Buddhism for Middle Class Methodists
June 22, 2012 9:27 AM   Subscribe

I belong to a progressive congregation of the United Methodist Church, and we often host educational series exploring other religions/belief systems (our congregation isn't of the "one true path to God" variety). This fall, we're planning a series on Buddhism. Our adult education committee has tasked me with selecting a book to study.

(I think I was selected because I selections from the Jataka and Journey to the West in my world lit classes.) I'm pleased with the responsibility, but my knowledge is rather shallow.

I think we're interested a text that mixes history (and migration) with a theological introduction, perhaps with an overview of current practices. I would love also to put together a Buddhism-for-beginners (and more) bibliography for folks interested in further study.

Thus my question: Can you recommend a good historical and theological primer to Buddhism for intellectually inquisitive adults?
posted by girlbowler to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Actually, I found the recent documentary The Buddha, to be highly informative, captivating, and accessible as an entry to Buddhism. Any way to integrate a two-hour video into the study?
posted by Thorzdad at 9:49 AM on June 22, 2012

I am a practicing Catholic. I also think it is important to understand and respect other religions. Two great books on Buddhism, IMO, are:
Living Buddha Living Christ - This book is particularly good at showing how similar the two religions are at their deepest point.
Dropping Ashes on the Buddha - This book is great for presenting and understanding Buddhist thought in general.
posted by Flood at 10:05 AM on June 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have this book, which is pretty comprehensive, but I also found it to be fairly dry. It's been long time since I cracked it open, but I remember it using some obscure Sanskrit term to describe something, and then using that term thereafter with no real indication of its meaning, which made it pretty difficult to read (after a while, all the Sanskrit terms would merge in my head and I couldn't remember 5 chapters later what something was supposed to be). That said, it's a good overview of different forms of Buddhism, both historically and currently, and the basics of the religion and all that. If you want to get into Zen at all, there's How To Raise an Ox and Zen Enlightenment.

Supplemental readings:
Siddhartha and "The Indian Life" section of The Glass Bead Game, both by Hermann Hesse (the Glass Bead Game section is just one chapter of a much longer book, so if you use it, it may be better to just have it as photocopies or something. Of course, the book got Hesse the Nobel Prize, so...)
posted by LionIndex at 10:10 AM on June 22, 2012

Everyone seems to love Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught as an introduction to Buddhism that really nails down the origins of Buddhist ideas and strips away the various cultural differences and practices that vary between the different Buddhist cultures and schools, focusing on the core ideas underpinning the philosophy and religion.

I confess that I haven't actually read yet, because many of the cultural and folk practices are some of what I find most fascinating about Buddhism.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:10 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I recommend The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh.

I would love also to put together a Buddhism-for-beginners (and more) bibliography for folks interested in further study.

Check out the elibrary at BuddhaNet, there are a lot of multilingual free PDFs and ebooks if you have a budget concern.
posted by NoraCharles at 10:34 AM on June 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Depending on the type of book you're interested in, something like The Universe in a Single Atom or something else by the Dalai Lama might be an interesting alternative. This may not be what you want for your primary book, but it's a very good book written by a very interesting man that would be great for your "further reading" list.

I'm an astronomer who taught astronomy for a month to Tibetan monks and nuns at a Tibetan university. I used this book, but not until the end of the class. I wish I had used it sooner, since the most interesting discussions we had, by far, were about this book.
posted by Betelgeuse at 10:59 AM on June 22, 2012

If something on the younger / edgier side is of interest, one of Brad Warner's books might be an interesting selection.
posted by COD at 11:57 AM on June 22, 2012

Can you recommend a good historical and theological primer to Buddhism for intellectually inquisitive adults?

An End to Suffering is perfect for this. It's about the author's journey, but it's really about the history of the Buddha and what he taught. It's very readable and relatable because it's as if you're on the journey with him.

For beginners, I always recommend these:
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
The Three Pillars of Zen

My Christian husband loved reading Alan Watt's The Wisdom of Insecurity because it wrestles with both Christian beliefs and Buddhism.

