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Divine Reticence

Photo by Chunyip Wong

A conversation with Karen Armstrong, biographer of the Enlightened One

Atlantic Unbound | March 21, 2001 | interviews

The British writer Karen Armstrong is a former Catholic nun who now teaches at Leo Baeck College, a seminary for reform Judaism in London, because she relishes the dialogue and disputation with her students. Best known for A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (1993), a scholarly but inviting account of the three monotheistic faiths, you could say that the world's major religious traditions are her beat. Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (1996) and Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet (1992) are among the other works that have earned her a wide and distinctly interfaith readership.

Armstrong sees religion as an essential human activity, one we are no more likely to outgrow than we are likely to outgrow art. Like art, religion, in her view, demands to be renewed, if not totally reformulated, in every generation. It is perhaps her conception of world religions as media for the imagination and vehicles for creativity, rather than as mutually exclusive bodies of doctrine, that has made Armstrong's books as popular as they are.

Her new biography, Buddha, just published as part of the Penguin Lives series, is her first full-length treatment of how a crucial act of renewal was accomplished in the Eastern tradition. Karen Armstrong's Buddha is a towering figure of an era (roughly 800 to 200 B.C.E.) that the philosopher Karl Jaspers named the Axial Age and that Armstrong characterizes as "the beginning of humanity as we now know it." The Buddha's Axial Age peers include Confucius, Socrates, and the Hebrew prophets, all of whom called on their contemporaries to radically change their lives. Armstrong also shows how the Buddha (traditionally thought to have died in 483 B.C.E.) drew on the culture of northern India, where the search for spiritual breakthrough was no less intense and urgent in his lifetime than the pursuit of technological advance is in our own.

This similarity may seem trivial, though, when compared to the fundamental difference between the Buddha's focus and that of contemporary Western culture. As Armstrong points out time and again in her book, the Buddha, more than anything else, insisted that human life be predicated on compassion. And that, rhetoric aside, is not a value our society can be congratulated for realizing.

Armstrong was recently in Boston, where the following conversation took place.

—Harvey Blume


How can you write a biography of someone about whom nothing is really known?

Well, as I say in my introduction, it can't be an ordinary twenty-first-century biography, where you delve into the facts and find controversial new evidence. The only historical fact we have is the fact of the legend, as developed in the Pali scriptures a hundred years after the Buddha's death. We can look at the legend and what it says about our humanity and the spiritual quest. 

What interested you in Buddhism?

When I first began the study of religion, I found it difficult to get a handle on Buddhism. It didn't have any of the things I considered essential to religion, like a supernatural God, a sense of sin, authority figures, doctrines. But the more I got into religious studies, the more I began to think that this approach, this reticence about the divine, had a good deal to recommend it.

But doesn't Buddhism have just as much doctrine as any other religion?

Buddhism has acquired doctrine, but the Buddha himself was totally uninterested in it. The Buddha was interested in spirituality and method—a program or regimen, that, if you followed it, would bring you transcendent peace.

You make it seem like the entire society of northern India in the sixth century B.C.E. was dedicated to supporting and funding spiritual research and development.

People would discuss new religious ideas with the same enthusiasm that people discuss football today. They were pioneering the spiritual solution, and they took it very seriously.

Given how vastly different our society is from theirs, how can we make use of their solution?

First thing we've got to do is stop thinking about how we can make use of or exploit it. But it's hard. The whole ethos is entirely different. Buddhism presupposed the existence of large amounts of time and solitude, the transformation occurring gradually, over years. A monk would go into a cloister and find that his outlook was transformed over time.

We like things instantly these days; we want an instant spirituality. We want quick, concrete results because of our utterly pragmatic approach to life. The Buddha was pragmatic, too, but he said, you know, this could take a while.

So the Buddha was the one who made the breakthrough everyone was looking for.

Many people in India were trying to find new religious solutions. Society had changed so drastically that the old religious ideas and practices were no longer effective. He made the breakthrough and people followed his method because it worked. 

