*Buddhisms: An Introduction*, or what do Buddhists argue about?

by on April 19, 2016 at 12:20 am in Books, History, Religion | Permalink

That is the new book by John S. Strong, which I recommend highly.  It won’t charm you or interest you in the subject if you don’t already care, but the already-motivated can learn a great deal from it.

I find most books on Buddhism frustrating.  One you know the basics, they just feed you the same blah blah blah, running your mind in empty circles.  But perhaps Buddhism is like macroeconomics — you can’t understand it until you know what people argue about, and that is what John S. Strong clues us in on.  Here is one typical summary passage:

We have, in this chapter, sought to explore various iterations of the Middle Way, a notion which the Buddha sets forth at the start of his First Sermon.  In order to unravel the many implications of this principle and its applicability to other Buddhist doctrines (something the Buddha did not do in his sermon), I have presented several of its expressions and sought to set them within the context of various philosophical and religious movements that may have been around at the time of the Buddha.  Thus, early Buddhists can be seen as finding their way between karma-deniers and karmic absolutists; and as combining views of saṃsāra both as a real material trap and as an illusory trap; and as shying away from the extremes of affirmation of an Absolute Self and denial of personal continuity.  The Middle Way, however, is not the only thing set forth in the First Sermon as we have it, a text which is mostly devoted to the doctrine of the Four Truths, to which we shall now turn.

Another good way to read about Buddhism is to look at up through p.59 in Nicholas Ostler’s Passwords to Paradise: How Languages Have Re-Invented World Religions.  It covers the differential historical spread of Buddhism through the languages of Pali, Gandhari, Sanskrit, and Chinese.  Ostler himself claims to have a working knowledge of eighteen different languages.

Here is a Berkeley class on Buddhist economics.

1 stephan April 19, 2016 at 12:39 am

A grasshopper skips

The lotus flower dreams

Of the Buddha’s gaze

2 msgkings April 19, 2016 at 12:27 pm

If this is supposed to be a haiku it’s wrong (5-6-5, should be 5-7-5)

3 prior_test2 April 19, 2016 at 12:48 pm

So easy to fix, at least from a copy editor’s perspective –

A grasshopper skips

The lotus flower dreaming

Of the Buddha’s gaze

4 stephan April 19, 2016 at 11:18 pm

Thanks. This a 5 minute attempt from an amateur ( first Haiku)

5 John Smith April 19, 2016 at 12:45 am

O bush warblers!
Now you’ve shit all over
my rice cake on the porch


6 Gpower April 19, 2016 at 12:56 am

That last link doesn’t work

7 Thor April 19, 2016 at 12:38 pm

The formal Haiku structure is three lines, not one.

8 Adrian Ratnpala April 19, 2016 at 1:41 am

I find most books on Buddhism frustrating. One you know the basics, they just feed you the same blah blah blah, running your mind in empty circles.

This is mostly right, and looking for arguments is a good way to avoid the problem (I suspect Christian apologetics would be a lot less crisp without the glorious history of sectarian conflicts).

However it is also because as an outsider, TC is interested in propositional knowledge about Buddhist philosophy. But religious books are mostly self-help guides, and in the case of Buddhism, they tend to be meditation manuals. So you need to do the exercises to get any nontrivial results.

9 anon April 19, 2016 at 6:31 am

Running empty circles was a pretty good joke, but less running.

10 So Much For Subtlety April 19, 2016 at 3:51 am

I find most books on Buddhism frustrating.

As do I. Most because they are apologetics. If I want to learn about Buddhism, I want a book about Buddhism. Not about why my School and/or Guru is the neatest thing since the microwave oven and by the way, I still hate you Daddy!!!

This is why I like Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An alternative history. Not that she isn’t from that sort of background. But she was able to get past it and write something more interesting than usual.

Although maybe she could have done a condensed version.

11 anon April 19, 2016 at 6:36 am

Traditional Buddhists probably just call the monk for weddings and funerals, like many Catholics and priests. Those who want to go further take up a “practice,” not a book.

12 So Much For Subtlety April 19, 2016 at 7:36 am

Sure. And that’s the problem. The people who do it, do it. The people who write about it are people whose families don’t do it and so they feel a need to justify it. How many books on Buddhism have you come across that were not written by people born middle class, Jewish and in New York?

13 anon April 19, 2016 at 8:06 am

Well, they were early in.

14 prior_test2 April 19, 2016 at 12:55 pm

‘How many books on Buddhism have you come across that were not written by people born middle class, Jewish and in New York?’

Well, I cannot speak for the translators, but to this point in my life, a grand total of zero (including a comparatice Asian religion class at GMU back in the early 80s). And the book probably most widely read concerning Buddhism is from a German – http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/2500/pg2500.txt

15 Dan April 19, 2016 at 9:37 pm

Just to name a few non-Jew-Bu authors:
Thich Nhat Hanh
Bhikku Bodhi (the leading translator of Buddhist texts and a great scholar in his own right)
Robert Thurman (great Columbia University scholar of Tibetan Buddhism)
Gunaratana Henepola
Chogyam Trungpa
His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Pema Chodron
Erik Braun (an expert on Burmese Buddhism)
Shunryu Suzuki
D.T. Suzuki

Granted, there are many Jewish-born authors represented in the American Buddhist literature, but I think the point is a bit overstated.

