English Section

      Buddhism Today 

Vietnamese Section


...... ... .  . .  .  .
Buddhism: A Cultural Perspective, by LaFleur William R.
Reviewed by Mary Evelyn Tucker

William LaFleur's book on Buddhism is a useful addition to the new Prentice-Hall Series in World Religions. This series focuses on a cultural perspective regarding religion rather than emphasizing specific historical or doctrinal developments. Robert E llwood serves as the general editor of the series, which includes books on nonliterate peoples by Sam Gill, on Hinduism by David Kinsley, on Islam by Richard Martin, on American Religion by Mary Farrell Bednarowski, on Japanese Religion by Robert Ellwood and Richard Pilgrim, on Chinese Religions by Christian Jochim, and on Christianity by James Wiggins and Robert Ellwood. In his foreword Ellwood describes the two distinguishing aspects of the series: (1) each book follows the same outline, allowing a high level of consistency in content and approach, and (2) each book is oriented toward viewing religious traditions as "religious cultures" in which history, ideologies, practices, and sociologies all contribute toward constructing "deep structures" that gov ern peoples' world views and life styles.

Ellwood then assures the readers that they are not to expect simply "dry recitations of chronological history or systematic exposition of ideology." Rather, the books provide "'cameo' insights into particular personalities, movements, and historical moments that encourage an understanding of the world view, life-style, and deep dynamics of religious cultures in practice as they affect real people."

While these goals are laudable and for many readers desirable, their attainability remains somewhat elusive. (Sam Gill, for example has apparently departed from a common outline in his book.) A more detailed comparison of the books in this series with those in the Wadsworth and the Harper and Row series on world religions would be useful for teachers considering adopting texts. The Wadsworth series, for example, has taken a largely historical approach to the traditions which is supplemented by Frederick Streng's introductory book, Understanding Religious Man. The Prentice-Hall series has apparently abandoned the idea of an introductory book, but instead has tried to unify the series by taking a cultural appro ach as a common ground for investigating each tradition. The Harper and Row series seems to be attempting to balance some historical background discussion with descriptions of worship, rituals, and world views.

The cultural approach adopted by the Prentice-Hall series reflects the varied resources now at our disposal due to the ongoing research by historians of religions, anthropologists, art historians, literary cr itics, and translators. The history of religions and the study of other traditions are clearly a burgeoning enterprise. Many scholars and teachers in the field of religious studies welcome this expansive approach to the study of other traditions and speci fically affirm the importance of a cultural perspective in understanding the dynamics of religion in particular contexts. Thus, this series is a desirable addition to available texts for teaching.

Having indicated a basic sympathy with the approach adopted by William LaFleur and the other authors in this series, let us turn specifically to his book on Buddhism. First, it can be said that LaFleur is one of the best-qualified scholars of Buddhism to undertake a study of Buddhism from a cultural perspective. The interaction of religion and culture has been an ongoing concern in his teaching and his research. His book on The Karma of Words (University of California Press, 1983) is an excellent example of a careful study of Buddhist themes in Japanese literature. His approach in that work gives a depth and richness of interpretation to the literature being discussed as well as demonstrates the profound impact of Buddhism beyond the monastery walls. Indeed, this study, his earlier research on Saigyo, and his training in the study of religions at the University of Chicago give eminent indication why LaFleur was a natural choice for writing an introductory text on Buddhism from a cultural perspective.

Against this background and in relation to LaFleur's considerable achievement in The Karma of Words, there is cause for some disappointment with certain sections of his book on Buddhism. They are, of course, very different kinds of books, intended for different audiences. Nonetheless, this reviewer could not help but wonder what LaFleur would have done without the constraints of a similar outline for all the books in the series. Somehow one hoped to see more of the cultural perspective and less of the historical or, in any case, a finer weaving of the two.

For example, chapter 2 on "A History of Buddhism" comprises nearly one-fourth of the book. LaFleur admits at the beginning of the chapter that it has a primarily historical emphasis. Certainly the reader will grant there is a need to be situated in a broadly defined historical context, but could some of this not have been abbreviated, as it is readily available elsewhere? Also it was unclear why the discussion in the second half of this chapter moved from Bud dhism's penetration into East Asia back to Theravada Buddhism and then to its expansion northward and finally back to the Buddha's death. Will this not be somewhat confusing for students? Was this an editor's decision?