You have to see, too, that the Upanishads were developing the Hindu tradition at the same time. Hinduism was another of the new religions that were reforming the old Brahmanical religion. The Jains were doing likewise, as, elsewhere, and in their own way, were the prophets of Israel, who were reforming the old Hebrew paganism.

Hebrew paganism?

Yes. The first people you read about in the Bible were not monotheists in our sense. The Bible makes it clear the people of Israel worshipped other gods alongside Yahweh for a long time. The prophets were always so upset with them for following Canaanite deities.

Your view of the Buddha is informed by notions of the Axial Age.

It was an extraordinary period. My next book is going to be a history of the Axial Age.

As you describe it, the Axial Age was about religion becoming more internal and less ritualistic.

And more about questioning, not taking things on trust. And more about compassion. All the Axial sages preached the primary and essential duty of compassion, both as a means of testing the religious impulse and of reaching enlightenment. All of them put the ethos of compassion at the top of the agenda.

Why was there an Axial Age? You link it to urbanization, but you admit there's a mystery about it.

I hope in my extended treatment to crack that a little bit more. It can't just be the result of urbanization, because Egypt and Mesopotamia, which had very well-established civilizations, had no Axial movement. Nobody has been able to explain why that is. And nobody has been able to explain why it's only in the three core areas of China, the Eastern Mediterranean, and India/Iran that you have this turmoil.

It may be, and this is tentative, that the suffering was greater in these areas. Suffering impels you, as it did the Buddha, to seek new solutions. Take the Greeks, for example, an Axial people. Before the philosophical quest began, the Greek tragedians had encouraged the people of Athens to explore the pathos and anguish of the human condition. An appreciation of tragedy and suffering preceded the philosophical quest.

It seems like what you're describing when you talk about the Axial Age is a mood, like the mood that swept through parts of the world in the 1960s, the 1840s, and at other times in modern history. Of course, this Axial mood took longer to disseminate and lasted longer.

It was a mood that required immense creativity. A great deal of spiritual work was required to find creative solutions.

Hinduism was looking for unity between the self and the divine. The Buddha, on the other hand, said that it's a mistake to suppose there is a self at all. Is that what distinguishes his approach?

Exactly. Now a lot of postmodern thought would say the same. David Hume made similar points about the self, but he didn't expect people to act on them. The Buddha's truths were always programs for action. He said that if you lived as though the self did not exist you would be happier.

What does it mean to live as though the self doesn't exist?

He meant the self we put at the center of our universe, the sort of self that wakes us up at three in the morning and says, "Why does this happen to me? Nobody loves me enough, I'm not appreciated." Those little rat runs we make for ourselves. The Buddha showed how to live without seeing people only from the greedy point of view of how they can advance our cause or damage it. If released from this point of view, we can gain a larger perspective that he thought brought us in line with the sacred.

It's part of all the great religions that we become most fully ourselves when we give ourselves away. But not many of us really want to do that. However much the self makes us miserable, it is the self we know, and we're not quite so ready to go out of it. 

It's very radical to utterly deny the existence of the self.

The Buddha is very radical, far more radical than many people who call themselves Buddhists today. Very often, in the U.K., where people are not interested in religion at all, people think of Buddhism as the soft option: No god, no sin, just do a bit of yoga. 

They offer a yoga class at my gym in London. Helps you to lose weight and bring blood pressure down. This is fine, but this is not what the Buddha was doing. His point was that you had to devote yourself to it full time; it's not compatible with family life or a busy job.

The Buddha you portray is high-minded and pure, but don't all religions become enmeshed in superstitions?

All the great founders of faith begin in this pure way, and then their followers can't keep up with them, and they bring back the old superstitions. One of the things about the Axial sages is that few of their contemporaries measure up to them. 

People have found Buddha to be an inspiration, and go on finding him an inspiration, just as they do Christ. Periodically in Christian history people have said, "What we've got is awful, let's go back to the example of Christ; let's return to the wellsprings." The Buddha has been one of those archetypal figures that people measure themselves against when they try to assess the religious confusion of their day.

