Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


The Vision of Buddhism
by Roger Corless

In one interview, the Dalai Lama makes a distinction between Buddhists and Buddhologists, pointing out that studying Buddhism is not the same as practising it.

All too often books for the novice concentrate too much on the spread of the Dharma and the different forms it has taken in the countries where it has taken root without giving the reader that all-important first taste of the Dharma. There is a real danger of being like the deaf man who knew all about violins but, for obvious reasons, had never heard one. Or, in the words of the World-Honoured One, like the dying man who refuses to allow the arrow to be removed from his body until he has been told everything it is possible to know about the arrow and who shot it.

Roger J. Corless is a Buddhologist and an exceedingly erudite one at that. Much more importantly, he is a long-term practitioner with first-hand experience in a variety of traditions including Zen, the various Tibetan lineages and the Pure Land schools. This practical experience of the Dharma means that he treasures it as no purely academic Buddhologist ever could and his book, while bearing some similarities to works by other academics, is unusual in that he never goes off into purely theoretical flights, keeping the Dharma always in his sights.

Well, almost never... To the reader used to historical approaches to Buddhism it is quite a shock to be confronted with concepts like Abhidharma, Madhyamika and Yogacara within the first thirty pages. Rather like calculus in mathematics or the use of the subjunctive in French, you only get to "do" Abhidarma, Madhyamika and Yogacara after you have learned a whole load of other stuff. But Roger Corless is not interested (or at least not primarily interested) in how these schools may have come about; he presents them as complementary tools that can help us on the road to experiencing for ourselves whatever it was that happened under the Bodhi tree all those centuries ago.

The device he adopts to put the historical, Buddhologists' approach firmly in the closet where it belongs is one I initially had problems with. His book is structured around what he calls the Twelve Acts of the Buddha. The first of these Acts he entitles "Waiting in the Tushita Heaven" and progresses through the traditional phases of the life of Shakyamuni (last human birth, renunciation, asceticism, awakening, teaching) to "Final Nirvana".

My initial problems melted away as I started to appreciate that by using this structure Roger Corless is using skilful means to present the Dharma as a whole. As anyone who has ever tried to teach the Dharma will know, the problem is always where to start. The fact is that although the Dharma is "good in the beginning, good in the middle and good in the end", it has no beginning, middle or end but is a seamless whole that must be lived.

Roger Corless cuts through arguments about whether Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion; he proclaims that it is a supremely optimistic and positive vision (p.19). An outstanding feature of this book is its humour. Although at times presenting concepts of brain-crunching difficulty (the section on the origin of Buddhas left this reader reeling), Roger Corless always maintains a twinkle in his eye. Little asides like "If you're still with me" after a particularly abstruse passage, or, during the section on the so-called "cold-hells" in the Buddhist cosmology "...a Buddhist cannot say, "It'll be a cold day in hell before I..." are much more than sugar on an indigestible pill. Instead they are signs of the considerable compassion Roger Corless has cultivated in many years of teaching Buddhism: he is convinced that these points are essential to an understanding of the Dharma but knows very well how difficult they can be to grasp.

Good books are like good companions; they have the advantage over human companions that you can always close them and put them down, and pick them up again when you are ready. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent in Roger Corless's company and feel that my understanding of the Dharma has been deepened by it. I look forward to picking up his book again once I have digested all I learned from my first reading. Perhaps next time I will understand what he has to say about the origin of Buddhas...

The last sentence of Mr. Corless's book is a worthy sample of the whole. He concludes his section on the nature of Nirvana by concluding that it is, of course, ungraspable. But, he says, "Whatever it is, it won't be a disappointment."

Now that's my kind of Buddhologist.

- Patrick Micel

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