Buddhist Books Blog

Readings and writings on Buddhism, yoga, and contemplative science

Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations by Paul Williams

Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations by Paul Williams.  Routledge 1989/2009.  438 pages.

As the back of the book will tell you, the 1989 publication of this work’s first edition made quite a stir and, I quote, “It is still unrivalled.”  Indeed, it has become a foundational text for courses on Mahayana Buddhism at the university level, and since almost two decades of burgeoning scholarship in the field had passed, a second edition was considered necessary.

I can say this much: it is quite a book.  If you are smitten with a lust for all things Mahayana—its history, people, practices, and philosophies—look no further.  In fact, this book may even cure you of your unwholesome desires.  What I mean is that the page count does not give you any idea of what you’re getting into.

By the numbers: 438 total pages; 266 pages of main text; 122 pages of end notes; 32 pages of bibliography.  You can do the math for the rest.  Every page is dense with names, dates, terms, unpronounceable sutra titles (if you can actually say Bodhisattvagocaropayavishayavikurvananirdesha Sutra you must already be enlightened) and who knows what else.  And just look at the notes to main text pages ratio: 0.46!  I scrounged around my shelves, where I have a great many scholarly books on a wide array of topics, but could find nothing comparable.  Even Bhikkhu Bodhi’s monumental translation of the Samyutta Nikaya clocked in at an anemic 0.25.  Usually I’m an assiduous reader of notes (though I confess to loathing endnotes—why oh why did the publishing industry quit on footnotes??), but this time I just gave up.  Many of the end notes are so lengthy by the time you finish one you’ve forgotten where you were on the main page.  All of which leads me to my chief complaint about Williams’ opus:

Loss of control.

Sometimes you want to lose control (think sex—especially if you’re a woman).  But when you’re writing something touted as a textbook—and an intro textbook to boot—you want to be measured in just how much data you dump on your audience.  One hundred twenty-two pages of endnotes are not only unhelpful, they’re positively sadistic—or self-indulgent, which in this case comes to the same thing.  Let me put this in perspective: I have a fair education in Buddhist literature under my belt.  I’m not as deeply read as most scholars, but I would wager I understand a few things as well as anyone.  I will admit though I began to get dizzy in places as I read this book (lack of oxygen?), and resorted to skipping to those areas where I felt greater interest and surer footing.  So…reader beware: you are in for a sensory overload with this one; bring the Dramamine.  I’ll now return to my ordinarily more professional reviewing style.

Williams starts with an introduction the likes of which I’ve never seen.  Introductions are usually, well, introductory, but by page 17 (it goes on for 44 pages) he was already enumerating the numbers and types of dhammas according to the Abhidhamma classification scheme!  Needless to say, this sort of material is not ordinarily considered introductory.  At times I wondered if I’d somehow skipped into the first chapter and missed something, but no…on checking I found I was still in the introduction.  I think this is where I started to get worried.

To sum up the above complaint and how it affects the text as a whole: it appears Williams felt compelled to put everything he knew into this book, not to mention the obscure article he read the night before.  He mixes social history, philosophy, biographies, the history of specific texts and schools, all in a jumble.  (See, e.g., p. 67, where a chart would have been so much more helpful.)  You can’t write a book in this fashion; or at least, I advise against it.  Different areas need to be kept separate, or integrated with great care, but that is clearly not what happened.  In other words, I don’t suggest discussing a sutra’s history and provenance, its philosophy, the school that formed around it, and its effects on later readers and its place in the grand scheme of things all on the same page.  It’s just too much.  But this is really the best way to characterize how Williams has gone about summarizing fifteen hundred years of Mahayana doctrinal history.  Like I said, “loss of control”…

The upside of this avalanche of information is that there’s something for everyone.  And if you need the latest scholarly speculation on this text or that school, chances are you’ll find it in here (somewhere).  So this is the other edge of the sword—an abundance of fact and insight (yes, Professor Williams has carefully and intelligently considered his material) that is there if you have the patience and fortitude to dig it out.  I’ll offer a random list of what were, for me, eye opening or especially intriguing passages:

  • Page 43 on how the Mahayana began to develop a separate identity vis-à-vis “mainstream” Buddhism;
  • Pages 48-9 on Conze’s outline of Mahayana intellectual history;
  • Pages 60-1 on some of the internal logical inconsistencies besetting Mahayana Buddhology (authors rarely think out loud like this—I found the honesty refreshing);
  • Pages 68-9 make clear the meaning of svabhava;
  • Pages 71-2 indicated to me that Nagarjuna was first and foremost a deconstructionist, not a nihilist as opponents have charged;
  • Page 74 reassured me that Nagarjuna did not abrogate the teaching of anatta;
  • Pages 108ff suggested where notions of a True Self in Buddhism came from;
  • Pages 122ff on the debate over not-self in Thai Buddhism was fascinating, something I was previously unaware of;
  • Pages 132ff are a wonderful discussion of the Avatamsaka Sutra, the most profound if not most influential of Mahayana scriptures;
  • Chapter seven on the Lotus Sutra reminded me many times over why I so detest this particular scripture;
  • Page 184 has an excellent chart on the three bodies of the Buddha;
  • Chapter nine on the bodhisattva was at once inspiring and comical (on account of all the contradictions found in the texts);
  • Chapter ten offers a detailed who’s who of bodhisattvas and buddhas for all you folks out there who can’t figure out which statue is for whom and why.

And that about does it.  As I said, not only will you be punished in the course of this text, you will be rewarded as well.  There is a lot of pleasure and pain to go around.

My Amazon rating: 3 stars

 

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