on 22 October 2002
Books on Buddhism tend to be fairly similar in approach. Written by Buddhist authors, they do their very best to be fair and objective, but in the end cannot help but allow the beliefs they have held for many years to infuse the text. Far worse, all too often vital points are left unexplained - or only one of many alternatives is suggested - because the author doesn't even realise confusion may exist.
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.
on 3 June 2004
I must admit, the last person I'd expect to write a book on Buddha is a Christian nun, but then Karen Armstrong is no ordinary nun.
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.
on 5 October 2001
This book is not just a biography of the man we call the Buddha. It's a profound study on Buddhism, very well written and very deep. If you want to know what is Buddhism don't hesitate to read it.
on 19 February 2008
At the beginning of Buddha: His Life and Thought, Karen Armstrong admits that in the eye of some Buddhists, writing a biography on the Buddha is in fact a very 'un-Buddhist' thing to do - I however, am especially grateful that she wrote it anyway.
Whilst the above view point could mean that this biography may not be every Buddhist's cup of tea, the book provides a genuine grounding for any keen investigator like me.
When reading the book I not only got an overview of the core teachings but also a very real sense of Siddhatta Gotama's commitment and balance as he passed through each chapter of his life towards enlightenment and finally Nibbâna. This drew me into Gotama's world and his teachings have made a true impression on me.
Being a Christian, as I am, this book not only gave me a summation of the Buddhist way of life, which was my original intention, but it also gave me a clearer understanding of my own religion.
Having read the book and discussed it with my mother, she commented that `Buddhists have achieved a peace which we Christians should be achieving through Christ' - I think that this remark is not only true but very succinct. I consider that often within religious practice the core meaning can be lost in dogma and in the actual practicing of the religion itself.
Through reading this book I have learnt that religion, whichever is chosen, must be a very personal affair. The Buddha has taught me to attempt abandonment of my own selfish needs and requirements and look beyond my own opinions to realize that in loving the people around us is the very thing that will truly bring peace and enlightenment.
Whilst this is something that I have been taught since I was in a position to learn it is really only through reading this book that I have been able to draw closer to these teachings and really gain a balanced view of how they should be practiced.
In short - Read this book!
on 13 October 2004
Buddhist's may or may not appreciate that such a media figure as this has chosen to place her religious expertise on the Buddha. Whereas I looked forwards to the book's delivery, I think the content does not represent a sufficiently incisive account. It will be useful, especially to non Buddhists.
I was struck by the lack of any substantial acknowledgements or bibiliography; there are however extensive notes. It is true that the book is written in a style reminicent of pre-modern explorations by westerners who had made a somewhat initial contact with this teaching. It represents a good occidental overview (rational, liberal) and Armstrong thus overlays the narrative with the stamp of her own perceptions.
For criticism, a few of her points need improvement, e.g. the statement that Buddhas arise every 32,000 years in the main text is quite wrong. As for Armstrong's interpretation of Buddhism based on feminist principles, I think she is misleading. The Buddha was very good at being stubborn to requests like the one that women should be allowed to ordain (amongst other unrelated requests e.g. please teach the dhamma!). He was merely creating a precedent being traditionally aware that previous Buddhas had had nuns' assemblies. Buddhism was the first main religion to admit women unlike many other religions and the social context in India cannot be filtered in the context of recent western movements (which are a reaction to previous attitudes to women in the West which the East did not necessarily share (assumptions can be loaded)). In fact, a close study of Buddhist texts shows women had a far stronger standing in India at the time, than women of ancient Greece or Rome (and India at a later phase) and in any case the texts abound with the names of famous female disciples and their conversations etc with the Buddha from eminent nuns to queens, courtezans, noble women and servants. Furthermore, the women of Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka and Burma have never really been treated as second class citizens to any extent as in other cultures from ancient times. Armstrong tends to ignore any archaeological evidence supporting the historicity of the Buddha such as the discovery of relics (though the questioning of the existence of a historical personage can be seen as the greatest compliment) and as a final criticism, some of the nuances she applies to the Dhamma such as overcoming the ego can make the issue sound a little simplistic.
