Buddhism: A Short History Paperback – Mar 1 2000
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'Clear, precise, informed and comprehensive.' - Middle Way 'A lucid and reliable introduction to Buddhism.' - Times Higher Education Supplement
About the Author
Edward Conze studied Indian and comparative philosophy at the universities of Bonn and Hamburg. He later lectured in psychology, philosophy and comparative religion at Oxford, held a number of academic appointments and served as Vice-President of the Buddhist Society. His many books include Buddhist Texts Through the Ages (Oneworld, 1995).
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
After a half-century Conze still has important ideas to clarify for us and is well worth a re-read.
Here are some quotations from this posthumously published 1980 book (NOTE: page numbers refer to the 154-page 1993 Oneworld edition):
"The division of Buddhist history into periods of 500 years does not only agree with the facts, but it is mentioned in many Buddhist writings dating from the beginning of the Christian era. These five periods of 500 years are enumerated as marking the continued degradation of the doctrine." (Pg. 5)
"Some modern European books abound in confident assertions about what the Buddha Himself has personally taught. They are all mere guesswork. The 'original gospel' is beyond our ken now. The farthest we can get back in time is the period when the community split up into separate sects." (Pg. 9)
"Little attempt was made to weave all these stories into one consecutive biography (of Buddha). At present we are not in a position to decide which ones of them are trustworthy historical information and which ones are the pious inventions of a later age." (Pg. 20-21)
"Our Hinayana sources ... were practically incredulous of all these innovations (by the Mahayana sect) and they refused to take seriously the claim that the new Mahayana works gave the Buddha's actual words. In fact they rejected these works as just so many 'concoctions' and unworthy of serious consideration." (Pg. 54)
"Unlike the early Mahayanists, the Tantric authors no longer link their scriptures with Sakymuni, but frankly assign them to some mythical Buddha who is said to have preached them at some remote and distant past." (Pg. 77)
"What had of course happened was that in the course of 1,700 years of co-existence the Hindus had taken over a great deal from the Buddhists and the Buddhists likewise from the Hindus. In consequence the division between them had increasingly diminished and it was no great thing for a Buddhist to be absorbed into the largely Buddhified Hindu fold." (Pg. 109)
"In Japan our industrial age has put a premium on those sects, Zen, Shin and Nichiren, which have most radically departed from tradition." (Pg. 143)
Conze breaks down his narrative into four parts, the first three 500 year segments, and the last millennium. This is useful in tracking the history of Buddhism within India and as it spread across South, Southeast, and East Asia. He provides a helpful gloss on the early divisions in Buddhism (especially Mahayana and what became Theravada), as well as the schools that developed further in China and Japan. He doesn't bore you with too much detail, and I found it much more helpful than Skilton or Lopez's histories, although those are deeper in philosophy.
One point he makes repeatedly is that there are times when Buddhism "loses it's creative impulse" - I guess I would take issue with this. Certainly there are periods of decay and decline in all of the countries examined, but also renewal and reinvigoration. We are in the midst of a resurgence now, and the integration with neurosciences and psychology has just begun. I think it's an exciting time. I also disagree that innovation necessarily is a sign of vigor. There are many traditions which still compel though they haven't changed for centuries, because the human spirit still faces the same challenges. Buddhism certainly speaks to those challenges.