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on 5 May 2007
I have read a number of books on buddhism in an attempt to learn more about this interesting subject. I have found that many although starting well get more and more complicated the more you read and eventually end up confusing me more than explaining. THIS BOOK IS DIFFERENT it is clear, precise and explains the fundamentals of Buddhism in a way that is easy to understand to someone who is new to the subject. Not only did i understand all that was written here but also after reading this i then understood the other books i had read. If you are new to the subject of Buddhism read this book first, look no further, start here and at will truly enlighten you.
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The Very Short Introduction series are written by professors of the subject and are aimed at provoking cross-discipline intrigue in the reader that may incite further investigation and reading - and boy are they good at achieving exactly that; often they leave more questions than answers.

This book on Buddhism is the perfect entry point for initiates or even anyone merely curious about the religion, I personally feel that the 'religion' is one of the most accessible and one that require the least suspension of belief. For this reason I was curious about the central tenets and the VSI: Buddhism is fantastic in that respect. Laying out in an orderly manner, the origins, the history and the details of the man himself and his central doctrines. It then goes on about the schisms within the belief and their geographical distribution, finishing finally with the basics of meditation and the interpretation of Buddhism in the colloquial West.

But where this book comes into it's own [it is one of the most popular VSI's - this, the second edition] is the simplicity and continuity of the book, it reads seamlessly and I found myself drinking in the 140-odd A6 pages of text (the remaining 20 or so are addenda, further reading and the catalogue list of VSIs) fascinated by the concepts. Before long, I was weighing my personal inclination to Theravāda or Mahāyāna without actually even realising it, I had become that enthralled with the concepts and the clarity of their distinction.

A truly great introduction to the layman to a fascinating and accessible subject, that may just change your life!
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Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
If you are looking for something simple and short to read about Buddhism then you could do worse than start with this interesting little book. It is well written in relatively simple language and illustrated with relevant, black and white illustrations.

The book gives information about Buddha's life, a history of the belief system, explains karma and dharma and the four noble truths. It explains Buddhist ethics and looks briefly at Buddhism in the West and meditation.

There is a useful timeline, a helpful list of further reading and an index. The book is part of a series of `Very Short Introductions' to a wide range of subjects produced by Oxford University Press. This is the second book in this series that I've read and I find them well written and produced and they do exactly what they claim to do - provide a very short introduction.
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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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This book is both factual and easy to read. It does not claim to deal with every aspect of Buddhism, which is a complex and fragmented belief system. What I particularly liked was Keown's references to this incompleteness within the text, and his suggestions for further readings and clear labelling of the things he has either left out or skimmed over.
This is an incredibly useful book. The breakdown of information in text boxes and clearly divided chapters with useful sub-headings made it even easier to read.
It is useful in that it gives both a history of Buddhism and its influence across the world as well as the central tenets of the beliefs it encompasses. It also tries to understand the impact of Buddhism on modern Western culture, positing ideas of what developments may come to pass in the future.
It also deals with the problem of whether Buddhism actually constitutes a religion at all, and attempts to define and understand what is meant by religion and how Buddhism works within this.
A necessary read for anyone interested in understanding Buddhism at a basic level.
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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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on 19 November 2011
The author - Damien Keown - at the time of writing was Reader in Buddhism at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and a Fellow in the Royal Asiatic Society. He academically well placed to produce a book about Buddhism, that is subtitled 'A Very Short Introduction'. Buddhism is a philosophcally complex system, that is accompanied by its own particular historicity.

The paperback (1996) Oxford University Press edition contains 136 numbered pages and is comprised of 9 distinct chapters. The book is comprised of:

List Of (14) Illustrations.
List Of (3) Maps.
Acknowledgements.
Note on Citation and Pronunciation.
1) Buddhism and Elephants.
2) The Buddha.
3) Karma and Rebirth.
4) The Four Noble Truths.
5) The Mahayana.
6) Buddhism in Asia.
7) Meditation.
8) Ethics.
9) Buddhism in the West.
Timeline.
Further Reading.
Index.

This is an ambitious undertaking that Keown undertakes with a relative ease. His text logicaly builds from the original Indian base of Buddhism from around 500 BCE, and progresses throughout Asia, China, Tibet and finally to the West. As a consequence, the history of the (peaceful) spread of Buddhism is clearly shown, alongside a very accessible explanation of the various key aspects of Buddhist philosophy. Extracts of important Buddhist sutras are provided throughout the book in special grey boxes, that serve as an eye-catching juxtaposition to the usual white page and black print. Early Buddhism, the Theravada School, the Mahayana School, the Tibetan Vajrayana, and Buddhism in the West are and all relevant material is included. Ch'an/Zen, (as part of the Mahayana School) is described as it developed in both China and Japan, together with a description of Yogacara (all in mind) and Madhyamaka (all is empty) thinking. This book is important for the practicing Buddhist and general reader alike. Superb.
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VINE VOICEon 10 June 2013
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The Oxford's 'Very Short Introduction to...' series of books delves into all sorts of historical, theological, and philosophical (to name but a few) subjects that might usually seem a bit out of reach to the masses. They offer a brief insight into these often difficult subjects and this one on Buddhism is no different.

