Author: Karen Armstrong
Genre: Philosophy, History, Religion
Karen Armstrong writes on religion and is one of the most compassionate and balanced authors I have come across. She has been recognized with Order of the British Empire, is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and recently won the TED Prize which she donated to Charter for Compassion. Her multiple best selling books have been on Christianity (she spent time as a Roman Catholic nun), Islam (won Muslim understanding award), Judaism (history of Jerusulam) and generally on religion (See another best seller reviewed here, The Case for God).
The book elaborates the making years of Buddha and his teachings. There is a certain appeal in the calm, peaceful world of buddhism especially when contrasted against the turbulence and inner confusion of our times. I myself have a large statute of buddha in my garden in front of whom I often meditate. The serenity in his eyes and posture is something all of us aspire to achieve, almost like a tranquil Eden garden inside us. No wonder then that without any proselytizing, the worldwide buddhist population has grown more than 3 times in the last 100 years, to now cover 500 million people, about 7% of the world’s population. [Only 3 religions (Christianity, Islam and Hinduism) have numerically higher followers… though Buddha himself would have been the first to chide us in making his ‘philosophy of living’ a religion!]
So the story goes like this. In the beginning all was well, Gotama was a prince surrounded by the luxuries of material life – best of food, palaces, courtesans, richness. But then he saw suffering of old age, sickness and death and tried to understand the true nature of things. One night “he woke to find the minstrels and dancers who had been entertaining him that evening… beautiful women lay in disarray, some with their bodies slick with phlegm and spittle… a shift had occurred in Gotama’s view of the world… everything seemed ugly, even repellent… he resolved to ‘Go Forth’ (Tathagat) that very night.”
He first tried yoga to reach the exalted state of ayatana. He was successful, “but when he came back to himself, Gotama still found that he was prey to desire, fear and suffering… all that this type of yoga could do was give practioners a brief respite from suffering.”
So Gotama abandoned yoga and turned next to penance and ascetism (tapas). He slept in freezing cold, stopped eating till his bones struck out, tried to hold his breath for long times, his skin became black and withered. “Finally Gotama had to face the fact that ascetism had proved as fruitless as yoga… Nobody could have subjected himself to more gruelling penances, but instead of extricating himself from his human limitations, he had simply manufactured more suffering for himself”.
Finally, through mindful meditation, when he did achieve enlightenment, he enunciated his famous Middle Path, which was to “avoid the two extremes of sensual pleasure, on the one hand, and excessive mortification on the other”, “to work with human nature and not fight against it.” Next, he outlined the Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering (desire), the truth of nirvana (an exalted state of non-distress, the cessation of all suffering) and the Noble Eightfold path that led to this state and liberation.
What I love about Buddha’s teaching is its pragmatism. He focused on the problem of daily living, and not an imaginary after-life. When people asked him whether god existed, he would shirk it saying how would that answer help us lead a better life on earth? Some of my favourite teachings:
“Our minds are easily distracted… thoughts and fantasies seem to rise unbidden to the surface of the mind, even at the most inappropriate moments. We appear to have little control over these unconscious impulses.” So then, how do you “transform an individual, mitigate the pain of life, bring peace and hope of a final release?”.
“Unskilful states, such as anger, guilt, unkindness, envy and greed, (should be) avoided, not because they were forbidden by a God or were sinful, but because the indulgence of such emotions was found to be damaging to human nature.”
As with any work of religion, parts of the book, and of buddha’s beliefs, would appear controversial to today’s society. His views on women (did not allow them to be part of his sangha) or on reincarnation or past lives for example. But before we judge him too harshly, remember that we are all products of the age we live in. Read it more as a treatise on right living.
Why should you read this book: His followers kept asking Buddha whether he was God or angel or spirit and his answer would always be no. He was simply “one who has woken up.” So if you too struggle to find “solution to the puzzle of existence”, read Buddha to find meaning through “the grim cycle of suffering, which began with the trauma of birth and proceeded inexorably to aging, illness, death, sorrow and corruption.” Buddha “did not rely on divine aid from another world, but was convinced that Nirvana was a state that was entirely natural to human beings and could be experienced by any genuine seeker.” Isn’t it a state worth pursuing?
Goodreads Link: Buddha by Karen Armstrong | Goodreads