Book reviews by Sangharakshita


Ways of All Buddhists

The Foundations of Buddhism. Rupert Gethin. Published by Oxford University Press. ISBN 0 19 289223 1

This review was first published in the Times Higher Education Supplement, April 2nd 1999.

Of the making of many books on Buddhism there is no end. Here is yet another one. Fortunately Rupert Gethin's very readable introductory volume is a book on Buddhism with a difference. It is not a survey-type work that attempts, whether sketchily or in a more systematic manner, to cover the whole field of Buddhism and to devote the same amount of space to all the philosophical schools and popular movements that have arisen within it in the course of the past 2,500 years. Instead, Gethin seeks to identify and focus on those fundamental ideas and practices that constitute 'something of a common heritage shared by the different traditions of Buddhism that exist in the world today'.

Thus there are separate chapters on the story of the Buddha; a textual and scriptural tradition; the framework of the four 'noble truths'; the monastic and lay ways of life; a cosmology based around karma and rebirth; the teaching of 'no self' and 'dependent arising'; a progressive path of practice leading on from good conduct and devotions through stages of meditation to a higher understanding; the theoretical systems of either the Abhidharma or the Madhyamaka and Yogachara; and the path of the Bodhisattva. There is also a concluding chapter on what the author calls the evolving traditions of Buddhism, ie those that appear in Southeast Asia, the Far East, Tibet and the West, subsequent to Buddhism's rise and expansion in the Indian sub-continent, its original home.

One of the great merits of Gethin's approach is that it calls into question the view that tends to see the history of Buddhism in terms of a division into two major 'sects': the Hinayana/Theravada and the Mahayana. As he is at pains to point out, many elements of Buddhist thought and practice that were once believed to be characteristic of the emerging Mahayana were simply developments within mainstream Buddhism. Although the Mahayana certainly criticised aspects of mainstream Buddhist though and practice, much more was taken as said and done, and carried over.

Though the ideas and practices outlined by Gethin are fundamental, in that all are in some way assumed by and known to all Buddhists, some are less fundamental than others. For the Jodo Shinshu, the monk/layman dichotomy has no significance, while Zen has no time for Abhidharma studies. Nonetheless Gethin's discussion of all nine of his 'foundations' is on the whole well informed as regards ancient tradition and modern scholarship. He also has a talent for clear and succinct exposition that makes The Foundations of Buddhism a joy to read - a talent honed, it would seem, by his experience as a teacher of introductory courses on Buddhism at a university.

This talent is very much in evidence in the chapters on the Four Truths, the Buddhist cosmos, and the teaching of 'no self' and 'dependent arising', where it might be thought to be needed. But whereas the Four Truths and the teaching of 'no self' and 'dependent arising' have been the subject of a good deal of scholarly discussion, the subject of the Buddhist cosmos - with its 'thrice-thousandfold world-system', its hierarchy of worlds and gods, its five realms of the sentient existence, and its great world mountain - have generally been passed over in embarrassed silence, especially by modern Buddhists anxious to demonstrate that Buddhism is a 'scientific' religion.

Gethin, however, succeeds in showing that the traditional Buddhist cosmology is not to be regarded as only of quaint and historical interest. On the contrary, it forms an important and significant part of the common Buddhist heritage, while the world view it embodies still exerts considerable influence on traditional Buddhist societies. The key to the understanding of the Buddhist cosmological scheme lies in the principle of the equivalence of cosmology and psychology, Buddhist cosmology being at once a map of the different realms of existence and a description of all possible experiences. Gethin explains in some detail the way in which cosmology is in essence a reflection of psychology and vice versa, and how in Buddhism cosmology and psychology, on the one hand, and the teaching about karma and rebirth on the other, dovetail into each other.

Combining as it does readability and exact scholarship, elegance and erudition, this new Oxford University Press series volume provides the novice with a solid foundation for his studies, and his elders food for reflection.