At the end of his latest book, The Thousand and One Lives of the Buddha, Bernard Faure asks, of the narrative of the Buddha’s life,
Can we simply savor it rather than hasten to interpret it? Its flavor is perhaps what remains when all the interpretations have been exhausted, and we simply let ourselves be carried by the word, the text, or the image.
At the end of the journey, the Life of the Buddha closes (or opens) on a mystery.
These last sentences in Faure’s compendium of what he rightly spells “the Life” of the Buddha immediately make two things clear. First, that this “Life” of the Buddha extends far beyond any one “life” of any one person. Second, that Faure is serious when he asks if we are genuinely able to savor the Life of the Buddha without—or at least leaving aside—our interpretations? If not, we may not befriend this book. If so, the book and the mystery may reveal wonders.
Being of a certain age, I can remember the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour.” After so many consecutive successes, the band was surprised that one of its projects failed to satisfy its audience. I find a double parallel here. First, that after so many successes as a scholar/author, Faure may fail to find an audience for this book. And why? Because Faure takes us on his own magical mystery tour of the Buddha’s Life and, true to his challenge, leaves us to savor it without his overarching interpretation. This may leave scholars wanting more, but at the same time it leaves everyone else with a superfluity of details about the Life.
In his foreword, John Strong, himself a biographer of the Buddha, admits that he “succumbed to” the idea of the historical Buddha, the reasoned and reasonable human life that one man must have led. But Strong immediately adds that Faure directs us away from this idea and toward the mythic nature of the Life we have received. Once we let go of a hypostasized historical Buddha, we open ourselves to the riches of that greater Life. As Faure’s book was published in French several years ago, Strong’s perceptive English foreword is a kind of review, and one of the rewards awaiting the English-language reader.
The book’s title plays on The Thousand and One Nights, another palimpsest of lives and narratives. Like Scheherazade’s opus, The Thousand and One Lives of the Buddha assembles stories from across Asia and the Middle East. The need behind this bricolage is not to sum matters up neatly but to continue the conversation. Faure’s book has three parts: First, a short but magisterial survey of the history of scholarship on the life of the Buddha. Second, articulations of the Life and its dramatis personae from the Indian subcontinent. Finally, a collection of narratives from East Asia and even non-Buddhist sources, including from our own time. And there Faure leaves us with his question: Can we savor this richness, rather than hasten to interpret it?
I have resisted writing a scholarly review of this book, precisely because the book resists being a scholarly work. Faure firmly refuses to reduce the Life to a life. Likewise, it would be wrong to reduce this review to an appreciation of Faure’s interpreting that life or even Life, as that would entirely miss the book’s point. But without such an appreciation, and facing the thousand and one (or perhaps 108,000) characters, lives, metaphors, and, yes, interpretations (Faure cannot help himself, nor should he) that the author weaves into this sumptuous tapestry, what am I to say? I cannot call up even a hundredth part of the material in the Life, and, if I could, what would be the point of fixating on that speck? Instead, let me spend a few words on my experience of this book as a reader.
I imagine any reader’s central experience will be a sense of being overwhelmed by the power of the legendary and literary Life that Faure communicates: “the truth of the Buddha is probably more accessible in legend than in historical facts.” Unquestionably, the legend lives, and provides a paradigm for our own lives. Buddhists have celebrated this reality for 2,500 years, and Faure revels in the creativity with which they have made that Life relevant to us, reassuring to us, aspirational for us. The pitifully thin facts of the life do not inspire. The vivid, human-but-more antecedents, events, and echoes of the Life, by contrast, form the foundations of a liberative religion.
In the first words of his first chapter, Faure—in a typically Faurean move—reverses a standard scholarly progression. Rather than treat the Life as a pretext for examining doctrine, he treats doctrine as a pretext for examining the Life. Reversing the classical evolution of the treasures (Buddha>Dharma>Sangha) Faure gives us instead Sangha>Dharma>Buddha, since the sangha determined its beliefs and values, and those in turn limned the Life of the Buddha as we have received it. Faure plays with the three treasures as if they were a shell game and by disorienting us allows us to see these treasures anew. As if that were not radical enough—in a jeu de mots et/ou d’esprit in the very same sentence—he also plays a word game with us, using “pretext” to mean both something we assume (and potentially hide) and the text that we value before all others. As usual, Faure guides us on a wild ride.
More importantly, Faure asserts that the invented nature of the stories that comprise the Life “does not diminish their value but attests to the inventive genius of those Asian cultures, beginning with India, that were able to give life to a multi-form ideal.” While the “life” is a project of Eurocentrism—I use that word for those uncomfortable with the term “white supremacy”—the “Life” is a project of Asian multicultural creativity. I hope that scholars and practitioners will enrich Buddhist studies and Buddhism itself by affirming the latter project and embracing Buddhist lives in relationship to the Life.
Very early on in his book, Faure envisions that scholars may attack it. He also writes that “it is time to question certain dogmas that for too long have stifled the free development of Buddhist studies and contributed to masking the richness of this tradition.” Bravo, yet strange to read, as that genie is already out of the bottle (and thank goodness!). A new generation of scholars is actively pursuing all manner of unmasked Buddhist studies—something I hope Faure knows, as he has trained so many of them in person and through his foundational works. Could it be that even Bernard Faure does not recognize to what extent he has liberated the field? If so, here is a further reason to be grateful for the compassionate Life of the Buddha, with its attention to all of our universally shared insecurities.
Thus, not wishing to idiosyncratically highlight any aspect of the Life that Faure shares with us in The Thousand and One Lives of the Buddha, I will simply close with the note that I am the richer for having read this book. You will be as well.
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