Dr Joyce Miller reviews “Gautama Buddha” for the Association of Religious Education Inspectors, Advisers and Consultants: AREIAC Newsletter, Autumn, 2011
In this excellent book on the life and teachings of the Buddha, Vishvapani quotes a story to illustrate the Buddha’s sense of humour and his satire. He is talking about monks who like to settle near a regular supply of food and he compares them to a well-fed dung beetle which would shout out, ‘Yippee! I’m a dung-eater with a huge pile of dung in front of me!’ This will tell you immediately that the book is no earnest, dull account of the Buddha’s life that you may have come across before. This is a highly accessible study of Gautama’s life and teachings which gives a very strong impression of him as a person through his encounters, teachings, frustrations and successes.
Vishvapani, a member of the Triratna order, combines the skills of a historical researcher with a mediator’s understanding of the Dharma and a devotee’s respect for the founder of his tradition. He openly acknowledges that this is an insider’s account but he also displays scepticism and objectivity as he explores the life of the Buddha through the evidence that is available, relying heavily on the Discourses and debunking much of what ‘tradition’ says about the Buddha. He dismisses, rightly, the idea that Gautama was a prince. He says that the famous four signs (of ageing, sickness, death and a holy man) are ‘legend not fact’ – that story is of a previous Buddha, Vipassi. Why do school text books go on perpetuating these erroneous notions when academics have been disputing them for years?
I have to admit to my own scepticism when I received this book for review. What more could be said about the Buddha that isn’t already covered in my favourite books – Michael Carrithers’ biography the Buddha, Walpole Rahula on what the Buddha taught, Nanamoli on the life of the Buddha in the Pali canon. What is different here is that the best of all these are combined in one, engaging, fluent and well-written account. I also like very much the fact that Vishvapani draws from a very wide range of sources: the Buddhist scriptures, of course, but also from Jain sources and the Upanishads and is thus able to contextualize the Buddha in his time. He uses much later accounts as well, such as the writings of the seventh century Chinese traveller, Hsuan Tsang, whose descriptions of the landscape inform his lively evocations of encounters the Buddha had and give a real sense of their place and time.
There were saints, prophets and shamans all over the place at time of the Buddha and by thus contextualizing him, the author is able to demonstrate the revolutionary nature of Gautama’s teaching (the insider is appearing here!). The well-known story of the Buddha’s visit to the Kalamas is recounted. They are weary of many teachers passing through and leaving them completely confused about which of them is right. The Buddha’s advice was for them to consider for themselves the impact the teachings would have: would they make them more loving and wiser? He told them to use their own judgement and to pay attention to their own experience. The Buddha dismissed the ‘eel-wrigglers’ who played with ideas and evaded the central questions of life. Vishvapani insists that the Buddha was not a philosopher: his quest is an existential rather than a philosophical one and this is an important insight to remember when people, as they often do, refer to Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a religion.
The book covers what one would expect in such a study: the world into which Gautama was born, his quest, enlightenment, the development of the sangha, his relationship with the world and his legacy. He presents Gautama as a real person and grapples with the question of his humanity – and what it was that made him more than human. One of the ways in which he doers this successfully is by using very accessible translations of the texts which have an immediacy and freshness. He provides details of which I was previously unaware: the use in early sources, for example, of ‘re-death’ rather than ‘re-birth’ which gives a totally different emphasis to the same doctrine.
This is a thorough, carefully researched and well-written account of the life, teachings and impact of Gautama Buddha. At times it reads almost like a novel as we are invited to imagine scenes and the characters within them and this is one of the ways in which this biography comes alive for the reader. The bibliography, notes and glossary are testimony to the author’s scholarship. My only disappointment was the poor quality of the photographs , often three or four to a page, black and white, and rather old. Given the beauty of Buddhist iconography the publishers could have done better. But this is a small gripe in what is otherwise a very readable and impressive account of one of the world’s most important religious leaders.
Gautama Buddha: The life and teachings of the Awakened One
Vishvapani Blomfield (2011) Quercus, 2011 ISBN: 978-1849164092 £14.00 [Amazon], Hardback, 388 pp.