Having written several lengthy book reviews of late, I’m going to try to keep this one–my second-to-last of the year–relatively brief.
I was looking for an up-to-date, well researched biography of the Buddha, and I sort of found it in this book. I say “sort of” because it wasn’t as heavy on the scholarship as I would have liked, though it was enjoyable, generally insightful, and informative.
Blomfield takes his time getting to the Buddha’s birth, first drawing a picture for us of the world Gotama grew up in. He describes the political and economic scenes and gives us a sense of the religious ferment of the time. I was disappointed though that while Blomfield adopts the more recent scholarship dating the Buddha to c.484 – 404 BCE, the rational for this new dating is never discussed.
Blomfield mostly adopts a realistic tone in portraying the events of the Buddha’s life and upbringing, though inevitably mythical elements intrude. All in all, I think he does a pretty good job at indicating what sort of person the Buddha was–energetic and sincere, inquisitive, skeptical, a brilliant raconteur, adaptable, charismatic, a genius. His treatment of Gotama’s search for enlightenment draws on recent scholarship (I recognized Alexander Wynne’s contributions) but for me his account of the enlightenment falls flat. I actually got the sense Blomfield doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I’m not saying he doesn’t know his way around the suttas, just that he doesn’t really seem to grasp what the Enlightenment actually entailed or meant. (This despite the back flap claiming Blomfield has been practicing and/or teaching meditation for thirty years.)
After Gotama became the Buddha, the sequence of events is difficult to nail down, so Blomfield pauses to discuss the teaching. I thought this the weakest part of the book, for the coverage here is incomplete, and let’s face it–I’m very hard to satisfy as regards these matters! Admittedly though, saying something about the Teaching here is unavoidable, and Blomfield takes a decent shot at it despite limited space.
Further chapters take up the formation of the Sangha, how the Buddha interacted with the society around him (“A Holy Man In the World”–an excellent chapter), the Devadatta crisis and then the last years. By the end I realized just how much had either been left out or only skimmed over, and it occurred to me that if anyone is ever going to do a really thorough, scholarly treatment of the Buddha’s life it may well run to a thousand pages (not including a hundred pages of notes). Personally, I would like to have seen more discussion of the important disciples, as well as something more about the various rival shramana sects (Ajivakas, Jains, etc) who competed with the Buddha. Blomfield could have said more too about the archaeology of the Buddha’s life–e.g., the debate over exactly where Kapilavastu was (generally now thought to be Tilaurakot in Nepal) is a fascinating story in itself. Anything at all to lift this man’s life out of the realm of legend and lost kingdoms and to place it on a solid footing, on the earth, connected to real things we can see and touch, would have been appreciated. (And I can always dig talk of relics!)
I have one other specific complaint: the use of Sanskrit terms, place and personal names instead of their Pali equivalents. I really don’t understand this practice. The earliest texts, the only ones that can lay any claim to being truly biographical, are all in Pali. It is simply logical to defer to those texts. Using Sanskrit instead bespeaks an ideological prejudice of some sort, I am convinced. Exactly what that prejudice might be, though, probably differs from one writer to the next.
Don’t take my complaints here too seriously though. This is a worthy book and ought to prove inspirational to many. While it is not quite the biography I would have liked, I can honestly say that what Blomfield has done here both moved and informed me.
My Amazon rating: 4 stars