On the other hand I think the author has been brave to use Pali text rather than the Sanskrit versions and this an innovation. The other reviews pick up further good points of this short, warm and sympathetic account. Armstrong writes as a caring and sensitive person and her character and exploration do shine through. She's obviously put a lot of thought into the book and worked well within the deadline for its issue on top of her educative and media life!
For more critical reads which are just as easy consider: The Buddha by Michael Carruthers in the Oxford, A very short introduction series and The Buddha by Michael Pye (Duckworth - sadly out of print a brilliant and critical study as recommended in the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy).
on 23 August 2003
I have many books on the different aspects of Buddhism and I think that Karen Armstrong's work is probably the best introduction to the Buddha and the movement he founded that there is. She is objective and writes a fascinating overview of the politics and culture of Northern India/Nepal at the time of the Buddha. If you are looking for a 'neutral' stance on the Buddha this is the book for you.
on 31 July 2016
A deep book of acceptance - a book of compassion. Buddha teaches us, to always keep that mindful look inwards, because even if we try hard and often successful, it is so easy to forget, not to put our expectations and wishes first, weather it is well meant or not. Seeing another being the same way, as we see ourselves, treating another being, as we would want to be treated, value another being, as we would want to be valued, is important and beautiful since how can we await something from others, we are not willing or able to provide to others ourselves. Buddha's teachings are beautiful and in this book his story is told in depth and behind the broader context of it all. Let a little bit of Buddha's wisdom be in all of our hearts.
on 18 December 2014
The life of the Buddha represents, as the author points out, an introduction to Buddhism; this is the best such account I have read - and I have half a shelf full. Ms Armstrong is sympathetic to her subject: she avoids both the sycophancy of the devotee and the cynicism of critic. She also manages a compact, narrative style which makes reading this, and her other books, a joy. She places Siddhartha Gautama in his proper historical context, with interesting details not found in other introductions, such as the fact that the caste system had not reached his home state of Shakya.
She presents the basic concepts of Buddhism, and the tradition it challenged, in a clear, comprehensible manner, with an appropriate eye on the approaches of other religions. I now intend to work my way through all those of her books I have not yet read, and re-read those I already have. I hope she will consider an introduction to early Indian religion/philosophy which badly needs her enlightened touch.
on 1 May 2015
As usual, Armstrong leaves herself behind and enters the world of her subject. With only a few orienting references to other great spiritual teachers of the world, she captures the cultural universe surrounding the original Buddhist movement. Her eye is always focused on how insights and legends made a difference to people's lives. I suspect this is the most helpful exploration of the Buddha's experience yet given by a Christian, and it's a deeply moving account.
on 17 September 2005
An easy read. The author has taken several key incidents in the Buddha's life and narrated them in a lively, sensitive manner. In particular, she has taken care to read the historical accounts in their historical and, importantly, mythological contexts. The bibliography should be very helpful too. The length is just right.
She however avoids a frank look at the Buddha's teachings themselves, although herself quoting the Buddha: 'he who sees the dhamma sees me'. The result is a linear account of what is known about the Buddha's life and career - a reconstruction of his CV, as it were.
In place of understanding him, Karen Armstrong has allowed her own background to do what her independent intellect has refused to: she sees the dhamma (or some snipets of it) from the viewpoint of someone who has a Christian background and who is awed by 'the Axial Age'. The Buddha's teaching is nearly re-read to see how it might fit the gospel she is familiar with, and the meaning of his work is equated to the sum average of what went on in the Axial Age civilisations - which, one gets the impression, are equal if not identical with each other.
If the reader gets the impression that the Buddha was a man who taught the Chritian gospel or something similar in a different language and mythology, and that what the Buddha achieved was what happenned in the Axial Age elsewhere without him anyway, I would pardon him/her. But someone who has taken a deeper look into Indian philosophy would be left feeling that the book is simplistic, not simple as intended.
On the whole, a good, easy read for a person who just wants to know, in very few lines and colours, who the Buddha was.