Real gone guy

By Laura Miller

By Salon Staff
Published April 24, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Read the story.

Laura Miller writes that Karen Armstrong's new biography of the Buddha is somehow contrary to the spirit of Buddhism, since "everything the Buddha believed in and taught is utterly opposed to biography itself." This is clearly an overstatement: The Buddha taught many things, and some of these things do justify the writing of biography and hagiography. One such teaching is the Buddhist notion of skillful means ("upaya"). The Buddha recognized that different people have different capacities, and tried to suit his instruction accordingly. For his more advanced students his teachings consisted of abstract philosophical discourses on topics with names like "the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination." But for others he often used folksy parables or stories of his own past lives. In other words, he used whatever means would be most effective in helping his listeners escape suffering in the cycle of rebirth and redeath. This method is one that applies very well to present-day America, where many people have heard of Zen or the Dalai Lama and have some curiosity about Buddhism, but very few know even the rudiments of Buddhist teachings. For people like these, mass-market biographies of the Buddha's life that present his teachings in an easy-to-digest form are very much in keeping with the Buddha's own methods.

-- A.J. Nicholson

Comparing the Bible and the Buddha to "ER" and Martha Stewart was inspired. But the article didn't go far enough in this bracingly irreverent vein. Literalistically interpreted (and there's no reason to believe the Buddha did not do so), Hindu-Buddhism has some remarkably sick and cruel teachings -- like the endless rebirth whose prospect so horrified Gautama. The concept of karma is every bit as punitive as the concept of original sin, and, in fact, functions in much the same way -- you inherit it at birth, and then it's your problem, burdening and damning your life as you helplessly add to it by your infernal wants and desires. That you can fix it yourself through a life of total celibacy, asceticism and discipline is rather cold comfort. (That is almost certainly why Pure Land Buddhism, in which a savior-Buddha will cause you to be reborn in a happier world when you call upon his name -- sound familiar? -- developed for the laypeople in Buddhist countries.)

Religious metaphors are just that -- metaphors. Metaphors are true, but not literal. Literalizing the great Hindu-Buddhist metaphors does just as much harm as literalizing the great Judeo-Christian-Muslim metaphors. Unlike the Jesus story, which contains clear signals that it's meant to be read symbolically (Jesus dead for three days, resurrected, etc.), the Buddha's teachings appear to be meant in the most literal way, to the great suffering of those who take them that way.

-- Savannah Jahrling

Two points of clarification: First, the statement that Indians during the Buddha's time were mostly illiterate and hence didn't record his life well is incorrect. Indians have never been good at recording history owing to the belief that history is cyclical and will be repeated in time. If illiteracy was a problem then his teachings wouldn't have been recorded either.

Second, the concept of reincarnation as professed by Buddha is just an extension of the Hindu belief. It was not a new concept to Indians. Buddhism became popular in north India because of the inherent corruption of Hinduism by the caste system. Ideawise, it wasn't fundamentally different from a much older Hindu religion. You can witness similar ideas in the Bhagavad-Gita and Upanishads, the great Hindu texts.

-- Saurabh Bahuguna

Salon Staff

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