To compose this column, I could have contented myself with skimming over the tables of contents and writing:
“Thanks to the luminous volume 1 on ancient Buddhism and Theravada, you will know everything about the different types of awakening seen by this tradition. With the superb volume 2 on Mahayana Buddhism, you will discover what is called "the way of the bodhisattva" or, for the most erudite, the distinctions between Madhyamaka and Yogacara. Finally, the excellent volume 3 on Vajrayana Buddhism will immerse you in the heart of the secrets of the external and internal tantras, and of Dzogchen, this non-tantric direct approach”.
Such was my intention when I weighed the three volumes totaling a few thousand pages. But curiosity pushed me to read the first chapters. Is it the clarity of the writing of Philippe Cornu, which gives us the impression of following the story of the Buddha and the dissemination of Buddhist teachings through the ages as if we were there? Is it the pleasure, always stimulating, of better understanding what correspond to all these schools, these masters and these practices that we often hear about, without really knowing what distinguishes them? I dropped the literary prizes received at Christmas to devote my evenings to the adventures of the various Buddhas, kings, translators, pilgrims, monks and bodhisattvas who, from India to Japan via Sri Lanka, China or Tibet , have populated the Buddhist gesture for more than 2500 years.
Rest assured, it is not necessary to read all of the thousand pages to feel the interest of the manual of buddhism, the result of many years of teaching by Philippe Cornu, professor of the history of religions at the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), honorary president of the Institute of Buddhist Studies and recognized Tibetologist. From these three volumes emerge at least three levels of reading, from which everyone can draw according to their interest in Buddhism and their level of practice. The first level, accessible to all, is that of the historical and geographical narrative. One will read with ease, in volume 1, the chapters on the life of the Buddha, as well as the section on Theravada which, according to the author, "if it draws its major doctrines from an ancient interpretation of the Pali canon, is above all a current school that has been built over time, largely in reaction to the Mahayanist and Vajrayanist currents that it rubbed shoulders with in Sri Lanka and in Southeast Asia. Similarly, the chapters on the origin and spread of Mahayana across Asia (volume 2), as well as the appearance of Vajrayana in India (volume 3), are easy to explore.
The second level of reading corresponds to the descriptions of the fundamental principles of each of the three traditions (for example the four truths, karma, bodhicitta, emptiness, the natural state or awakened presence, etc.) It is aimed more at practitioners eager to deepen their own way or to discover the points of view and the practices at the base of the other Buddhist schools.
Finally, the third level is where Philippe Cornu analyzes the subtle differences between the traditions, as well as the factors that have led to such and such divergences. Recommended for the more erudite or the intellectually persevering curious. Paradoxically, after such reading, we can feel not more scholarly, but more humble. Because, along the way, our received ideas about Buddhism have taken a hit.