Monday, 5 November 2007

Book Review: Basic Teachings of the Buddha by Glenn Wallis

I found this book by chance in the Buddhist section of Borders bookshop. From the title, I assumed it was one of the many introductions to Buddhism that tend to inhabit the shelves of such shops - and indeed I imagine that the purchasers at Borders assumed the same thing. But, in that respect the title is misleading, for although the author indeed focuses on a few suttas from Pali Canon which he considers to define the fundamentals, this is not ordinary introduction aimed at the casual reader.

Wallis is an associate professor of religion at Georgia and has a PhD in Sanskrit and Indian Studies from Harvard. The book he has written cuts through cliched translations of Buddhist terminology and popular assumtions of what practicing the dharma means, revealing the Buddha's teachings as a highly rational and pragmatic methodology based on direct, empirical, personal experience.

I didn't find myself convinced by every one of Professor Wallis' interpretations. For example, there is a passage from the Tevijja Sutta, in which two Brahman's ask the Buddha which is the direct path to communion with God, and Buddha refutes the notion that the 'religious authorities' know such a path, instructs them in the way of the dharma and tells them that this is the path to communion with God. Wallis interprets this as a refutation of the very idea of God and infatuation with it. But I see nothing supporting that in the text. Instead it seems to me, an example of the provisionality of the teaching of the dharma, of teaching not in absolute terms of fact, but in terms what can be understood by the listener and what will aid the listener in awakening - he taught in terms of 'God' because that was the language and the conceptual system being used by the Brahmans.

Nevertheless, this is a highly insightful and refreshing read - a must for every progressive Buddhist.

4.5 Stars

1 comment:

  1. Here's an interview with the man should anybody still be interested in the SNB project.