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on 6 March 2017
Interesting and thorough look at Buddhism. It was a required book on a course. I will definitely read it again.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 27 December 2005
Part of this book is an excellent introduction to Buddhism. Part of it is not. The first eight chapters are clear, concise and extraordinarily lucid. I have been looking for a long time for a really good introduction to Buddhism. Most of the books I've read either try to do too much or are too narrowly conceived. Huston Smith (not to be confused with Homer W. Smith who wrote Man and His Gods half a century ago) and Philip Novak do an admirable job of showing the reader exactly what Buddhism is all about, how it arose, how it developed and splintered. They make clear the central ideas of Buddhism and how those ideas differ from other religions. These chapters constitute easily one of the best introductions to Buddhism I have ever read.
However in the ninth chapter on Zen Buddhism, written exclusively by Smith, I found myself very much at odds with Smith's interpretation. He warns us that as a Zen student in Japan many years ago his teacher Goto Roshi considered him too philosophic and not as well-grounded in the experiential as he might be. The immediate and experiential, the "be here now" is the essence of Zen of course. And so one might say that Smith was too intellectual. According to a footnote on page 207, the chapter "received its final shape from six weeks of Zen training Kyoto" in 1957 when Smith was a young man. I wonder how thoroughly he reworked this chapter for the present volume copyrighted in 2002. It would appear not much. I should also note that the entire book is a reworking of the chapter on Buddhism from his larger work, The World's Religions.
My problem with his take on Zen is the suggestion, especially on page 97, that it is the rational mind that is holding the student back. But it is not the work of the rational mind that Zen wants the practitioner to overcome. The rational mind is merely common sense. It is instead, the intellectualization of the world that is the problem. It is living the verbalizations we invent as though the verbalizations were the world itself, as though the name were the thing itself. Cooking rice, drawing water, sweeping the porch are events that are preeminently directed by the rational mind. It is rational and logical to eat when you're hungry, to sleep when you're tired. Zen always strives for the concrete, never the abstraction.
I also found myself at odds with Smith's take on the purpose of koan training and how it works toward the aspirant's enlightenment. Enlightenment comes from living with awareness. Being awake, as the Buddha said. Meditation allows us to become very much aware of ourselves and our place in the world. The koan is actually a device that leads the novice to meditation. If you are sitting down and wrestling with the notion of one hand clapping or are contemplating nothingness, after a while it become obvious that where you are is inside your head. Once you are able to focus your attention so precisely without distraction, as indeed the Buddha was able to do, then you are on the road to insight, leading to enlightenment, leading to satori and liberation.
I believe that Smith's understanding of the koan experience is too esoteric and frankly cluttered. He speaks of the mind "working in a special way" on the koan and that "reason...must be supplemented by another mode of knowing." (p. 97) This unnecessary mystification strongly suggests that Smith did not get much further in his koan practice than the six weeks he spent with Goto Roshi.
What is really being "upset" and revolted against in koan training is not the rational mind and its logic, but the culturalization that society has imposed on us along with the view of life constructed by the animal mind: that is, the mind shaped by the evolutionary process, a mind that sees everything primarily in terms of its utility to the seer. Freeing the mind from the prejudices of society and from the limits of the evolutionary mind set is really what Zen is all about. That is how we achieve freedom, which was the goal of the Buddha--freedom from the shackles of the purely animal existence with its mind clouded by reproductive, social and subsistence needs. When we are able to do this we become like the Buddha, like the real artist, like the solitary old man of the forest drawing water and stacking wood. We become knowingly part of the process, not separate from it, and at home in the everyday world in a way that is uncolored by previous notions and the prejudices of society and our evolutionary selves.
There is some extensive discussion in this book about the differences between Mahayana Buddhism, the so-called "great" vehicle and Hinayana Buddhism (the "lesser" vehicle, more properly referred to as Theravada), and some hints about the mystical and supernatural Buddhism that is sometimes practiced by the great Buddhist masses. One can easily see that the further one gets from actual teachings as derived from the Buddha, the more adrift one becomes. Zen is a reaction to the needless elaboration and intellectualizing of the teachings, and is an attempt to bring the practitioner back to the concrete and the actual world of experience.
The value of this book is in the lucid and concise delineation of the Buddha's teachings as contained in the first eight chapters. The material in Part II "The Wheel Rolls West" is about how Buddhism is influencing and being influenced by its experience in Western cultures, and is of greater interest to established Buddhists that it is to those being introduced to Buddhism.
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on 24 January 2014
A very easy to read and understand book. Would recommend to anyone wanting to learn and understand Buddhism and where it began.
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