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The Story of Buddhism: A Concise Guide to Its History & Teachings Hardcover – June 5, 2001

4.1 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Much of what we hear about Buddhism today in the West focuses on its philosophy, and how it can change one's life. Throughout history, however, Buddhism's mythology, scriptures, heroes, and its promise for salvation from rebirth have been the Buddhist teachings that most people have known. Religion professor Donald Lopez has mastered a good deal of this immense lore and managed with The Story of Buddhism to get it into a manageable package. Rather than providing a chronological history or country-by-country breakdown, Lopez explores general topics, meandering through two-and-a-half millennia, from India to Japan. In sections such as "Monastic Life," "Tantra," and "Pilgrimage," he talks about the origins of each topic and its mainstream manifestations. In addition, he spices up his work with delectable, if occasionally bizarre, examples from specific cultures. There is, for instance, the story of the depraved man who, once having said the words "Lotus Sutra," was saved from Hell. And the tale of the practice called the "act of truth," in which a perfectly candid statement can have magical powers. Or the story of the monk who attempted to rescue some maggots by opening his own flesh for them. No doubt, Buddhism is interesting, but it takes a competent scholar and a good storyteller to get it just right. Lopez fills the bill. --Brian Bruya

From Publishers Weekly

Lopez, a professor of Buddhist studies at the University of Michigan, says that his primary aim for this book is "to focus on Buddhist practice as a religion." Unlike more superficial how-to books on Buddhism, this book gives a thorough historical and theological explanation of Buddhism's major tenets, starting with Buddhist cosmology and then moving to chapters dedicated to the Three Jewels of Buddhism (the Buddha, dharma and sangha) before ending with a chapter on enlightenment. Interspersed are anecdotes intended to teach key principles in keeping with the idea of Buddhism-as-story; unfortunately, these vignettes are a bit overpowered by lengthy discourse on the history and interpretations of those principles. The bulk of the chapter on "lay practice," for example, focuses on various countries' traditions of lay ordination and funeral rituals, as well as monasteries' relations with their respective states, rather than explicating actual daily lay practice. In trying to explain not only Buddhism's key teachings but also their variations by country, region, teacher and school, the text loses focus. Lopez provides a list for further reading at the end of each chapter as well as a bibliography and glossary at the end of the book, which should be helpful for the student of world religions. His command of the subject is obvious, but his prose is sometimes dry, and the scope may be overly ambitious for the general reader.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: HarperOne; lst ed edition (June 5, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060699760
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060699765
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #678,655 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Robin Friedman HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 17, 2003
Format: Paperback
Donald Lopez, a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan, is one of the best scholars who attempt to present a balanced, accurate picture of Buddhism as it has been practiced over the generations. His book "The Story of Buddhism" considers the actual practice of Buddhism, in all its diverse forms, in Asia, superstitions, magic, idiosyncracies, and all. In this way, it differs from most books that present Buddhism to Americans. These books typically focus on meditation, on the liberating, non-theistic character of the Buddha's teaching, and of Buddhism as a guide to life in the difficulties of secular 20th and 21st century America. Such works are valuable and important, but they fail to give the reader a historical sense of Buddhism.
Lopez's book opens with a short treatment of Buddhist cosmology, including its picture of the universe, the earth, and the heavens and hells. There is an all-to-brief discussion of the key Buddhist teaching of Dependent Origination.
The chapter on cosmology is followed by a discussion of the life of the Buddha, taken from a wide variety of textual sources, of the Dharma, Monasticism, Lay Life, and Enlightenment.
The focus of the book is on the various schools of Mahayana Buddhism and on the Buddhism of Tibet. I found surprisingly little discussion of Theravada Buddhism, (practiced historically in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand) which is likely the earliest version of Buddhism we have today. Lopez describes well how various Mahayana thinkers broke away from earlier teachings but doesn't tell us much about these early teachings themselves.
There is a great deal of emphasis in the book on how the Buddha's teaching was applied and modified over the years.
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Format: Hardcover
Lopez is the most objective scholar writing accessible books on Buddhism. This particular book is an even-handed overview of Buddhist history, beliefs and practices. If you only are interested in the "adapted for modern Western audiences" version of Buddhism that is found in most books, then you might not be interested in this. But, if you are interested in an historical view that attempts to date, for example, when and where and by whom various sutras were written, when (and to some extent why) the mahayana school developed, and in general how Buddhism developed and has been taught and practiced in various places, then this book is for you. I also recommend Lopez's Prisoners of Shangri-La (if you want a more inside, critical understanding of Tibetan Buddhism).
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Format: Hardcover
Donald Lopez is one of our best scholars of Buddhism, and I wouldn't begin to presume to question his factual grasp of the the history of the dharma or the life and teachings of the Buddha. What's more, he brings to bear a healthy secular perspective on Buddhist studies which goes missing in many of his colleague`s efforts. It has been all too easy for many of us, looking through New Age eyes for something to replace our recently lost inherited faiths, to fall mindlessly in love with the spiritual dispensations of the local Zen master or Tibetan Lama. Alas, few if any of us begin to understand the great cultural distances separating us from the foundational meanings and philosophical presuppositions of Zen or Vajrayana or Theravadan meditation and thought. Mr. Lopez's book is a good way to begin to understand the everyday practices of the dharma in its native lands - ritual, myth, unbridled superstition, etc.. This isn't American Buddhism (beat or square) in Greenwich Village or Zen archery in the northern Vermont hills. Unfortunately, it's not the whole picture or the real story of Buddhsim, either. For one thing, I wonder if His Holiness the Dalai Lama would recognize his understanding of the Dharma here; or if MahaGhosananda, the great peacemaker of Cambodia, would find anything approaching his understanding of loving-kindness in these pages. I think not. And this is the great failing of Mr. Lopez's otherwise good book: it is not a good reading of the compassionate spirit and transcendent wisdom of the Dharma, and, therefore, not a book I would recommend to persons looking for a way to begin to understand the Buddha's teachings. Too many central teachings receive too little attention (interdependent causation, for example), and the gentleness and probing insight of living Buddhist exemplars seems all but lost on Mr. Lopez (who knows them all). I was looking for more and I came away disappointed. Still, I learned a lot. For when Mr. Lopez is good, he is very, very good.
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Format: Hardcover
Most bookstore books on Buddhism seem to be of the inspirational -- "how to make your personal problems better through Buddhism" -- sort. I've been looking for a Religious Studies type book on Buddhism. I've read a couple D.T. Suzuki books like that on Zen Buddhism, but THE STORY OF BUDDHISM here is the first single critical/historical text I've found on the subject of The Whole Buddhist Thing.
I agree with the earlier review titled "Not The Best Introduction" that the text glosses over a lot of issues that could really benefit from more explanation. The author blazes through the 5 Aggregates of Attachment and the 4 Noble Truths in about as many pages. Zen gets a whole 7 pages. There's actually more stuff in my encyclopedia on Nagarjuna, the Void school, and the Yogacara school than I could find here.
I suppose that's what happens when you try to compress such a vast subject into a 250 page discussion. For me, the book was a memory-refresher on the few subjects I already knew something about, but not a good explanation of unfamiliar material. There's a helpful glossary at the end of the book, however.
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