Some Very Short Books About Buddhism

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Matthew Kapstein, Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2014.

(and also, in reverse date order:)

Damien Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2013 (1st ed. 1996).

Jan Westerhoff, Reality: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2011.

Damien Keown, Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Susan Blackmore, Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Edward Craig, Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2002.

Sue Hamilton, Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2001 (orig. publ. 2000).

Michael Carrithers, Buddha: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2001 (orig. publ. 1983).

All £7.99/$11.95 pback, also ebook.

Reviews copied over from the Western Buddhist Review

The occasion of this review is the publication of Matthew Kapstein’s superlatively excellent new Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, on which more anon. But it occurred to me that, rather than writing an appropriately very short review of just that book, I could also briefly review everything Buddhist in the series, to make something normal-sized overall. Oxford University Press hit upon the concept of ‘Very Short Introductions’ around the turn of the millennium, and Kapstein’s Tibetan Buddhism is number 373. The concept has obviously been very successful: short books you can carry in your pocket and read in a weekend. For me, however, their success is not just their size, but consists in three linked factors. First, each one is written by someone who is an expert in the relevant field, and who has had to pack a lifetime’s passionate research and writing into a summary form. Second, the publishers have let the experts approach their topics as they wish, which makes the books more opinionated and hence quirky and interesting. And last, happily, the books are excellently edited.[1]

So to start at the beginning: OUP have recycled Michael Carrither’s Buddha: A Very Short Introduction from their earlier ‘Past Masters’ series, but the book has aged well, perhaps because not much has been discovered about the Buddha since 1983. Carrithers is an anthropologist, so his biography of the Buddha does not get bogged down in textual worries, and instead strikes a nice balance between the traditional story and historical reconstruction. Next comes Damien Keown’s Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, which, being the flagship of the fleet, has just had a refit, the 2nd edition having come out in 2013. Keown is a Buddhist studies academic, and his book is like a condensed version of an undergraduate course entitled ‘Introduction to Buddhism’. This is not really a complaint. Keown points out that ‘Buddhism’ is a large and complex topic, with diverse schools, traditions, histories and cultures, and so what he offers is a well-digested overview of the central facts and features; the book is a bit of an abstraction though it is very well done. The 2nd edition is updated with information about new discoveries, like the 1st c. ce birch-bark manuscripts from Afghanistan in the Gandhari language, giving new insights into early Buddhism;[2] an update on progress in re-establishing female monastic ordination;[3] and a chapter on Buddhism in the west – Triratna gets a mention – with thoughtful reflections on how Buddhism is changing.[4] Keown is also the author of Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. The nature and application of a distinctly Buddhist approach to ethics is Keown’s professional specialism – his conception of Buddhist ethics as a kind of virtue ethics was a breakthrough, and his Very Short Introduction is an excellent summary of his detailed research and thought.

So to Matthew Kapstein’s Tibetan Buddhism. Kapstein is an academic in Paris and Chicago, but his book does not read like an undergraduate course, and is not about an abstraction called ‘Buddhism’, but a particular, if rather complex, manifestation of it. The account modulates between the fascinating ideas that Tibetan Buddhists inherited and developed, and the particular indigenous culture that underpins the religion. Kapstein starts with a story that sets the scene. He was talking to a lama in Nepal about the nature of consciousness, but their conversation was interrupted by some local people seeking the lama’s help with a demonic infestation. The lama dispensed incantations and advice, the people departed, so he returned to the discussion about the mind’s capacity for self-objectification. Mystical philosophy and Himalayan superstition. Kapstein describes the origins of Tibetan Buddhism in the 8th c. ce, the time of King Trisong Detsen, Padmasambava and imperial Tibetan; the revival of Buddhism and the emergence of the rival religion, Bön, from the 10th c.; and the development of the schools still familiar to us, Nyingma, Sakya, Kägyu and Gelug. What comes across strongly is the peculiar combination of intense sectarian rivalry and common commitment to Buddhist ideals, embodied in a network of monasteries, colleges and institutions.

