Of all the biographers enlisted to write for the successful and acclaimed Penguin Lives series, none could have faced a harder job than Karen Armstrong. It’s not just that Siddhartha Gautama — known after his enlightenment as the Buddha — lived at a time when literacy was uncommon in his native India and thus left behind, as Armstrong puts it, “very little information that can be considered historically sound.” It’s not just that the most authoritative of the orally preserved scripture that does describe a bit of his life, the Pali canon, wasn’t written down until the first century B.C.E., hundreds of years after the Buddha’s death. Armstrong’s greatest challenge is the fact that everything the Buddha believed in and taught is utterly opposed to biography itself.
The very impulses and notions that make us read biographies — curiosity about the individuals who shape historical events and a belief in the significance of their personal dreams, loves, flaws, disappointments, passions and intimate relationships — all of this the Buddha considered not just irrelevant to human happiness but inimical to it. As some observers pointed out when the Taliban destroyed two monumental statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan last month, the spiritual leader would have considered both the effort to erect the sculptures and the fight to save them (as well as, mostly likely, the crusade to annihilate them) sadly misguided; he himself was not the point. A faithful biography of the Buddha would have to be a kind of anti-biography in which everything that we in the West consider “interesting” about the man eventually falls away like, to use his own metaphor, the discarded skin of a snake or the scabbard of a sword, leaving behind a being who is serenely “impersonal.”
Nevertheless, Armstrong (“A History of God,” “Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths”), a former Roman Catholic nun and arguably the most lucid, wide-ranging and consistently interesting religion writer today, manages to pull it off. And she does it so successfully that “Buddha” is the first book in the Penguin Lives series to make the New York Times bestseller list. Buddhists will probably find this book sketchy and overly detached (Armstrong clearly isn’t a believer), but they aren’t its intended audience. Instead, Armstrong has set herself the task of explaining one of the East’s most enigmatic spiritual figures to a Western audience accustomed to encountering the divine with an entirely different set of cognitive tools. She places Gautama in his historical context (the most exciting, earthshaking few hundred years in religious history) and deftly compares his teachings with those of more familiar Western sages: Jesus and the authors of the Gospels, the Hebrew prophets, Socrates and Mohammed. She unpacks some of the more baffling Buddhist concepts, elucidates aspects of the religion that Westerners often find off-putting and, where earthbound reason can’t take us, attempts to suggest an outline of the ineffable.
It can’t have been easy. Unlike, say, the New Testament, in which the story of Christ’s life is the heart and soul of the scripture, Buddhist holy texts don’t focus much on Gautama’s life or offer a continuous narrative of it. Scattered fragments of his biography appear in various texts whose status is often disputed. And, among these, there are “almost no details about the forty-five years of the Buddha’s teaching mission, after his enlightenment.” What does matter about his life, the Buddha insisted, is that it was entirely human. The gods who populate some Buddhist tales — holdovers from the Vedic cult that would evolve into Hinduism — were fallible and mortal despite their powers. The Buddha himself did not believe in a Supreme Being. “He confined his researches to his own human nature and always insisted that his experiences — even the supreme truth of Nibbana [or nirvana; Armstrong uses the Pali spellings of Buddhist terms] — were entirely natural to humanity.”
To a casual Western observer, Buddhist doctrine can seem maddeningly complex and vague, a kind of bureaucratic filing system composed of dozens of lists like the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the five “yama,” the five “khandhas” and so on. Armstrong stresses that, as bewildering as all these quadruplicate and quintuplicate concepts may be, Buddhism is at heart a do-it-yourself religion, and one that was founded by a confirmed skeptic. “He always refused to take anything on trust,” Armstrong writes of her subject, “and later, when he had his own sangha [order], he insistently warned his disciples not to take anything at all on hearsay.” While it isn’t easy to master the necessary yogic disciplines, the Buddha said, they are available to everyone, and anyone who pursues them devotedly can attain nirvana.
The Buddhism that Armstrong describes, then, is a kind of cosmic instruction book. The principles and procedures come first, with anecdotes from the Buddha’s life used as occasional illustrations. Perhaps the second most familiar story about the Buddha’s life concerns his “Going Forth.” The son of a powerful aristocrat in northern India, Gautama left a life of ease, pleasure and family (he had a wife and son) to wander as a homeless mendicant begging his meals from laypeople and seeking a spiritual path that transcended samsara, the endless, painful cycle of earthly existence. The most famous Buddha story relates his enlightenment, years later, as he meditated under the “bodhi” tree. It’s worth noting that the Christian scriptures culminate in what we call the Passion of Christ, events of searing emotional power, while Buddha, having after years of questing and study achieved nirvana, that state of inviolable peace, cried out, “It is liberated!”
