Monday, October 3, 2016

Buddhism for Beginners / Thubten Chodron -- Boston: Snow Lion, 2001

When I picked up Buddhism for Beginners, I had very high hopes.  Having recently read Buddhism: One Tradition, Many Teachers which Chodron co-wrote with the Dalai Lama, I was expecting a clear and concise treatment of the most important elements of Buddhism, written for the novice.  That is, I was expecting a shorter and more popular version of One Tradition, Many Teachers.  To a certain extent, that's what it is, but unfortunately, it also contains a great deal of material on the more religious, non-falsifiable elements of Buddhism.  Others may, of course, welcome this, but my own interests lay in the moral, psychological, and philosophical elements.  Chodron's One Tradition, Many Teachers is among the best expositions of these elements that I have read and having a more readable version that could be recommended to "beginners" would be a real asset.  Unfortunately, Chodron deals with these elements only in the first third (50 pages) of the book.  Still, these pages are well worth recommending.  Most of the remainder will likely strike a critical Western reader as, at best, a anthropological or sociological gloss on the quaint beliefs of a pre-scientific culture.  This is not to say that the remainder does not contain any interesting material.  Indeed, their is a fair share of Buddhist ethics and psychology in the later pages, but it is scatter among discussions of such things as past lives, karma, ritual, and sundry friendly advice on being a Buddhist in a non-Buddhist society.

The scatter-shot character of the work is likely a product of its format.  One hundred and forty-nine pages of text are divided into 21 chapters, and each chapter is composed of answers to questions posed to Chodron by both Westerners and Asian.  A question is first posed as a section heading in bold, followed by usually a three paragraph answer.  In many instances, this provides us with a clear and concise answer to the question.  In other instances, it begs elaboration.  In general, it causes the work to lack a larger, well-developed treatment of Buddhism.

In the end, I would recommend the first 50 pages to beginners, but direct them to her masterful work Buddhism: One Tradition, Many Teachers.  There, here literary style is more demanding, but it is likely accessible to most readers and it certainly pays enormous dividends. 

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