Reflections on the experience of writing Gautama Buddha: the Life & Teachings of the Awakened One, and the continuing relevance – and continuing misinterpretations of the Buddha. Part 3 of an email interview with Will Buckingham on the ThinkBuddha blog
WB: What effect has writing Gautama Buddha had upon you yourself, as a Buddhist, as a writer, or simply as a human being?
Writing the book took around three years, and for most of that time my main experience was one of struggling with the material. I frequently felt overwhelmed by the scale of the Pali Discourses and the associated scholarship and I constantly encountered knots I hadn’t even suspected. That was the biggest literary and intellectual challenge I have ever undertaken, and it brought satisfactions on its own level as I chiseled out a coherent form.
As Gautama Buddha neared completion, and certainly now it’s done, I realised that through these struggles I had come to feel that the Buddha was very alive in my mind. I seemed to know him intimately and sense depths and textures in him that I don’t find even in the ‘real’ people I know. Especially when I meditate, I sometimes feel that the Buddha is viscerally present. This fuller sense of the Buddha helps me understand what kind of Buddhist I am and the Buddha’s Enlightenment is central to that.
WB: Towards the end of the book, you explore contemporary approaches to Buddhism, in particular in the West — from rationalistic, demystifying approaches, to the magical and symbolic thinking of Tibetan Buddhism. You say that ‘none of these approaches does full justice to Gautama’s teaching.’ What, in your view, are the problems with these various approaches? And what kind of approach do you think does justice to the teachings of Buddhism?
This is a large subject, which I have written about more fully elsewhere, but I’ll try to do it justice in a few words here.
In Gautama Buddha, following Joseph Goldstein’s book One Dharma I suggest that western Buddhists generally, and especially in America, approach Buddhism pragmatically, valuing it for the difference it makes in their lives, not out of reverence for the tradition itself. But I add that the apparently innocent approach that focuses on ‘what works’, as Goldstein says, is, in fact, slanted according to the agendas we bring.
If by ‘what works’ we mean that we want to focus on what we can experience for ourselves without taking a lot of religious beliefs on faith, then we have to set aside much in the Buddha’s teachings. That’s the secular Buddhist approach, which is increasingly popular and has some basis in the Buddha’s own teaching. But it touches its limits when we encounter the Buddha’s Enlightenment, which is the central fact of Buddhism and by definition it is experience beyond our own. In saying that he was Awakened, the Buddha was saying that the rest of us – believers and sceptics alike – are asleep, and that reason alone doesn’t show us the whole of the truth. This is a gateway, in traditional Buddhist practice, to other modes of apprehension including faith, devotion and ritual as well as the understanding that comes through acting with kindness or living in community.
By contrast, people who love the rituals of Tibetan Buddhism and its promise of contact with sources of magical power are often fleeing the western Enlightenment. They sometimes ignore the Buddha’s rigour and clarity and the demands it makes on our reason. Many forms of Tibetan Buddhism have their own rigour, but history and science often challenge Tibetan beliefs and we fail to do justice to the Buddha’s teaching if we ignore this. Neither our emotions nor our fidelity to a tradition is a better guide than reason and I like to remind Tibetan Buddhists that in the Kalama Sutta the Buddha says ‘do not rely on tradition or lineage.’
Then again, it’s tempting to turn aside from both faith and reason and simply focus on our experience of the present moment as followers of Zen and the broad mindfulness movement may do. But you might be surprised to learn that the Buddha didn’t teach that we should only live in the present moment. Even when he spoke about mindfulness, he realised that remembering, planning, reflecting, reasoning, judging, achieve and even desiring are essential elements of human experience. The question is whether we do them skillfully or unskillfully: with or without craving and aversion. In any case, mindfulness is just one part of the path he taught: as one Buddhist teacher says, he didn’t teach the Nobel Onefold Path.
My sense of what it means to do justice to the Buddha’s teachings comes from my training in the Triratna Buddhist Community and my efforts to make sense of them for myself. So I would say it means taking Enlightenment seriously, and focusing on the elements of that teaching that are central to it, especially the path to Enlightenment. We can learning from the various Buddhist traditions without accepting them uncritically. I think that’s the sort of viable middle way western Buddhists need between the secular and the traditional responses.
WB: You end the book with the sense that the Buddha is still untrackable (I think here of the image from the Buddhist tradition of the tracks of birds in the sky). You say that neither philosophy, nor myth, nor even an image capture the Buddha, and that perhaps the best guide is ‘the example of Gautama’s remarkable life.’ But — and this is my final question — what remains of this example and this life when we remove the philosophy, the myth, and the images?
I’m not suggesting that we should remove the philosophy and the images, and the myths have value as well but that the narrative of Gautama’s life includes these and also gives us something more. I see Gautama Buddha as a real person who lived, breathed, got old and died, and I think that careful attention to the sources brings us close to that person. What you are left with when you turn away from philosophy, myth or images alone and return to the life is the story of a man who sets out to understand the origin of suffering and ends up with an unfathomably profound insight into consciousness and experience. That sense of the Awakened man, whose stature dwarfs even texts and the teachings is what I tried hardest to evoke in writing Gautama Buddha.