A modern Thai representation of Buddha Shakyamurti's enlightenment under the Bo tree.
A modern Thai representation of Buddha Shakyamurti’s enlightenment under the Bo tree.

Karen Armstrong
Viking: New York, 2001
205 pp.; $19.95 (cloth)

How do you write a biography of a Tathagata, one who has “disappeared”? Anyone who aspires to the task of writing the life of the Buddha has to confront not only the total absence of recorded historical testimony but also the potentially even more intractable problem that his life and teachings were devoted to the transcendence of personality as we know it. Yet this is the koan that Karen Armstrong, author of the bestsellingA History of God, has embraced in her new addition to Penguin’s series of concise “Lives” for the general reader. It is a challenge, she herself confesses, noting that compared even to the biblical accounts of Moses or Jesus, the traditional narratives of the Buddha’s post-enlightenment career—in keeping with the Indian philosophical tradition—tend to render him an archetype rather than a tangible human being.

Armstrong’s sensible approach is to play to her undoubted strengths as a historian; and her signal achievement for the nonspecialist is to set the emergence of Buddhism in the historical context of a period of massive socioeconomic change and associated spiritual crisis—an “Axial Age” (so-called because historians regard it as a pivot of human cultural development) spanning six centuries from 800 B.C.E., which saw the birth of most of the great world religious and philosophical traditions. She sees Gotama’s story—a compassionate response to the suffering of a society in upheaval combined with a revulsion from the old social order and the religious doctrines that sustained it—as encapsulating the struggles of the Axial Age and the new responses to eternal human dilemmas it generated: “Gotama felt that his life had become meaningless. A conviction that the world was awry was fundamental to the spirituality that emerged in the Axial countries.” This perspective consistently throws up illuminating and provocative insights and parallels—and not just between Buddhism and its near-contemporary Axial rivals, but also between the Buddha’s time and our own. When Armstrong speaks of a society scarred by “violence and ruthlessness where the economy was fueled by greed, and where merchants and bankers locked in aggressive competition preyed on one another,” the modern reader may well feel she understands not only Buddhism’s origins but how and why it is taking root so strongly in the West today.

Illuminating as this historical approach may be, it does seem at times as if Armstrong is simply using the Buddha as a convenient jumping-off point for an exploration of the Axial transformation that is her real interest (and in fact is the subject of her next book). Her occasional attempts to restore the balance between history and biography sometimes have jarring results— notably as her lapses into psychological conjecture. (Do we know that the Buddha experienced “the weariness of survival” in his later years or that as a young man, Gotama really abandoned his family so abruptly because “he did not trust himself to hold true to his resolve should his wife beg him to stay”?)

Some of Armstrong’s psychological interpretations of the legends and parables are compelling, however, and provide a familiar lens that may be particularly helpful to non-Buddhists in viewing the Buddha’s life story. She suggests, for example, that “Gotama’s pleasure-palace is a striking image of a mind in denial,” and that once Gotama admitted suffering, he could go forth and his quest could begin. Mara the tempter is also described as “what Jungians would call the Buddha’s shadow side.” Armstrong retells Gotama’s life experiences in ways that illuminate their significance in his later teaching. For example, she uncovers the meaning at the heart of the memory that inspired the Buddha to depart from the ascetic path and embrace the middle way. She describes the “almost Proustian recollection” of the young Gotama under a rose-apple tree as a boy when he saw fields being plowed and in a flash understood that this meant the destruction of countless blades of grass, insects, and their eggs. His grief was immediately followed by a feeling of pure joy arising in his heart. Armstrong helpfully suggests that this moment of spontaneous compassion and selfless empathy, “in which he had allowed the pain of creatures that had nothing to do with him personally to pierce him to the heart, brought about a moment of spiritual release.”

Armstrong is a self-described “freelance monotheist,” and her distance from her material is sometimes palpable. She does expound Buddhism’s central tenets in clear, simple language (from key concepts such as impermanence to the definition-defying parinibbana) and is clearly animated by an admiration for Buddha’s philosophy of compassion. Yet, Buddhist readers may feel that her approach as a religious historian, and her exclusion of many of the fables and legends that lend Gotama’s story so much of its incalculable power, too often makes her narrative flat and a little dry.

Nonetheless, as a readable introduction to the life and teachings of the Buddha, Armstrong’s book can certainly be recommended, and its comparative treatment of Buddhism alongside other Western and non-Western religious traditions make it particularly approachable and relevant for the non-Buddhist Westerner.

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