Gautama Buddha: Interview with Vishvapani Blomfield
Wednesday December 7, 2011 - from thinkbuddha.org
Several months ago, I got hold of a copy of the new biography of the Buddha, Gautama Buddha: The Life and Teachings of the Awakened One, written by Vishvapani Blomfield of WiseAttention.org renown. Vishvapani is an old friend of mine (we used to spend time talking about books and Buddhism whilst I lived in Birmingham) and I thought it might be fun to break my monk-like silence over here on thinkBuddha.org, and to interview him about the book.
The interview in full (and I mean in full – it is fairly long) is reproduced below. If you would like to get hold of the book — and it is beautifully written and produced — then you can do so here.
WB: Gautama Buddha is a handsome, beautifully written and beautifully produced book: it feels very much like a labour of love. However, there are a lot of books about the Buddha’s life out there. What was it that made you decide to write another one — and why now?
It surprised me when I embarked on this project to realise that, for all the books about the Buddha, no one else had written a full-length biography comparable to the biographies we read of other major figures in world history. Many of the other books repeat the legendary version of Gautama’s life that developed in classical Buddhist literature without asking whether the stories are true. Then there are books like Nyanamoli’s wonderful Life of the Buddha that base themselves on early sources, but don’t place them in an historical context. Books like Thich Nhat Hanh’s Old Path, White Clouds embellish the material, leaving us with fiction rather than biography or history. There are popular histories that aren’t properly founded in knowledge of the texts or recent scholarships, and there are scholarly books that are so weighed down by detail that only specialists read them. So I set our to write a full-length biography that presents the Buddha of the Discourses (our main source material) and learns from the work of historians and textual scholars.
The nature of these sources makes it well-nigh impossible to know anything for sure about the Buddha, so I set out to write a credible life, not a definitive one. I mean one that is plausible and credible to people like me who have grown up in a materialist culture and naturally ask if something ‘actually’ happened or if a later writer made it up. I found that, notwithstanding what sceptical scholars say, this is quite possible. The Discourses present a recognisable historical society; their portrait of the Buddha is detailed, vivid and quirky; and the teachings they ascribe to him are remarkably coherent – as if they express the apprehensions of a singe mind. I wanted to present that real-seeming person who had some kind of overwhelming insight into existence and wrestled it into concepts and practices that addressed people’s questions and dismantled their biases.
I think the time is right for this sort of book because over the last twenty years for the first time we’ve had access to great bulk of the Pali Discourses in reliable translations written in readable contemporary English. I was able to approach the material with a literary sensibility (which may be hard for a scholar, who has to worry about the details) and end up something that is firmly based on a wide reading of the sources, but offers a compelling story. I’ve been pleased when scholars have liked the book, but just as pleased when ordinary readers have called it a ‘page turner’.
WB. At the beginning of the book, you discuss how legend and fact are tangled together in the traditional accounts. I’m intrigued to hear how you navigated between legend, storytelling, myth and the findings of recent scholarship.
Mostly the book focuses on ‘historical’ elements in the Discourses in the light of recent scholarship. I started from a conviction that Gautama really lived and really did become the Buddha, and that at least some of the texts record accounts of his words and actions. That’s not quite the whole story, though, and some things you might call legendary find their way in. One kind of legendary material is stories that was clearly composed much later than the earlier accounts and which sometimes contradict it in tenor or details. Generally speaking, I leave this material aside, and some familiar stories about the Buddha don’t appear in this book. Occasionally I use these legends as images that draw out the meaning of an incident historical incident, making sure to indicate what kind of material this is. For example I introduce the image of the Buddha shortly after his Enlightenment wrapped in the coils of the giant serpent god, Mucalinda. This appears in a very early source, but I don’t suggest that it is something that literally occurred. Nonetheless, it’s a vivid image for the Buddha’s connection with nature and whatever psychic forces the serpent represents.
Then there are many stories that appear in the Discourses themselves describing gods, spirits, demons miracles and supernormal powers. On the face of it, these contradict the effort to produce a credible historical account, and at one stage I tried leaving them out altogether. But I quickly hit problems. Those elements are so densely woven into the early texts that you can only exclude them by doing violence to the sources. So I’ve included some, placing them in parentheses, as it were, by saying ‘this is what the text says happened’ and leaving it to the reader to decide what to make of them.
Engaging with this material forced me to rethink my understanding of ancient history. Our sources tell us that Gautama spoke with divine beings (devas). For example, we are told that following Gautama’s Enlightenment he pondered keeping his insights to himself, but the god Brahma appeared and requested him to teach. If we leave that out we have a hole in our narrative. What’s more, for most of human history gods, miracles and supernormal powers have been an accepted part of reality and holy men and women like the Buddha have had an important role in relation to them. From everything we find in the sources it seems that Gautama experienced gods appearing before him and experienced himself speaking with them. So if Gautama believed that he had encountered Brahma on the level of visionary experience, what would it mean for us to call this a legend? To dismiss it we must asserting that gods don’t exist and belief in them is a delusion. If we don’t we are left with the story and our interpretations of it, some sceptical and others sympathetic to how both experience and meaning can unfold through images.
