- Key Concepts in Eastern Philosophy
For the professional philosopher not trained in non-Western traditions, quick and concise references to the issues and major figures in Eastern philosophy are difficult to come by. This is probably due, in part, to the difficulty of writing a book that covers the broad spectrum of Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Islamic accounts of philosophy. Oliver Leaman's Key Concepts in Eastern Philosophy provides a quick reference guide for students of Eastern thought as well as those with no knowledge of Eastern philosophical traditions. Leaman understands that any short guide will involve hard choices about what to include, and he admits up front that not all issues and figures from Eastern philosophy are present in his work. The back cover indicates that the book includes concepts from Zoroastrianism, Sufism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Islam, Shintoism, and Buddhism.
The book is organized alphabetically, addressing key concepts, movements, and figures from these traditions. Leaman uses bold type to indicate terms that are cross-referenced in the text, and this style keeps each entry short, since any unexplained key term can be looked up elsewhere in the text. In most cases, the key figures in a tradition or concept are indicated, so the reader gains a quick summary of the issue. In almost all of the entries, no dates for movements or major figures are given, which makes it a bit tough for the reader unfamiliar with Eastern philosophy to discern whether an ancient or contemporary figure or movement is being outlined. Since it is clear from the relative number of entries that the book is most concerned with the Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, and Chinese philosophical traditions, a breakdown along these lines provides a clear format for review.
With regard to Buddhism, the book does an admirable job explaining some of the most notoriously difficult aspects of the tradition. There are clear and concise accounts of the Abhidharma school, the figure of the bodhisattva, and the issue of causation in Buddhist thought. In particular, the book's exposition of Nāgārjuna and [End Page 389] the Madhyamaka school is very lucid, and Nāgārjuna's account of emptiness (and the necessity for the student to "empty" the idea of emptiness) is explained in a manner accessible to even a novice student of Buddhist philosophy. Yet although the book does a fine job with some of the intricacies of Buddhist thought, it offers problematic summaries of some other basic ideas of the tradition. For example, consciousness is not identified as one the five skandhas in the entry on consciousness. The entry on Nirvāṇa defines this key concept primarily as an emotional state (the n"highest possible level of happiness"), without indicating anywhere that it serves as the goal of the tradition (in part) because the individual who has achieved Nirvāa is not reborn into the cycle of birth-death-rebirth. And in the entries involving Zen, the only classical figure cited in any detail is Dōgen, and Dōgen's account is often presented in a confusing and contradictory fashion. For example, in the entry on Japanese philosophy, Leaman asserts (incorrectly) that Dōgen believes that enlightenment comes about through a gradual process that is facilitated by zazen (sitting meditation). Yet in the entry on Zen, he correctly outlines Dōgen's nondualist perspective, where everything already is Buddha-Nature; thus the dualism of means/ends is mistaken, as is the belief that practice of any sort will help us "acquire" enlightenment.
Finally, all of the references to Nichiren, the medieval Japanese Buddhist, focus only on his views regarding the acceptability of violence toward other types of Buddhism, and they neglect to mention any other salient aspects of his thought. Although it is startling to see that a Buddhist could advocate violence toward those who do not share his view of Buddhism (the reasons are briefly outlined), it does not do Nichiren's thought justice to focus only on this aspect of his philosophy.
The vastness of the Hindu tradition can pose a problem for...