Buddha by Karen Armstrong

For those seeking peace in the midst of this chaotic world Karen Armstrong’s book, Buddha, offers hope. It talks more about a way of life than religion. Words such as enlightenment and Nirvana are inspirational but remain elusive and theoretical to all but a few. To know that the Buddha was born an ordinary man and through his own personal search reached enlightenment gives encouragement to those who are trying make sense of life in this troubled world.

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Siddhatta Gotoma (often spelt Siddhartha Gautama) was born into a wealthy family, his father being a prominent figure in Kapilavatthu, Nepal. Cosseted by his over indulgent father, Gotama had everything he desired and was sheltered from every form of suffering. He knew nothing of sickness, pain and death while growing up.

When he did finally encounter the misery and hardship that blighted the existence of those beyond his ivory tower he was appalled and became obsessed with the suffering that was the human experience. So much so that he decided to leave his comfortable home to seek a solution to life’s ills. He believed there had to be a way to “enjoy a calm in the midst of life’s tragedies that gave meaning to existence in a flawed world”.

One night, at the age of twenty nine, Gotama donned the robes of an ascetic and left behind his wife and baby to roam the forests in search of “a solution to the puzzle of existence…everything in the mundane world had, it was thought, its more powerful, positive replica in the divine realm” and Gotama was determined to find it.

So the search began.

Over the next five or six years Gotama joined various groups, partaking in their teachings but found they had little effect on him as a person. Physical and sensory deprivation did not lead to overcoming desire and greed – in fact it often had the opposite effect.

“He was not ‘entering into’ the doctrine and dwelling in it…the teachings remained remote, metaphysical abstractions and seemed to have little to do with him personally…try as he would he could gain no glimmer of his real self, which remained obstinately hidden by what seemed an unpenetrable rind of Praktri (nature)

As time went by Gotama believed that the teachers could not provide him with what he sought, that he must seek it directly; experience it directly. He was convinced that the answers lay deep within him and only he could “release the treasure that was held within”.

Whereas the ancient religions taught that salvation was through ritual and sacrifice, Gotama – and others at that time, such as Socrates and Confucius – thought that salvation lay within the reaches of each individual but that there was something inherent in human nature preventing the spiritual experience.

“The sages and prophets of the Axial Age (800bc – 200bc) were gradually realising that egotism was the greatest hindrance to the experience of the Absolute and sacred reality they sought. A man or a woman had to lay aside the selfishness that seems so endemic to our humanity if he or she wishes to apprehend the reality of God.

In conjunction with the skilful meditation techniques he had learned over the years, Gotama set about the practise of ‘mindfulness’ and self analysis. Gotama realised that even though he could achieve elevated states of consciousness “when he came out of his trance he was still subject to passion, desire and craving. He remained his unregenerate self. He had not been transformed by the experience and had attained no lasting peace”.

He believed that alongside the mediation practise, it was essential to cultivate kindness and compassion and to relinquish the unhealthy states of greed, violence and anger. He believed that right thought and right action would lead to peace in this challenging world. Daily, he would reflect on his thoughts and actions and determine if he could be kinder and more harmonious with those around him. He believed that compassion was the key to advancement on the spiritual path and he believed that “the new self developed imperceptibly over a long period”.

Although history relates that Siddhatta Gotama reached sudden enlightenment whilst sitting one day under the Bodhi tree, some think that it was at this time he received the revelation on how to reach enlightenment; that personal transformation had to come first.

The words of the Buddda are as practical today as they were over two thousand years ago. Compassion is the key to spiritual advancement and to practise compassion it is necessary to become free from the control of the ego. To consider others; to put others before our own selfish desires and not alway think of ourselves first.

The ego, in its fight for self-preservation, controls thought and action: The need to be right in an argument; the anger experienced when someone fails to consider our needs; the desire to obtain more wealth rather than sharing what we already have. These are all part of the human condition and which, if we wish to find peace in the midst of chaos, we must let go of. The Buddha believed that Instead of ignoring, denying or fighting suffering it is necessary to see it, understand it and work with it. It is our lessons. It can make us better people if we do not work against it or refuse to acknowledge it.

There seems to be within us an inner resistance to change and the awakening of our true selves, our inner being. The desire to meditate is often thwarted by distraction. The ability to stick to any serious research for the ‘inner spirit’  becomes an ongoing struggle.

What the story of Siddhatta Gotama highlights is that this struggle is experienced by everyone – even, or especially,  those who finally achieve enlightenment – but that with tenacity and strength of mind we all have the possibility of finding calm in this challenging world. Problems will aways arise, troubles forever on the horizon. The key is to learn how to deal with them in a manner that reduces suffering.

Buddha is telling us that we are often architects of our own suffering but that a different mindset can allow us to be happy in a world fraught with pain.

“The attainment of Nirvana did not mean the Buddha would never experience any more suffering. He would still grow old, get sick and die like everyone else and would experience pain while doing so. Nirvana does not give an awakened person trance like immunity but an inner haven which enables a man or woman to live with the pain, to take possession of it, affirm it, and experience a profound peace of mind in the midst of suffering

Karen Armstrong has provided a wonderful, easy to digest, insight into the life of an ordinary man who found Nirvana and achieved enlightenment. Although this book is about the Buddha I think it provides hope and encouragement for anyone trying to find meaning in life. I do believe that the basic tenets of most religions are those of love and compassion and the Buddha has provided a practical approach to work towards achieving these qualities to enable every individual access to a better quality of life.