Monday, June 13, 2022

Review of Buddha by Karen Armstrong

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes 

Book can be found in:
Genre = Sociology, Mythology and Religion
Book Club Event = Book List (11/19/2022)
Intriguing Connections = 1) Biographies: Auto, Memoir, and Other Types

Watch Short Review


“At its worst, this habit of optimism allows us to bury our heads in the sand, deny the ubiquity of pain in ourselves and others, and to immure ourselves in a state of deliberate heartlessness to ensure our emotional survival.  The Buddha would have had little time for this.  In his view, the spiritual life cannot begin until people allow themselves to be invaded by the reality of suffering, realize how fully it permeates our whole experience, and feel the pain of all other beings, even those whom we do not find congenial.” – Karen Armstrong, Introduction, Page xxvii

“He would teach his disciples to do the same, and insisted that nobody must take his teachings on hearsay.  They must validate his solutions empirically, in their own experience, and find for themselves that his method really worked.  They could expect no help from the gods.” – Karen Armstrong, Chapter 1: Renunciation, Page 7

“He noticed how his own “unskillful” actions could harm other people and that even his motivation could be injurious.  So, the Buddha concluded, our intentions were Kamma and had consequences.  The intentions, conscious or unconscious, that inspired our actions were mental acts that were just as important as any external deeds.” – Karen Armstrong, Dhamma, Page 110


Siddhatta Gotama became the Buddha, which means Enlightened or Awakened One.  Much about the Buddha’s life and teaching are shrouded in mystery because the sources about them came much later, after Buddha’s death.  Even before Buddha, India had a spiritual tradition and culture, supporting those who sought the spiritual life.  Monks were providing a social benefit, in satisfying the spiritual need.  But during Buddha’s era, there was a spiritual crisis, as many people were disillusioned.  Many had made sacrifices to the gods, but the sacrifices did not help them.  They decided to rely on themselves.  

To go on the spiritual path, Gotama needed to renounce many attachments, as attachments made it hard to break free.  Gotama joined the spiritual movement, and sought out teachers.  Trying out many practices, Gotama found many of them fundamentally flawed.  Creating suffering without spiritual benefits.  But then Gotama figured out a spiritual path, and became the Buddha.  Aspired to a Middle Way, a way between extremes of self-indulgence, and of asceticism.  While searching for total equanimity towards others.  The Buddha taught others not accept teachings uncritically, even to test Buddha’s own teaching.  Not to rely on false props.  To not deny the pain and suffering, but to understand the pain of others, even of detractors.


There are very little sources on Gotama during Gotama’s lifetime.  Most sources about the Buddha and Buddhism came after.  Sometimes centuries after.  A council was formed after the Buddha died, some 50 years after.  A council meant assess the various doctrines and practices.  A second council was formed about 100 years after.  The written scriptures by this time had become more formal, and it is these scriptures that are known.  The surviving text is more than a millennia after the Buddha.

The scriptures came from memory, which has a problematic transmission of ideas.  A lot of the material was probability lost.  The material could have been misunderstood.  The monks would have projected their own views unto the Buddha.  The authenticity of the claims is in question.  

The legend is a credible historical fact.  Gotama’s personality and preferences are shrouded in mystery.  What is known of the Buddha is the self-control, equanimity, and transhuman serenity.

History of a Movement:

People of India have a long tradition of venerating those that seek the spiritual.  The monks were providing a social benefit, usually with great sacrifice to themselves.  

Aryan Indians dominated India by 1000 B.C.E., divided society into four classes.  The brahmins were the priestly caste, who were the decision makers and took responsibility for society.  The second class were the ksatriya, warriors dedicated to government and defense.  The third class were the vaisya, who were farmers, merchants, and others which delt with the economy.  The fourth and lowest caste were sudras, who were slaves or outcasts.  The classes were not initially hereditary, as individuals could move between them if they possessed the required skills.  But by Gotama’s time, the class system had become sacred and immutable.

During the 9th to 3rd century, there were many diverse sets of ideas and people who searched to better philosophical and spiritual life.  An era referred to as the Axial Age. A pivotal time for humanity, for understanding.  Many taught how to cope with misery, with a flawed world.  Nobody is sure what caused the Axial Age, the intellectual empowerment within China, India, and Iran.  Some later dominant religious faiths, came from restatements of the Axial Age impulse.  

A pre-Axial religion was the Verdic.  Kept external controls of society using rites.  Preventing development or change.  But for the new religions, the sages no longer accepted the external conformity.  Recognized the internal thoughts that preceded action.  The Axial sages took a critical understanding of the prior views, and reinterpreted them.  Added morals and ethics to their religion.  As ethics allowed the individual to take responsibility of action, rather than rely on magic.  

The scripts were put to the test of society.  Religious life mattered to everyone, rather than a few eccentrics.  Not a private affair of the priestly caste, but meant for everyone.  Which enabled transmission of the faith to the many.  Rather than blind acceptance, what was sought was inquiry and discussion.  Teachers would debate their views in public forums, with crowds gathering to hear their thoughts.  When a sangha entered a community, many would seek them out and question them about their views, and discuss their merits.  These values of the Axial age were the backdrop values of Gotama.

