Friday, April 9, 2010

Michael Carrithers' "Buddha": Book Review

Barely two pages repeat the standard account of his life; half of these hundred pages explore the Indian contexts that inspired and then separated the Buddha from his predecessors. Carrithers emphasizes the psychological, "insight" (vipassana) meditation and moral aspects of dharma. He argues that while the legends compress his enlightenment into one moonlit night, that true liberation for him as his followers came over a lifetime's application of lofty ideals to daily rigor.

It's a pragmatic, rather than nihilistic, pessimist, life-denying, or navel-gazing attitude. Carrithers dismisses the fantastic tales; he explores instead the secular ideas. Tested by experience, the Buddha's "stubbornly disciplined pragmatism" marks the man and his message. His originality emerged from "his close analysis of human experience, but his importance stemmed from his acceptance of this common Indian belief in rebirth." (53-4) Carrithers delves into the Indian traditions at surprising length, carefully dissecting how the Buddha integrated some, rejected some-- while challenging the estates system and the caste structure by offering everyone some chance to better their karmic situation.

Elucidating "tanha," the "clinging, craving, impulse, thirst" whose propensity comprises the First Noble Truth of Suffering, Carrithers shows how "the impersonal active principle" was what the Buddha sought to discover as an answer to the eternal human condition: "how did I come to be in this sorry plight?" (64-5) While monks tend to gain the advantage by renouncing earthly ties to seek such detachment from cares, Carrithers concludes by showing the wider integration of the laity into this ideal. Practicality, the analogy with "skillful" craftsmanship to the spiritual quest, and psychological explanations for human predicaments and their remedies characterize for Carrithers the Buddhist synthesis.

This brings in an ethical, outwardly directed dimension, for after one has sought to tame one's desires, one needs to guide others along this same path to reduce their suffering. The Buddha's discourse to some common folk, the Kalamans, therefore assumes importance: rational attention to easing harm and maximizing benefit will hasten the betterment of all. While Carrithers (perhaps for editing reasons) skims over how cultural relativism does and does not apply to how our values are rooted in our own time and place, nonetheless he suggests how Buddhist concerns connect the psychic, the small-scale, and the "universal collectivity of all things."

Therefore, for those reading this book in the West, beyond its parochial origins, the Buddhist philosophy can suggest a template akin to Socratic reflection. Upon it, rational moderns may construct a values-based platform for self-transformation. As with this life, "shorn of its mythical elements," a Buddha freed from legend (you do not even learn the name of his son and wife here nor of the cities he travelled among, nor of his birthplace, for instance) may present a sensible example for secular inspiration. (Posted to Amazon US 4-28-10; highly recommended companion in the Oxford UP's "Very Short Introductions" series: Damien Keown's "Buddhism.")

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