This book is one of a popular series of books entitled “The Religious Life of Man” released during the sixties and seventies and edited by Frederick J. Streng. A fifth edition, released in 2004 and revised by Willard Johnson and Thanissaro Bhikkhu, is also available in the more politically correctly named series “Religious Life in History.”
I would lay money on it anyone who took intro to religion courses during the seventies and eighties read at least one of these books. I read four, the best being Thomas J. Hopkins’ dense but excellent survey entitled The Hindu Religious Tradition. Robinson’s work is not as good as Hopkins’ but is still useful for a newcomer to Buddhism. As is invariably the case with books of this sort, it is broad in sweep though shallow in terms of doctrine or practice. Nonetheless, it does offer a few surprising moments of insight.
The first chapter, entitled “The Scene Today” (today of course being sometime in the late sixties when Robinson was writing; he died, tragically, in 1970 at the age of 44 from a gas explosion), takes the reader on a tour of the Buddhist world, starting, appropriately, in Bodh Gaya and heading thence to Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Tibet-in-India, Vietnam (where monks were still immolating themselves), to Japan and the West. This tour is kind of a “blast from the past,” Buddhism as it was forty years ago, coping with war and communism and the interest generated in it by the hippie generation. The book, clearly, is dated, but since history is its main concern, even its datedness is not without interest.
Chapter 2 is a whirlwind overview of the Buddha’s life and teaching. Honestly, I always get a bit of a kick reading scholarly surveys of the Dhamma. Such surveys are the inevitable starting points for anyone venturing into the Teaching, but written as they typically are by scholars who are paid to be “objective” and “historical” they inevitably reveal the limitations of even the most brilliant and learned minds if they’ve not had actual experience with practice. Still, it is worth learning about the Buddha’s life milieu–namely, the sramana and ascetic culture of fifth century BC India–and Robinson covers this in addition to the basic elements of his biography.
I found myself especially intrigued by Robinson’s comments on the Enlightenment. He writes:
What actually happened on the night of the Enlightenment? The oldest account is stylized and exhibits typical mythic features. It purports, though, to be autobiographical, and the claim may be substantially true. First-person reporting of “peak experiences” was not a genre in pre-Buddhist Indian literature, and flourished only sporadically in later centuries. Implicit in it is the affirmation that the particular experiences of a historical person are of outstanding value. The dignity, economy, and sobriety of the account not only highlight the magnitude of Gautama’s claims, but strongly suggest a remarkable man behind the style, self-assured and self-aware, assertive but not bombastic. If disciples put such words into the mouth of their master, then who put into their minds such an image of him? (pp. 18-19).
Robinson goes on to review the knowledges obtained by the Bodhisattva during the night of his enlightenment, concluding they are “two-thirds shamanism ethically transformed, and one-third philosophy,” and suggesting comparisons to the “mysterious light” seen by Eskimo shamans. These are certainly the words of a professor of comparative religion, and as such give voice to the inherent humanness and universality of the Buddha’s experience while at the same time not actually understanding it. Robinson offers a similar interpretation of the First Sermon, suggesting that the prominence the Buddha gave to suffering stems from
the essential component of the chief primitive rights of initiation into manhood. The warrior brotherhood tests the initiant by ordeal to see whether he is worthy and to stimulate his martial powers. The shaman guild initiates the neophyte with a ritual dismemberment and other austerities to solemnize his change of status, but even more to effect a transformation of his personality and to endow him with powers. Suffering kills the old self and induces “the second birth.” The Buddhist way partakes of both martial and shamanic elements. It is a state of prolonged initiation, lasting until nirvana is attained. The Buddha rejected extreme physical mortification, but in its place he put mental mortification, the contemplation of universal suffering (p. 29).
I quote this passage at length as an illustration not of Robinson’s failure to “get” the Buddha’s teaching, but rather to indicate the fine line that any would-be scholar walks when assessing this teaching. As they say, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In this case, the hammer is traditional, “objective” scholarship, the point-of-view that disdains any point-of-view–for such would not be “objective”! The nail, of course, is the Object of study, and in truth anything is just as worthy as anything else for study, be it neolithic pottery from Anatolia or the history of the sonnet in Elizabethan poetry. In this case, however, it is the Dhamma that is being objectified, and the fact that the Buddha lived and died for this teaching, and in doing so affected millions of human beings in the most personal of ways, is something that is lost in its translation into an Object of academic interest. Like the carved totem from some vanished tribe’s ritual, the Dhamma becomes, in the hands of the scholar, a mere curiosity.
The rest of the book is a quick overview of the Dhamma’s growth and decline in India and its spread to Tibet, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia and into East Asia. Hundreds of names and dozens of doctrines are taken up and dropped, so that for the beginner this may come off as a dizzy race through time and space. This kind of survey almost always feels like this–who, after all, could possibly remember all those people and what they said?–but since one has to start somewhere this is as good a place as any. For students who really want to get something out of the book, keeping a list of major schools and important personages would probably be the best way to make use of the material. Then later one can go back and explore more in-depth items of interest. Robinson’s bibliography, though dated, is still good, and can serve as a springboard to other, richer works.
My Amazon rating: 3 stars