The Different Paths of Buddhism: A Narrative-Historical Introduction

The Different Paths of Buddhism: A Narrative-Historical Introduction

The Different Paths of Buddhism: A Narrative-Historical Introduction

The Different Paths of Buddhism: A Narrative-Historical Introduction


For centuries, Buddhist teachers and laypeople have used stories, symbols, cultural metaphors, and anecdotes to teach and express their religious views. In this introductory textbook, Carl Olson draws on these narrative traditions to detail the development of Buddhism from the life of the historical Buddha to the present. By organizing the text according to the structure of Buddhist thought and teaching, Olson avoids imposing a Western perspective that traditional texts commonly bring to the subject.

The book offers a comprehensive introduction to the main branches of the Buddhist tradition in both the Mahayana and Theravada schools, including the Madhyamika school, the Yogacara school, Pure Land devotionalism, Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, and village folk Buddhist traditions. Chapters explore the life and teachings of the Buddha in historical context, the early development and institutionalization of Buddhism, its geographic spread across Asia and eventually to the United States, philosophy and ethics, the relationship between monks and laity, political and ethical implications, the role of women in the Buddhist tradition, and contemporary reinterpretations of Buddhism.

Drawn from decades of classroom experience, this creative and ambitious text combines expert scholarship and engaging stories that offer a much-needed perspective to the existing literature on the topic.


The early Buddhist tradition is sometimes characterized in the popular imagination of Westerners as somber, serious, austere, and pessimistic. Because of its emphasis on suffering and rejection of the world for a more solitary life of contemplation and meditation, it is understandable how people could arrive at such a characterization. But such a caricature would be incorrect and misleading. Within the hardships of ordinary life, Buddhists have been able to find humor. In a commentary to the text of the Dhammapada, a story is told about some old monks who became friends with an old woman, the wife of a former member of their group. When the old woman died, the monks were inconsolable. In order to help them understand, the Buddha told them a story from the Kāka (Crow) Jātaka (stories of former lives) about their former existence as crows. One day, it seems, the mate of one of the crows got very drunk, was swept out to sea, and drowned. The crows attempted to save her by baling out the sea with their beaks, until they finally just gave up their fruitless effort. We can commiserate with the sorrow of the monks, but we can also laugh at the absurdity of the desperate actions of the crows.

If the sea in this narrative is a metaphor for the suffering associated with life, and if the crows are metaphorical figures for human beings, the impossible task of the crows is analogous to the struggle of humans against the suffering of the world. Like the sea-baling crows, humans need a life raft to help them navigate the sea of suffering that is symbolic of human existence. During the fifth century B.C.E. in India, a man named Siddhārtha became the Buddha (Awakened One), and he functioned as a life raft for all those suffering in the sea of pain. With his concern for the absurdities and suffering associated with human life, the historical Buddha functioned as a human savior figure, even though he was not considered divine during his life. During the formative period of Buddhism, the Buddha was considered an ordinary man of flesh and blood and a gifted charismatic teacher. He was not an incarnation of a deity. He was simply a man who discovered the truth by means of his own efforts and shared it with others.

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