Aha! I'm always looking for a bargain, and The World of Buddhism is probably as close as I have come. True to the cliche that books cannot be judged by their covers, this large, handsomely produced volume actually delivers more than one expects -- and in many more ways. Miraculously, its cost is significantly less than its ample size and elegant format could probably justify.
I was first attracted to World of Buddhism's many striking pictures and detailed drawings, maps and illustrations. They turn out to have been chosen with exceptional care and sensitivity to the subject, not simply to entertain the casual browser. Some of the resulting images are stunning, greatly enhance the text, and make a powerful impression on the eye, the mind and the spirit.
I also happen to be deeply interested in Buddhism and everything about it. This book has proven to be nearly encyclopedic in scope, pays due heed to all sorts of different schools, sects, denominations and traditions within Buddhism, and can basically be relied on as a comparatively comprehensive survey of the topic. I frequently consult its index and glossary.
Best of all, though books which purport to survey such a broad range of ideas -- and especially those with such sensational illustrations -- sometimes contain only superficial, inaccurate or misleading texts, this is totally untrue of World of Buddhism. Its panel of contributors consists of outstanding scholars and Buddhologists from all over the world. Indeed some of them (in particular Richard Gombrich and Etienne Lamotte) are (or have been) among the foremost authorities in the field. Fortunately all of them manage to write interesting, engaging prose, though it often covers relatively complex technical topics, and is sometimes intricately detailed. Though not necessarily for the specialist, this book is certainly one to be considered by those who may be fairly new to the subject and want an introduction, or even by someone reasonably conversant with Buddhism but in search of new ideas and insights.
Naturally, as the Buddha himself never tired of pointing out, nothing is perfect. There are some limitations, even to a book as satisfying as this one. Thus be aware that its scope and focus is less adequately conveyed by its title, "The World of Buddhism," than by its subtitle, "Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Society and Culture." The reader must accept going in that this book pays foremost attention to the Sangha, which is to say the formally structured Buddhist clergy. There are many reasons for this, including the extraordinary longevity of this unique institution, plus its inherent interest and fascination. However probably the most important reason is that, as Bechert explains, "It is primarily the Sangha that has transmitted the Buddha's words and maintained the tradition of meditation and thus ensured that future generations ... can be shown the way to release from the world." In any event I find that this focus in no way seems constricting, and that in practice it often facilitates the reader's making many useful conparisons between widely varying historical periods, countries and kinds of Buddhism.
Finally, as much as I like and respect this book, I think it is only fair to point out that, in several significant ways, it is rather dated. It was, after all, first published in 1984 (though again this may not have terribly great relevance to the general reader). Buddhism is ancient and has always done its best to resist change -- but most of the good scholarly research concerning it is of fairly recent vintage, with some of the most dramatic findings having come to light only within the last ten or twelve years. The specialist is aware that people such as Gregory Schopen have, in just this last decade, added brilliantly to our understanding of Buddhist origins and early practices, and certainly the nature of Buddhist monasticism. However little or none of that modern work is reviewed or cited in the present book, apparently because it was unavailable at the time it was being compiled. It goes without saying that the concluding chapter entitled "Buddhist revival in East and West," while interesting and informative, reports details and trends which at this point are no longer quite accurate nor reflective of what is actually going on with Buddhism throughout the world today.
It is also my impression that, for some reason, the authors occasionally gravitate unnecessarily towards older sources, translations, etc., even when fresher material was available. Thus, when dealing with ancient India, Gombrich chooses to quote lengthy passages from the famous and beautiful Dhammapada and the Sutta-Nipata, but selects some of the earliest English translations (dating to 1881), which not only sound archaic, but had already been superceded by more recent and far more definitive translations by the time the present book was being put together. Similarly, World of Buddhism's annotated bibliography, while both extensive and useful, omits many recent, highly relevant works.
Compelled to describe both the strengths and weaknesses of this valuable book, I hasten in closing to predict that most readers will eagerly relish it for all that it is, and readily forgive it for what little it is not. One of its lesser, but very real, charms is that its many picutures present a fairly unique selection of good Buddhist art and architecture, making them the sort of place you want your mind to wander through, over and over again, on quiet, contemplative afternoons.