Accessible routes to awareness

A Concise History of Buddhism - The Wisdom of Buddha - Passionate Enlightenment
August 4, 1995

All three books under review deal with Buddhism, yet their emphasis and the writers' perceptions could not be more at variance. Jean Boisselier is a former member of the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient, and retired as professor emeritus at the Sorbonne University in 1980. This account of the birth and development of the doctrine preached by the Buddha is directed at a general readership. Granted, his views do not exactly reflect recent changes in scholarship. Thus he tells us that Indian culture and thought were shaped by Aryan invaders, as every scholar of his generation has done, even though it is now widely acknowledged that the hordes of light-skinned bellicose tribes descending upon the subcontinent from an ancestral home in the Ural mountains are very likely to be a figment of the imagination of 19th-century historians. The role of women within Buddhism is seen as subordinate, with intransigent attitudes towards women seen, somewhat imaginatively and simplistically, to stem from the Buddha's personal memories of Mara's daughters' attempt at seduction. The focus of this book's main essay is entirely on the Buddha and early Indian Buddhism.

Despite these obvious shortcomings, the book and indeed the New Horizons series of which it is a part, is superlative. Superbly illustrated, well documented, authoritatively and clearly written, easy to read and refreshingly unpretentious, this is the sort of book to keep for quick reference and one that anyone, including curious younger readers, can understand at once, without having any background knowledge. Many of the illustrations show Thai or Khmer sculptures and paintings, undoubtedly reflecting the fact that Boisselier was for several years curator of the Phnom Penh museum and in charge of the Angkor monuments. The captions for the illustrations are packed with clear and interesting information and are self-contained units. The "documents" section attempts rather successfully to place Buddhism in contemporary society. Extracts from articles and books which talk of the expanding phenomenon of Buddhism in the west are quoted and there is also an interview with the Dalai Lama on the question of western Buddhism.

The book by Andrew Skilton, we are told, is written from the perspective of the Buddhist practitioner engaged in academic research on Buddhism. Skilton is a Buddhist monk and a junior fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford. His book aims to bring together modern academic scholarship and the understanding of Buddhist doctrine from the point of view of the practising Buddhist.

Yet the project fails because it is too ambitious. The author is a specialist in Indian Buddhism, the discussion of which takes up over half the book. Where he goes beyond Indian Buddhism, his scholarship deserts him. True, he tells us that his purpose, in offering his briefer treatment of Buddhism outside India, is only "to provide the reader with a starting point from which to understand those non-Indian developments" given that the complexity of the subject is "beyond the competence of any single author". But unfortunately, not even this modest goal is accomplished.

For example, Borobudur is wrongly presented as a symbolic mandala-city and the otherwise detailed bibliography, supposedly one of the strongest points of this publication, skips Indonesia altogether. By ignoring the country the author ignores the tremendous importance of Buddhism in maritime South-east Asia as a whole, with its mediating role in the transmission of Buddhism to the Far East. And having to wait until page 141 to find the first full mention of women's role within Buddhism is truly disgraceful; even then, Skilton's emphasis is on female figures for worship as symbols, while the role of women as spiritual teachers is glossed over.

So we have to turn to the American Miranda Shaw's account to discover that Buddhism is not a misogynist religion. Her book is specifically about the gender relations in Indian Tantric Buddhism. This is not the first study of Buddhism from a gender perspective. But as the author says, "male dominance has long been accepted as an historical, immutable principle of Buddhist history", as indeed exemplified by the other two books reviewed here. Feminist scholarship, on the other hand, aims at seeing women as central to the religion, rather than taking for granted their role on the periphery.

Tantra is not specifically Buddhist, as it has both Hindu and Buddhist sectarian varieties. In its Hindu version it is associated with Siva and also the worship of the goddess, the female energy, Sakti. To encapsulate Tantra in a definition is most difficult. One could say that it was a religious movement in which magic and sexual rituals and yogic practices were used as a means to the attainment of liberation. There was much exchange and interborrowing between Tantric Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism, to the point that on occasion it is rather difficult to tell the difference.

Shaw's work has been rigorously researched and indeed enters new territory. It offers a critique of and a reinterpretation of the history of Tantric Buddhism, emphasising the ideal of equality of men and women promoted by this movement. It discards as misogynist distortions those widespread interpretations of Tantrism as a religion which exploited women's sexuality and turned women into symbols; this is feminist scholarship at its best. It is also an example of a new approach to the study of Buddhism as a religion, in that it sees it "as a dynamic stream that is constantly enriched by the insights of diverse peoples", thus offering a new model in contrast with the existing one "which sees Buddhism as an insular strand of development carried out by the elite men in monasteries". This widespread way of looking at Buddhism, the author continues, may pay lip-service to the existence of "popular practices" and "folk traditions" but in fact these are outside Buddhism proper. Shaw's work has also iconographic implications, as it allows us to look at images of Tantric yoginis not from a Freudian or Jungian perspective as symbolic representations but as bearing "a direct relationship to the women of Tantric Buddhism".

The only flaw in this otherwise commendable book is that the introduction could have given a more general picture of Tantra in its Indian setting without taking the reader straight into Tantric Buddhism and waiting until chapter two to establish the connection of the latter with Hindu Tantric and Sakta practices.

Alessandra Iyer has a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and has done research on the iconography of Hindu/Buddhist Indonesian temples.

A Concise History of Buddhism

Author - Andrew Skilton (Dharmacari Sthiramati)
ISBN - 0 904766 66 7
Publisher - Windhorse Publications
Price - £9.99
Pages - 263

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