issue 15
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The Life of Buddhism

ed. Frank E Reynolds and Jason A Carbine
University of California Press, 2000
$17.95/£11.50 p/b

A recent trend in the academic study of Buddhism has been a move away from focusing on what Buddhists believe, to considering what they do. For such scholars the object of study has shifted from ancient texts and philosophies to fieldwork meeting real Buddhists and seeing what they get up to. A danger of such an approach is that under the anthropological gaze Buddhists appear as another strange tribe engrossed in their distinctive language games and arcane rituals. Buddhism appears as simply a cultural phenomenon rather than as a source of insight.

There are touches of such reductiveness in The Life of Buddhism, but for the most part it manifests the virtues of meeting real-live Buddhists rather than reading the works of their ancient precursors. It shows many fascinating and unexpected dimensions of Buddhists’ lives including the outbreak of devotional ceremonies in Sri Lanka; the difficulties faced by semi-monastic women practitioners in Myanmar (Burma) and the co-opting of Buddhism’s prestige by that country’s military regime.

The religion portrayed in The Life of Buddhism is more constrained by practicalities, more conditioned by power relations, and less idealised than the doctrinal or textual version. But the portrait is fascinating in its own right.