Karen Armstrong is not one to shy away from what some might consider an impossible task. She is, after all, the author of "The History of God," among a dozen other books. Now the respected British scholar has chosen to write a biography of a major religious figure for whom "there is not a single incident in the scriptures that we can honestly affirm to be historically true."
The result is "Buddha," an elegant if unconventional work of fewer than 200 pages that seems destined to become the classic source for anyone delving for the first time into the life and teachings of the religious icon.
In a deft blend of history, philosophy, mythology, and biography, Armstrong not only portrays the tumultuous cultural landscape that helped spawn one of the world's most influential faiths, but also plumbs the motivations of the man - Siddhatta Gotama - and vividly depicts his quest for an enlightenment that would transform human experience.
It's for Buddhists to say whether Armstrong has accurately captured the essence of the teachings. But to an outsider, she offers an illuminating glimpse of the origins and fundamentals of the faith.
She draws on the Pali scriptures - texts put together about a hundred years after the Buddha's death - and later Indian biographies, both filled with myth and miracle as well as mundane narratives. Weaving the legends into her tale, Armstrong demonstrates that the symbolic and psychological meanings of history can carry as much weight as historical events.
This is a story of a young man in the 6th century BC who renounced his privileged status and left his wife and young child to take up the holy life in order to pursue a solution to the problem of human suffering.
Convinced that suffering resulted from human cravings and attachments, Gotama and others sought a means to free themselves from egotism and find a transcendent peace. Relying on his own experience and the disciplines of morality, meditation, and cultivation of positive states of mind, the young monk finally achieved his "enlightenment."
With the newfound serenity of one who has "woken up," he spent the next 45 years traveling through towns and cities in company with followers to teach others the path he had discovered.
Armstrong conveys the broad cultural upheaval under way in northern India - a breakdown of political structures and rise of the marketplace, resulting in rampant individualism, disillusionment, and dread. Gotama lived during a period of momentous ferment in several regions of the world that historians have since called the Axial Age. In the search for more satisfying and fundamental truths, thought shifted during this time from external forms and magical rites to a more interior spirituality and a focus on moral behavior. This era gave birth not only to Buddhism, but to Confucianism, Greek rationalism, and monotheism (the Hebrew prophets and Zoroaster).
One of the more intriguing parts of the story follows the spread of the teachings and the impact of Buddha and his sangha (community of monks) on people from different castes. He was sharing a psychological method, not a doctrine, and "it stands or falls not by its metaphysical acuity or its scientific accuracy, but by the extent to which it works," Armstrong writes.
"Buddha" draws the reader into a very different cultural experience, including the charms and rigors of early monastic life. It punctures some common stereotypes about Buddhist teachings. And while one remembers that the story rests on none of the usual historical documentation, it nevertheless renders a convincing interpretation of how a new teaching won over followers and spread far beyond its original home and times.
Jane Lampman writes about religion for the Monitor.
By Karen Armstrong Viking 205 pp., $19.95
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society