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Buddha A Beginners Guide Paperback – December 10, 2008

4 out of 5 stars 28 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Revising his 1996 illustrated primer, Asma (The Gods Drink Whiskey) explores the key tenets of Buddhism in the style of a graphic novel. A sparse text punctuated by extensive illustrations—some cartoonlike and others more serious and detailed—describes Siddhartha Gautamas enlightenment, what the Buddha taught and how Buddhism developed as the Buddhas followers encountered various Asian cultures. Asma, a professor of philosophy at Chicagos Columbia College, argues that Buddhist ideas are deeply misunderstood in the West, and he distinguishes these from Buddhist culture. Placing Buddhism in the context of Hindu philosophy, Asma explores the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the five aggregates, the concept of no-self and other ideas critical to this Asian religion. He liberally references specific Hindu and Buddhist scriptures and tackles such tricky subjects as how reincarnation can occur if an immortal self doesnt exist. Asma also briefly touches on the role of women as Buddhism developed. His take on which current forms hold closest to the Buddhas teachings may provoke disagreement from some practitioners. This brief, irreverent tour of Buddhism and the sometimes humorous, sometimes grotesque, illustrations wont be to all tastes; the book includes adult images. (Jan.) 
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Stephen T. Asma is a professor of philosophy at Columbia College, Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of several books, including The Gods Drink Whiskey and Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Hampton Roads Pub Co; Revised & enlarged edition (January 9, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1571745955
  • ISBN-13: 978-1571745958
  • Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 6 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,016,017 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on March 27, 1999
Format: Paperback
Stephen, in this remarkable book, is able to portray both Buddha and his message with great beauty and vividness. While it is extremely suited for a beginner, anyone interested in Buddha will find this slim book a pleasure to read. Despite the author's "absolutist" presentation of Nagarjuna's views (perhaps Stephen is a fan of the likes of Prof. Murti and Ed. Conze) and a rather unsatisfactory treatment of the other prevailing philosophies of the land (now I am nitpicking), it is an outstanding book for its intended readers and an excellent one for everyone.
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Mr. Asma treats his subject matter with a wit and irreverance that makes for very entertaining reading. However, he shows his respect for the teachings of Buddhism by referring to the writing of Siddhartha himself, rather than rely on many of the myths and misinformation that have been disseminated about the life and teachings of the "historical" Buddha.
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For all those who want a general idea on Buddhism:
This book is a MUST. If you are interested in Buddhism, this book gives all the beginning information you need. It tells the life and history of Siddhartha, making it easier to understand his actions by providing a general outline of the religions followed at the time. Even for old hands, this book provides an interesting crash course in what Buddhism was meant to mean.
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Over 2,500 years ago in northern India, a nobleman named Siddhartha Gautama approached the question of suffering not so much as a religionist, but rather as a psychologist, seeking in the mind the cause and effect of our existential discomfort. He brushed aside the question of diety as unknowable, and placed the responsibility for transcendence squarely in the hands of the individual. It was perhaps unfortunate but inevitable that he would attract disciples who would formulate a canon of teachings, a canon which would gather accretions, accompanying rituals, and a bewildering metaphysical heirarchy of divinities and high spiritual realms. As Buddhism, the teachings of Gautama Buddha (the "awakened one") spread, it took on the baggage of local beliefs, from Daoist magical practices in China to the highly ritualised and diety-heavy aspects of Bon Lamaism in Tibet.

Stephen Astma's Buddha for Beginners does, indeed, start from the beginning, retelling the story of Gautama after carefully placing it in the context of the Indian religious philosophies from which it arose. Asma plays it pretty close, sticking with the Hinayana/Theravada tradition which takes its inspiration from the Pali Canon, the collection of texts compiled some centuries after the death of the Buddha. Admirably, in a book published by a press with a deep investment in New Age metaphysics, he points out the discontinuities between early Buddhism and later sects such as Tibetan Buddhism and the "Pure Land" and Zen sects of Japan (not to disparage these sects, which have their own advantages and disadvantages) as well as the ill conceived co-option of Buddhism by flakey New Age types as window dressing for their conspicuous spirituality.
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Asma has created a great introduction to not only the historical Buddha, but also to his teachings. It's written in easily understandable language and he covers as much as he can, as throuroughly as he can, and in as small amout of space as he can. The illustrations do not distract, detract, nor make fun of Buddha. I highly recommend this book, not just to those interested in Buddhism or Buddha, but to anyone with an interest in philosophy, theology, or spirituality.
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On the West Coast (US), it's not hard to find many new and used books about Buddhism, but this one stood out as being particularly accessible, lighthearted, and earnest. After reading half of it while browsing some weeks ago, I found it in another bookstore and bought it. The author spent a little time in particular on the role of women, which I appreciated.
*Highly* recommended for anyone interested in a crash course on Buddhism and its many schools.
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This book is concise, accurate and funny. It's distinguished from other books on Buddhism by not bogging down in terminology or taking itself too seriously. I found the summaries of the various schools to be right on and well balanced.
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First, I just want to say that Asma does an admirable job of explaining complex ideas in accessible language.

I just want to amplify the concerns of a previous reviewer who noted Asma's mischaracterizations of the later evolutions of Buddhism. Asma subscribes to a view that is no longer prevalent among Buddhist scholars that Mahayana Buddhism is a perversion of the Buddha's intent, and that the doctrine of emptiness is mystical mumbo jumbo about the ineffable nature of the absolute.

While there may be some Buddhists out there who teach emptiness in this way, it is not representative of traditional Mahayana teachings. In fact, the reliance on reason and investigation are essential to the Mahayana path, and emptiness is a doctrine that expresses Buddhist selflessness in a more systematic and far-reaching way.

The portrayal of the Buddha as a kind of transhistorical figure, with mystical elements in his life story, is also not unique to the Mahayana. The Pali scriptures that Asma primarily relies on are full of such references. Thus, his description of the Buddha's teachings, while intelligent and fun to read, is nonetheless partial and biased.

For a more complete picture of the teachings of the Buddha in the Pali scriptures, you should check out "In the Buddha's Words," edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi.
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