that in terms of explaining it to western readers it will seem very strange and alien.
This short indroduction is a very hard read for the western mind.
For in the west we often see religon in a different way to the east.
Right at the start the author takes us the reader to in Tibet... there is a visitor - a local farmer is having trouble with, surposed, evil spirits upsetting his animals and needs help. The farmer is given instructions on how to drive away these spirits. All of this will seem odd to many western people.
But the more I read on the more I began to understand the back groud to these ideas.
- the society in Tibet view is very superstitious, with ghosts, demons and spirits around, for the people these are very real issues. To the west these ideas seem very strange and alien almost.
It is best to read this book with an open mind....