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A Short History of Buddhism.

Studies in Comparative Religion in Oxford are heavily dependent upon the 'J. Estlin Carpenter' Collecton at Manchester College (chiefly donated between 1921 and 1927) and the works donated to Lady Margaret Hall in 1946, in memory of J. G. Jennings (1866-1941). Both of these invaluable archives are rich in materials about Buddhism, whose common ground with Christianity -- particularly its tenets of pacifism, reverence for life, meditation, and monasticism -- has over the last half-century been increasingly recognized, despite (or perhaps because of) the consumerism of the contemporary societies of the West. We have largely inherited from the nineteenth century our Western understandings of Buddhism -- for example, from the poet and orientalist, Sir Edwin Arnold (1832-1904), author of the pioneering work The Light of Asia (1879) -- but it is widely acknowledged now that before 1945, and the end of the Second World War, what we knew in England about Buddhism was not only too academic, but it also involved frequent misunderstandings about Buddhist terminology, which lost a lot in its various translations. The atomic catastrophes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, releasing indescribable death and destruction, led to a revival of Buddhism in Japan, organized by the influential 'Soka Gakkai', led by a 'muscular Buddhist' named Daisaku Ikeda. This movement for reconciliation between East and West, based in Japan, was well supported by the learning of the historian, Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975), who visited Japan to lecture in Kyoto and Tokyo on two separate occasions: in 1956 and 1967. Japanese Buddhism, in particular, has thus been publicized in the West: a curious benefit, arising out of the horrors of war. But Buddhist 'Enlightenment' in general -- whether emanating territorially from Japan, Tibet, or Ceylon -- has, since 1945, spread quite remarkably in the West, fostered by such books about it as that of the English barrister, Christmas Humphreys. It seems to have found favour in the West, in proportion as the West has lost its spiritual bearings, obsessed by materialism and by commercial competition, much as in Asia the pressures on Buddhism have been those of Marxism and of Communism. At any rate, the West in recent years has accepted, more than ever before, the religious insights of the East; and Buddhism is by far the most important and conspicuous of these. Although we have in English a rich diversity of rather learned books about Buddhism, we have hitherto lacked a brief, up-to-date and lucid description of Buddhism for our Western purposes and insights. This is invaluable, in order to deepen spirituality of any sort; and whether in West or East. Edward Conze is no stranger to professed British students of Buddhism: books by him on the subject have been coming out since the 1950s. The work now under review is a convenient and most readable summary of this distinguished author's lifetime of knowledge and perception on the subject.

Perhaps its most remarkable feature is its easy combination of history and doctrine about Buddhism, minimizing the complexities of schism and division of the true Buddhist legacy. So we may find here in potted but reliable form an historical tradition, which is even older than that of Christianity. Buddhism in Asia has so far persisted for about 2,500 years; although during that long period it has undergone profound and radical changes. Within the twentieth century, especially, it has stood up to driving forces of modernity, which have tested to the fullest its spiritual resources, and yet, for the most part, these have not been found wanting: as in Tibet under Communist China, or in Ceylon under the threat of Hindu aggression from the Tamils.

As the strongholds of Buddhism have been destroyed one by one in Asia, Buddhism seems to have been re-invigorated in the West. Even Western Capitalism has become receptive to it. Comparative religion, within the Christian ethos, has also fostered its study and appreciation. Active Buddhist societies have sprung up in many Western countries, including Britain. Buddhist influences in Europe today exist on various levels: the academic, the philosophical, and the popular. It must be chiefly for the popular that Edward Conze has written this wholly admirable and highly instructive little book. Its small size disguises alike its profound learning and its comprehensive coverage. It certainly deserves a wide and observant readership in Britain, and it helps greatly to elucidate for British readers what may still seem to be rather a difficult and erudite subject.

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Author:Glasgow, Eric
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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