animefringe june 2003 / reviews

Format: novel / 205 pages
Production: Penguin Lives / Karen Armstrong
Comments: A short look at the life of Asia’s most influential religious figure.
Animefringe Reviews:

Despite his influence on the entire Eastern world, the ignorance about the Buddha in the West is surprising. In Buddha, Karen Armstrong does not attempt to explain the religion of Buddhism in its many forms (as Thich Nhat Hanh has done in his many books) or explore the social effects of the religion from Central to East Asia. Instead, Armstrong’s book is a straight biography of Shakyamuni, Tathagata, Siddhartha Gotama - the Buddha.

The book describes Siddhartha Gotama, a young prince in present day Nepal. It’s been said that before his birth, a wandering fortune teller told Gotama’s father, the king, that his son would either become a religious leader of enormous influence, or the king of the entire world. Both paths, it seemed, were open to the boy. At the age of 29, the prince, who had never known anything but luxury, decided to leave his family and riches behind to pursue spiritual enlightenment. Armstrong says, “It was a romantic decision, but it caused great pain to those he loved.” At first, Gotama attempted to follow established paths to Nirvana (or Nibbanna in Armstrong’s text, as she follows the native Pali spelling) by becoming a nomadic ascetic. He wandered the Indian forests, barely eating; in this way, Siddhartha was attempting to throw off the restraints of human life. After experiencing this type of existence, he decided this was not the path to enlightenment. Even if one was able to touch the indescribable Nibbana, it was only temporary. Siddhartha decided to try and reach enlightenment his own way, through a “Middle Path” and yoga. After meditating under a tree one day, Buddha was able to reach Nibbanna. Reportedly the world shook as the gods looked over (Buddha’s finding the path to Nibbana affected them too; they too were involved in the cycles of death and rebirth, and ended up lucky on this turn). After finding this path, Buddha spent the rest of his life preaching throughout India, lecturing to followers and attempting to explain how every living thing could find peace through Nibbana.

Despite Armstrong’s attempts to present a straight biography of Gotama, Buddha and his earlier followers discouraged a cult of personality – many early texts de-emphasize Gotama’s personality and mix in myths, gods, and other religious elements: “fact” mixes with “fiction” throughout the text. I place both words in quotations because in religious texts to call parables, gods, and demons “fiction” discounts the truth in the stories themselves. For example, Armstrong describes Buddha’s encounters with Mara, his demon self, who Siddhartha would have been as king of the world. The truth in these encounters is not in an actual demon-self, but the Buddha’s battles with the worldly aspects of his personality. Armstrong does an extremely good job of explaining the truth in these parables and mythic stories to the reader.

Armstrong is also a noted author on other religions, especially the Abrahamic ones. She is a former nun, who teaches the Study of Judaism at Leo Baeck College and received the 1999 Muslim Public Affairs Council Media Award. This affects Buddha in two ways; obviously Ms. Armstrong is a woman of deep religious understanding, and she brings this understanding to Buddhism. Armstrong also makes a number of parallels between the Buddha and Abrahamic stories; it’s obvious that Armstrong means for these to better illustrate aspects of the Buddha’s life, but for those not of these backgrounds, the parallels dilute the text’s influence.

One of the biggest problems with Buddha is its size; the book is a mere 205 pages, with notes; this is hardly enough, even for a text dealing solely with the Buddha’s life. The book does deal with the social order Buddha was upsetting, but not in enough detail. Also, it’s often unclear at a glance, the sources for Armstrong ‘s details, despite generous endnotes. Why is this important? The Buddha’s teachings “flourished in India for 1,500 years, and then spread to Tibet, Central Asia, China, Korea, Japan, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. For millions of human beings, he has been the person who has epitomized the human situation.” The Buddhist texts paint Siddhartha as an archetype; other Buddhas in other times found enlightenment in similar ways to Siddhartha‘s. His importance as an archetype in Japanese , though, is tremendous. From anime like Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies to manga like Osama Tezuka’s Phoenix, Buddhist thought is central to the themes of many Japanese stories. Even more so, “the story of Gotama has particular relevance for our own period. We too are living in a period of transition and change.”