The reinterpreted Vedas provided more spirituality and internalized significance.  The Sages spiritual goal became brahman.  An impersonal essence of the universe, a source for existence.  Pervaded everything in reality.  Salvation began to be a spiritual realization that the brahman was the eternal reality.  An absolute higher than the gods, and one’s identity.

During the 6th century B.C.E., there was a spiritual crisis in the region.  A widespread disillusionment, primarily with the gods.  For giving the gods sacrifices did not help the people.  People decided that they must rely on themselves.  Many felt that spiritual practices that worked for their ancestors, did not work for them.  People were desperate for a new religious solution.

Times were changing due to many regions becoming trading posts.  Merchants were on the rise, and protected by many kingdoms.  The merchants were mostly mobile, and did not fit into the old rituals.  Creating a spiritual vacuum.

Indian society felt imprisoned by the cycle of rebirth.  The eternal pain and suffering that rebirth brought with it.  Rather than consider the extra time rebirth would provide, they focused on the pain of redeath.  To go through the chronic suffering again and again, was intolerable.

During Buddha’s life time, there were many renouncers.  People seeking what Indian ascetics called homelessness.  Many sought homelessness to obtain a spiritual life, which Gotama wanted to join.  People who attained homelessness were seen going forth on a noble quest of the holy life.  Many competed for the privilege of feeding them.  Some became their patrons and disciples.  The renunciants were not considered dropouts.   The monks left structured space and pursued radical freedom.  They cast aside the caste system.  They began to be as mobile as the merchants.  

Renouncers were meant to seek spiritually, but there had been those who joined them because they sought refuge from the law, or were actual dropouts.  But by Gotama’s spiritual journey, the renouncers had become more organized because the efficient kingdoms would not allow anyone to not contribute to society.  The renouncers, even the uncommitted, needed to have an ideology to justify their existence.  This was meant to prove that they were not parasites, but were philosophers.  Philosophers who could facilitate spiritual improvement in others.  The teachers and their sangha, their associations, were as competitive in the spread of their views as merchants were competitive in spreading their wares.

Buddhist Development:

Buddhism was developed in response to Gotama’s personal history.  Not studying the works of others.  But Gotama did interact with other spiritual figures.  Gotama found more problems within the alternatives ways to achieve enlightenment, than actual help to achieve enlightenment.

Gotama was said to be destined to become a Universal Monarch, a cakkavatti, or achieve supreme spiritual enlightenment.  These two identities were in conflict as the cakkavatti would have to rely on force.  To make Gotama into a cakkavatti, Gotama’s father protected Gotama from reality.  Creating a pleasure-palace to make sure nothing upsetting happened.  Gotama became a virtual prisoner.  A place that created a mind in denial.  Denial that prevents development of the personality.  Living in a delusion.  Even within a safety prison, somehow those who were different, came across Gotama.  These individuals inspired Gotama to search for an understanding to their differences.

Gotama had found palace life constricting, with pointless tasks and duties.  Creating a desire to join the renouncers.  To join the homelessness movement.  To avoid the domesticity lifestyle.  To join the spiritual movement, Gotama would need to renounce Gotama’s family and leave behind many other treasures.  The problem with family and treasures was that they created attachment.  Attachments that made it very hard to break free.  Family life and highest form of spiritual life were incompatible.  

Early on, Gotama saw grim cycles of suffering.  Starting from the pain of birth, and leading to physical problems, illnesses, death, and corruption.  Gotama was emotionally invested in family life, but were also fragile and vulnerable.  The attachment would only bring pain.  Knowing that suffering was in store for loved ones, detracted from the joy in the relationships.

Gotama’s family was from a region where Aryan culture did not impact, and had no caste system.  Although Gotama was not part of a caste system, Gotama initially introduced Gotama as part of the ksatriya, a member responsible for government.  Being part of ksatriya gave Gotama a lot of favor and access to many important social figures, while being an objective outsider.  

Gotama was looking for a teacher, and a sangha.  Gotama had tried many different ways to achieve enlightenment from various teachers.  Many just created suffering without spiritual benefits.  Some achieved temporary enlightenment.  Each had fundamental flaws.  Gotama would not accept anything based on trust, and warned Gotama’s sangha to not accept anything on hearsay.  To not accept ideas uncritically.  What they needed to do was test the views, and make sure that the views resonated with their own experiences.  

Gotama started to develop a Middle Way.  Between the extremes of shunning physical and emotional self-indulgence, and the extremes of asceticism.  Gotama’s aspiration was to achieve total equanimity towards others.  Having neither attraction nor antipathy.  Needing to divest completely from egotism.  An abandonment of preferences, in favor of disinterested benevolence.  

After achieving enlightenment, and becoming the Buddha, Gotama did not want to teach Gotama’s views.  Knowledge that was obtained was ineffable, and could not be put into words.  Each individual would need to find their own enlightenment.  But being alone within a private enlightenment would fail a principle of Buddhism, and therefor Gotama sought to spread what was learned.  Unlike other religions, Buddhism would not seek to destroy former philosophies.  But accepted tolerant partnership with the prior spiritual ways.  

