It's hard to imagine what a “concise introduction” to Buddhism could be like - a subject so vast deserves (and has produced) many volumes of learned verbiage, but this puts it outside the range of understanding for people who want a small, if alluring, taste.
Huston Smith and Philip Novak (described on the book’s jacket as “two luminaries in the field of world religions”) have succeeded in giving that taste without talking down to the intellectuals who like to make Buddhism their playground. Best of all they present Buddhism as the Buddha might have - by logical historical steps.
All religions have an esoteric and an exoteric reality. It's possible to think you're a Buddhist because you're a peace-loving sort of person who's drawn to meditation and vegetarianism. Then you are confronted with pictures of demons and priests in bizarre costumes and you have to reconcile that with the simple bare bones religion you believe you practice. Then come the factions - the “Little Raft” (hinayana or theravada) and the Big Raft (manayana) Buddhists (can’t help but make you think of Gulliver's Little Enders and Big Enders), willing to debate endlessly the true meaning of the religion, and you wonder where your place is in all this palaver.
What the authors have done is to show how Buddhism evolved over time, from the loving logic of the master himself to the present day. They weave into the tale sufficient mythology ("the Bo tree rained red blossoms"), the zesty Zen of 1950's intellectual counter-culture (“the Beats found...sitting dampened their flamboyant style“), and the hippy love of meditation and adoration of all things Eastern.
Then to clarify the confusion about the temples with their multi-layered rituals, the authors take us through the steps of Pure Land Buddhism, a large and largely ignored branch of Buddhism which would, with different labels, be quite recognizable to an evangelical Christian. In fact it would be reasonable (if audaciously heretical to fundamentalists of both religions) to make the argument that Buddhism is just a much older version of Christianity which, with age, has developed more branches and farther reaching roots.
As Smith and Novak correctly state: "All religions are paradoxical." When the Infinite takes form and is squeezed into the Finite, all attempts by the finite mind to comprehend and explain it will have to be, by their very nature, false in some way. A major difference between a book like Buddhism - a Concise Introduction and many works which seek to explain Christian beliefs is that, despite the implication of the title, facts are presented without arrogance, without any sense of I-Thou-ism.
It could be argued that Zen caught on here in the United States because Christianity had a haughty mien and was mired in ritual and dogma. Zen, by contrast, seemed gentle, quiet and daringly simple. "Infinite gratitude to all things past, infinite service to all things present, infinite responsibility to all things future" are the three feelings with which one is imbued when dualism dissolves in the fire of meditative silence. As a credo and a guide to living in the world, it lacks nothing.
Another attraction of Zen was the notion of the intellect eating itself -”if reason is not a ball and chain anchoring mind to earth, it is at least a ladder too short to reach the truth’s full heights.” It would be very fair to say that most people in America who have flirted with or gone on to marry into Buddhism, are people of large intellect who are burdened by the mind and its multifarious tricks to keep them from the true path. Zen meditation with its apparently nonsensical koans offers a way to unchain the mind from its infinite associations and just let a sunset be a sunset. Seeing a sunset as a sunset may seem like a pretty empty victory to someone who has never experienced it, but for those who have, it “brings joy - at-one-ment, a sense of reality that defies ordinary language.”
One salient fact about Buddhism which also must have attracted a society stuck in Christian Paulist doctrine was that women in Buddhism are equal to men, can run schools, can be masters of the faith. Not a small thing.
With a field so vast as Buddhism this book could have strayed far - it is always a struggle to remember or care about the names of different masters and teachers and their individual theories and quirks. But if one fixes, as Smith and Novak have done, on the life and basic teachings of the Buddha for a compass, the subject can be contained and understood even by such a layperson as this reviewer. Kudos to these two for having the courage to take on the task.