Gautama Buddha: Man or God?

| November 12, 2011 | 5 Comments

Gautama

Vishvapani Blomfield’s Gautama Buddha: The Life and Teachings of the Awakened One is one of a new breed of Buddha biographies.

For centuries there was really only one. Ashvaghosha’s epic poem Buddhacarita (Acts of the Buddha), written some three hundred years after the Buddha’s death, paints the Buddha myth familiar to generations of Buddhists. A beautiful, inspiring and highly imaginary account of a mostly supernatural being, it was apparently written to give the faithful a devotional handle on their religion’s founder, and to enact his teachings.

This new biography attempts to paint a more historical account. Comparatively speaking the author succeeds — but don’t expect a thoroughly secular analysis. Blomfield is a long-standing member of the Triratna Buddhist Community, founded four decades ago by the English monk Sangharakshita, who pursued a “critically engaged Buddhism that did not at the same time dilute the cardinal precepts of Buddhist thought.”* The result is a Western approach to Buddhism that doesn’t jettison its religious-devotional aspect.

Blomfield does us the great service of retrieving his information from the least fanciful of all records — the Pali Canon. I call it the least fanciful; some consider it the One True Record. Traditionalist Theravadin authorities would have us believe that forty-five years of words and accounts were photographically recalled after the Buddha’s death, then transmitted without change for five centuries before being committed to writing.

That’s a lot to swallow. The men responsible for the oral record were devout. The institutions they built were their homes and refuge. It’s hard to believe they never smoothed out rough edges, filled inconvenient gaps or manufactured consistency. The teachings were sacred, after all; tending them would benefit all mankind. To suggest that not one person or committee added or changed a word in all that time strains credulity.

Blomfield approaches this dilemma by declaring that the biographer’s task is, “to place Gautama in a credible historical setting without assuming that he was really just an ordinary person.” I embraced the first part of this statement, while frowning doubtfully at the second. My problem is that if the Buddha wasn’t a man like me, I’m not sure I can follow him. Blomfield, on the other hand, finds his ray of hope in the thought that “Gautama was something other than an ordinary human being.” —In other words, more than just an extraordinary person.

Despite my initial uncertainty I read on until it dawned on me that his approach was sound. It’s not the author’s job to separate the credible from the incredible content of the canon; it’s the reader’s.

The Buddhist scriptures are in eternal need of dissection, but to rely on another for that precarious task is to miss the point. Following Gautama means posing your own questions and groping for your own answers. True, he raised the issues, but only when they become your own do they lead to insight. That’s why scholarship alone is not enough. Blomfield goes admirably deeper than that.

I was recently taken to task on the Secular Buddhist’s Facebook page for my description of the Buddha as a “humanist and skeptic of the first order.” Commenter Brad Potts admitted that he wanted to share this vision but wondered, “to what extent we are reading our own values into a figure like the Buddha.”

The answer is: to a very great extent.

How could we not? Admitting my values into a reading of the Buddha’s way is not just something I can’t avoid, it’s the only way through to the other side. Gautama, the Dharma and my interaction with them are as contingent as anything else in this world. This is stated repeatedly by generation after generation of teachers — presumably because it’s a hard pill to swallow.

Like many, I originally embraced Buddhism as a security blanket. I wanted the Dharma to be a valid (actually the valid) belief system. Today, I avoid belief whenever possible and use the Dharma as a set of tools. There are other approaches — religious, scholastic, popular, secular, philosophical and magical. Arguments about which is the right way are just opinions. We each have to find our own way.

Belief obscures insight. The Dharma’s effectiveness depends not on how you conceive it but how you use it. Authentic practice changes your perception of Dharma itself — in fact, it changes the way you hold all conceptual views. Once you see the Dharma as an attitude rather than a body of thought, its inconceivability is as plain as day.

Vishvapani Blomfield’s biography of Gautama helps you see just that, by painting a picture rather than trying to extrapolate facts. He fleshes out the place of Buddha’s birth, a small town in a politically charged time. He describes Gautama’s Kshatriya caste of pragmatic managers and fighters, noting its probable antipathy for Brahmin scholars and mystics. He sets up Gautama’s flight and mission on a believable foundation.

He’s not uncritical. Blomfield suggests that the first teaching, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, was composed or recomposed after Gautama’s death, and describes contemporary accounts of what the Buddha was like as ‘hagiography.’ Later, however, he speaks of miracles, including flying and mind-reading, with the caveat that, “If this seems unrealistic we should recall that ‘miracle’-performing saints and prophets are found in every culture.” He goes on to say that “the difficulty reconciling these aspects reflects the difference between the modern world view and that of pre-modern society.”

