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An Inspiring Look at the Life of the Buddha

BUDDHA By Karen Armstrong; Viking / Lipper; $19.95, 206 pages

February 24, 2001|PETER CLOTHIER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Peter Clothier is the author of "While I Am Not Afraid: Secrets of a Man's Heart."

Any study of the Buddha's life, as Karen Armstrong is quick to point out in this new biography from the Penguin Lives series, might seem antithetical to the essence of Buddhism, which is for each of us to take nothing on faith--not even the Buddha--and to discover the true spiritual path through our own efforts. But the attempt is still worthwhile, she notes, since "his life and teaching were inextricably combined. His was an essentially autobiographical philosophy."

The historical facts of Siddhatta Gotama's life (I follow Armstrong's use of the Pali, rather than the more familiar Sanskrit, orthography) are entangled in the surrounding myth and legend. The scriptures that make up the Pali Canon, the chief source of our knowledge, are based on oral transmission of discourses by the Buddha himself and on practices created by the monks who codified the dhamma--his teachings and practice--into the religion now known as Buddhism. Though the texts contain some verifiable historical material, they were not written down until several hundred years after the Buddha's death--which occurred in 483 BC, by most Western dating--and are thus subject to the distortions of time as well as of human intention, perception and prejudice.

Though not as well known in our culture as the story of Jesus, there are elements in the Buddha's story that are now widely familiar: how he was born into a princely family and isolated by a fiercely protective father from the sufferings of life beyond the walls of his pleasure palace, and from the prospect of sickness and old age; how, as a young man, he stole out into the city and was horrified when confronted with the reality of suffering and death; how he then abruptly abandoned his sleeping wife and son and set off to discover the answer to life's painful mysteries; how years of study, then of futile fasting and self-denial in the forest led to his discovery of the "Middle Way" between self-indulgence and asceticism, denial and aversion; and how he eventually achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.

Around the bare bones of this story Armstrong weaves a rich texture of historical, religious and cultural information, creating a full portrait of the Buddha, both as a man of his time and as a great spiritual pioneer. First initiated in a sangha, or a school that taught that human suffering derived from ignorance of our true selves and that "the Self was eternal and identical with the Absolute Spirit," Gotama soon reached the limits of this direction. For him, Armstrong writes, "the teachings remained remote, metaphysical abstractions." He was looking not for theories, but for results; not for an understanding of transcendence as a means to conquer samsara, the cycle of suffering, but for a way to experience it in his own life.

Armstrong's clear and consistently insightful story shows how Gotama assembled parts of his answer from a complex of ideas and practices that were in common currency in his time, testing each for its practical application to his purpose. She devotes ample attention to her discussion of contemporaneous religious teachings about dukkha (suffering) and kamma (actions, better known to us in its Sanskrit form, karma)--and rebirth. And she reviews the role of the twin disciplines of yoga and meditation as paths to mindfulness, vital spiritual ingredients in the Buddha's achievement of enlightenment and proven ways "to break free of the conditioning that characterized the human personality, and to cancel the constraints of time and place that limit our perception." By the time we reach the Bodhi tree, we are ready to appreciate the full significance of the Four Noble Truths that form the basis of Buddhist practice, and for the compassionate wisdom of the Eightfold Path, the guiding precepts leading to release from suffering.

Less well known are the 45 years that followed the period of intense activity during which the Buddha's own sangha of monks expanded exponentially. Armstrong evokes a bustling life of travel to numerous cities and courts, of constant preaching and conversion. She details rifts in the sangha, lively dissents and rivalries, even assassination attempts on the Buddha's life as he approached its end, and offers a moving account of his last days, as he increasingly sought solitude and serenity for his parinibbana, or final release from the cycle of rebirth. Her book is a good, solid read, which respects both the integrity and the complexity of the Buddha's teaching, and offers a frequently inspiring look into this exemplary life. This is an invaluable text for all those seeking a better understanding of a spiritual movement whose influence continues to spread astonishingly today, 2,500 years after its founder's death.

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