Reading Armstrong’s “Buddha” prompts such comparisons, and makes it easier to see why Buddhism can strike those steeped in Western culture as either opaque or, conversely, tremendously appealing. The New Testament has been cheesily nicknamed “the greatest story ever told,” but even a non-Christian must admit that it is a terrific story, as is much of the Old Testament. Both books have drama, tenderness, pathos, tragedy and redemption as well as vividly drawn characters. As Armstrong wends her way to the end of the Buddha’s biography, she grapples with the very lack of these enthralling elements in Buddhist texts. The Buddha, she writes, “owed his liberation precisely to the extinction of the unique traits and idiosyncrasies that Western people prize in their heroes.” And so, “with our Western love of individuality, we can feel dissatisfied” with his tale. Once the Buddha achieved enlightenment, he became someone to whom nothing further of significance could happen. One of his titles, “Tathagata,” means something like “gone.”
Buddhist scriptures mostly, then, outline the steps one must take to follow him. Looking for a profane metaphor, I thought that while the Bible is like an episode of “ER,” some of the eminently “pragmatic” Buddhist ideas that Armstrong describes remind me of an episode of “Martha Stewart Living,” a show I used to watch in the mornings for its soothing effect. “ER,” like the Bible, is full of the dramatic stuff great stories are made of: blood, fury and tears. “Martha” is serenely procedural as it takes us through the steps of sewing a pillow cover or roasting a rack of lamb — even the demure little smile its host wears recalls certain statues of the Buddha. And yes, the hospital drama can be exciting, but the time comes when you’re sick of blood, fury and tears and you just want dinner.
That’s a bit like how Gautama felt at his “Going Forth,” and it’s no doubt what draws so many Westerners to follow the Easterners of generations before into the faith that the Buddha and his disciples characterized as a “cool refuge” from the heat and dust of samsara. For the Indians of the Buddha’s time, reincarnation wasn’t an opportunity to reap attention by going on low-budget TV shows about “the paranormal” and claiming to have been an Egyptian princess in an earlier life, or a chance to reunite with a lost true love. The Buddha and his contemporaries saw reincarnation as shackling them to an endless cycle of loss, pain and death: “The prospect of living one life after another filled Gotama, like most other people in northern India, with horror.” As Armstrong explains, Buddha’s teachings offer step-by-step instructions on how to get off this hellish hamster wheel and pass into the indescribable state of nirvana.
In some of the most fascinating passages of “Buddha,” Armstrong relates how northern Indians responded to a remarkable revolution, one that “marks the beginning of humanity as we now know it.” Between 800 and 200 B.C.E., during a time now called the Axial Age, old ways of understanding the world and our place in it were transformed by people determined “to seek the highest goals and an absolute reality in the depths of their being.” The towering figures of this period — “remarkably contemporaneous” according to Armstrong — included the composers of the Hebrew Bible, Socrates and Plato, Iranian prophet Zoroaster, Confucius, Laotzu and the Buddha. “The Axial Age remains mysterious,” Armstrong writes. “We do not know what caused it.” Nevertheless, it was a time when “it was felt that only by reaching beyond their limits could human beings become most fully themselves.”
Armstrong describes a northern India in which the traveling “bhikkhus” (almsmen) were seen as “heroic pioneers … When the leader of one of the sanghas arrived in town, householders, merchants and government officials would seek him out, interrogate him about his dhamma [doctrine], and discuss its merits with the same kind of enthusiasm with which people discuss football teams today.” Once he had discovered his own dhamma, the Buddha became a kind of celebrity and led a life that was surprisingly urban and social; he had set aside his initial plans to retreat into solitary contemplation because devoting one’s life to the service of others was a key principle of his dhamma. This was often trying; in perhaps the book’s most charming anecdote, the Buddha becomes so distressed by a schism among his followers that he goes off to live alone in the forest, befriending an elephant who was similarly exasperated with his own species.
The Buddha’s rejection of family life (it prevents you from achieving the detachment necessary for nirvana) and his troubling attitude toward women (he initially wanted to ban them from the sangha, presumably to avoid tempting the male monks, but was talked out of it by an attendant) will alienate some readers. On the other hand, the absence in Buddhism of a concept of sin — with all the twisted self-loathing the term implies — seems blessedly sane. The Buddha defined such behavior and thinking as simply “unskillful”; it doesn’t get you where you want to go. To the instinctive Western terror at the idea of abandoning all personality and self (“I am going to be annihilated and destroyed; I will no longer exist!” is how Armstrong characterizes it) he offered a simple argument: “When people lived as though the ego did not exist, they found that they were happier.”
While “Buddha” doesn’t pretend to offer a comprehensive introduction to the Buddha’s thought, there’s a surprising quantity of information and insight in its 200 pages. Armstrong makes this extraordinary man, one of the most influential who ever lived, and his ideas more understandable by letting us see, for example, how his emphasis on using questions to seek the truths we already know mirrors the techniques of Socrates. And yet Armstrong doesn’t shrink from defining the gulf between Buddha’s spiritual vision and the one that saturates Western culture. This scintillating interplay of similarity and difference makes for fascinating, fertile reading. For a biography of someone who wasn’t there, it’s quite an achievement. Or, as a very different kind of sage would say, it’s a good thing.