by Karen Armstrong
As one of my goals this year is to learn more about Buddhism, it made sense to read this not quite traditional biography by noted religious scholar Karen Armstrong. As she points out in various places, there isn’t the evidence or proof that many contemporary academics rely on, but “we can be reasonably confident that Siddhatta Gotama did indeed exist and that his disciples preserved the memory of his life and teachings as well as they could.”
Armstrong divides the story of Buddha into six sections, always providing context for elements of his story, from the existing religions of his day, to the political realities, to forces shaping changes in society. Armstrong isn’t a Buddhist, so while she does have opinions, she doesn’t seem to be presenting the historical Buddha, or the content of his teachings, from a particular school’s point of view. She has a knack for summing up: “Religious knowledge in India had one criterion: did it work? Would it transform an individual, mitigate the pain of life, bring peace and hope of a final release? Nobody was interested in metaphysical doctrine for its own sake.”
She explores the likely path Siddhatta Gotama took from privileged prince to wandering monk to becoming “the Awakened one” and from there, to the extent possible, how he probably lived the rest of his life. She separates out probable embellishments (often offering explanation for how they likely came to be) from more probable reality. While he may have been an extraordinary person, the Buddha was always a human being, as Armstrong reminds us.
If you are interested in the Buddha as an historical figure, or are interested in knowing more about how Buddhism as a religion/philosophy/practice came to be, I recommend this book.