Lovely pix, lotus imposture

Buddhism
June 21, 2002

There are four sections in this book: "Origins" (three chapters), "Principles and practice" (ten chapters), "Holy writings" (three chapters), and "Buddhism today" (two chapters). The bulk of the material comes from three of its six academic contributors (who are mostly based in the US): Kevin Trainor contributes four chapters, Todd Lewis six and Mark Blum five; David Chappell contributes the two chapters on Buddhism today, and John Peacock a chapter on the Buddhist community, plus a section on Tantric writings in the chapter on Mahayana scriptures. The sixth contributor, Michael Willis of the British Museum, offers nine sections on Buddhist art and architecture distributed across eight chapters, and his pieces represent the most distinctive feature of this book in comparison with other introductory Buddhist texts.

But whatever the merits of the individual contributions - and some inevitably appeal more than others - a volume that styles itself an "illustrated guide" must be judged by its overall vision and how effectively it enables readers to find their way around the subject, in this case, Buddhism. While the book does a competent job of indicating to readers new to Buddhism some of the important features they can expect to encounter, this is not the kind of reference guide that becomes a trusted means of orientation as one ventures deeper into the terrain.

Having dealt with the ancient origins, this book basically presents Buddhism by way of a division between a unified Theravada and a slightly more varied Mahayana, which is a model of Buddhist history that becomes increasingly problematic the more one explores. Thus there are maps that illustrate the spread of first Theravada and then Mahayana Buddhism across Asia, creating the misleading impression that in ancient times the spread of Buddhism was neatly packaged in these two categories. And the discussion of Buddhist scriptures again creates an impression that there are two sets of scriptures, Theravada and Mahayana, without making it clear that there are three great canonical collections of Buddhist scriptures that have come down to us (Pali, Chinese and Tibetan), two of which contain Mahayanist and non-Mahayanist materials, and that other collections existed that are now lost or survive only in fragments and incomplete translation. One searches in vain in this volume for any mention of the Sarvastivadin texts.

However, the text is beautifully illustrated with images from Buddhist art, and photographs of Buddhist architecture and contemporary Buddhist practice. Occasionally, though, the captions appear inappropriate: an Indian miniature of a yogin with the word machendrasana ("the posture of Matsyendra") clearly written above it is presented as illustrating padmasana ("the lotus posture"); a photo of the giant standing Buddha at Aukana in Sri Lanka is identified as a Buddha at Pyay in Burma; a manuscript inscribed with Thai script is identified as Burmese. So, while this volume vividly brings to life the breadth of Buddhist history and practice, the reader who takes it as more than an introductory guide may find it wanting.

Rupert Gethin is senior lecturer in Indian religions, University of Bristol.

Buddhism: The Illustrated Guide

Editor - Kevin Trainor
ISBN - 1 903296 20 X
Publisher - Duncan Baird
Price - £25.00
Pages - 256

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