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Lives: Buddha Paperback – 7 Mar 2002
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Writing a biography of the Buddha is not the same as writing one of most other people--even other founders of religions--as Karen Armstrong explains at the start of this excellent book, part of a series of lives of significant figures. Armstrong is a former nun who is now probably Britain's best-known popular writer on religion, the author of A History of God and The Battle for God amongst others.
Almost nothing is known about the Buddha's life as Siddhatta Gotama. The main source is the Pali Canon, a collection of texts made about a century after his death, though not written down until much later. This is a huge body of work which contains the Buddha's sermons and verses, rules for Buddhist monks, and philosophical analyses--but, apart from in passing, almost nothing about his life. In some of his discourses the Buddha illustrates a point with a personal anecdote; his "biography" has to be pieced together from these snippets. And Armstrong accepts that many of these may be mythological in nature, rather than historical in the factual sense we might wish for today. But does this matter? "The early Buddhists looked for significance, rather than historically accurate detail, in their scriptures."
Armstrong takes these snippets and puts them in order to tell Siddhatta Gotama's life story--but she does much more than that. The Buddha didn't spring out of nowhere. One of the most valuable things the author does in this book is to set him in his historical context of the changing religious ideas of the time. And in doing that she also gives an excellent explanation of what Buddhism is all about, in terms that a non-Buddhist can understand. Highly recommended. --David V Barrett --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Destined to become the classic source for anyone delving... into the life and teachings of the religious icon. ("Christian Science Monitor")See all Product description
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The author of this book is not Buddhist (I believe she is a Christian, though she successfully avoids allowing her own faith to influence the book) and she deals with the life of the Buddha using fact insofar as is possible. For a non-Buddhist, the account of the Buddha's teachings and Buddhist belief is extremely clear and objective, and puts most previous books I've read on the subject to shame. Therefore, if you know little about Buddhism and would like to know more, this is probably the best place to start.
Even better, because the author is non-Buddhist herself, there is no reluctance to approach subjects which previous books I've read have avoided; such as the apparent refusal of the Buddha to ordain women as Buddhist priests. Perhaps surprisingly, the conclusions drawn on most of these topics set forth the Buddha in Buddhism in the best possible light, where it would have been easy to pick on the issues as holes in Buddhist teaching. Areas where different schools of Buddhism contradict are also addressed, and the author concludes that probably neither the Theravada nor the Mahayana schools are accurate to the Buddha's teachings in themselves, but his teachings probably combined aspects of both, and she adds some arguments as to why this would be so. Therefore a Buddhist who has some questions that do not seem to be answered elsewhere would gain much from this book also.
Finally the book is a history of the Buddha's life; and so an experienced Buddhist, who has for the moment formed an opinion on the philosophy already, has as much to gain from this book as a non-Buddhist historian. Essentially, there's something here for everyone. I can't recommend it enough.
Any Buddhist would already know the story of Siddhatta Gotama's birth, his childhood, his renunciation, the 5 years of hard practice, the moment of enlightenment, his teaching and his parinibbana (death). Not surprising then that her book is split into 5 logical chapters in the same order; Renunciation, Quest, Enlightenment, Dhamma (his teaching), Mission and Parinibbana.
Armstrong herself states in the Introduction that "...trying to write a biography of Buddha is a very un-Buddhist thing to do", but I'm glad she did, presumably because she herself is not a Buddhist.
It is her ability to describe these already familiar events of Buddha's life with a dispassionate and objective point of view is what make this book a refreshing read. One very interesting aspect of the book is the description of the social, cultural and spiritual events during the lifetime of Buddha, not only in India but around the world, in other religions, and it helped to understand why a person like Gotama would go off and search for the Truth in the way that he did.
In this day and age, anyone who claims to go off to the forest to find a cure for all mankind (The Dhamma, The Four Noble Truth and the Eight Fold Noble Path), people would think it's a rather futile and an impossible task. But Gotama and his contemporaries like him really believed that they could find the answer to end all human suffering, and the fact that these wandering bhikkhus (monks) were treated and revered as heroes and visionaries in their time is another eye opener to this reader. Even to contemplate the idea of finding the Truth to be within the realms of possibility showed the level of high spirituality that must have developed in India 2500 years ago.
The only source of material available for her to write the book is the Pali Canon, the voluminous collection of scriptures recorded after the death of Buddha, and as a Western writer she found the lack of historical dates and the description of Buddha's personality in the Pali Canon frustrating as the scriptures mostly detailed only his teachings and not Buddha as a person, and in a way that is the crux of Buddha's teaching: a) it is his message 'The Dhamma' that is the utmost important for people to understand and adhere to than to worship the person who expounded the message, and b) the message is that ultimately there is no such thing as 'self' and our false clinging to the 'personality-belief'.
If you're new to Buddhism, reading this book will tell you about both Buddha and Dhamma in short and concise detail and yet in easily digestible form, since it is more than just a biography of Buddha.
If you're a Buddhist, reading this book will allow you to stand back and view Buddha and his teaching from a slightly more objective stance than you would normally do, and I for one am better off because of it.