Initial attempts at finding followers were difficult, as there are those that did think or want to believe that someone could achieve that which Gotama was describing.  But Gotama was able to convince those who knew Gotama before.  After which, Gotama was described as being able to convince many people at a time.  

Some of Buddha disciples created different schools of thought on Buddhism.  Because the Buddha praised both, making them authentic.  Authenticity in spite of being different, meant that the different schools could coexist peacefully unlike other religions.

Buddha is usually depicted in silent solitary meditation, but after Buddha started to teach, Buddha was rarely left alone.  Usually accompanied by many others, which Buddha requested at times to quite down.

Buddhism is meant for everyone, but practically appealed to the upper classes and intellectuals.  The full teachings would be possible for monks, those who fully devoted themselves to achieving enlightenment.  Lay disciples that toiled with commercial or reproductive desires, would have to wait until their rebirth for more favorable circumstances.  By practicing Buddhism, and appropriate morality, would allow people earn merit for their next life, while also behaving more appropriately in the present one.  Part of the reason for the lack of religious equality was because literacy was rare.  During those times, to understand Buddhism would require seeking a teacher, rather than studying a text.    

Although Buddha would teach to men and women, and accept both as being equal in becoming monks.  There are Buddhist text referring to women as inferior, and after being accepted into Buddhism, having far stricter codes of conduct.  The differences reflect when the texts of Buddhism were written, reflecting their era’s principles.

Buddha’s Sangha was more a republic than a monarchy.  No central authority or controlling ruler.  Everyone on the council was equal.  Each monk was responsible for oneself.  Yet there were monks who sought leadership, and sowed dissension.  Created an atmosphere of egotism, which was incompatible with the spiritual life.  Much like in public life, the Sangha were not immune from selfishness, ambition, and dissension.

Buddhist Thoughts:

Buddhist do not value charismatic leadership, which is keeping to Siddhatta Gotama’s view.  Rather than rely on charismatic leaders, reliance needs to be on one’s own efforts and self-motivation.  Charismatic leadership is a distraction for spiritual progress.  Everyone can achieve what Siddhatta Gotama did, and obtain enlightenment.  People can become dependence on charismatic leadership, which can prevent self-understanding.  

The Self or a Supreme Being would inflate the ego, therefor is too limiting and while creating an impediment to enlightenment.  A deity giving a seal of sacred approval is unskillful, for it creates a prop for damaging and dangerous egotism that the individual would need to transcend.  Enlightenment required a rejection of false props.  Even without wanting to, the Buddha has become glorified.  In some Buddhist schools, Gotama is virtually deified.    

Seeking emotional survival through positive thoughts, enables avoidance of one’s pain and the pain of others.   For the Buddha, spiritual cannot begin until the acceptance of the reality of suffering.  That suffering is ubiquitous.  To understand the pain of others, even of detractors.  Refusing to consider suffering means being unprepared when tragedy befalls.

Nibbana is achieved when the passions are extinguished.  Attachments and delusions are removed.  Buddhism creates an understanding that everything is impermanent.  The mental acts that inspired actions were just as important as external forces.  That actions have consequences.  The self is an illusion, for the personality keeps changing.

Teachings of the Buddha are meant to be tested, and validated empirically using their own experiences.


There are many fascinating comparative analysis and historical backgrounds.  But the comparative references can sometimes prevent learning what impacted the Buddha, rather than those who Buddha is compared with.   

Much of Buddhism focuses on the individual, the internal reality.   Teaching self-control.  That focus meant that the external reality was under emphasized, not as well understood.  Although there were interactions with the external, the responses focused on the personal reactions.  The focus made teaching and helping others become enlightened difficult, because interacting with others requires an understanding of the external reality.

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•What does Buddha mean?
•What do we know of the Buddha?
•How do we know what is known of the Buddha?
•What is enlightenment?
•How does someone achieve enlightenment?
•What is the historical Indian tradition and culture before the Buddha?
•What were the social conditions during Buddha’s lifetime?
•What is the Middle-Way?
•What are the renouncers?
•What is the caste system?
•What is the Axial Age?
•What were the spiritual traditions before the Axial Age?
•How did Buddhism interact with the alternative spiritual ways?
•Why was there a spiritual crisis during the 6th century B.C.E.?
•How did merchants influence spiritual thought?
•How did people consider the cycle of life?
•What was Buddha’s personal history?
•Why did Buddha leave palace life?
•What happened when Buddha found teachers?
•How did the Buddha spread Buddhism?
•How was Buddha’s Sangha organized?
•For whom is Buddhism for?
•What did Buddha think about charismatic leaders and deities?
•What is Nibbana?
•Why consider pain and suffering?

Book Details
Publisher:         Viking Penguin [Penguin Group]
Edition ISBN:  0670891932
Pages to read:   206
Publication:     2001
1st Edition:      2001
Format:            Hardcover

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall           5