Donald Lopez, a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan, is one of the best scholars who attempt to present a balanced, accurate picture of Buddhism as it has been practiced over the generations. His book "The Story of Buddhism" considers the actual practice of Buddhism, in all its diverse forms, in Asia, superstitions, magic, idiosyncracies, and all. In this way, it differs from most books that present Buddhism to Americans. These books typically focus on meditation, on the liberating, non-theistic character of the Buddha's teaching, and of Buddhism as a guide to life in the difficulties of secular 20th and 21st century America. Such works are valuable and important, but they fail to give the reader a historical sense of Buddhism.
Lopez's book opens with a short treatment of Buddhist cosmology, including its picture of the universe, the earth, and the heavens and hells. There is an all-to-brief discussion of the key Buddhist teaching of Dependent Origination.
The chapter on cosmology is followed by a discussion of the life of the Buddha, taken from a wide variety of textual sources, of the Dharma, Monasticism, Lay Life, and Enlightenment.
The focus of the book is on the various schools of Mahayana Buddhism and on the Buddhism of Tibet. I found surprisingly little discussion of Theravada Buddhism, (practiced historically in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand) which is likely the earliest version of Buddhism we have today. Lopez describes well how various Mahayana thinkers broke away from earlier teachings but doesn't tell us much about these early teachings themselves.
There is a great deal of emphasis in the book on how the Buddha's teaching was applied and modified over the years. Most of lay practice, Lopez informs us, was devoted to the accumulation of merit by the practice of good deeds. A regular meditation practice, much less textual study of the Sutras, was simply unavailable to most people who have over the generations called themselves Buddhists, either laity or monastic.
Lopez describes well the ritualistic practices of any number of Buddhist schools, emphasisizing matters such as relic worship, ancestor worship, fortune-telling and horoscopes, miracle cures, magic, mandalas, and what the modern reader is likely to view as superstition. He briefly describes for the reader a number of Buddhist schools and practices,including Tantric Buddhism, the Pure Land School, and Zen, and their different paths to enlightenment. There is a wonderfully detailed picture of a ritual involving the Heart Sutra, repeated many times, with the use of icons and statues.
This book is a welcome, clear-minded corrective to those who approach Buddhism ahistorically. But there is, indeed, more to the story than this, as Professor Lopez realizes. For all his objectivity, I think Lopez has some grasp of the power of the Buddha's message which has led many to it, including modern Americans, over the millenia. This is most clearly indicated in the final paragraph of Professor Lopez's book. He writes (p. 256)
" But there is also another challenge, the challenge provided by the dharma, which makes the remarkable claim that it is possible to live a life untainted by what are called the eight worldly concerns: gain and loss, fame and disgrace, praise and blame, happiness and sorrow."
This is a worthwhile critical introduction to an endlessly fascinating teaching.
Lopez includes a lot of valuable information in this work. Probably more information than a beginner needs or wants. Also, I found the organization to be confusing. A much better book in this category, I felt, was Karen Armstrong's "Buddha". I also recommend "The Buddhist Handbook" by Snelling, although it is more idiosyncratic than the others.