Armstrong on Buddha

Book Review:  By Wendell Krossa

I’ve been reading/meditating my way through Karen Armstrong’s ‘Buddha’, a history of the life and teaching of Gotama. At 29 years of age he left his young wife and newborn son (whom he called “burden”) to wander in the forest with other monks, begging from hardworking people. My initial reaction to that was- this guy is a deadbeat dad, a jerk, abandoning his young family. And an escapist nut who cannot handle the daily mundane that most people cannot escape from. But I read on.

Armstrong is a masterful story teller and brings out some very fascinating information about the man and his insights. Not the 8 steps, 4 ways, 3 this and so many that. I always shut down at all that “follow these 29 steps to quick victory” and so on. Give us a break.

But Armstrong brings out what Campbell calls the human story- that we go out into life, face monsters/problems, struggle and conquer, and learn things, and then return with insights to help others. And the story of the Buddha has all that. This is not to affirm all he did or said, but he did make some great insights to benefit all humanity.

His struggle was essentially about conquering selfishness in order to live and express compassion. And in doing this, to become truly human.

Its such a simple truth. Compassion. This, as Armstrong suggests, is being truly human and fulfilling one’s potential. However it is expressed in life in all the varied things that humans do. It gets us to the real meaning of life and the cosmos. The purpose of it all. The Buddha got this.

Let me give some quotes from her book: “He has utterly transcended the selfishness that most of us regard as inseparable from our condition. The Buddha was trying to find a new  way of being human…all the great world traditions urge us to transcend our selfishness…the ‘Axial Age’ (800-200 BCE)proved pivotal for humanity…it is only by reaching beyond their limits that human beings become most fully themselves…each person must find the truth within his own being… (the Buddha was very much involved in the Hindu tradition and its development)…Hinduism (believed in) Brahman, the impersonal essence of the universe and source of everything that exists…It was also the immanent presence which pervaded everything…the Brahman was present in the core of his own being….the absolute, eternal reality…was identical to one’s own deepest Self (Atman)…this was a startling act of faith in the sacred potential of humanity…if the Absolute was in everything, including oneself, there was no need for a priestly elite. People could find the ultimate for themselves…without cruel, pointless sacrifices, within their own being”.

The Buddha then sets out a pattern of response to his own internal imperfection that is quite like Schwartz’s You Are Not Your Brain. Rather than struggle against the darker elements in oneself (trying to eliminate this dark stuff) he sought instead to focus on positive things like compassion and feeling with the suffering of others and treating all with compassion. Rather than trying to crush all those more inhuman impulses he would cultivate thoughts of loving-kindness toward others to counter incipient feelings of ill will. He would work with human nature rather than fight it. Schwartz gives more detail on this cognitive therapy approach, which Seligman and others also advocate. As Schwartz says, we should not fight all those things that arise unbidden but recognize they are not our true self and respond by focusing more on more humane things. The Buddha essentially got this.

The Buddha had realized that compassion would give access to hitherto unknown dimensions of his humanity. Through meditation he would deliberately evoke the emotion of love, “that huge, expansive, and immeasurable feeling that knows no hatred…he cultivated a feeling of friendship for everybody and everything…learning to suffer with other people and things and to empathize with their pain….also sympathetic joy which rejoices at the happiness of others, without reflecting on how this might redound to himself”. He was trying to transcend himself in an act of total compassion toward all other things. To neutralize the power of egotism that limits human potential, says Armstrong. To seek the good of others, mounting an offensive of benevolence and goodwill. Compassion yielded a release of the mind. Consequently, as Schwartz and Armstrong and others note, this leads to less identification with invasive thoughts and feelings that are not compassion and the recognition these are not ours. They become less disturbing. This reaching beyond themselves, says Armstrong, to a reality that transcends rational understanding leads to men and women becoming fully human. It is freedom from the prison of self-centeredness. It is waking up to our full potential as human persons.

This is not avoiding pain or suffering but having an inner haven “which enables a man or woman to live with pain, to take possession of it, affirm it, and experience a profound peace of mind in the midst of suffering”. This is about discovering a strength within that comes from being correctly centered beyond the reach of selfishness, says Armstrong.

She brings out the element of conquering that is central to human story- “the need for courage and determination, it shows Gotama engaged in a heroic struggle against all those forces within himself which militate against his achievement of Nibbana (Nirvana)”. There was ongoing battle with those residual forces in himself. And at one point he faced (this is perhaps myth), much like Jesus, a battle with some satanic force that urged him to seek victory by physical force. He resisted such vulgar coercion. And gained a victory over himself to find a new potency and freedom to become more fully human (himself).

As Armstrong says, summing up this section on his personal struggle, “Only when we learn to live from the heart and feel the suffering of others as if it were our own, do we become truly human. Where a bestial man or woman puts self-interest first, a spiritual person learns to recognize and seeks to alleviate the pain of others”. This explains why he had to leave the “pleasure palace” of his earlier life.

But enough. Armstrong draws out some good structure of basic human story as outlined by Campbell. Going out, facing monsters/problems (the residual inhuman impulses), struggling, conquering, and returning with insights to bless others.