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Buddhism, Knowledge and Liberation

A book review by Andrew May

First published in The Middle Way, August 2005

BUDDHISM, KNOWLEDGE AND LIBERATION: A Philosophical Study, by David Burton, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2004, ISBN 0 7546 0436 5, pp. 188, £16.99.

There are two types of philosophy book that are likely to interest Buddhists: those that describe Buddhist philosophy in terms of the culture in which it was developed, and those that compare Buddhist philosophical ideas with those of the West. Unfortunately, this book by David Burton falls into neither of these categories. Instead, it attempts to analyse one particular aspect of Buddhist philosophy using the techniques and attitude of modern academic theory.

It is not that this is a bad book. The author is knowledgeable about Buddhism – both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions – and about Western philosophy down to the present day. His arguments are presented with care and intelligence, and the book is written in a readable (if somewhat pedantic) style. The problem is simply that, from a Buddhist perspective, the book sets out to do something that doesn’t need to be done.

The author focuses on what he calls "gnostic Buddhism": the notion that knowledge leads to liberation. It is true that knowledge – contrasted with ignorance or wrong views – is an essential prerequisite to Buddhist practice. "Right view" is the first step on the noble eightfold path, and ignorance is the first link in the chain of dependent origination. But this knowledge is the kind of wisdom or insight that can only be gained through experience – not the arcane, handed-down knowledge of Western gnosticism or the mystery traditions. Purely factual knowledge would, to a Buddhist, fall into the category of ego-inflating "wrong views" – as would the kind of word-wrangling that Professor Burton delights in (for example: "A far better and more intelligible response might be to relinquish the teaching of universal emptiness that produces the ontological paradox."). Ultimately Buddhism is a faith, not a pet theory that is open to dialectical argument.

This is a book by an academic, and it is written for academics. At one point the author says "One needs to be very careful not to assimilate thoughtlessly and carelessly philosophies from different times and cultures to ways of thinking that are influential in one's own time and culture." If you agree with this sentiment, then the book is probably not for you.

Copyright © 2005 Andrew May

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