Reviews: Buddhism — A to Z

Rory Lindsay reviews “The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism” by Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr.

Rory Lindsay
18 February 2014

The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism
By Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr.
Princeton, 2013, 1,265 pages; $65

With over five thousand entries totaling over one million words, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism is the longest Buddhist dictionary ever produced in English. It provides more comprehensive coverage of the vast range of Buddhist ideas, figures, things, and places than any previous dictionary, targeting the six major canonical languages—Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean—while also featuring terms and proper names in vernacular Burmese, Lao, Mongolian, Sinhalese, Thai, and Vietnamese.

In addition to its main entries, which offer both a concise definition and a short essay on each term’s meaning and context, the dictionary includes an impressive set of reference tools: a list of Asian historical periods (to which many of the entries refer); a timeline of Buddhism syncing critical moments in Buddhist history with general world history; multiple maps of Buddhist regions across time (including the Mount Sumeru world system as viewed from above and from the side); and a list of lists that gathers some of the most important lists found in Buddhist sources, from the one vehicle to the two truths to the one hundred dharmas of the Yogacara school.

The dictionary is the result of a long collaboration between Robert Buswell Jr., professor of Buddhist Studies at UCLA and founding director of the Center for Buddhist Studies and Center for Korean Studies, and Donald Lopez Jr., professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. With a wealth of recent scholarship available to them and the assistance of many graduate students, and building on their experience compiling the two-volume Encyclopedia of Buddhism over a decade ago, the two set the ambitious goal of creating a dictionary that begins to represent the full range of Buddhist traditions, not just one school or region.

One of Buswell and Lopez’s primary objectives was to provide balanced coverage of Tibetan and Korean Buddhist terminology. Earlier Western scholarship tended to neglect Tibetan and Korean Buddhism, but over the past few decades the study of these traditions has intensified, affording greater access to their specialized vocabularies. Terms shared across Buddhist languages are also meticulously cross-referenced, an especially useful feature for scholars seeking parallels between traditions.

Buswell and Lopez also hoped that a dictionary of such scope would challenge certain Western misconceptions about Buddhism. They anticipate that readers who believe Buddhism is a philosophy or a “way of life” and not a religion will be surprised by the bevy of miraculous tales about the Buddha and other seminal figures, as well as by the elaborate systems of heavens and hells and various hagiographic stories of teachers.

Much more than a compilation of the philosophies of elite Buddhist figures, the Dictionary deepens our understanding of local traditions and their unique approaches to Buddhist practice, offering glimpses into the many Buddhisms and Buddhist belief systems that have developed over the past two and a half millennia. Both professional and amateur scholars will want to keep The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism within easy reach.

Rory Lindsay

Rory Lindsay

Rory Lindsay is an editor at 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha and a visiting scholar at UC Santa Barbara, where he lectures on Tibetan religions. He is also the Inner Asia area editor for the Religious Studies Review. He received his doctorate in Tibetan studies from Harvard University, and was Buddhadharma’s reviews editor from 2013–18. His new book, Agency and the Afterlife in Tibetan Buddhism, is forthcoming in 2021.