The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Buddhist Wisdom

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Buddhist Wisdom

By Gill Farrer-Halls
Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2000. Hardback, 192 pages.

This splendid volume is surely not an encyclopedia in the modern sense of the word, for there are no alphabetized entries or technical terms of Buddhist thought. Rather, it is a beautifully illustrated introduction to the essential features of Buddhism in its Theravadin, Tibetan, and Zen forms and to the practice of that spiritual tradition today.

As an introduction, it is not meant for students of Buddhist- philosophy—technical vocabulary is kept at a minimum. So, too, is the discussion of the bewildering variety of Buddhist seers that have arisen over the course of the tradition's long history. Essentially, the work is for lay people wishing to grasp the fundamental teachings, values, and methods of Buddhism without undue emphasis upon Sanskrit vocabulary or historical narrative. In this respect, the volume achieves its purpose admirably. It is a very good place to begin one's acquaintance with South and East Asia's most dominant spiritual tradition.

More advanced students will, of course, find many gaps in the account. Little is said, for instance, about Pure Land (qing tu) Buddhism, a form that has always been far more popular in China and Japan than Ch'an (Zen). Tantricism is mentioned in connection with Tibet but is hardly explained adequately. Madhyamika philosophy, which lies at the root of Mahayana, does not even appear in the index. The reader who has studied Buddhism already will sense a tendency on the part of the author to homogenize the various schools and traditions until Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan forms seem to be almost the same.

Nevertheless, for the beginner this is a more than adequate place to start, for it is written with a quiet serenity and faith that are quite compelling. The emphasis upon techniques of meditation rather than doctrine is quite helpful. The illustrations are both beautiful and informative.

It is, in a word, an upaya, an excellent expedient device to start one on the path. After the reader has absorbed all that has been said here, it will be time to amplify and more carefully nuance the understanding. Buddhism knows and teaches that not everything can be said at the beginning. The Buddhist path entails constant revision and reinterpretation. This work is an excellent starting point for a life's journey.


May/June 2003