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The mass of modern literature on Buddhism--both popular and scholarly--reminds one of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The subject is so vast, and the range that can be included in a manageable book so small, that no one treatment can do it full justice. No one has ever mastered the entire literature on the subject, and given the exponential rate at which it's growing, probably no one ever will. Thus, before exploring the literature, it is important to be clear about your own reasons for exploration, so that you can narrow down the range of your research to manageable proportions: the part of the elephant that you find most interesting and that you feel you can handle. At the same time, it is important to be clear about the variety of reasons that authors may have for writing about Buddhism, and about the limitations inherent in their various approaches, so that you can develop a sense of which blind men (or women) will be your most reliable guides.
In the broadest terms, the books on Buddhism fall into the two categories we used in the Introduction to The Buddhist Religion (hereafter referred to as BR): those that treat Buddhism as Buddhism, i.e., a body of facts about Buddhists, their beliefs, and their actions; and those that treat it as Dharma-Vinaya, i.e., a body of truths that the authors recommend should be incorporated into the conduct of one's life. It is overly simplistic to view these two categories as "books by outsiders" and "books by Buddhists," for there are many objective, scholarly accounts of the Buddhist tradition written by Buddhists, just as there are many non-Buddhists who advocate incorporating particular parts of the Buddhist tradition into a non-Buddhist approach to life. Books that treat Buddhism as Buddhism can be judged like any other account that aims at factual accuracy: How reliable are the data? Are they cited in context or out of context? What are the terms of analysis? Are they appropriate for the data? What are the author's expressed presuppositions? What are his/her unspoken presuppositions? For whom, or what purpose, is the account useful? Is the treatment fair? Is it clear? (It would be good if more writers took to heart the comment that Marilyn Monroe made after having lunch with a famous New York intellectual: "He's no intellectual. He doesn't make things clear to me.")
As for judging books that treat Buddhism as Dharma-Vinaya, it is useful to keep in mind a distinction proposed by Wilfred Cantwell Smith in his book, The Meaning and End of Religion. According to Professor Smith, any religion has two dimensions: tradition and faith. Tradition covers one's inheritance from previous adherents of the religion; faith covers the fullness of one's involvement with that tradition. The two aspects interact, in that the outward manifestations of one's faith add or subtract to the tradition handed on to future generations. Thus, when reading a book that treats Buddhism as Dharma-Vinaya, you can judge it either as an account of the tradition--in which the criteria used for books that treat Buddhism as Buddhism apply--or as a product of the author's faith, i.e., as a contribution to the development of the Buddhist tradition. For example, the works of C. A. F. Rhys Davids on early Buddhism and D. T. Suzuki on medieval Ch'an, which were once accepted as standard accounts, are now largely viewed as inaccurate. Thus they are no longer cited as authorities on the Buddhist tradition in the fields on which they wrote. However, they are now studied as examples of the authors' faith in the Buddhist tradition and of the way that tradition has been reshaped in modern times. In other words, they are read not for what they tell us about early Buddhism or medieval Ch'an, but what they tell us about the authors and the selling of Buddhism in the West in the 20th century.
Another way of classifying books on the Buddhist religion is in terms of the academic disciplines to which they belong. Religious Studies, as an academic field, has something of an identity problem in that, unlike some other fields, it does not have a discipline of its own. Thus it borrows from a number of fields, primarily in the spectrum that runs from sociology through cultural anthropology and history (political, social, and intellectual) to philosophy. Only rarely are writers trained to be at the cutting edge of all of these disciplines, so be prepared for books that are strong in one field but weak in others. For example, there are books by anthropologists on the relationship of the Little Tradition (day-to-day behavior of Buddhists) to the Great Tradition (the ideals expressed in Buddhist texts) that show a shocking ignorance of what those texts actually contain. Conversely, there are historians ignorant in the field of statistics who try to provide statistical analyses of the early Buddhist community based on data in the texts, even though the data base is far too small for any meaningful conclusions.
