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Buddha (Penguin Lives) Hardcover – February 19, 2001

4.2 out of 5 stars 134 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Books on Buddhism may overflow the shelves, but the life story of the Buddha himself has remained obscure despite over 2,500 years of influence on millions of people around the world. In an attempt to rectify this, and to make the Buddha and Buddhism accessible to Westerners, the beloved scholar and author of such sweeping religious studies as A History of God has written a readable, sophisticated, and somewhat unconventional biography of one of the most influential people of all time. Buddha himself fought against the cult of personality, and the Buddhist scriptures were faithful, giving few details of his life and personality. Karen Armstrong mines these early scriptures, as well as later biographies, then fleshes the story out with an explanation of the cultural landscape of the 6th century B.C., creating a deft blend of biography, history, philosophy, and mythology.

At the age of 29, Siddhartha Gautama walked away from the insulated pleasure palace that had been his home and joined a growing force of wandering monks searching for spiritual enlightenment during an age of upheaval. Armstrong traces Gautama's journey through yoga and asceticism and grounds it in the varied religious teachings of the time. In many parts of the world during this so-called axial age, new religions were developing as a response to growing urbanization and market forces. Yet each shared a common impulse--they placed faith increasingly on the individual who was to seek inner depth rather than magical control. Taoism and Confucianism, Hinduism, monotheism in the Middle East and Iran, and Greek rationalism were all emerging as Gautama made his determined way towards enlightenment under the boddhi tree and during the next 45 years that he spent teaching along the banks of the Ganges. Armstrong, in her intelligent and clarifying style, is quick to point out the Buddha's relevance to our own time of transition, struggle, and spiritual void in both his approach--which was based on skepticism and empiricism--and his teachings.

Despite the lack of typical historical documentation, Armstrong has written a rich and revealing description of both a unique time in history and an unusual man. Buddha is a terrific primer for those interested in the origins and fundamentals of Buddhism. --Lesley Reed