In A History of God, you maintain that religious intolerance is largely a Western phenomenon.

You don't find the enmity that Protestants and Catholics have shown for one another among the Buddhist schools. They're beginning to get their own fundamentalism now, but they haven't had inquisitions and persecutions, Crusades, killing in the name of God. The Buddha makes use of the old gods, having them pop into his story now and again, whereas the prophets and psalmists inveigh against the old gods with great fury.

So this intolerance is at the root of the Western tradition?

I wouldn't say it's at the root, as if everything springs from that. It's not as if the Book of Joshua sowed a seed that infected everything. It's more a failing that monotheists are prey to from time to time. There's an endless temptation to use religion to back our own prejudices, especially with a personalized God. The Crusaders who went into battle crying, "God wills it!" when they killed Jews and Muslims were simply projecting their own loathing and fear onto an imaginary being, giving their horrible notions a sacred endorsement. 

This is a temptation of monotheistic religion. There are some people who fall for the temptation in each generation, and others who resist it.

You say religion, like art, is part of being human. How, then, do you distinguish good religions from bad?

Compassion is the key. That's the test, always. All of them say that. Think of Hillel and the Golden Rule, Jesus and his version of the Golden Rule.

Would you say the East has a more developed set of disciplines and techniques for spiritual work than the West?

In Britain, we are much better at science than we are at religion; it's our natural bent. The Enlightenment began in Britain, not in France, as is popularly thought.

That's a very British thing to say.

I'm Irish—a Celt, not an Anglo-Saxon. I'm regarded with extreme caution by most of my contemporaries in London, who cannot understand why I'm so interested in religion. It's because I'm a Celt. 

Our view of God in the West was always much more rationalistic. We fell into science with great joy. It's our great contribution to the world. But I agree with you, the Buddha was more advanced than the Hebrew prophets. If you look at the way the Hebrew prophets experienced God, it was often as a devastating impact from outside. It would come upon you unawares, as in Ezekiel, who has a vision of God and the divine chariot, and comes back stunned, as though something had hit him on the head. 

I know that all through my convent career, I thought that it was somehow cheating to try to engineer an experience of the divine. I was expecting an encounter from without. Sometimes I'd get a great sense of sacredness when I was listening to wonderful music or a rousing sermon, and I'd say, no, this is wrong, this is something I've done.

Of course, Christian and Jewish mystics did use various techniques, such as breathing. But among the rank and file there's been this notion that God comes from outside. Whereas in Buddhist scriptures, when people are enlightened or see the truth, it arises from within.

You have written about having epilepsy. How did that affect your experience of religion?

It took me a long time to be diagnosed, so for years I suffered hallucinatory effects, thinking I was going mad. It never occurred to me to think of these effects as religious in any sense at all. But when I got diagnosed and found out more about my condition, I started wondering if all religious experience might be neurological. 

Over the years, when I was doing A History of God, I found that there was a difference between religion and, say, epilepsy. The difference is compassion, which in religion is ethically based. But I do think it's interesting that people with my particular form of epilepsy—damage to the temporal lobe coming from birth—tend to be fascinated with religious and philosophical questions and to write a great deal. Think of Dostoevsky, with all those big fat novels about spirituality.

The most striking thing to me about the Buddhism you describe is that it puts suffering at the center of life; it assesses life as mostly suffering. In our culture we keep suffering at the periphery.

Partly out of self-defense, because we're deluged, more than any previous generation, with images of suffering from all over the globe. As soon as an earthquake or a massacre happens in a place we never would have heard about before modern communication, we see it that night on our TV screen. We see the bodies, we see the suffering. And we find that very difficult to deal with. So you get the "have a nice day" syndrome.

Buddhism suggests that you must let the perception of suffering sink in before you can begin the spiritual quest. The First Noble Truth of the Buddha is the acceptance of suffering. Because if you deny it in your own life, you'll deny it in other lives, too, and that makes the compassionate ethos very difficult.

See original source: The Atlantic



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