Access to Insight is a really thorough website with translations of canonical Buddhist texts and commentaries on them. Here's their beginners guide.
posted by desjardins at 12:39 PM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Buddhism in the United States is very fragmented. "What is American Buddhism" is a topic that gets discussed often, and the only real answer that people can agree on is "We should know in 50 years."

Buddhism has a few core beliefs that all sects agree on. However, what is built upon these core beliefs and how they are passed on varies greatly. I assume that the goal of studying Buddhism in your church is to better understand and get along with Buddhists you meet. Is that a fair assumption?

I would take some time and find out what sect the largest group of Buddhists in your area follow, and start with understanding their practices. The largest group may still be tiny, but sharing an overall community with them should make understanding what they do more interesting and relevant to your church members.

Buddhism is different from Christianity in that practice is more important than belief. It may seem strange at first to think that how someone meditates is more important that what someone meditates on, but that is the way Buddhism is. If you want to understand Buddhists, you have to understand what they do, not what they talk about. You have to work backward from your plan. Start with practice, and end with philosophy.

I am certain that whoever leads the Buddhist group nearest would be happy to talk to you about their practices, and can probably recommend a book for you to use. Everyone welcomes an opportunity to be understood.

An important thing to remember is that there are philosophical divisions in Buddhism that happened over 1500 years ago. The Dalai Lama represents an offshoot of an offshoot of the main trunk of Buddhism. Zen Buddhism is even farther removed. However, they represent two of the most popular groups in American Buddhism. Do you want to talk about the beliefs of the majority of the Buddhists in the world, or to see the most unified picture of Buddhism? Those two sects won't come up. Ignoring them, however, won't help you understand the people around you.

I fundamentally believe that all religions lead to the same place. However, I also believe strongly that this does not mean that all of our beliefs are the same with just the names changed. If you want to understand another religion, you have to have the desire to approach it in the way that the members of that religion approach it. Otherwise it doesn't have any real meaning. Speak with people who are Buddhist, don't read books on Buddhism.

As an aside, it might be best not to refer to a Buddhist "theology," because there is not really a Buddhist concept of God like there is in Christianity. I understand your meaning, but I think it is best not to use the term.
posted by Quonab at 12:56 PM on June 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

This 'Short History' by Edward Conze, the great translator, is very good. He's also known for Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, which I've not read, but by description may be even better suited to your purpose.
posted by Abiezer at 11:03 PM on June 22, 2012

I'd like to suggest Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism Without Beliefs and Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.

The first is Batchelor's attempt to present a primer on the core of Buddhist practice in an accessible way. He doesn't use Sanskrit terms at all.

The second is a memoir of Batchelor's time as a Buddhist. He became a Tibetan monk in his young adulthood, later moved on to Zen in Korea and eventually returned to England to become a non-denominational lay-Buddhist while also realizing that he was an atheist and that the two were not incompatible.
posted by ursus_comiter at 1:45 AM on June 23, 2012

Thank you all. I'm going to get as many of these as I can. I have watched the documentary, Thorzdad, and I agree that it would be beneficial. I intend to suggest it as part of my book presentation to the committee.

Thank you, Quonab, both for the suggestions and the gentle reminder that my vocabulary betrays my ignorance.
posted by girlbowler at 9:27 AM on June 23, 2012

According to Yelp, your zip code includes friendly accessible Buddhist monks who offer a good cheap vegetarian lunch buffet.

Quonab's emphasis on practice over belief is correct, but you say you've been charged specifically with finding a book. Perhaps you could pick a how-to book?

One option would be The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, translated and with commentary by Thich Nhat Hanh. It's believed to be a historical record of meditation instruction provided by the Buddha, and is part of the Pali-language canon, so unlike some later sutras it's considered canonical by everyone as far as I know (though not everyone pays attention to it). Thich Nhat Hanh is very popular among a wide range of American and European Buddhists, but his own Vietnamese lineage is Linji Chan (Rinzai Zen), like that of the Taiwanese-American buffet-offering monks in your town.
posted by feral_goldfish at 5:33 PM on June 30, 2012

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