From Publishers Weekly

Armstrong's esteemed works, including such standards as A History of God and The Battle for God, have primarily focused on the monotheism of the Middle East. Now she turns farther eastward to craft this short biography for the Penguin Lives series. Armstrong carefully ties the Buddha's time to our own and champions his spiritual discoveries with an understated dignity that even the Buddha might bless. While exercising a scholar's restraint, she reveals a detectable compassion for Sidhatta Gotama, the radical who walked away from a pleasure palace because he refused to "remain locked in an undeveloped version" [of himself]. Armstrong overcame peculiar challenges to write about this historical figure who became "a type rather than an individual," as his personality and life particulars evaporated into the power of his selflessness. She turned this lack of details for a conventional biography to our advantage, opting to enhance Gotama's story with the broad canvas of his time and culture, thus making him accessibly human. This handsome and solid portrait is sure to become a classic; it is a refined and readable biography of a pivotal character in human history. It is likely true that when the 80-year-old Buddha died he had, as the sutra says, "gone beyond the power of words," but in this thoughtful and revealing study, Armstrong has come near to proving the scriptures wrong. (Feb.) Forecast: Despite the plethora of Buddhist books on the market, few recent Buddha biographies have been written for a general audience. Armstrong's superb reputation should help sales, and Viking plans a six-city author tour and national publicity.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Lives
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; 1st edition (February 19, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670891932
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670891931
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (134 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #407,200 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Karen Armstrong has made quite a career out of writing biographies, not only about manifestations of the divine, but the early history of the movements they inspire. If the potential reader is looking for esoteric tracts on yogic practice (and the Buddha would have abhorred such fascination) then this is not the book they need.
Rather, this delicious and brief treat of a book explains what Buddha and Buddhism meant in the context of their early history. India had become a place where great business republics were involved in rapid economic growth (like today's global economy) and were being consumed by the new monarchical states. A huge middle class was emerging that could not be pigeonholed into the old caste system, and therefore rejected it; life had become overly materialistic and people were desperately turning to anything for a sense of spiritual well-being (sort of like today.)
What Armstrong does simply and wonderfully is reveal this worldwide phase of history and the contribution of the Buddha in meeting its challenges. His teachings are decidedly NOT the mysterious, esoteric bunk that priesthoods of every religion have invented to maintain their exhalted position, but were in fact very practical means for bringing the unhappy people of the age into enlightenment-- sort of like what people are looking for today.
I was especially happy to read this book because of these larger, "global" contexts that are expressed or implied. Buddhism belongs in the hall of great world religions, as Buddha belongs among the great manifestations of the divine. Armstrong has delivered a fine portrait of the Buddha's life that puts them both in their proper place, yet she avoids the trap of making them such objects of adoration that the text would become a mere tract.
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By A Customer on February 27, 2002
Format: Hardcover
As a student of Buddhism for some 40 years, I found Armstrong's engagingly written account one of the few books I have run across that clearly explains the social and historical context in which the Buddha lived and taught. It provides a basic introduction to the philosophical concepts of Buddhism, but its real focus is to reveal who the Buddha was and how he came to be that way. In this, I think, it succeeds admirably. I was a bit frustrated by the use of Pali rather than Sanscrit, and regretted the lack of a bibliography. But, I think, Armstrong successfully resisted the temptation to "go beyond the evidence," and she has no clear axe to grind or stake in any particular Buddhist sect. Criticisms of the book as "Theravada centered" are off the mark; she describes a period before sects and shows the roots of both Thervada and Mahayana. Her discussion of the Axial Age and her comparisons to other creeds and philosophies were helpful and insightful. I can't wait to read her book on Islam; if it's this good, I can see why it's a best-seller.
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Format: Hardcover
I think the somewhat mixed reviews of this book are off mark. It is true that I was also expecting biographical insight into the historical person, Siddharta Gautama, but as Armstrong carefully qualifies there is scant historical data on which an educated biography could be based. I don't think educated speculation would serve much purpose. By providing some of the historical context (e.g., axial age and the concerns of new city dwellers in northern India) surrounding the time when Siddharta was active, the reader gets a meaningful feel for the times (even this is, to some extent, conjectural) that may have influenced Siddharta Gautama's motivations and thinking. I am also most impressed by the acuity and knowledge she has about Buddhism and her confidence to paraphrase others' works (as she freely admits) to fit the flow and development of the book. I have found no theoretical flaws in her reasoning, and she is ultra-careful and respectful by not conveying simplistic accounts of Buddihsm's deep ideas which so many books are prone to do. I would say the book is as blunder-free and void of nonsense as well-known books by the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh are. This is no simple feat.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
In summary, Armstrong's "Buddha" is a brief, sympathetic account of the life of the Buddha in the context of his time. It is marred by brevity and by a distanced, clinical treatment of the Buddha's dhamma that makes it seem little more than an antique, cultural artifact, not a relevant way of life.
I am guessing that the format for the Penguin "Lives" series accounts for some of the shortcomings of this book including: its brief length (less than 200 rather small pages); its lack of illustrations; its rather abrupt end with the Buddha's death (not a word of how one teacher's words grew into a worldwide religion); the absence of a guide to the pronunciation of the many Pali terms; and the omission of an index.
These lacks show the book is not intended as a definitive biography; nor it is it intended to have theological depth that would challenge a well-read Buddhist. This is a popular "life" intended to give a broad picture of the Buddha's life and dhamma to a curious non-Buddhist reader or to a student.
Within the scope of this limited goal Armstrong has done a reasonably good job. Certainly it could not have been easy to shape a conventional, biographical tale from the Pali canon and other Buddhist scriptures. Armstrong stresses that an integral part of the Buddha's teaching was the unimportance of the ego, and for that reason the Buddha's personal attributes virtually disappeared, both from his teachings and from his disciple's accounts. Little is left but the suttas themselves, and some highly-colored legends surrounding the key moments of the Buddha's life.
Armstrong is particularly good at taking the legends and drawing out their inner meaning.
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