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Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations (The Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices) 2nd Edition

14 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0415356534
ISBN-10: 0415356539
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Editorial Reviews


‘The publication of Paul Williams’ Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations in 1989 was a milestone in the development of Buddhist Studies, being the first truly comprehensive and authoritative attempt to chart the doctrinal landscape of Mahayana Buddhism in its entirety. Previous scholars like Edward Conze and Etienne Lamotte had set themselves this daunting task, but it had proved beyond them. Williams not only succeeded in finishing the job, but did it so well that his book has remained the primary work on the subject, and the textbook of choice for teachers of university courses on Buddhism, for 20 years. It is still unrivalled. This makes a second edition all the more welcome. Williams has extensively revised and updated the book in the light of the considerable scholarship published in this area since 1989, at the same time enlarging many of his thoughtful discussions of Mahayana Buddhist philosophical issues. The result is a tour de force of breadth and depth combined. I confidently expect that Williams’ richly detailed map of this field will remain for decades to come an indispensable guide to all those who venture into it.’ - Paul Harrison, Stanford University, USA

About the Author

Paul Williams is Professor of Indian and Tibetan Philosophy and Co-director of the Centre for Buddhist Studies at the University of Bristol. The author of six books and an editor of a further eight, he is a former President of the UK Association for Buddhist Studies. Among his other books for Routledge is Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition (2000).


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Product Details

  • Series: The Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices
  • Paperback: 456 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge; 2 edition (August 31, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415356539
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415356534
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #228,000 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

61 of 63 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 20, 2000
Format: Paperback
Mr. Williams has done a fantastic job of clearly and effectively laying down the foundations of the Mahayana movement. This movement, arguably the most colorful of the incarnations of Buddhist thought and theory, has a convoluted past, and Mr. Williams has expertly shown the reader the origins of the Mahayana and the origins of modern Buddhism. The only criticism that would in any way deter the reader from thinking this work to be one of the definitive in the doctrine is William's unfortunate tendency to mix his opinions which are for the most part religiously based, with philosophical quandries. Mr. Williams is the European Secretary for the International Association of Buddhist Studies, and I feel as such his opinion surfaces on several issues, most notably in the chapter on the Saddharmapundarika Sutra. The educated reader, or at least the reader able to assimilate William's position, can, however, easily overcome the minor references to academia based on faith rather than empirical knowledge. All minor biases aside, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations is a superior work when compared to many mainstream texts used in Buddhist study, which tend to be more esoteric, or treat only specific facets of the huge diaspora that spawned Buddhist practice in so many countries. Mr. Williams has produced a great work of fantastic merit in regards to understanding Mahayana Buddhism, and should be lauded for his work which makes, in my humble opinion, a stupendous read.
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40 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Alan B. Cicco on March 3, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I found this book extremely helpful on mutiple levels. Beyond the fact that Mahayana Buddhism suffers from a lack of cohesive literature combined, Williams counters this problem in his gathering of doctrine and his own insight on the history, evolution, and spread of Mahayana. He shows great detail to the evolution of each "school" and how it was affected by the geographic, ethnic, and cultural environments that fomred each branches specifics.
A historical paper trail is fomed for many of the major works attributed to Mahayanist thought, so that we see roots formed. This grants immense clearity to many misunderstanding about certain school ideologies that might appear completely unrelated until all the details are shown within Williams book.
Although there are no actual sutras translated, the book is a perfect starting point for philosophies, history, and a listing of many of the great Mahayana sutras, which one could then find available to start forming an actual library for practice and reference.
As a Priest in the Pure Land tradition and trained in both Mahayana and Theravadin, this book stands apart in my findings of authors that spread knowledge in quanity and quality instead of minute chunks for only lineage lip service.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Melinda McAdams on January 1, 2009
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After a few years of practicing Buddhism and reading Dharma books, I am reading this as my first scholarly text, and I'm very impressed by it. It certainly is NOT an introduction for beginners, but Williams is careful to include just enough explanation to keep me reading without feeling a need to resort to Wikipedia (heh!).

His footnotes (endnotes) are amazing -- the book proper is only 266 pages, followed by 121 pages of endnotes. I'm skipping most of these, but when I do dip into them, I'm even more impressed by Williams's unusual ability to stick to a central idea and successfully separate out the interesting surrounding ideas (which need not muddy up the main text).

I also appreciate his ability to steer clear of Western philosophy. He is presenting the history, central texts and teachings, and disputes of the Mahayana with well-focused discipline. He does this with clarity, occasional stunning insights, and sometimes even a touch of humor! (I especially like it when he refers to "old and basic" ideas of Buddhism; he seems to have a particularly good sense of his audience for this book.)

It's very nice to get a sense of how certain issues were divisive (or not) without being lost in excessive detail about each and every school's (or lineage's) take on the matter. That is not to say Williams is treating the subject superficially but rather another indication of his clear focus.

Don't consider this book if you know very little about Buddhism at present. But if you are well-grounded in the teachings and have some idea of the "place" of Mahayana, and you want to experience an academic approach to the subject, this book will not disappoint you.

P.S. I'm reading (more than halfway through) the new second edition.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Craig Shoemake on November 24, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As the back of the book will tell you, the 1989 publication of this work's first edition made quite a stir and, I quote, "It is still unrivalled." Indeed, it has become a foundational text for courses on Mahayana Buddhism at the university level, and since almost two decades of burgeoning scholarship in the field had passed, a second edition was considered necessary.

I can say this much: it is quite a book. If you are smitten with a lust for all things Mahayana--its history, people, practices, and philosophies--look no further. In fact, this book may even cure you of your unwholesome desires. What I mean is that the page count does not give you any idea of what you're getting into.

By the numbers: 438 total pages; 266 pages of main text; 122 pages of end notes; 32 pages of bibliography. You can do the math for the rest. Every page is dense with names, dates, terms, unpronounceable sutra titles (if you can actually say Bodhisattvagocaropayavishayavikurvananirdesha Sutra you must already be enlightened) and who knows what else. And just look at the notes to main text pages ratio: 0.46! I scrounged around my shelves, where I have a great many scholarly books on a wide array of topics, but could find nothing comparable. Even Bhikkhu Bodhi's monumental translation of the Samyutta Nikaya clocked in at an anemic 0.25. Usually I'm an assiduous reader of notes (though I confess to loathing endnotes--why oh why did the publishing industry quit on footnotes??), but this time I just gave up. Many of the end notes are so lengthy by the time you finish one you've forgotten where you were on the main page. All of which leads me to my chief complaint about Williams' opus:

Loss of control.
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