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Book review – What the Buddha Taught

What the Buddha Taught
By Walpola Rahula
Broadway: New York: Grove Press, 1974. Second and expanded edition.

Mission Round Table 12.1 (Jan-Apr 2017): 29

“Still a classic”

The value of a text such as this lies in its ability to act as a useful frame of reference for the reader to further their understanding of a subject, particularly across a range of contexts. Walpola Rahula’s work, first published over fifty years ago, provides a succinct description of core Buddhist teachings, largely from the Theravada tradition, which provide a set of conceptual “hooks” on which to explore contextual expressions of Buddhism in other times and places.

Interestingly, the book itself was written against a backdrop of the emerging socio-political arrangements post-World War II, when an interest in Eastern and Buddhist teachings were growing alongside pacifist and anti-nuclear movements, and communist, anti-communist, and nonaligned movements—themes explored in the book’s final chapter.

In his preface, the author clarifies his purpose: to present to the general reader an accurate account of what the Buddha taught, mainly by faithfully representing the actual words of the Buddha as found in original texts. After a brief account of the life of the Buddha, the following four chapters explain each of the four noble truths, with two further chapters on the doctrine of “non-self” and meditation.

The approach of focusing on the Buddha’s teaching differentiates the text from books on Buddhist practice, which necessarily are more rooted in specific contextual expressions of Buddhism. What Walpola Rahula achieves here is to communicate Buddhism as a different way of seeing and interpreting the world, as well as providing a framework through which to better understand the different contextual expressions of Buddhism found across the world.

My Burmese-language copy was given to me by an erudite monk in a monastery in rural Myanmar who said it had been one of the main texts through which he himself had gained a deeper understanding of Buddhism, despite his own immersion in traditional Buddhist teachings in his own monastery. Because of the difficulties in rendering some words and concepts into English, sometimes reading this book in the language of the context you are in can also be profitable, especially if the context is one where Buddhism is a majority religion. Then, terms are often rendered in a local language which itself may be more able to express the meaning of Pali terms than English. In summary, this is a good read in English, and an even better read in the Southeast Asian languages of Buddhist majority countries.

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