Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Five best books about Buddhism

Donald S. Lopez Jr. is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan. He is the author or editor of a number of books, including Prisoners of Shangri-La, The Madman’s Middle Way, Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism, and Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed.

His latest book is The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography.

Lopez discussed five books on Buddhism with Daisy Banks at The Browser, including:
Words of My Perfect Teacher
by Patrul Rinpoche

Your next choice is one of the Dalai Lama’s favourite books, Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche.

Tibetan Buddhism had rather bad press in Europe and America, being called Lamaism into the 20th century, as if it did not merit the name ‘Buddhism’. It is only since the Dalai Lama left Tibet and went into exile in 1959 that our perception has changed dramatically. Today, 52 years later, many Tibetan Buddhist texts have been translated and we know a great deal more about the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. Even after 1959, there was a certain prejudice in favour of works from the earlier periods of Tibetan Buddhist history, from the 11th to the 15th centuries.

Words of My Perfect Teacher is a more recent work, composed in the late 19th century by a meditation master from Eastern Tibet, Patrul Rinpoche. Someone who is interested in knowing more about what the practice of Tibetan Buddhism is really like would find this book very useful. It belongs to a genre of Tibetan literature that one might refer to as ‘everything you need to know to become enlightened’. But unlike other works of this genre, Patrul Rinpoche’s text is not overly burdened with quotations from the scriptures. It is conversational, even earthy, in tone, making it all the more powerful.

Often it is easy to forget quite how many different schools of Buddhism there are. Why do you think we are so fascinated by the Dalai Lama? Why is he far and away the most famous Buddhist alive?

There are a number of reasons. The High Lama of Tibet is something that Europeans fantasised about for centuries, extending into the 20th century and James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, where the term ‘Shangri-La’ was coined. Beyond that, the current Dalai Lama is a highly accomplished practitioner and scholar of Buddhism. He is also a Buddhist monk who takes his vows very seriously. So there is a great deal to admire in him as person. He is also a figure from a land whose religion and culture have been ravaged. The Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950 and in the aftermath Buddhism suffered greatly. Thus, there is much sympathy for the Tibetan cause. This combination of the religious and the political in a single person makes the Dalai Lama a compelling figure.
Read about another book on Lopez's list.

The Page 99 Test: Donald S. Lopez, Jr's Buddhism and Science.

--Marshal Zeringue