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on 22 August 2017
A Very good short intro
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on 11 January 2011
A superb introduction to Buddhism. I bought this book for set reading to an OU course and found it informative, easy to read and non biased. A well written little book covering a big topic!
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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 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 16 May 2013
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I absolutely loved this book.

It made learning about Buddhism easy to understand and is written at just the right level. Damien has done a great job making a complex religion/philosophy easily digestible for the beginner.

I thought I knew a little about Buddhism. Now I can safely say I know much more. The book is very small 1/2 the size of a normal paper-back and runs at 150+ pages. It takes you through the history of Buddhism, starting with the man himself and how he lived and where it all started...

It includes maps, and illustrations and a few photos, so your learning is made more fun. This is not a dry account of Buddhist ideas but a very carefully and sensitively written introduction to the subject. I was even more pleased when I read about women and Buddhism.

There is a great time-line showing Buddhism's development. further reading and a good index. It says on a sticker on the cover that it's fully updated, which it must be because the website links it suggests are still active!!

I enjoyed every minute of reading this book and would be tempted to read further, having now got a brief grounding in the subject.
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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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VINE VOICEon 28 April 2013
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I was amazed at how much information this book manages to squeeze into 145 pages. Before coming to this book I had (like many westerners) been drawn to rational, humanist Buddhist philosophy. I had gone deeper and taught myself the origins of Buddhism, the life of Buddha and Buddha's key teachings on the four noble truths, the origin of suffering and the path(s) to enlightenment. Also I had travelled Buddhist countries - China, Japan, Vietnam and Thailand. So, my approach to this book was mainly as a test of my existing knowledge and partly to fill in what gaps there might be.

I found three main things in this book. Firstly, the layout of this book, with its handy text boxes and relatively simple prose, will serve as an invaluable memory aid for the basic teachings of Buddhism, and for that alone it is worth the price. Secondly, I learned a great deal about what Professor Richard Dawkins might dismiss as superstitious Buddhist myths - akin to Biblical myths of God/heaven/hell/miracles - concepts which I am not interested in because they seem to have no rational basis and seem to have developed in the years after Buddha's death and which are largely absent from the humanist approach to Buddhism which westerners tend to be more drawn to. But these myths do help put Buddhism into context as a way of life for billions of everyday Buddhist familes rather than as a set of rational philosophical principles for the intellectual curiosity of a western reader. Thirdly, I learned a great deal about the spread of Buddhism over the centuries - information which again I wasn't interested in, but puts Buddhism into context.

A point worth stressing about this book is its notably western perspective. The author, Damien Keown, Professor of Buddhist Ethics at Goldsmiths in London, seeks mainly to explain Buddhism to the post-Christian, western liberal reader - more of that below.

Keown's first four chapters set out the foundation of Buddhism and its core concepts. He sticks neatly to the facts, jumping in with useful ethical and contextual analysis where needed. The next two chapters explain the history and development of Buddhism in a factual and detached fashion. His 7th chapter is on meditation - which it is impossible to write about without sounding hippy dippy. Can the reader really buy into the idea of obscure and differing meditative states without directly experiencing them? Unlikely. Keown explains what meditation is and expresses its importance, but this factual and detached chapter only serves as the most basic introduction.

Where Keown really gets into his stride is at chapter 8 - "Ethics". Here his western perspective is most obvious, and arguably most helpful, dealing with typically recent Western concerns such as Human Rights, War and Terrorism. He does not try to hide Buddhism's shortcomings in this area - despite being a religion founded on rational humanist principles, it has failed to suppress war and terror and human rights abuses throughout Asia, and has even been used by monks (which Keown names) to argue in favour of such. He briefly mentions Tibet, but fails to mention that it is widely accepted that prior to Chinese intervention in 1949 Tibetan Buddhists ran the country as a cruel feudal society where illiterate peasant farmers were effectively enslaved to rich land-owning aristocratic lamas. Although academic and political debate about pre-1949 Tibet rages, it is clear that Tibet was not at that time the happy, peaceful Buddhist utopia that the Free Tibet movement suggests.

In this chapter Keown also strays furthest into analysis, and for me shows most starkly why Buddhism struggles so much in the modern world. In a section on "Rights" on page 119 he says "A right may be defined as an exercisable power vested in the individual", and this forms the basis of the discussion on the next few pages. However, I would have liked Keown to go into why a concept of rights is potentially incompatible with the key Buddhist concept of Nirvana, which he says "literally means `quenching' or `blowing out' ... What is extinguished is the triple fire of greed, hatred and delusion" The fundamental problem for a Buddhist approach to Rights is why would someone who knows no greed, hatred and delusion want to be part of a legal system where he can enforce a right against another? No clear answer is suggested by Keown.

This leads on to the final, rather poignant chapter about "Buddhism in the West". Although at its core, Buddhism seems to promise to the Westerner a release from the dictatorial and hierarchical style of Abrahamic religion, there are two interesting problems. Firstly, the Western experience of Buddhism is divided into either a cultural, hereditary, immigrant experience, or a very splintered set of "convert" individual experiences, with the result that there is no clear Buddhist voice in the west, (and the most famous Buddhist in the west is the Dalai Lama, who has an annoying habit of glossing over Tibet's pre-1949 human rights abuses, and his own involvement in a morally corrupt Tibetan administration between 1949 and 1959). Secondly, the question of what would Buddhists say if they had a voice in the west? Keown has shown that the experience of Asian political history in the twentieth century teaches us that where Buddhist monks stray into politics, they stray far from the peaceful principles for which Buddhism is best known. Keown has also shown that the personal practice of Buddhist teachings has the potential to improve the lives of Buddhists in the west, and to spread rationality, self-examination, enlightenment and happiness. However, Buddhism's fundamentally fluid and personal nature seems to preclude it from ever being a substantial and unifying force in the west. Given the horrific experiences in the last 500 years, this is probably the biggest contribution that Buddhism can make - as a society-wide undercurrent of self-knowledge and individualism, leading to the rejection of unquestioning devotion to political or religious ideas.
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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 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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