Buddha by Karen Armstrong (Viking/Penguin 2000).
There is no direct evidence that the most influential person in history actually existed.
In the customary telling, Siddhartha Gotama was born in 563 B.C. as a prince of the Kingdom of Sakya in what is now Lumbini, Nepal. The tradition is that, at age 29, he left his father's palace to live as an ascetic monk and learn how to end human suffering.
Not finding the answers in harsh self-denial, Gotama developed a Middle Way between luxury and asceticism, between self-indulgence and self-abnegation. At the age of 35, he achieved enlightenment while meditating under a fig tree in Bodh Gaya, India. He devoted the rest of his life to teaching his philosophy and died in 483 B.C., at age 80, in the obscure hamlet of Kushinagar, India, after eating a tainted meal.
Not a single fact in this briefest of outlines can be confirmed. No primary sources exist of Gotama's life or of his teachings. There are no surviving census records or tax receipts or deeds. Gotama probably spoke a language called Magadhi Prakrit, but he did not author any written texts.
Instead, he composed and delivered sermons, and these sermons, in their surviving form, are the core materials from which author Karen Armstrong develops Buddha, a biography of Gotama.
The sermons were redacted into a small library of about 45 books called the Pali Canon (named after the language in which they were written), and the Canon presents its own challenges to the historian. Shortly after the Buddha's death, his followers convened the First Council and determined the core teachings, but did not write them down. Instead, monks were assigned different sermons and stories to memorize precisely, and, for about 300 to 400 years, this oral tradition was the mode of transmission. The Canon was not memorialized in writing until about the first century B.C., and -- the most troubling fact -- the earliest existing copies of the Canon are only about 500 years old. Consequently, any discussion of the history of the Buddha or Buddhism requires induction and guesswork.
Yet, despite the shroud of time, the Buddha's personality comes through in his teachings. The more you read about Buddhism, the more you come to understand, almost to intuit, the man's presence.
Gotama was, above all else, a rationalist, as post-Enlightenment a person as Isaac Newton or Stephen Hawking. Millenia before the Renaissance, Gotama preached that the world could be understood not by recourse to a dogma or diety but by observation and thought. "The Buddha always insisted that his disciples test everything he taught them against their own experience and take nothing on hearsay," Armstrong writes. The world -- and the solution to mankind's suffering -- was understandable solely through the power of the human mind, Gotama taught.
Gotama was practical. The purpose of Buddhism is to ease and end human suffering; religious pursuits which were not directed toward this goal were wasted energy. In particular, Gotama had no time for metaphysical or hypothetical questions. "I am preaching a cure for these unhappy conditions here and now," Gotama said, "so always remember what I have not explained to you and the reason why I have refused to explain it." It does not matter how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, because the answer does not allow a person to lead a happier life.
Gotama's practicality lead directly to his refusal to adhere to any form of deism. There is no God in Buddhism. One may exist, and you're free to so believe, but, since God had not appeared and detailed a method for relieving the turmoil of life, the question of God's existence was irrelevant to Gotama.
He was a modernizer. Outdated and unhelpful religious practices -- i.e., those which did not assist in abating suffering -- should be discontinued, he said; he was referring to the Hindu Vedas, but his advice could apply to any doctrine, his own included. "Even his own teachings must be jettisoned, once they had done their job," Armstrong writes. The Dalai Lama of Tibet says the same about his own sermons. "Use what works, and leave the rest."
Gotama was not perfect; he was a dreadful family man. He named his son Rahula, which means "fetter" or "shackle" -- something many parents think but don't say. When Gotama left his father's house to become an ascetic, he effectively abandoned his young family and snuck out in the middle of the night without saying good-bye.
Armstrong is a former nun, and anybody who has attended Catholic school will recognize her teaching style. She presents the facts in an academic, almost detached manner, with explanatory discussions of the source materials, their historical contexts and any translation issues -- exactly the manner in which priests and nuns teach the Gospels. Then, whatever the topic, she'll veer mid-paragraph into theological or moral questions that interest her. At times, I felt like I was back in high school.
Buddha provides an overview of Buddhist thought, but it keeps its focus on the story of the prince who became a preacher. We don't know how much is fact and how much is fable, but Armstrong is a competent guide to readers who are encountering these stories for the first time.