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Historical Reference Sources for "Buddhism" Prepared by Allan Scherlen for Appalachian State University Libraries.


Buddhism has been an intricate part of Asian culture for over 2000 years. A great body of historical texts is available to the Western student both in translation from abroad and written by Western scholars. Since the 1940's, with the help of such writers as D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, Buddhist philosophy has grown in popularity with Western readers. Since the 1960's there has been an expanding interest, among Americans in the benefits of meditation and Eastern approaches to thought and life. Thus today, a library patron should experience little difficulty locating material on the history of Buddhism in a medium-size academic library such as Belk Library at Appalachian State University.


A basic history of Buddhism can be found in general encyclopedias, including World Book, Americana, and Britannica. Belk Library now subscribes to online versions of the latter two. Britannica Online describes the life Guatama Buddha, his basic teachings, and outlines the Theravada, Mahayana and Tantric traditions. Britannica Online also provides web links to related material (see Web Resources section). The Encyclopedia Americana also has an extensive biography of Guatama and history of the movements that followed. The coverage of the topic in Americana is more Western oriented. For instance, Buddhism is discussed almost exclusively as a "religion" rather than as a way of life or thinking and the Buddha's actions are referred to as his "ministries."


One of the best specialized encyclopedias for a basic but thorough history of Buddhism and the life of the Buddha is Mircea Eliade's Encyclopedia of Religion. In volume 2 of the set are long articles on both "Buddha" and "Buddhism." The "Buddha" article's first section describes the use of the term and it various meanings. The second section goes into the biographical history of Guatama. The article notes the historical sources for the biography, both the classic Sanskrit and Pali texts, Indian and Chinese sources, including notes on the discrepancies found in these various traditions. Much legend surrounds Guatama's life. The article goes on to describe the notions of celestial and cosmic Buddhas as well as other living Buddhas. The articles in Eliade's Encyclopedia are directed to a scholarly audience. The article on Buddhism is even more complex and scholarly than that on the Buddha and Buddhahood, providing minute details, including esoteric terminology, on the evolution of the Buddhist tradition through India and China and into Japan.

For a condensed, almanac-like treatment of the subject one should turn to HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion [Bl 31 .h37 1995]. This mini-encyclopedia contains time lines and maps of Buddhism's development through the ages. There is also a "family tree" of the various schools as they developed in their Theravedic, Mahayanic and Vajrayanic directions.

The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences [H 40.A2 I5], edited by David Sills, Macmillan Press (1968) is another excellent source for basic history of the development of Buddhism. The article is easy to follow, with large print, simple terminology, not overly laden with esoteric terminology or an overabundance of obscure references (as may be found in some specialized references). The article contains a long bibliography, including a number of monographs that I would consider pursuing in a study of the history of Buddhism, such as Kenneth Ch'en's Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey, Boribal Buribhand's A History of Buddhism in Thailand, and Charles Norton Elliot's Hinduism and Buddhism: An Historical Sketch.

The Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan has a sort section on the history of Buddhism, devoting more space to aspects of Buddhist art, architecture, literature, sculpture and social custom. The article on "Zen' has a longer section on history, which stands to reason, since Zen is Japan's school of Buddhism. The article traces Zen from its Chinese origins in the "Chan" movement, said to have been started between 638 and 713 AD (Siddhartha Guatama was born about 446BC). The article notes the most important historical developments of Zen in Japan, as well as the major historical figures who arose. The Kodansha Encyclopedia is unique in that it gives a strongly Japanese perspective, being the premier encyclopedia of Japan produced for export.


A search of "Buddhism and history" in Arts and Humanities index, provided through FirstSearch, produced 91 records. The records cover numerous historical subtopics, such as Buddhist European history ("Culture Contact and Valuation: Early German Buddhists and the Creation of a 'Buddhism in Protestant Shape, '" by M. Brumann, in Numen-International Review for the History of Religions), Buddhist cultural history ("Commerce and culture in South Asia: Perspectives from Archaeology and History" by K.D. Morrison in Annual Review of Anthropology), comparative religious history ( "Predecessors and Prototypes - Towards a Conceptual History of the Buddhist Antarabhava [Intervalic Existence]; The Conceptual Systems of Postmortem Temporal Space Transition in Vedic and Upanisadic Hinduism and Buddhism" by B.J, Cuevas in Numen-International Review For The History of Religions), as well as numerous reviews of monographs on historical topics.

