Top critical review
18 people found this helpful
Too many shortcomings
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 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.
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.
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.