Wednesday, June 10, 2009
© 2001 Karen Armstrong
Karen Armstrong's Buddha is a concise biography of Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise known as (the) Buddha. The book, divided into five key sections, begins with Armstrong introducing the texts she uses as her sources -- vouching for or admitting potential weaknesses in them. Because Gautama is known solely as a religious figure, the book is written about that figure and the chapter titles reflect that. Armstrong begins by writing on the Brahmin religion and the beginnings of the Axial Age in the region that Gautama grew up in, writing on the communities of monks who had "gone forth", abandoning their homes to live in the forests or to travel through the land looking for spiritual teachers. Although she wrote of this in The Great Transformation, it's so different from the reality I know that it still strikes me. According to Armstrong, these people were not looking for bliss or contentment -- they were looking for freedom from the cycle of life. What I didn't know was that they believed even the gods yearned to be free from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth -- that the gods themselves wanted to achieve Nibanna/Nirvana. Nothing save freedom from the cycle was worthwhile.
The book records Gautama's call go "go forth" and his journey -- exploring the various traditions of the teachers he meets. According to Armstrong, he realizes early on that if he is to find Nibanna, he must find a way that is demonstrably true: accepting things on faith will not do. Eventually he realizes the way of Nibanna and the book switches to the growth of his Sangha as depicted in the Buddhist scriptures, even mentioning an attempt to seize power by one of his disciples. The book ends with his death.
Buddha was a tidy and helpful biography. Armstrong establishes the context, fits Buddha's story within it, and tells that story well, sometimes examining controversial subjects like misogyny in some of the Buddhist texts. Although most of the information in here I've gleaned from other source, I think its presentation here is sharp and reccommend it for someone curious about Buddha.