The Story of Buddhism by Donald S. Lopez Jr.


By Phil Catalfo  |  

(HarperSanFrancisco)

The subject of Buddhism has definitely caught the publishing industry’s fancy; there must be a hundred, if not a thousand, books on the topic published each year. Amid this glut, the rarest of titles is the authoritative volume for the general reader: books which provide a comprehensive overview of the practices, teachings, and history of Buddhism in a way that doesn’t talk down to readers but actually educates and engages them. The Story of Buddhism is, simply stated, the best book of this kind I’ve ever seen.

Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan, Donald S. Lopez Jr. brings a prodigious scholarship to this effort and includes both an extensive bibliography and a supple glossary of Buddhist (mostly Sanskrit) terms. But his writing is not at all daunting or off-putting in the way academic prose can be. Indeed, true to his title, he fashions his entire narrative around countless anecdotes of varying length (ranging from a paragraph or two to 60-plus pages, in the case of the chapter devoted to the life of the Buddha), weaving his explications of core precepts and practices into these accounts seamlessly. The net effect is that his book reads like one long campfire story, in which beings (not just humans but animals, plants, gods, demigods, demons, hell-beings, and bodhisattvas too) err, commit misdeeds or virtuous acts, attain supernatural powers, and in the most fortuitous instances awaken.

Lopez also delineates different schools of Buddhism without becoming bogged down in their differentiation, pointing out merely how they may differ with respect to doctrine or practice. Always an exceedingly intricate cosmology, Buddhism has, in its migration around the world, evolved in each of its new settings to the point that some find it difficult to recognize the same religion in, say, both the Theravada Buddhism of Thailand and the Zen Buddhism of Japan, let alone Buddhism as taught and practiced in the West.

“The challenge,” Lopez writes, is “to survey all the people and texts and practices that appear so different and to identify among them something, no matter how elusive, that is the same and that might be called Buddhism, to detect an essence in a tradition that famously proclaims that there is no essence, that there is no self”—which is a fair description of what he has done. The Story of Buddhism now heads my list of books to give to someone ready to be introduced to the Four Noble Truths.