Following is a short review of one Buddhism’s classic texts from 1970, Indian Buddhism, by A.K. Warder.
I have seen this book around for many years, and have seen many references to it from various scholars. The prompt to actually read it at this point came mostly from the fact that the book is a reputable source to quote in my thesis. Otherwise, I confess, I read very few ‘Buddhist’ books, other than the original Suttas of the Buddha.
Now, it might seem obvious, but there are different areas of interest in Buddhism – mindfulness meditation, ‘core’ teachings like the Four Noble Truths or Eightfold path, Abhidhamma (the technical philosophical explanation of how the world works), the academic, or the traditional ritualistic side. This book covers the historical side of Buddhism; the cultural context in which the Buddha found himself, and how the interpretation of the teachings developed over the centuries.
it might seem obvious, but there are different areas of interest in Buddhism
Yet it is hard to know exactly who the book is aimed at. The detail is quite incredible, and rather indigestible in many places. Long lists of various teachers, their works, their followers, and their works etc…
One wonders how Warder came by all this information and collated it. But to an ardent scholar the bulk of material should be quite well known already, while an an introduction it is much too academic!
Various chapters go into great detail about Buddhism, but much of it will be stuff that the average Buddhist will know already – stories of the Enlightenment, the Arahants etc.. However, mingled in with this more basic information is much on the context and philosophical environment in which the Buddha lived. Since many of his teachings included cultural and philosophical assumptions of the day, it is useful to know something of this environment.
Thus Chapter I, should be of interest, as it examines ‘Indian Civilisation Before the Buddha‘. The following chapters mostly run through familiar ground, with some interesting observations in Chapter 6, Buddhism and Society, which explores the impact of Buddhism on Indian local government and v.v., plus the relationship of the ordained Sangha to the laity.
Chapter VII looks at how the scriptures were put together, with some interesting comments on the formation of the different schools. This theme continues in Chapter VIII which examines some of the doctrines of the 18 schools of Buddhism that arose about 200 years after the Buddha. These schools were attempting to answer some of the questions the Buddha left hanging, such as how Karma works, or what is the nature of a Buddha or Arahant. To some degree these questions are still relevant today, although the Indian mind did have a different belief foundation to the modern reader – such as the automatic acceptance of rebirth, of a vast and cyclical universe, that a life of renunciation has spiritual benefits, and other theories.
The final two chapters look at the development of some intense philosophical schools which sprang from the philosophical climate in the huge Buddhist universities. Buddhism was in fact mostly an academic pursuit at this period, unless that is simply our impression from the university artifacts which remain to this day. Perhaps there was a thriving meditation lineage, but any record of it has vanished. The overly academic and scholarly approach of Indian Buddhism is blamed for the demise of Buddhism in its country of origin in the face of Muslim invaders, where the more colloquial Hinduism survived.
You will need to be a keen Buddhist to get through this book. The text is overly academic, and full of lists and facts that you won’t be able to absorb except in very general outline. Still, it does show that Buddhism back in the day of the Buddha, and about 500 years afterwards, is very unlike the Buddhism we have today. Asian Buddhism has become very ritualised, and focussed on a particular line of interpretation that has become the ‘party line’. By contrast, Westerners have little attachment to ritual and ceremony they don’t understand, and do not have a canonical understanding that shapes their approach. Hence the Westerner is much more likely to happily let contradictory ideas such as Nibbana and Indian non-Duality, or self-nonself-Self, sit together without contradiction.
In conclusion, Indian Buddhism should provide a good revision, overview and contextual/cultural framework for the academic study of Buddhist philosophy. But don’t expect much in the way of meditation or practise orientated text. Perhaps the best use for the book however, is an excellent long read that helps you avoid writing your thesis.