16 Craig April 19, 2016 at 10:37 am

There is no such thing as a Buddhist wedding, it is considered a civil/government matter.

17 anon April 19, 2016 at 11:10 am

I thought I’d been to one, though it was kind of weird, with the kids each reading their self-written vows off Rose Gold iPhones. The maid of honor and best man held the iPhones until the right moment.

18 Craig April 19, 2016 at 2:16 pm

Well…let me clarify. Traditional Buddhism doesn’t have a wedding ceremony, although the San Francisco hippy school of Buddhism might have one.

The best traditional text I found on Buddhism is the Dhammapada here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2017?msg=welcome_stranger

Nothing the Buddha said or did was written down for 500 years, then someone decided to write it all down: the Pali Canon has 80,000 pages, the Chinese Canon has 100,000 pages.

19 anon April 19, 2016 at 2:34 pm

The one I went to was Vietnamese fusion.

20 anon April 19, 2016 at 2:44 pm

I will try to read your link later. I only have a very casual relationship with Buddhism, lifting what I think is a Buddhist-like philosophy, consistent with the neurobiology of happiness, and the frequent tragedy of our world.

21 anon April 19, 2016 at 2:53 pm

I do not call myself a Buddhist, except to tease my girlfriend, who is a tradional Buddhist, when she buys lottery tickets.

22 Ricardo April 20, 2016 at 2:28 am

I think it’s common for Thai Buddhists to invite a monk to the wedding to receive offerings and bestow his blessing on the couple. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the same in most Buddhist countries. People outside the Western world don’t typically maintain such a strict separation between religious matters and cultural or civil matters. But I imagine you are right that having a monk present to participate in the ceremony isn’t considered mandatory and there is no theology of marriage in the same way that Christians or Muslims have.

23 Roy LC April 19, 2016 at 12:31 pm

Wendy Doniger’s book is extremely irritating because a book about a religion you don’t know should not start out on a basis that is so hostile to its worshippers fundamental conception of themselves. It takes you out of the mindset that can see why people believe it.

24 derek April 19, 2016 at 6:57 am

Am I the only one who read that quoted paragraph and got real thirsty for an intoxicating drink?

25 Steve April 19, 2016 at 8:27 am

Well, Buddhism is in the eye of the beholder. The book author has one view. In Japan, there are over 100 types of Buddhism. One is free to start another one.

Oh, don’t confuse Buddha with Buddhism.

26 Nathan W April 19, 2016 at 9:33 am

Buddhism is more about practice than theory. Check the Digha Nikaya, basically a monk’s manual describing many events assumed to be associated with the life and teachings of the Buddha. This version is quite good, and has extensive discussions on translation challenges from Pali, the language that the oldest versions come from (the originals having been assumed to have rotten away due to high humidity): http://www.amazon.com/The-Long-Discourses-Buddha-Translation/dp/0861711033.

For more theoretical stuff, there are some Chinese academic journals on religion, which include works by many top religious leaders in China. I’m not aware of any equivalent “academic” discourse in other branches of Buddhism. Yes, they have to be not-anti-CCP to hold such a position, but in my exchanges with such types they are extremely encouraging of openness to Western critiques which stray into topics which are normally not acceptable for open discussion. E.g.: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/yjch20#.VxYxpHoXXfY. It largely relates to the history and development of Buddhist thought in China (“Chinese Buddhism”).

Compassion for all sentient things. Not becoming a slave to your desires. Clean body and clean mind. Some practical advice to follow through on this. My perception is also that most books on Buddhism are basically a rehash of all the same stuff. Also, most books available in English I think can be more accurately described as “Western Buddhism” rather more so than belonging to any of the traditional schools.

27 Roy LC April 19, 2016 at 12:25 pm


28 Roy LC April 19, 2016 at 12:24 pm

This is because while there are multiple forms of Buddhism, the big division in the US at least these days seems between idealistic non Asian Buddhists, which includes some Asian Americans, who get there Buddhism from books and actual Asian Buddhists who come from an actual living religious tradition, be they South East Asian or Pure Land Mahayana.

They have remarkably little in common and have even less to do with each other. The Westrn Buddhists I have met who actually encounter actual practicing Asian Buddhists mostly seem very dissappointed and they usually go back to some sort “uncorrupted” Buddhism that they fell in love with in their books. The problem is that Buddhism as a real religion is not taught through scriptures it is taught through the culture and then one on one. Most westerners seem to think in a very protestant way that if they read the right book they will get it. Thus all the books are written by people who don’t get it, or by people who think anyone reading a book is not really capable of getting it.

Believe me the books I have seen in Chinese are all the sort of tract you hand out to people who are already very familiar with the basic organization. Of course I can only really comment on Mahayana Buddhism but I have heard Thai and vietnamese buddhist friends make similar comments. I am not Buddhist.