To make matters worse, proponents of one disciplinary approach sometimes adopt the prejudices of their discipline in belittling the work of those in other disciplines. One of the most desultory of these prejudices is the one that denigrates the study of the great Buddhist thinkers and meditators as "elitist" and "unrepresentative of the Buddhist tradition." On the one hand, these perjoratives cut back at the scholars who make them, for scholarly work--no matter what the topic--is by definition elitist and unrepresentative of the culture to which the scholars belong. For proof of this point, look up the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon on the deconstructionist analysis of monsyllabic imperatives in Dick and Jane. At the same time, limiting the study of religion to the beliefs and practices of Joe Thai and Mary Tamil is like saying that the music of Mozart and Beethoven should not be played because they belong to an unrepresentative elite. Still, a study of Buddhism that did not deign to take Joe and Mary into account would give an unrealistic picture of the tradition, totally useless to anyone who expects to have dealings with the Mary's and Joe's of the Buddhist world. Thus it is wise to expose yourself to books representing a spectrum of approaches to get a general overall picture, and then focus on the approach that meets your needs.
The application of academic disciplines to the study of Buddhism has resulted in the same sorts of issues that have resulted from applying those disciplines to other fields. However, there are two areas in the academic study of Buddhism that deserve special comment at the outset.
One is the question of how appropriate it is to apply those disciplines to Buddhism at all. For example, when studying the ancient texts--such as the Pali Canon or the writings of Nagarjuna--is it proper to use modern methods of textual analysis to study the meaning of the texts in and of themselves, or must one follow the interpretations that later Buddhist commentators gave to the texts? On the surface, the answer would seem to be simple: Study both--that way one can get a sense of what the texts meant to their authors and to others alive at the time when they were composed, and of how that meaning changed over the centuries. The issue is complicated, however, by the fact that there are many modern Buddhists who have committed themselves to living their lives by the teachings of the commentators. Many of these Buddhists feel that scholars who have not made such a commitment--whose only stake in the truth is their paycheck and their academic reputation--have no right to question the commentators' authority. It is easier to make an academic reputation by throwing out accepted views than by supporting them, they note, and the academician need not stick around afterwards to pick up the pieces. At the same time, questions of national pride also come into play. Sri Lankans and Burmese, for example, regard their commentaries on the Pali Canon as great treasures of their national culture, just as Tibetans regard their commentaries on Nagarjuna as treasures of theirs. To use methods of modern critical scholarship on these works, they say, is an act of cultural imperialism; and there are many empathetic post-modern academicians who would support their case. This, of course, would place great restraints on freedom of the academician in giving what he/she feels is an honest appraisal of the tradition. As for the harm that might be done by such honesty, Buddhism would be a weak tradition indeed if it could not stand up to sincere questioning. Thus in BR, and in the bibliography we have given below, we have tended to side with the methods of free inquiry over the claims of traditional authority--except where these methods can be used with a self-serving or hostile intent--but we feel honor-bound to alert you to the issue so that you can decide the merits of the case for yourself.
The second issue brings us back to the point raised at the beginning of this introduction: The subject of Buddhism is so vast, with so many fronts of inquiry going on at once, that no one scholar can hope to keep abreast of findings on every front. The language barrier itself is almost insurmountable. A scholar fully conversant with every aspect even of just modern Buddhism would have to be fully fluent in Pali, Sanskrit, Bengali, Maharasthi, Newari, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Tibetan, Mongolian, Sinhalese, Burmese, Thai, Laotian, and Khmer, to say nothing of the major European languages, and at the same time would have to be familiar enough with several academic disciplines and their findings that he/she would not only be able to keep current with all the latest research but also be in a position to judge its merits. No such person exists. Thus, when an expert in a particular branch of Buddhist Studies compares the findings of his/her research with those in another branch, be prepared to put a question mark next to his/her statements about that other branch, for it is entirely possible that they are based on readings that are partial or out-of-date.
We hope, however, that these warnings will not discourage you from exploring the literature on the Buddhist religion. Buddhism is one of the great traditions of the human race, and it contains many treasures for the delight and edification of anyone who takes the time to explore it with care.
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