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ISBN 0297646257 / 9780297646259 / 0-297-64625-7
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Writing a biography of the Buddha is not the same as writing one of most other people--even other founders of religions--as Karen Armstrong explains at the start of this excellent book, part of a series of lives of significant figures. Armstrong is a former nun who is now probably Britain's best-known popular writer on religion, the author of A History of God and The Battle for God amongst others.
Almost nothing is known about the Buddha's life as Siddhatta Gotama. The main source is the Pali Canon, a collection of texts made about a century after his death, though not written down until much later. This is a huge body of work which contains the Buddha's sermons and verses, rules for Buddhist monks, and philosophical analyses--but, apart from in passing, almost nothing about his life. In some of his discourses the Buddha illustrates a point with a personal anecdote; his "biography" has to be pieced together from these snippets. And Armstrong accepts that many of these may be mythological in nature, rather than historical in the factual sense we might wish for today. But does this matter? "The early Buddhists looked for significance, rather than historically accurate detail, in their scriptures."
Armstrong takes these snippets and puts them in order to tell Siddhatta Gotama's life story--but she does much more than that. The Buddha didn't spring out of nowhere. One of the most valuable things the author does in this book is to set him in his historical context of the changing religious ideas of the time. And in doing that she also gives an excellent explanation of what Buddhism is all about, in terms that a non-Buddhist can understand. Highly recommended. --David V Barrett [via]