I came to wonder if it is possible to write a detailed account of a culture like that of Ancient India without to some degree entering into its worldview and doing so let me see the Buddha’s distinctive contribution to the place of the gods in his culture. He didn’t challenge his contemporaries’ belief in them, but he did challenge their attitudes, counseling them acknowledge the gods when they appeared and give them due respect without responding with fear or craving. This aspect of Gautama may seem to contradict the view of him as a pragmatic realist pragmatist, but we need to understand that his concern was not whether gods – or anything else we can experience ‘really exists’. He lived in a world where gods and magic were part of the pragmatic daily reality people experienced, so he included them in his general advice about responding to anything at all without fear or craving. In other words, if we set aside our own ideas about what is real we find that the Buddha’s teachings are relevant and accessible. Only if we realise the Buddha’s distance from us can we see his proximity, and that’s the value of an historicizing approach.
WB: You talk about tracking the Buddha like an elephant-tracker. But what is the profoundly strange, even paradoxical beast you are tracking?
The key to Gautama’s character in all the sources we have, right back to the very earliest, is that he is Enlightened. He has experienced a revelatory insight into the nature of the mind and existence that has transformed him in a profound way that concepts and descriptions cannot capture. So even if you place Gautama in an historical context, seek out the words that are likeliest to be his and strip away anything that smacks of magical thinking, you are left with something other than an ordinary person. What you make of that person depends on what you bring to the encounter. You can’t prove whether or not Gautama was Enlightened and the point of the elephant tracker image is that, while you may not be able to see the beast, you can infer its bulk from the footprints it leaves.
Getting from the footprint to the elephant means imagining it, and writing my book meant imagining the Buddha. There’s a degree of faith in that, and as a Buddhist myself I allowed myself to be guided by an intuitive response, accepting his Enlightenment as real and sensing its meaning by drawing on my experience of Buddhists and Buddhism. It’s historical in the sense that I tried to ensure that the evidence shaped my imaginings without confining it unduly.
WB: The part of the book that is perhaps the most heartfelt is the section on wilderness, and the passages about the Buddha’s love of solitude. Although you don’t underestimate the hardships of the life of the Buddha’s early disciples, there almost a Romantic longing for a kind of solitude to which many of us no longer have access. Does solitude still have an important role in your life, and in Buddhist practice more generally? And to what extent do you think this deep solitude is still possible?
One of my most delightful discoveries in researching the book was reading the Therigatha, which records accounts by the Buddha’s disciples and includes descriptions of their lives in the wilderness in wonderfully evocative nature poetry. There are also a few accounts of the Buddha’s own time in the wilderness, and we know that he loved to spend time there.
On the face of it, that echoes Romantic nature poetry, but there are differences. People in the Buddha’s culture mostly feared nature in the sense of wilderness and clung to the islands of cultivation and population. Its dangers included wild animals, tribesmen and robbers, but above all the wilderness was the abode of dangerous spirits who also attacked humans, sometimes robbing them of their lives or their sanity. For the Buddha or his disciples going to the wilderness meant facing its terrors and conquering their minds. To feel at home there they needed to triumph over their cultural conditioning, renounce fear, and make peace with the spirit world by mastering the untamed aspects of the mind. Inner and outer wilderness are impossible to separate.
In modern Britain wilderness exists only in small enclaves and we don’t populate nature with spirits, nature is no longer a primary reality and we don’t associate living in nature with meeting primal terror. I think you are right to point to the Romantics as an intervening presence, but the primary reality for Wordsworth was his own burgeoning subjectivity, which he discovered in a nature which both challenged and echoed it. To the extent that we are the Romantics’ heirs we inherit that and go to nature to witness its splendours, rather than facing its terrors, and discover our true selves rather than overcome our minds.
Solitude is rather different. In the Buddha’s world the household existence was an all-encompassing lifestyle and for people like the Buddha adopting the homeless life of a religious wanderer meant freedom from its constraints. The Buddha stresses this non-attachment and homelessness more than he stresses solitude and spending time in the wilderness, but they were all important.
As for me, I’ve spent reasonably long periods on retreat, including some long-ish solitary retreats in exotic locations like Sri Lanka and Bhutan. Solitude, I find, strips away the supports to my normal sense of myself and then I experience what is beneath them – or perhaps the absence of something. When the social self disintegrates it is profoundly helpful to find oneself in nature if one is to avoid a sense of alienation. But the real issue is the mind and how one guides one’s experience at those times.
These days, I’m a family man with a two-and-a-half year old son, so solitude, wandering and time in nature seem a long way from me. I’m not complaining. My current life brings other consolations and challenges that also chip away at the fixed self I work so busily to construct.
WB: You talk to some extent about the Buddha’s political position in the Ganges valley during his life-time. He was a figure who eventually commanded considerable political power, if only through the sheer number of his followers, who was often sought out by the rulers of the day, and was inescapably a part of a wider political world — one that was often shockingly violent. Does it make sense, in some way, so see the early Buddhist community as a political movement? If so, what kind of community was it? And how, if at all, might thinking about the political context of the early Buddhist community be of importance to contemporary Buddhist practitioners?