Something I particularly appreciated in Kapstein’s presentation is his emphasis, while not stinting on the philosophy, on the everyday practices undertaken by Tibetan Buddhists. He makes the point that most monks and nuns were educated only to the extent that they knew their rituals, but that their spiritual practice consisted in lojong, ‘mind-training’, in the form of constant recollection of the Dharma, and especially in the form of tonglen, the ‘sending-and-receiving’ of suffering and love. He goes on to discuss Tantric Buddhism without overdoing the esotericism, and presents Tibetan mortuary rites and beliefs in rebirth and the tulku system as much distinctly Tibetan as Buddhist. The book concludes with a summary of what happened in the 20th c. following the Chinese invasion, a tragedy that somehow Kapstein manages to make sound less terrible than it must have felt to the Tibetans. The book ends with the author’s confession of his love for the ‘splendid civilisation of Tibet’, and I confess that I immediately re-read the book, delighted at the quality of writing as well as its high level of expertise.

There is room in the list for some future ‘very short introductions’ to Theravāda, Chinese Buddhism and Zen, as well as perhaps to mindfulness and Buddhist psychology. Meanwhile, there are some other Very Short Introductions which deserve mention. First, Edward Craig’s Philosophy includes discussion of the Buddhist ‘no-self’ doctrine, via the philosophical argument Nagasena presents to King Milinda, in the Questions of Milinda, an early Buddhist philosophical dialogue. Craig’s cross-cultural style of presenting philosophy later compares the Buddhist no-self view to David Hume’s ‘bundle theory’ of the self, and points out important differences as well as similarities. Following that, there is Sue Hamilton’s Indian Philosophy. This is an extraordinary overview of the main currents and ideas in a philosophical culture which, as Edward Craig had hinted, is every bit as developed as that of the west. Buddhism comes over particularly well, probably because Hamilton used to be a scholar of early Buddhism. Then there is Susan Blackmore’s Consciousness. Really, this book is an introduction to the modern scientific study of consciousness, but the author is a long-standing Zen Buddhist and meditator, and her immersion in Buddhist ways of looking at consciousness is everywhere apparent in her approach to the topic. She has no problem, for instance, saying that the reason that we cannot find any apparent locus of the self in the brain is that the self is an illusion, and she goes into some detail into how brain-based conscious experience may conjure its identity out of its own productions. Finally, there is Jan Westerhoff’s Reality. Westerhoff uses a combination of analytic philosophy and modern scientific thinking to question the apparent reality of ordinary experience, of matter, the person, and time. He offers no solutions, but simply takes away our assumptions, leaving the bare question of what is real. Not at all obvious is that this short book on reality is in fact a neo-Madhyamaka treatise; Westerhoff, it turns out, as well as being a philosopher, is an interpreter, exponent, even translator of Nāgārjuna and his Madhyamaka school of Buddhist philosophy.[5]

Eight books reviewed in 1,344 words – this very-short thing is catching.


[1] The formula basically works, though not always: I found A.J. Ayer’s Hume: A Very Short Introduction, 2000 (orig. publ. 1980) very hard going – much harder than Hume.

[2] ‘The Kharoṣṭhī Fragments’ text box on p.66.

[3] ‘Buddhist Nuns’ text box on pp.90–1.

[4] Criticisms: A sentence on meditation on p.98 is repeated on p.99, suggesting some rushed editing. On p.100 the jhāna factor of joy is missing from the tabulated contents of 3rd jhāna. On p.137 he credits Chögyam Trungpa with establishing a Buddhist centre before later assuming responsibility for Samye Ling in Scotland. However, Trungpa left Samye Ling for the USA after disagreeing with Akong Rimpoche, and never resumed responsibilities there.

[5] Jan Westerhoff, Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction, OUP, 2009; The Dispeller of Disputes: Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartinī, OUP, 2010; Twelve Examples of Illusion, OUP 2010.

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