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The Different Paths of Buddhism

A Narrative-Historical Introduction

Carl Olson

Publication Year: 2005

For centuries, Buddhist teachers and laypeople have used stories, symbols, cultural metaphors, and anecdotes to teach and express their religious views.  In this introductory textbook, Carl Olson draws on these narrative traditions to detail the development of Buddhism from the life of the historical Buddha to the present.  By organizing the text according to the structure of Buddhist thought and teaching, Olson avoids imposing a Western perspective that traditional texts commonly bring to the subject.

            The book offers a comprehensive introduction to the main branches of the Buddhist tradition in both the Mahayana and Theravada schools, including the Madhyamika school, the Yogacara school, Pure Land devotionalism, Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, and village folk Buddhist traditions. Chapters explore the life and teachings of the Buddha in historical context, the early development and institutionalization of Buddhism, its geographic spread across Asia and eventually to the United States, philosophy and ethics, the relationship between monks and laity, political and ethical implications, the role of women in the Buddhist tradition, and contemporary reinterpretations of Buddhism. 

            Drawn from decades of classroom experience, this creative and ambitious textcombines expert scholarship and engaging stories that offer a much-needed perspective to the existing literature on the topic.


Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This book is the outcome of over twenty years of teaching Buddhism on the undergraduate level at large universities and a small liberal arts college in what at times in the winter seems like Tibet. Critics might assert that I should have spent another twenty years working on the subject. I would have to agree, because the Buddhist tradition is very rich, complex, and widespread. It is impossible to do...

Part I: Origins and Historical Development

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Chapter 1: Crows and Monks--Introduction

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pp. 1-20

The early Buddhist tradition is sometimes characterized in the popular imagination of Westerners as somber, serious, austere, and pessimistic. Because of its emphasis on suffering and rejection of the world for a more solitary life of contemplation and meditation, it is understandable how people could arrive at such a characterization. But such a caricature would be incorrect and misleading. ...

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Chapter 2: The Elephant and the Buddha

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pp. 21-42

According to the Jātakamāla of Ārya Sūra (fourth century C.E.), the person known historically as the Buddha was born as an elephant during one of his earlier lifetimes. This huge elephant lived alone like an ascetic (a preview of his later life) in a verdant forest far from human habitation. On a particular day, he heard human voices coming from the direction of the desert area. ...

Part II: Therāvada Philosophy and Practice

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Chapter 3: The Narrative Path of the Buddha

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pp. 45-67

According to the Mahāvagga (1.2–7) of the Vinaya collection of texts, the Buddha meditated on the notion of causation three times in direct and reverse order for a week during the initial period of the four weeks that he meditated at the Bodhi tree. Since the Buddha claimed to teach only what he had personally experienced, this episode from his quest for liberation demonstrates that the notion of causation...

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Chapter 4: Ethical and Political Implications of Buddhist Narratives

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pp. 68-87

Along the tree-lined banks of French Creek in northwestern Pennsylvania there lives an old woman in the small town of Meadville. The old woman lives in a cardboard box that she found in the rear of a local appliance store. This box serves as her home throughout the year; there she sleeps, eats, finds shelter from the natural elements, and spends much of her time. There are some in this community...

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Chapter 5: The Tale of Beggars and Donors

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pp. 88-109

There are a couple of narratives from the Theragāthā (Verses of the Elders) that are very suggestive about the way of life of Buddhist monks. In the first tale, Uttara was the son of an eminent Brahmin, well educated in the Hindu religious tradition and renowned for his breeding, appearance, wisdom, and virtue. Due to his many admirable attributes, a leading minister at the court wanted him...

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Chapter 6: The Feminine Narrative in Buddhism

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pp. 110-122

In a story retold many times, after the establishment of the monastic order the maternal aunt of the Buddha, named Mahāpajātī, approached him about the possibility of creating an order of nuns. Her request was initially refused, so she used an attendant of the Buddha named Ānanda to intervene for her and to press the case for an order of nuns. In pressing the case for women, Ānanda got the Buddha...

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Chapter 7: Stories from Buddhist Villages

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pp. 123-140

If monks and nuns are the royalty of Buddhism, lay people are the foot soldiers that support the royalty. In many introductory surveys of Buddhism, the everyday lives and contributions of the laity are neglected in favor of the monastic viewpoint, with its scholastic traditions and abstract philosophical musings. Throughout this book, I have injected material about the role of the laity where it seemed...

Part III: Major Mahāyāna Movements and Schools

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Chapter 8: The Bodhisattva’s Path to Perfection

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pp. 143-162

While the Buddha was alive, his voice was considered authoritative. When a problem arose with respect to monastic discipline, for instance, his monks would simply turn to him for a ruling. In the formative period, the monastic order recognized the right to schism and protected this right. Even though in principle the intention to create a schism was not condemned by the early tradition...

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Chapter 9: Secret Narratives--Philosophies of Emptiness

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pp. 163-183

According to his biography composed in the Sanskrit language and eventually translated into Chinese by Kumārajīva, a Tripitaka master of the later Qin Dynasty (384–417), Nāgārjuna was born into a Brahmin family in southern India. He was a person with a remarkable memory, very intelligent, and versed in other disciplines: astronomy, geography, divination, prophecy, and other arts and skills. ...

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Chapter 10: Devotional Voices of the Pure Land

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pp. 184-200

Imagine that you awaken in a rich and fertile land, filled with gods and humans who are without evil or pain. There are fragrant odors, various beautiful and exotic birds, sweet sounds, and many lotus flowers. The land is also filled with jewels. There are jewel trees and diamond bodies all over the place. The message of the Buddha is heard everywhere. If you get hungry, you simply wish for a meal. ...

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Chapter 11: Tales of Lamas--Tibetan Buddhism

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pp. 201-224

After rising from the primordial waters, the only inhabitants of the earth were a monkey, who was an incarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokitezvara, and an ogress. The ogress was a creature of uncontrollable emotion and sexual impulses, whereas the monkey was a peaceful and contemplative figure. Because the monkey practiced his meditation alone in a cave, the ogress believed that she was completely alone on the earth, and she wept profusely for a mate. ...

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Chapter 12: The No-Narrative of Seated Meditation--Zen

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pp. 225-244

The origins of Zen Buddhism are obscured in Buddhist lore and legend. But as is common in the religious tradition, this school traces its origins to the historical Buddha. It is possible to find the key narrative in the sixth case of a text entitled the Mumonkan. In this story the Buddha is giving a sermon to a group of people assembled before him. Rather than giving a verbal discourse on this day...

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Chapter 13: New Narratives--Recent Paths of Reform and Revival

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pp. 245-256

From the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, the most important external influence on Buddhism was colonialism and Western domination of traditional Buddhist lands. In the island nation of Sri Lanka, for instance, the British rulers introduced economic, educational, and religious changes. From an economic perspective, the British introduction of a plantation economy and its commerce...


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pp. 257-259


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pp. 261


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pp. 263-283


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pp. 285-291

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About the Author

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pp. 293

PROFESSOR CARL OLSON has taught at Allegheny College since 1981. The college has appointed him to the National Endowment for the Humanities Chair (1991–1994), Teacher-Scholar Professorship of the Humanities (2000–2003), and chairperson. During 2002, he was appointed to a Visiting Fellowship Clare Hall...

E-ISBN-13: 9780813537788
E-ISBN-10: 0813537789
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813535616

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2005