Written by a Professor of Buddhist Ethics, this short introduction to Buddhism is less than 150 pages (the book itself is smaller than A5, almost pocket-sized) but is packed with useful information and background details to this somewhat mystical religion. Damien Keown's expertise is evident, although I'm an absolute novice when it comes to Buddhism so wouldn't really know if it was wholly accurate. What I do know is that this book offers an interesting and accessible insight into the history of Buddhism, its general principles and its future prospects in the East and the West.

The book is broken down into manageable chapters, each one concise and focused. It touches on the better known elements such as karma, meditation and nirvana, as well as exploring the different major types of Buddhism and the foundations of the religion such as the Four Noble Truths. Keown also spans the life of the Buddha himself (and consequently the 'birth' of Buddhism) as much as is possible with the limited information available.

Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction won't 'instruct' you on how to become a Buddhist, nor will it offer any kind of clear definition of what it means to be Buddhist. However, if you're contemplating dipping your toe in the proverbial water, and are interested in finding out more about this most intriguing of religions, you might want to grab a copy of this book. It will provide you with an intelligent foundation on which to make an informed decision and could be the perfect springboard to help you find your own sense of peace, whether that's through Buddhism or not.
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VINE VOICEon 3 June 2013
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is an extrememly good book by an expert in the field of Buddhist studies. It is the third in the extensive Very Short Introduction series of books by Oxford University Press which give well informed insight into complex fields of study. Despite the compact size of the book it is packed with information and I came away feeling I had a grasp of what Buddhism is and that I was able to access to further information if I wanted it.

Keown opens the book with a set of useful maps showing where the Buddha lived and taught and where the different types of Buddhism are now found, followed by a note on pronounciation.

He follows this with 9 chapters, the first a valuable discussion on whether or not Buddhism can be classified as a religion. Next come chapters on the life of the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama, details of the essential Buddhist concepts such as karma, reincarnation and the written exhorations known as the Four Noble Truths.

In the latter chapters Keown follows the spread of Buddhism out of India and speaks about the place of mediation and ethics in Buddhism. In the final chapter he discusses how Buddhism has had an impact in the West in the present day and its relationship to new findings in science.

Finally there is a timeline, further reading and index. The further reading is particularly useful, Keown structures it by subject so, for instance, you know which book to read if you wanted to know more about Buddhism and neuroscience.

The only problem now is that I want to read all the 'Very Short Introduction' books and there are currently 344 of them!
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VINE VOICEon 23 May 2013
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The book starts with the parable, known in other contexts too, of the blind men who each feel a different part of an elephant. The one who tugs its tail thinks an elephant is like a snake, the one who hugs a leg thinks it's like a thick post, and so on. Keown argues that buddhism is a bit like the elephant; people, especially westerners, tend to be interested in only part of the whole, and so conclude that buddhism is essentially pacifist, or that its written doctrines are the most important thing, or its mysticism, or its architecture...or whatever. (Me I think blind people have got more sense...)

The aim of the book is to introduce the main themes of buddhism without getting bogged down in the intricacies of any one of the many, many forms of the faith. And there really are many variations. Buddhism predates the Abrahamic religions (or at least christianity and islam) by several centuries and so has had plenty of time to mutate (writes Keown). In particular, the original buddha refused to accept a role as single head of the movement, or to appoint one to succeed him. So buddhism has never had a single central doctrinal authority like the pope, and developed along many different paths.

The main division is into theravada buddhism (Sri Lanka, most of south east asia) and mahayana buddhism (China, Japan, Tibet). Keown likens this to the split between conservative catholicism and protestantism (perhaps of the work-ethic variety). He warns against taking the parallel too far. My understanding is that theravada focuses on individuals gaining elightenment through personally developing their understanding whereas the mahayanan ("great vehicle") schools tend to see good works involving helping others as equally important in developing good karma. (Karma and dharma are explained at length and clearly). Mahayana buddhism has some interesting similarities to christianity - the Buddha can be seen as having three characters comparable to the father, son and holy spirit view of the christian god.

The divisons within each of the two forks are also considerable. Buddhism is profoundly affected by the cultures it exists in. The teachings of the orginal buddha drew extensively (as I read the book) on the religious and philosophical ideas of the indian subcontinent in which buddhism started and developed - yet it was almost entirely superseded by hinduism, islam, and other faiths in India itself. Again, though pacificism and respect for all life is basic to the orginal "canons" of buddhism, monks in Sri Lanka from ancient times, Burma/Myanmar currently, and Japan during WWII strongly advocated destructive violence against people - and took part in it.

The book concludes with chapters on the nature, importance and various practices of meditation; buddhist ethics; and finally on western attitudes to buddhism. An eye opening and very informative read, a good start to a fascinating subject. This review is of the updated second edition, by the way.
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