The logic here is inconclusive, but Vishvapani is courageous. He makes no pretense of tidying up the confusion or reconciling the contradictions of the canon. He extracts the biographical information in ways that leave you free to come to your own conclusion. That makes the book eminently readable. His attention to detail and lucid prose make it a pleasure. The depth of research and range of information make it an eye opener.

I was taught the old-fashioned way. The Buddha attained awakening and that was that; mission accomplished. In Blomfield’s account I learned something I must have known before, but apparently ignored or downplayed: throughout his life, Gautama sought and apparently required the periodic refreshment of meditation and retreat. What does that say about awakening? Apparently, that it needs to be sustained. It brings the Buddha’s message closer to home — less ‘out there.’

Blomfield also documents Gautama’s parallels and rivalries with the Jains, whose great leader Mahavira was his contemporary. He documents the context of Gautama’s cousin Devadatta’s grab for power and documents, surprisingly, the continued existence of an anti-Gautama, pro-Devadatta sect a thousand years later. There are other surprises in this book.
If you’re looking for inspiration, you’ll find it here. If you want historical analysis, that’s here too. Although this is not a stringently secular biography of the Buddha, I dare say such a thing would be indigestible.

We urgently need a philological approach to the Pali Canon, but that’s a separate issue. The point of this book is that if you’re interested in Buddhism,  Gautama is as unavoidable as he is elusive. What he taught was pragmatic. Who he was — whether he existed or not as man or god — is and always will be mythic. His life is invaluably inspiring. To go looking for facts, justifications and historical proofs is irrelevant when compared to the incisive tools he left. Blomfield shines a light on these paradoxes without attempting to solve them, reminding us implicitly that it’s up to each and every one of us to figure it out.

Gautama Buddha: The Life and Teachings of the Awakened One. Undoubtedly, it won’t be the last Buddha Biography. Others will shine their own lights on the figure of  Gautama Buddha. This one does so with great integrity. I highly recommend it.

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Stephen Schettini is The Naked Monk — writer, blogger and teacher of Mindful Reflection. After eight years as a monk in the Tibetan tradition he decided that ritual, tradition and belief were an unnecessary burden, and returned to secular life. He remains an admirer and student of the historical Buddha without any Buddhist affiliations.

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  1. Secular Buddhist | Gautama Buddha | December 22, 2011
  1. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful review, Stephen!

    I particularly like this insight: “It’s not the author’s job to separate the credible from the incredible content of the canon; it’s the reader’s.” That said, I am grateful to those who are digging into Pali and providing new insights, or perhaps old ones that got lost under belief systems. I am one for testing out practices, but learning Pali, I do like looking to my contemporaries for that:-)

  2. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Welcome to the site, Stephen! I hope this is the first of many such contributions.

    I’m not so sure a secular biography would be indigestable — Batchelor gives us one in “Confession”, for example. But it is certainly true that any Gotama biography could only be speculative. Similarly, while philology could give us a sense of chronology and content linkages in the texts that could be very useful in interpreting a coherent sense of what Gotama taught, it will always only be interpretation. This frustrates us because we cling to notions like authority and authenticity, but I like the way the unfindableness of Gotama and his message throws us back on our own experience as the ultimate arbiter of the dharma.

  3. Thanks Mark. I love Batchelor’s treatment, but it’s only a sketch. Any full-scale secular treatment would require so much in the way of caveats and creativity that it would be better served up as fiction. I agree: the fact that the Buddha myth/story frustrates us is a spur; it goes well with Gautama’s subversive nature.

  4. I’ve just started reading Karen Armstrong’s “Buddha” — what do you think of that book? I’m not very far into it yet, but so-far-so-good. She seems to approach the subject as a respectful non-believer (uh… kind of like me, I guess), and is nothing if not scholarly. Her book “The Case for God” was a lot more interesting than I thought it would be. Even though it only barely touches on Buddhism, I found it very useful in putting all this God stuff into perspective. Another bio I’ve read that I thought was pretty good is “The Naked Buddha” by Adrienne Howley. One particular thing that stood out was her excuse for Siddhattha’s ditching his wife and kid to hit the road. This, to me, has always been very troubling. I hate to think of someone I respect so much as being a deadbeat dad. For example, I’ve always greatly admired Gauguin as an artist, but this admiration diminished quite a bit when I read about the price his family paid for his pursuit of his muse. Howley noted that in Siddhattha’s time, it was not at all unusual for someone in his situation to seek a spiritual path after having provided an heir for the family. And if deserting them had been seen by the society of his day in the same light it is now, he might have been shunned rather than revered. Along this line, Armstrong points out that the other heavy hitters in the arena of religion and philosophy in those days, Socrates, Confucius, Jesus, Jeremiah, etc., were not what we would call good family men these days. Wow, I really strayed from my original question, so back to that: what do you guys think of “Buddha” by Karen Armstrong?

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