The author is a professor of Buddhist studies at Bristol University and the scholarship certainly shows both in the depth of content and the structure (25pp 'notes', 16pp Bibliography). However it would be wrong to see this as merely a scholastic work (the author suggests that from that perspective it is (largely) an introductory text). Technically as it covers Buddhism as it were 'starting from a blank canvas' it could be described as an introductory work. In practice however given the detail into which it goes on more philosophical/esoteric issues it is probably far too deep an introduction for the average beginner. For a beginner I would recommend Rahula's 'What The Buddha Taught' which covers the core of this book in less than a third of the length and from an angle of a buddhist monk rather than a lay academic. I mention 'hinayana' in the summary although this is not a word that is mentioned much in the text. However the book in aiming at 'the foundations' is really getting at those teachings occasionally classed in that way. Mahayana is covered in one chapter, all other variants in another. It is an ideal work for delving more deeply and rigorously into those issues which tend to be covered in insufficient detail in introductory works [eg 29pp on no-self, 21pp on the Abhidharma]. The rigour is in useful contrast to the more 'faith-based' approaches which tend to skate over the logical 'thin-ice' of their arguments. In conclusion if you have some initial appreciation of Buddhism and are prepared to apply yourself to further study this is an ideal gateway which you will not regret buying. MRB
A very clear and thorough explanation of the foundations of Buddhism, thoroughly recommended. Having searched for more information about the author on the net, I note that he has been praticing "samatha" (tranquility) meditation for some twenty years - and evidently this is a book which which is the product of a very lucid, focused mind. Perhaps what I most appreciated about Dr. Gethin's work is that, being a western lay practitioner, he has a keen awareness of a number of misconceptions you and I are likely to give rise to whilst developing an understanding of Buddhist ideas, schools and history. Speaking personally, I've been taking a keen interest in Buddhism for the past three years and have read pretty extensively about the subject. I've also been learning meditation for about a year. Reading this book has certainly resolved many contentious points for me, and dispelled a fair amount of confusion. I will no doubt have to re-read it. Off the top of my head, some points this book clarified for me were problems relating to issues such as: 1. The extent to which there ever was an early pure philosophical Buddhism devoid of "religious" characteristics (a notion commonly constructed in early Western writing on the subject). 2. The extent of the continuity between earlier and later Buddhist practices and schools. One example that stuck in my mind was e.g how a practice like visualising the a Buddha in tantra is, for example, not a million miles from a practice like recollecting the qualities of the Buddha, which you'll find in earlier Theravadin manuals like Buddhagosa's. 3. The historical realities of how Mahayana ideas and their exponents would have related to other earlier lines of thought - e.g. that the history of the development of the Mahayana was not likely to have been schismatic, as writers and readers from a Christian context might be inclined to concieve of it, but rather that there was a much more plural millieau in the sangha, with monks holding a variety of different opinions coexisting within the same ordination lineage and or community. 4. The extent to which Theravada Buddhism can be seen as the most "pure" form of Buddhism left after all these years, i.e. as the form which most resembles what the Buddha actually taught. 5. The fact that the bodhisattva path has and always remains a possibilty for a practitioner in the Theravada school, which many westerners practicing or learning about the Mahayana seem to view as exclusively "Hinayana". (An example I can give from my own reading outside Gethin's book, is that a famous Thai monk, Ajahn Mun (widely viewed to have been an arhat/arahant) was originally cultivating to become a Buddha, but realising that it would take him incalculable eons to achieve, opted instead for arhatship in this life. 6. The extent to which the Pali canon is an accurate, reliable source of information on what the Buddha actually said. "The Foundations of Buddhism" discusses these and other issues better that any other book on the subject that I have read. Hopefully I haven't misrepresented Dr. Gethin's work in that rather mish-mash recollection. "The Foundations of Buddhism" is an impressive book, very worth reading.
There are many books on Buddhism but few do it justice. Peter Harvey's An Introduction to Buddhism and Lance Cousins' article in A New Hanbook of Living Religions by Penguin represent some of the best overviews available in print in English.
This book ranks at about the same level. It starts with the discovery of some of the bones of the historical Buddha and is enlighteningly sceptical about how much we can really know and state about the sources and the history of Buddhism. But it is written with feeling and provides an in depth study of major concepts and Buddhist cosmology.
Dr Gethin practices Buddhist meditation and has written a very academic tome on the 37 factors of enlightenment. He writes with an open authority and this book "cannot be faulted".
As someone new to Buddhism, wanting to read something not too deep as a first step, I couldn't have made a better choice. This book has answered a lot of questions that I had as a first timer, and it did it in an easy to understand way. If you also, are taking that first step, give this book a try, you won't be disappointed.