A Buddhist friend of mine commented, on hearing that I was writing on the Basics of Buddhism, that the task must be utterly diﬀerent from writing on many other academic subject areas. For Buddhism, the ‘Basics’ are constant, he reasoned, quite diﬀerent from a subject such as Sociology, which changes all the time. He had a good point: as in most religions, in their attitudes to their spiritual heritage, Buddhists hold that the Buddha Dharma, the essential truths revealed by the Buddha, are timeless and unchanging. These teachings will certainly be explored in this book, but it is quite likely that the Basics as presented here will look at least a little diﬀerent from how the Basics might have looked thirty years ago – or indeed, how they might look in thirty years’ time. Why should this be so? One reason is the state of Buddhist Studies as an academic discipline
as opposed to Buddhism as a religious path. The teachings may change little, but our knowledge and understandings of them change and develop. In the early twentieth century, beyond its Asian heartlands, knowledge of Buddhism was sparse. The work of translating the major collections of texts into European languages was in its infancy, and nineteenth-century archaeological discoveries in India had just begun to uncover evidence that allowed glimpses of the early history of Buddhism. It was not until the second part of the twentieth century that Buddhist Studies began to ﬂourish in various university departments throughout Western countries, not only in the relative obscurity of specialist schools for classical ‘Oriental’ languages, but in Religious Studies, Anthropology,
Philosophy, and Asian Studies. Much has been achieved – but there are many more discoveries to be made, historical understandings to be clariﬁed, more of the extensive textual corpus to be edited and translated, as well as the social and practice dimensions of Buddhist communities to be further explored. The picture we now have of the Basics of Buddhism has developed a good deal, and it is inevitable that that picture will be further added to, and perhaps even transformed by those additions. Moreover, it is not only the expansion of knowledge in the
subject area that is responsible for our changing understandings. Modern academic work proceeds within a wider ﬁeld in which the focus and the framing of the material changes in response to the academic climate. This is partly a result of advances and developments in academic research, and also of attitudes and interests beyond the university ivory tower. For instance, a generation ago, few people would have expected the issue of gender to be discussed in a book on the Basics of Buddhism, but now, few would write on a major religion without some reference to gender roles! Thus, the Basics as considered here will to some extent reﬂect current thinking and interests in Buddhist Studies, while not neglecting the central preoccupations of Buddhists themselves. A rather more fundamental reason why the Basics may not be
quite so unchanging as they initially appear, is that timeless ‘truths’ nonetheless manifest or are revealed at speciﬁc historical moments. Even the most conservative Buddhist traditions historically accepted additions to their canonical corpus after the earliest discourses and rules on monastic conduct were collected together, and openness to commentarial literature continued for many centuries. In the Maha-ya-na Buddhist tradition – as we shall see – textual revelation remained active in India and some traditions preserved the practice of revealing new texts in other Asian countries. This seems to have happened in early Chinese Buddhism, and is still witnessed in Tibet.