The Experience of Buddhism: Sources and Interpretations by John S. Strong

Reviewed by Herbert V. Guenther

The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Vol.116 No.1

Jan-March 1996


COPYRIGHT 1996 American Oriental Society

            This book, intended as a companion volume to The Buddhist Religion: 
            A Historical Introduction, by Richard Robinson, as revised by 
            Willard Johnson, contains a well-written account of the main tenets, 
            belief systems, rituals, and practices in daily life within the vast 
            sociocultural field that goes by the name of Buddhism, from the time 
            of the historical Buddha up to the present. It is divided in two 
            parts: "The Experience of Buddhism in South Asia," comprising five 
            sections with several subsections, and "The Development of Buddhism 
            Outside Asia," comprising four sections with several subsections. 
            For each topic in the various sections, the author has included a 
            selection from a relevant text in a very readable English 
            translation that will readily appeal to the modern reader. The 
            selected passages are taken from important classical texts as well 
            as from hitherto neglected treatises. Sanskrit and Pali passages 
            have been newly translated by the author himself and reveal his 
            competence and understanding. Where he relies on older translations 
            within the Sanskrit tradition, too many misinterpretations of 
            technical terms due to the translators' inability to distinguish 
            between ontology and epistemology, as well as the unavowed 
            fore-structure of their thinking, are simply repeated. This 
            statement is not meant as a blur on the overall competence of the 
            author, but is meant to highlight the low level of linguistic 
            (formerly called philological) studies in the field of Indic 
            studies. Since one person is hardly proficient in all the languages 
            in which Buddhist texts have been written, the author had to rely on 
            scholarly works dealing with Buddhist topics in the Chinese and 
            Japanese languages, to say nothing of works in the various South and 
            Southeast Asian languages. A map of important shrines and sites 
            relevant to the text of the whole book is particularly valuable. 
            The author's acquaintance and familiarity with the rich narrative 
            literature of India, by which abstruse ideas and doctrinal points 
            are brought to life, will certainly appeal to and help the reader to 
            come to an understanding of what Buddhism may still have to offer in 
            the modern world. After all, in dealing with life's problems a 
            person does not usually escape into the arid domain of formal logic 
            or into the realms of rational philosophy that, set as absolutes, 
            have had and still have devastating effects, but finds solace and 
            likely solutions to his problems in stories, narratives, and novels. 
            Considering the scope of a work like the one under review, it is 
            only natural that much that might have been said could not be said 
            for fear of being sidetracked. What about the many cult groups, some 
            devotional in character, some openly political and even apocalyptic, 
            that have been mushrooming in recent decades and years? But maybe 
            this is a question that has to wait for some years to be answered. 
            In conclusion, the author has to be congratulated for a highly 
            satisfactory presentation of a problem of far-reaching implications.