Saturday, April 4, 2015

Buddhism / Christmas Humphreys -- [n.l.]: Penguin Books, 1951

Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys was the first book I read about Buddhism.  I was perhaps 15 years old, newly exploring religions other than the Christianity.  I was immediately taken by Buddhism's approach to life.  It seemed simultaneously rational and compassionate.  It offered a perspective on the world that did not rely on speculation and unsupported faith and the personality traits that it prescribed seem eminently virtuous.  I did not read much more about Buddhism until many years later, but Humphreys's book made a strong enough impression on me that I was always tempted to describe myself as a Buddhist.

This is the third (perhaps fourth) time I have read the book and with this reading I now more clearly understand how it shaped my thinking about Buddhism.  Buddhism is a general introduction to the religion.  It presents chapters on the life of the Buddha and his ministry.  It then goes on to describe the essential doctrines of early Buddhism in five chapters, followed by a chapter on the Sangha, three chapters on Mahayana Buddhism, chapters on Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, and finally two chapters on "the fruits" of Buddhism and contemporary Buddhism.

Humphreys does a good job in nearly all of these chapters.  His accounts are generally clear and accurate.  He does, however, present some ideas in a rather sectarian fashion.  His treatment of Tibetan Buddhism over emphasizes the magical and ritualistic trappings of the tradition, making it seem a poor degeneration of a noble tradition.  His characterization of Zen, on the other hand, describes it not only as the consummation of Buddhist thought and practice, but the highest achievement of human spiritual and philosophical thought.  His treatment of the concept of the self appears to be most consistent with Yogachara thinking in which the self is a kind of world consciousness (what is sometimes elsewhere described as a "storehouse" consciousness).  At times Humphreys even appears to verge into agreement with Pudgalavada Buddhism which accepts an "inexpressible" self or the Advaita Vedanta that posits an eternal, universal soul.  Humphreys asserts that the earlier doctrines which accepted anatta or the doctrine of no-self misunderstood the true views of the Buddha.  Perhaps the largest missing piece in his account is an clear and detailed explanation of the doctrine of sunyata or emptiness which was the critical concept in the Madhyamaka school.

As a result of these more or less evaluative treatments, my own impression of Buddhism failed to appreciate the importance of anatta and sunyata, and it led me to explore and embrace Zen for perhaps longer than was good for my progress through understanding the whole of Buddhism.  It was nearly twenty years later that I finally picked up T.R.V. Murti's The Central Philosophy of Buddhism in which a gained a good understanding of anatta and sunyata and recognized the importance of their place in Buddhist thought.  I don't mean to denigrate the ideas and perspectives of Zen or the Yogacara tradition.  I merely hope to point out that a best understanding of Buddhist thought is not achieved by reading its history in reverse.  To appreciate Zen and the Yogacara Buddhism,  one should first understand and appreciate the early schools of Buddhism and the orthodox view of the self that they propose.  With that (and with an understanding of Advaita Vedantism) one can appreciate the remarkable perspective of the Madhyamaka and the natural reaction to it that resulted in Zen and the Yogacara tradition.

I  am forever thankful that I encounter Christmas Humphreys's book at an early age.  It no doubt made a significant and very beneficial contribution to my intellectual growth and perspective on life.  I only wish that before going on to read about Zen, I was directed to the earlier phases of Buddhist thought, particularly the doctrine of no-self.  It may have been too much to expect a teenager to understand and appreciate the concept of emptiness, but with the doctrine of no-self under my belt, I would likely have come to it sooner than I did.

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