A subject search of "Buddhism" in the online version of Historical Abstracts (which covers non-U.S. historical topics from 1450 to the present), produced 420 citations. Adding "Japan" to the subject search reduced the number of hits to 79. I was interested in looking for cultural history, so I added the subject, "marriage," which resulted in two dissertation topics, both dealing with clerical marriage of monks in Japan. I searched for political history of Buddhism in Tibet and received one hit, a book by B.R. Burman entitled Religion and Politics in Tibet. A search of "Buddhism and women" found 9 citations concerning: feminist Buddhism, Buddhist nuns, and an historical perspective on Sinhala women of Sri Lanka.

A search of Essay and General Literature Index, a paper index, gathered into five year volumes (earlier volumes gather ten years each). This is an index of material found in books rather than periodicals. Each citation gives minimal information about author, title and pages. The investigator must refer to a list of books at the back of each volume. I examined the 1975-79 volume and discovered that though there were not many works represented in the index (a little over one page of citations), those present were subdivided into subsections, such as: country names and Buddhism -- art (This index is thus useful for studies in other approaches to Buddhism as well, such as folklore, anthropology, or sociology) . Many of the books mentioned covered the topic generally, (such as the title, Buddhism in Korea); while others cited had a contemporary aspect to them (e.g., Buddhism in Modern Japan and Buddhism in Contemporary Laos and Buddhism in India Today.) These latter monographs would be useful in contemporary historical studies.


An excellent source for locating repositories of original sources is the Directory of Archives & Manuscript Repositories in the United States. 2nd ed. Phoenix: Oryx, 1988. A search of the subject index for "Buddhism" provided entries for four collections: the Oriental Medicine Collection at University of California, San Francisco; the Library of Congress Asian Division; the Smithsonian's Department of Near Eastern Art; and the Harvard-Yenching Library. All four archives contain primary historical Buddhist materials.


An examination of the Library of Congress Subject Headings 21st ed.[Z695 .Z8L5 1998], in search of headings for the history of Buddhism, revealed these patterns of subject headings:

Buddhism -- History

Buddhism -- History -- (time period)

Buddhism -- (country) -- History -- (time period).

Using these subject headings, as well as keyword searching of the Belk Library OPAC, I discovered many books that contained history of Buddhism, too numerous to list. In fact, many books on Buddhism contain at least some historical introduction. Nevertheless, Belk Library houses many volumes that treat the overall history of Buddhism, some that cover the history of Buddhism in particular regions, and others that chronicle the life of one or more Buddhist teachers. Among the general histories are: Kenneth Morgan's The Path of the Buddha (1956) [BL1420 .M6] and N. Ross Raet's, Buddhism : A History (1994) [BQ266 .R43 1994 ]. The former is a mixture of history and philosophy. The latter, a recently published history, is more readable, more devoted to the historical events and less to describing the philosophies. Among the regional histories are Kenneth Ch'en's classic Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey (1972) [BL 1430 .C486 1972x] and Watanabe Shoko's Japanese Buddhism: A Critical Appraisal (1968) [BL 1440 .W34 1968]. Numerous biographies and tales of Buddhist personalities can be found. Among these, for example are Reginald Ray's Buddhist Saints in India (1994) [BQ 4285 .R39 1994] and Masaharu Anesaki's Nichiren, The Buddhist Prophet (1966) [BL1442 .N 53 A5].


A resource recommended by Britannica Online is Resources for the Study of East Asian Language and Thought . The site is valuable for its links to related sites, such as the Buddhist Studies WWW Virtual Library , Zen Buddhism WWW Virtual Library , and Confucianism and Taoism: Substantial Textual Web Resources and annotated links to significant textual resources on the Web . The WWW Virtual Library site contains an enormous amount of historical information and related links. The Zen Virtual Library site, for example, has a complex graph showing the schools of Zen Buddhism and their temporal and doctrinal relationships. It also has links to research groups, a database of related Chinese characters and biographies of 20th century Zen masters. These sites also provide an abundance of links to book providers, Buddhist research organizations, and discussion groups.


My examination of historical reference sources for Buddhism revealed a wide variety of sources from abbreviated biographies of Guatama Buddha in biographical encyclopedias to lengthy, monographic biographies of obscure Buddhist teachers. One can find useful digests of the entire history of Buddhism in encyclopedias of religion, or find detailed histories of short time periods in sharply defined regions by searching Historical Abstracts or ATLA Religion Index. In short, one will find some historical information in almost any text on Buddhism.


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