29 Chris April 19, 2016 at 2:23 pm

I think the issue is more than they want some kind of sola scriptura Buddhism. I think many of the Westerners who are attracted to Buddhism, are so because they can turn it into anything they want (because there is nobody around them who can tell them, “No, this is not what Buddhism is about”), but still have the respectability of a real religion with thousands of years of legitimacy (as opposed to many New Age practices whose lineage goes back to someone smoking pot in their kitchen in 1968). In other words, they don’t want a religion/spiritual practice that actually challenges them. They want something that confirms what they already believe (even if they do use it to get them to commit to doing certain things they want to do, but have been too lazy to do).

I remember one of these college humor sites with a video showing actors dressed like John Paul II and the Dalai Lama. The video narrator would give various people quotes, and ask them which of these people said it. The quotes generally fit into two categories. The first was universal love, tolerance of others, and other uplifting creeds. The second was very strict prohibitions of “do not do this” – do not engage in premarital sex, do not engage in homosexual acts, do not have abortions, etc. Of course, everyone ascribed the first group to the Dalai Lama and the second to the Pope. In every case, it was the exact opposite. Everyone who answered seemed to have this horrific look on their face that their stereotypes about these people and the religion they headed were flat out wrong.

Many Westerners don’t like the moral prohibitions of religion, but still have a feeling or yearning for something spiritual. So they are looking for something that gives them that while not having a list of moral prohibitions so they don’t need to fell guilty. They are familiar with Western religions and so are quite aware of the moral prohibitions. Then they read something on Buddhism (almost always by a non-Buddhist or a Westerner like themselves experimenting), and get only the vague spiritual component of it. It never occurs to them that the religion still has almost the same moral prohibitions because they’ve never lived in an actual Buddhist society and ever had to confront real Buddhists.

Their version of Buddhism exists only in their heads, but it doesn’t matter because what they really want is no one telling them “don’t do this, it is wrong”. Of course, this doesn’t describe every Westerner interested in Budddhism. Some take it very seriously. However, among people I’ve met, they seem to think it limited to some kind of meditation practice, and don’t actually believe the whole reincarnation cycle, karmic, samsara aspect which is its heart. I’ve met self-proclaimed Buddhists who don’t even know the Four Noble Truths or Eightfold Path or the differences in Theravada, Mahayan, and Tibetan. However, I suspect their “knowledge” comes from some kind of guru figure as opposed to actually reading any kind of text.

30 Roy LC April 19, 2016 at 3:01 pm

Oh I agree, as a Catholic though I think the same about Protestants.

Of course they came from the same culture, so it is different. But when Atheist or “spiritual” Progressives quote scripture they are almost a reflected Western Buddhist.

31 Nathan W April 19, 2016 at 3:48 pm

The thing from the college humour site sounds possibly misleading. I think you could have quoted either one of them saying basically all of those things. But they happened to choose specific quotes from each.

32 Thor April 19, 2016 at 4:39 pm

Maybe I’m one of those problematic, pragmatist Westerners. I want meditative practice, and I certainly don’t believe the stuff about the reincarnation cycle, karmic, samsara aspect” etc.

I see Buddhism as a kind of sophisticated Stoicism, with the essential added layer of a demanding practice (sitting).

In that sense, Buddhism for me is like yoga. I like it because it works (to give me flexibility, strength, relaxation, etc), but I have no interest in the overarching spiritual edifice of the yogic life of yore.

33 Nathan W April 20, 2016 at 1:56 am

My impression is that Chinese Buddhism is also largely free of empirically debunkable aspects of earlier traditions.

34 Donald Pretari April 19, 2016 at 12:33 pm

I can’t agree on this one. There are many good books in English today on Buddhism. An old acquaintance of mine, Thomas Cleary, has done many fine translations of Buddhist texts, as well as writing interesting notes, etc. Tom can translate around eight languages well, including Arabic, and has translated the Qur’an. However, the Strong book looks good so I purchased it.

35 anon April 19, 2016 at 2:36 pm

Ross Douthat’s new piece on Catholicism certainly makes Buddhism look good.

36 RJHJR April 20, 2016 at 12:53 am

When Cowen says that he finds most books on Buddhism frustrating, he seems to be talking not about most books on Buddhism, but books on Buddhism that publishers push because they may appeal to a large market. If you look for books on economics in large chain bookstores, you’ll find the same thing. Most books on either economics and Buddhism are not marketed to a mass market, and you won’t find them unless you do some serious searching, or browse an academic library. I assume that Cowen has access to academic libraries, so presumably he hasn’t actually looked for the books he claims to prefer.

In response to some of the comments, there are idealistic non-Asian Buddhists in the U.S. There are also idealistic Christians who grew up with Christianity, and in Asia there are idealistic Asian Buddhists. Naive
idealism isn’t unique to people seeking out unfamiliar religions; it’s normal human behavior.

37 sam April 21, 2016 at 12:15 pm

“running your mind in empty circles” 🙂

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