issue 18 spring 02
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The Story of Buddhism

A Concise Guide to its History and Teachings

Donald S. Lopez

HarperSanFranscisco 2001; $25/£17.65 p/b

Written by a renowned Buddhologist, The Story of Buddhism is a sophisticated overview, particularly emphasising Buddhism's diversity in practice. In his introduction Lopez summarises approaches to his task that he has opted not to follow. He does not, for instance, give a philosophical account of the evolution of Buddhist doctrines nor attempt to present a coherent historical narrative. He points out that writing a single book called The Story of Buddhism would, until recently, not have been a very 'Buddhist' undertaking. For there have been many times and places when particular Buddhist schools have found each other mutually unintelligible in both their theory and practice.

This is a salutary thought, since Buddhism is often regarded as a single world. Lopez doesn't so much reject this claim as show the problematic nature of demonstrating in what the unity of Buddhism consists. Not only, says Lopez, is Buddhism always changing but the actual process of characterising and reviewing Buddhism changes it. So, while aspiring to avoid the errors and prejudices of the past, he recognises that his work is a product of a time when scholarly interest has begun to focus more on Buddhist practice than on Buddhist philosophy; more on the local manifestations of Buddhist themes than on global overviews; and more on ritual than on doctrine.

Primarily, Lopez approaches Buddhism 'as a religion to which ordinary people have turned over the centuries for the means to confront, control, or even escape the exigencies of life'. The task he sets himself is to describe the various activities in which Buddhists have engaged with reference to their doctrinal background, rather than to evaluate their credibility.

Refreshingly, the book is organised according to a traditional Buddhist teaching: the Three Jewels. The first chapter signals the approach that is to follow by offering an overview of Buddhist cosmology, a subject often glossed over by accounts of Buddhism that present the subject historically. Already we are invited to perceive the Buddha and the development of his teachings within a mythic-imaginative rather than a purely historical framework. This enables Lopez to give