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  • Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience
  • David L. McMahan
Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. By Donald W. Mitchell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. xvi + 368. Hardcover $55.00. Paper $26.95.

The teacher of courses on Buddhism now has an unprecedented number of high-quality introductory texts from which to select, many of which have just been published or revised in the past few years. Thus, the problem becomes which to choose. Donald W. Mitchell's Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience should be [End Page 268] among the first choices, especially if the course focuses on the doctrinal and textual elements of Buddhism. Those looking for rich descriptions of Buddhism on the ground or detailed analyses of living traditions, however, will either look elsewhere or supplement Mitchell's text with others.

The organization of Buddhism is fairly typical of the genre. After an introduction, the chapters are: "The Life of Gautama Buddha," "The Teachings of the Buddha," "The Way of the Elders," "The Great Vehicle," "The Indian Experience of Buddhism," "The Tibetan Experience of Buddhism," "The Chinese Experience of Buddhism," "The Korean Experience of Buddhism," "The Japanese Experience of Buddhism," "Modern Buddhism in Asia," and "Buddhism in the West." Also included are some photographs, maps, a pronunciation guide, and a glossary. The book also features twenty-two boxes with short writings, often autobiographical, by modern Buddhists elucidating some feature of their own understanding or experience of their tradition. Among these are writings by well-known Asian Buddhists such as the Dalai Lama, Dharma Master Sheng Yen, and Sulak Sivaraksa; Western Buddhist teachers like Robert Aitken and Sylvia Boorstein; and scholar-practitioners like Jeffrey Hopkins, Rita Gross, and Kenneth Kenshin Tanaka. Although brief, they successfully bring to life the practice of Buddhism from various inside perspectives.

The strongest parts of the text are the explications of Indian Buddhism as presented in sūtras and other primary sources. Here Mitchell presents surprisingly (for an introductory text) rich accounts of the Pāli suttas, Mahāyāna sūtras, and the various philosophical schools. He stays close to the texts and offers coherent accounts of main doctrines, accessible yet nuanced and peppered liberally with quotations from primary sources. Of particular interest is an extended treatment of Buddhaghosa's Visuddhi-magga and accounts of the main themes of important Mahāyāna sūtras: the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras, the Vimalakīrti Sūtra, the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, the Lotus Sūtra, and the Sukhāvatī-vyūha Sūtra.

The chapters on Tibetan and East Asian Buddhism do not—and, in the limited space allotted, could not—maintain the level of detail provided in the chapters on Indian traditions. Indeed, it seems inevitable that introductory texts must give a sometimes tedious list of schools and figures when addressing these geographical areas. In Mitchell's book, however, even these chapters feature accounts of certain doctrines that go beyond those of most introductory texts. The chapter on Chinese Buddhism, for example, introduces in some depth the intricacies of Ch'ih-i's T'ient'ai doctrine, the visionary extravagance of the Hua-yen school, and the poetic subtleties of Hui-neng's explication of Ch'an in the Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch.

The book's richness in the presentation of doctrines and texts does exact a certain cost in historical nuance. While an introductory text cannot afford space for too much scholarly debate, some historians of Buddhism will likely find unsatisfactory the distinction presented in the introduction between the "vast array of Buddhist religious cultural forms" and its "profound spiritual quest" or "the more fundamental depths of Buddhist experiences" (p. 1). Such language, although widespread, perpetuates the "core philosophy and practice"-versus-"culturally accumulated baggage" [End Page 269] picture of Buddhism constructed by early western Buddhologists, implicitly suggesting that scholars can extract this original tradition from later cultural accretions. Thus, while Mitchell is by no means uncritical in his analysis of traditional historical claims, he sometimes blurs distinctions between these claims and those which can be verified by critical historical study. He presents, for example, a concise account of the scholarly debates surrounding the rise of...


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