Buddhism is a belief system that stands somewhere between a religion and a philosophy. Like all religions, it asks followers to have faith in a program that promises to alleviate human suffering once and for all. Like a philosophy, however, it encourages people to use logic and reason in order to sort through and understand the realities of human existence. Buddhism rejects the notion that there is any form of supernatural help to be had in the struggle toward perfection, insisting that it is only through personal effort that one can achieve enlightenment. “Be lamps unto yourselves,” Siddhartha is reported to have told his closest attendant, Ananda, as he neared death. “Do not look for refuge in anyone but yourselves.”
I find the individualism and the non-supernatural character of classical Buddhism very attractive, and after reading Karen Armstrong’s biography of the Buddha, I am even more intrigued by the system of Buddhism and the man who created it. It is, incidentally, important to emphasize that Siddhartha Gautama was a man, and not a god. In becoming a buddha, Siddhartha did nothing more than “wake up” to the reality of the world. He relinquished his desires and found peace amidst the impermanence of all things. He ended his craving for the world to be anything other than what it really is. This is all that Buddhist enlightenment consists of. In fact, according to Siddhartha, anyone is capable of becoming a buddha and of achieving nirvana, which is why writing a biography about Siddhartha is so appropriate. He was a man who struggled with problems like anyone else, making mistakes, learning lessons and changing directions throughout his life. He started by following in the footsteps of others, and later came to break away from all authority, ultimately establishing his own path toward reconciliation with the infinite.
Armstrong’s biography highlights, more than most other texts I’ve read, the mistakes and u-turns in the life of Siddhartha, from his abandonment of asceticism to his initial refusal to admit women into his order. Armstrong does a wonderful job of showing that Siddhartha was not a divinely inspired figure who claimed to channel the unquestionable and final wisdom of the gods, but a real flesh and blood man who, though he sometimes stumbled, remained magnificent due to his willingness to admit mistakes, readjust his views, struggle with difficult ideas and to keep preaching the Truth as he saw it. In this regard, Siddhartha resembles someone like Socrates more than he does Jesus. He was not a god/man, but a human being through and through.
There are ideas and speculations in Armstrong’s book I have never encountered before, and that imbue the Buddha’s life and message with an increased level of complication. One of these claims is that the Buddha offered a different set of teachings to those who were ready to fully commit to enlightenment than he did to those who were not. Armstrong writes that the Buddha encouraged the less committed to follow the basic rules of morality simply because it would make their lives easier and happier in the here and now. This is a quite pragmatic attitude toward morality that does not seem entirely consistent with other Buddhist doctrines, such as the second step in the Eightfold Path, which emphasizes the necessity of “right intentions,” or the Buddha’s assertion, in the Digha Nikaya that “there is no teaching for one type of person and another for other types.”
Another alarming speculation that Armstrong raises is that the Buddha’s death might not have been the result of accidental food poisoning, as the Pali texts report, but that it may have been a deliberate act of murder. She cites a scholar who points to the fact that upon sitting down to his last meal, Siddhartha did not allow any of his friends to eat from the same bowl out of which he served himself, and afterwards that he had the leftover food buried. This might be an indication that Siddhartha knew that his food had been tampered with and that he was trying to protect those who were with him. If this truly is the case, then it would be one more way that Siddhartha resembles Socrates, who willingly drank hemlock while his friends looked on.
For those who approach Buddhism from a religious orientation, Armstrong’s book might be unsettling. The overall picture she paints is of a man who was fallible, at times mistaken, and often depressed and isolated. Such characteristics might not be the sort that inspire faith and unshakable confidence in followers. For those of us who approach Buddhism from a philosophical perspective, however, these same characteristics inspire empathy and reinforce the feeling that the Buddha was a real, flesh and blood human being who suffered in many of the same ways that the rest of us still suffer. If this is so, then his thoughts on how to confront the pain of impermanence can stand alongside those of other great philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger.