An Introduction to Buddhism

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The Dalai Lama
Translator(s): 
Thupten Jinpa
Core Teachings of Dalai Lama
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Shambhala Publications
    , July
     2018.
     136 pages.
     $16.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781559394758.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The title of this book, An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings on the Four Noble Truths, the Eight Verses on Training the Mind, and the Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, is a bit misleading; it’s not really an introduction to Buddhism, but rather a short introductory-level discussion of some basic Buddhist concepts as understood by the Gelukpa order of Tibetan Buddhism (the order to which the Dalai Lama belongs). There’s no discussion of Buddhist history, and no contextualization of the Gelukpa system. There’s no discussion (or mention) of other traditions of Buddhism, and the explanation of Buddhist doctrines is selective.

The book begins with the four noble truths (ārya-satya) and other Buddhist doctrines such as dependent arising (pratītya-samutpāda) and impermanence (anitya). The second part is a commentary on the short verse text Eight Verses on Training the Mind (bLo sbyong tshig brgyad ma) by Geshe Langri Tangpa (dGe bshes gLang ri thang pa, 1054–1123) and Atiśa’s (Dīpaṃkaraśrījñāna, 982–1054) Lamp for the Path to Awakening (Bodhipatha-pradīpa). The tone is clearly intended for beginners, but the Dalai Lama states at several junctures in his commentary that he is not looking to convert anyone; rather, he advises people who adhere to a particular religion to remain in it, perhaps drawing some inspiration from his discussions of Buddhism.

The first commentary is situated within the “mind training” (blo sbyong) genre of Tibetan meditation literature, which involves mentally taking on others’ negativities while visualizing oneself purifying them and sending out positive aspirations. Atiśa’s text is one of the most popular sources for the “stages of the path” (lam rim) tradition followed by the Gelukpas.

Much of his commentary is targeting people from Christian backgrounds. The Dalai Lama begins by explaining the concept of “no-self” (anātman), which rejects the real existence of the sort of enduring essence or soul posited by Christianity. He then states that although Buddhism denies that there is any entity corresponding to the Christian God, many people derive inspiration from belief that there is a transcendent, loving being that creates and sustains us. He also compares belief in God to the Buddhist practice of taking refuge, and indicates that many Tibetans have deep faith in Tārā and other transcendent figures rely on them; through this they derive a sense of support and inspiration that guides their religious lives. He also discusses one of his favorite themes: the notion that everything in the universe is subject to objective laws of cause and effect. Everything comes from something of similar type, and a key takeaway for him is the conclusion that consciousness, like material entities, is a continuum of moments, each conditioned by past ones. The Dalai Lama asserts that the emergence of consciousness cannot plausibly be attributed to material causes alone. Rather, each moment of consciousness, and each psychophysical continuum, has a past trajectory going back through beginningless time, and while minds are affected by their external environments, they are not merely reducible to them.

The Dalai Lama tacitly acknowledges that some of the trainings he discusses will appear counterintuitive to his intended audience of non-Buddhist neophytes. For example, in commenting on practices designed to bring about the “mind of awakening” (bodhicitta), he recognizes that putting others ahead of oneself and regarding their needs as more important than one’s own sounds at first to be an odd way to bring about one’s own happiness. But he states that the experiences of Buddhist meditators for more than two millennia have demonstrated that an others-first orientation is really the best way to become truly happy, and to develop an attitude that remains positive and committed to religious practice despite misfortunes and setbacks.

Much of his commentary on Atiśa’s text is an attempt to explain the underlying logic of the Gelukpa system (which from his perspective is the essence of the true Dharma) imported to Tibet from Nālandā Monastery in India from the 7th to 9th centuries. He also wants to counter some popular notions of Buddhism that circulate among Western converts that he regards as contrary to his understanding of the Dharma. One of these is the common tendency to mix and mingle traditions, much like making choices at a salad bar. For the Dalai Lama, the Nālandā tradition is the epitome of Indian Buddhism, and the version of Buddhism he espouses follows standard Gelukpa understandings. He also rejects the notion that the term “religious community” (Saṃgha)—one of the “three jewels” (triratna) on which Buddhists rely for guidance and inspiration—loosely refers to anyone who adopts the label “Buddhist” (59). For the Dalai Lama, the Saṃgha as a source of refuge is narrowly defined as advanced practitioners who have directly realized emptiness (śūnyatā). Relying on people who are still mired in cyclic existence would be like asking someone stuck in the ditch with you to pull you out.

This is one of a number of tropes running through this book, most of which would only be obvious to people familiar with the Gelukpa approach to Buddhism. For this reason, using this book as an introductory text in a course could be challenging. The Dalai Lama provides clear explanations of some core Buddhist doctrines, but he makes no attempt to situate them within a global Buddhist context. He is addressing a particular audience: Westerners who are interested in accessing beginning-level instructions. Students reading his discussions would generally be unaware of the unstated tensions and contentious issues lying behind his commentary. In this book, the Dalai Lama covers material that he has explained in numerous other publications and in public talks for non-Buddhist audiences, many of which are available on the internet. There is nothing new here, nothing that hasn’t been said before, and at greater length and detail. Nonetheless, its brevity and the clarity of the language might make this book attractive to some readers, and it might be useful for courses on Buddhism if it is supplemented by more comprehensive sources.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John Powers is Research Professor of Citizenship & Globalization at Deakin University, Waurn Ponds Campus.

Date of Review: 
January 16, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dalai Lama is considered the foremost Buddhist leader of our time. The exiled spiritual head of the Tibetan people, he is a Nobel Peace Laureate, a Congressional Gold Medal recipient, and a remarkable teacher and scholar who has authored over one hundred books.

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