Monday, April 5, 2010

Karen Armstrong's "Buddha": Book Review

It's difficult to fit this subject into the usual "Penguin Lives" format. As Armstrong acknowledges, we really know hardly anything about his dates of birth and death, many of the places mentioned in the early Pali texts (she uses this form of transliteration which differs from traditional Western spellings of even the name of the Buddha let alone terms for his concepts) no longer can be found, and the scriptures tend towards supernatural contests as often as they do pithy exchanges between mortals with names, if not developed characterizations. The absence of the texture of daily life that we gain from more familiar Jewish, Christian, or Muslim texts makes the study of the formative years of Siddhama Gotana challenging even in simplified form in a couple of hundred pages for the general reader.

However, as I'm that reader, wanting a introduction to a topic I know next to nothing about, Armstrong's succinct summary met my needs. On the other hand, parts of even this short text dragged-- the fourth chapter on "Mission" with its accounts of internecine warfare between chieftains and strife within the burgeoning communities of adepts who followed the "dhamma" failed to rouse much of my attention. The most moving section can be found in her paraphrasing of the end of the Buddha's life. She tells the story well: "the Buddha experienced an extinction that was, paradoxically, the supreme state of being and the final goal of humanity"; she shows how he struggled to overcome "the distorting aura of egotism that clouds the judgment of most human beings" (187).

Especially strong are the background chapters that place the birth of Buddhism within the yogi practices and Hindu caste system, and that compare the rise of the new "dhamma" within the contexts of the Axial Age's shift from unchanging, unquestioned roles for gods vs. humans into a restless, almost existential, despair that Siddhama himself experienced. Armstrong shows how and why he left his sleeping wife and child, and why this separation would have been seen as necessary.

Similarly, she explains the persistent structure of gender roles and how the women were placed in a subordinate position even as followers; likewise, the laity had to assume an auxiliary status and could not attain the full potential that only the monks could aspire towards. While Armstrong compliments Buddha's teaching as the first that broke out of a tribal or specialized group to offer enlightenment to all, it remains inevitably disappointing that the everyday pursuits of making a living, raising families, and tending to one's necessities turn into barriers to fulfillment, then as now, for most of the religious and spiritual paths that have been developed with roots in the Axial Age of 800-200 BCE. This isn't a fault of such systems as Buddhism, and Armstrong does her best to place this approach to holiness within the confines of its feudal times, but it does keep the full realization of what the Buddha offered to the rest of humanity at a bit of distance from the mundane preoccupations that consume much of our efforts.

The liberation and the freedom from such worldly concerns turns interior for much of this narrative, and it's difficult material to make vivid on the static page. Armstrong relies on both the primary texts and interpretations to try to enliven this journey within to those of us who stand outside of the process towards "Nibbana" and away from "samsara." A list of further reading might have aided us after we close this study.

Armstrong's a skilled interpreter for popular readerships of monotheistic faiths from the Middle East. The strengths lie in how she compares and contrasts the traditions more familiar to Westerners with the more esoteric nature of a less theistically based, more subtle and ethically centered tradition in Buddhism. However, I also wondered if Armstrong found herself a bit out of her familiar expertise with this daunting subject. She's a well-placed interpreter, but I did keep aware that she, not speaking from within the tradition, might not have been able to master the nuances and lived experiences that could have clarified and revivified what remain rather unfamiliar concepts for most of her English-speaking readers. (Posted 3-28-08 to Amazon US)

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