With these reservations in mind, the book nonetheless is important as it opens up for students some valuable territory in the study of Buddhism. Chapter 3, for example, on "Difficult Places Along the Middle P ath," is a skillful treatment of dissent within the tradition, the role of women, and the Confucian resistance to Buddhism in China. LaFleur establishes the important point that Buddhists did not force their views on others, nor was there a papacy within Buddhism concerned with issues of heresy. Indeed, for the most part, orthopraxy was considered more important than orthodoxy. Feminist scholars of religion will be gratified to note that there is an extensive section on the role of women in Buddhism. The ambivalence with which women have been treated within the tradition is not glossed over. The chapter concludes with an analysis of the resistance to Buddhism by Confucians in China. Buddhist celibacy, for example, as criticized by the Confucians, who valu ed progeny as a means of continuing one's family and making appropriate offerings to one's ancestors.

Chapter 4 on "Twenty-five Hundred Years of Poetry" is an important addition to introductory discussions of Buddhism and a welcome departure from the detailed analysis of schools of thought. Because of LaFleur 's skill in treating Buddhist themes in literature, as demonstrated in The Karma of Words, the brevity of this chapter was a cause for some disappointment.

The following chapter on "The Dharma: Doctrine and Philosophy" has a useful section on emptiness (`suunyataa) in relation to the mutual codependence of all things (pratiiyasamutpaada). The juxtaposition of th e Theravaada monk Buddhagho.sa with the contemporary Mahaayaana philosopher Nishitani Keiji is a striking example of the expansiveness and diversity of the Buddhist tradition over a millennium and a half. The analysis of meditation in The Path of` Purity should be particularly helpful for students for whom the practice of meditation is often of primary interest. It is also refreshing to see the Kyoto school and Nishitani Keiji included in an introduc tory text because of the significance of this philosophical endeavor in our own century.

Chapter 6 on "The Buddha: Models and Rituals" is an important effort to bring to the fore a discussion of issues regarding "atheism" and "theism" within Buddhist theory and practice. There is also an analysis of the role of the Buddha as a human being and as a person who has been perceived as having divine attributes. Finally, the seemingly conflicting ideas of worship and iconoclasm within the tradition are skillfully raised. LaFleur fleshes out his introduc tory remarks with interesting examples, again from both a Theravaada and a Mahaayaana context. His first example is a Sri Lankan monastery and the second is a Zen meditation session (sesshin). The latter will, no doubt, prove interesting for students beca use of the personal comments by the author and because the presence of Zen meditation centers in the U.S. and Europe makes the practice of zazen less remote.

The final chapter on "The Sangha: Community and Modernity" uses Tibetan Vajrayaana Buddhism and Vietnamese Buddhism as examples of the diversity and complexity of the tradition in relation to the community. A gain, because of the spread of Tibetan Buddhism to the West, LaFleur's example is well chosen. Moreover, his interview with the Dalai Lama in India is also a valuable personal touch for students. His choice of Vietnamese Buddhism in relation to the Vietna mese war is again helpful for students, many of whom were not even born during this period but are, nonetheless, familiar with the widespread impact of the war on American society.

One of LaFleur's most illustrative examples of how far the understanding of Buddhism has come in the West (especially in the last several centuries) is evident in the quotation from Englebert Kaempfer's treat ise on The History of Japan Together With A Description of the Kingdom of Siam, based on Kaempfer's experiences in Asia in the 1690s. LaFleur applauds this progress in the study of the tradition and yet cautions against any self-congratulatory stance, rem inding his readers that many Buddhist texts till remain to be translated and that our knowledge of Buddhist historical developments is still incomplete. Thus, LaFleur's book is an important challenge to earlier approaches to the study of Buddhism based la rgely on texts, doctrines, or historical developments. Its appeal as a classroom text seems very probable because of the diverse and interesting cultural examples he uses to illustrate his points. One would hope that his necessarily selective, but significant, venture into the cultural aspects of Buddhism will be supplemented by further such studies.

Philosophy East and West, 39:4, 1989.10, pp. 509-511  


Updated: 1-8-2000

Return to "Book Reviews"

Top of Page