Interviews March 2001

Divine Reticence

Divine Reticence

A conversation with Karen Armstrong, biographer of the Enlightened One

by Karen Armstrong
205 pages, $19.95

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

Karen Armstrong
Karen Armstrong   

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.

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