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An Insightful Biography

book cover

Karen Armstrong, the author of the best-sellers A History of God, The Battle for God, and Islam: A Short History, is known for her reputation as a lucid and insightful historian of Western religions, with a particular expertise on Islam. Leaving the interplay of monotheistic history might seem like a departure for her, but it really isn't. Even in A History of God, Armstrong referred often to happenings in the Buddhist world to give an even wider perspective to Western religious history. Apparently, she has an inside connection; she dedicates this book to Lindsey Armstrong, her Buddhist sister.

There are many excellent biographies of the Buddha available, especially coming from a faith perspective, such as Thich Nhat Hahn's Old Path, White Clouds. However, Armstrong predictably applies her historian's ability to capture the sense of the time and presents Siddhatta Gotama (aka Siddhartha Gautama; Armstrong uses Pali forms consistently in this book) in the context of his time and culture. She begins with a frank assessment of the difficulty of a historian's work in capturing Gotama's life. Although the massive Pali canon bursts at the seams with his conversations and accounts of events in his life, they are conspicuously stylized for recitation, and they deliberately avoid revealing his personality. Furthermore, they were not committed to writing until hundreds of years after his death, so a historian must use them judiciously. Nevertheless, Armstrong dives into the accounts, separating the oldest accounts from later ones, and embellishments from history. Her style might seem somewhat repetitive to someone familiar with Buddhism, but she wants to build a clear understanding with a reader who knows nothing on the subject. Generally, her style is clear and fresh, only occasionally does her perspective get in the way, for instance, in psychologizing Mara the tempter's appearance as Buddha's subconscious "shadow."

Looking around the Buddha

Armstrong's greatest accomplishment here is in looking around the Buddha to give the reader a sense of the social and political situation in upper Ganges basin, the family life of a prince of a major tribe, and the interweaving threads of his family and companions throughout his life. For instance, we find that becoming a sanyasin, a renunciate monk, was not at all uncommon. Armstrong shows us that thousands of young people throughout the region were sick of the structure of their society and resolved to "go forth" as renunciates, rebelling against a world-system that seemed evil and meaningless by dedicating themselves to finding the key to total liberation from it. For them, total liberation meant never having to return to this realm where ultimately sickness and death prevail. So pervasive was the dissatisfaction with the state of things, that Armstrong says these mendicant monks were seen as "heroic pioneers" and were "honored as rebels" by society as a whole.

The account of the six years between Gotama's "going forth" to becoming the enlightened one is particularly fascinating. We learn surprisingly specific information of the teachers he had, the philosophies they upheld, the disciplines he practiced, and why he ultimately found all of them lacking. From there, we learn of his dedication to the practice of mindfulness, the discovery of the Eightfold Path, and his enlightenment.

Much Buddhist writing is simply dreary. Unenlightened Buddhists not only lack the experience which they seek, but they may not have the environment of joyous enlightenment around them to fuel their quest with joy. Non-Buddhists who write on Buddhism routinely misinterpret vital but difficult concepts such as nirvana, anicca, and anatta, sometimes even believing them to signify a quest for annihilation! (Amazing the persistence of such ignorance.) Armstrong is the first writer I've come across who successfully communicates the incredible joy the Buddha radiated, which drew tens of thousands of people to his radical way of life. People saw something passionate and compelling in him! In short, this book will certainly give readers new insight into the Buddha, and might give many new insight into Buddhism itself.