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Rupert Gethin’s Foundations of Buddhism

We hosted Chinese author, show host and social commentator Leung Man Tao to talk about what he does best: books. As a famous writer in the East Asian world, you can trust Brother Leung (who is an upasako of the Theravadin tradition) to know a good book when he sees one. For the pilot of a live broadcast series on Channel-B, Mr. Leung and I kicked off the first episode with a review about what is becoming known as the best available academic introduction to Buddhism on the market.

We met up with Mr. Leung in the backdrop of Hong Kong’s Lamma Ferry Disaster. On October the 1st, two vessels called “Sea Smooth” and Hong Kong Electric’s “Lamma IV” collided off Yung Shu Wan Pier in the early evening. Our city lost thirty-nine lives just as residents were celebrating Chinese National Day right after the Mid-Autumn Festival. That such a tragedy could come to pass during such jovial and happy circumstances is usually unthinkable to Hong Kong residents.

Rupert Gethin’s The Foundations of Buddhism is not likely to provide pastoral succour for those who turn to Buddhist answers. After all, this is a university-level overview of the Buddhist tradition and its Vehicles, not a counselling guidebook. Nevertheless, its succinct, intelligent, and eloquent introduction to the teachings of the tradition will be crucial intellectual food for the newcomer to digest.

Gethin manages to present the material in a critical (yet sympathetic) style. When one sits down to write an introduction to such a vast and ancient religious body like Buddhism, it takes a particularly good author to talk about the Buddhist idea of suffering in a way that is so lucid you feel like this dense, difficult doctrine is unwinding itself before your eyes. Or take the simple question: What is a buddha?. Watch as Gethin unpacks the very question itself over just a couple of pages, painting a picture as visible and clear as a neat watercolour. There is not so much history and even less about the Buddha’s legendary life in Foundations, but these are not significant drawbacks at all. To keep you from getting distracted, Gethin ensures that all the basics of the Buddhist schools are covered, before elaborating on anything else.Gethin leaves the final evaluation of the Buddhist path to you, the reader, to judge. And in there lies the dignity of a scholarly monograph. No, Foundations won’t give us any answers to the tragic questions of the world. That job is for our eminent masters and clerics. But it will give you solid footing as you begin your journey to discover the great ancient Dharmic tradition, and as far as that goal is concerned Foundations does a fantastic, no-nonsense job. Highly recommended by any standards.

You can watch our review broadcast here in Cantonese (we’re working on one for English subtitles).  

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