The Buddha seems to have been widely regarded as an important holy man and he tried to affect his society, but I think he was more interested in cultural influence than political power. That pattern is repeated in Buddhist history and may be a good model for modern Buddhists.
Ordinary people in the Central Ganges Valley region were strongly predisposed to respect holy men and women, especially a ‘Buddha’ who had extra potency and cosmic significance. Such a being was a ‘safe refuge’ because they offered blessings in this life, protection against hostile spirits and sustenance after death. The Discourses indicate that the Buddha was broadly happy to accept this role, and we often see him acting shamanically or answering questions about the rebirths of deceased relatives. But he saw the role as a means to an end. He often undermines literal and mythological ways of thinking by teasing out the values implicit in people’s beliefs and using them to suggest his key messages. He wanted people to take responsibility for their actions and behave ethically, see that states of mind are important for oneself and others, and acknowledge the inescapability of old age, disease and death. All that, rather than a particular political agenda, would produce a better society.
This is often what we find Gautama telling householders, including the kings he befriended. He commented on social issues, such as caste inequality and we find hints of a social philosophy that demystifies kingship and praises collective assemblies. But his concern was encouraging wholesome qualities and an outlook on life that was free from ideologies such as the ritual based ideology of Brahminism.
Despite what some people say, we can’t really look to the Buddha as a model for social activism. But the Buddha, and the community he founded, exemplified a way of being that embodied his teachings and message, and that is essential contribution that Buddhists who want to change the world can make. That doesn’t exclude social activism, but it needs to underpin it.
Another part of the model is that the Buddha did this while engaging fully with his surrounding culture, rather than standing aloof, and that required both flexibility and clarity about their essential message. We need to avoid either to sticking to a rigid position or valuing engagement to the point where the Dharma’s distinctive message is lost.
WB: What effect has writing Gautama Buddha had upon you yourself, as a Buddhist, as a writer, or simply as a human being?
Writing the book took around three years, and for most of that time my main experience was one of struggling with the material. I frequently felt overwhelmed by the scale of the Pali Discourses and the associated scholarship and I constantly encountered knots I hadn’t even suspected. That was the biggest literary and intellectual challenge I have ever undertaken, and it brought satisfactions on its own level as I chiseled out a coherent form.
As Gautama Buddha neared completion, and certainly now it’s done, I realised that through these struggles I had come to feel that the Buddha was very alive in my mind. I seemed to know him intimately and sense depths and textures in him that I don’t find even in the ‘real’ people I know. Especially when I meditate, I sometimes feel that the Buddha is viscerally present. This fuller sense of the Buddha helps me understand what kind of Buddhist I am and the Buddha’s Enlightenment is central to that.
WB: Towards the end of the book, you explore contemporary approaches to Buddhism, in particular in the West — from rationalistic, demystifying approaches, to the magical and symbolic thinking of Tibetan Buddhism. You say that ‘none of these approaches does full justice to Gautama’s teaching.’ What, in your view, are the problems with these various approaches? And what kind of approach do you think does justice to the teachings of Buddhism?
This is a large subject, which I have written about more fully elsewhere, but I’ll try to do it justice in a few words here.
In Gautama Buddha, following Joseph Goldstein’s book One Dharma I suggest that western Buddhists generally, and especially in America, approach Buddhism pragmatically, valuing it for the difference it makes in their lives, not out of reverence for the tradition itself. But I add that the apparently innocent approach that focuses on ‘what works’, as Goldstein says, is, in fact, slanted according to the agendas we bring.
If by ‘what works’ we mean that we want to focus on what we can experience for ourselves without taking a lot of religious beliefs on faith, then we have to set aside much in the Buddha’s teachings. That’s the secular Buddhist approach, which is increasingly popular and has some basis in the Buddha’s own teaching. But it touches its limits when we encounter the Buddha’s Enlightenment, which is the central fact of Buddhism and by definition it is experience beyond our own. In saying that he was Awakened, the Buddha was saying that the rest of us – believers and sceptics alike – are asleep, and that reason alone doesn’t show us the whole of the truth. This is a gateway, in traditional Buddhist practice, to other modes of apprehension including faith, devotion and ritual as well as the understanding that comes through acting with kindness or living in community.
By contrast, people who love the rituals of Tibetan Buddhism and its promise of contact with sources of magical power are often fleeing the western Enlightenment. They sometimes ignore the Buddha’s rigour and clarity and the demands it makes on our reason. Many forms of Tibetan Buddhism have their own rigour, but history and science often challenge Tibetan beliefs and we fail to do justice to the Buddha’s teaching if we ignore this. Neither our emotions nor our fidelity to a tradition is a better guide than reason and I like to remind Tibetan Buddhists that in the Kalama Sutta the Buddha says ‘do not rely on tradition or lineage.’
Then again, it’s tempting to turn aside from both faith and reason and simply focus on our experience of the present moment as followers of Zen and the broad mindfulness movement may do. But you might be surprised to learn that the Buddha didn’t teach that we should only live in the present moment. Even when he spoke about mindfulness, he realised that remembering, planning, reflecting, reasoning, judging, achieve and even desiring are essential elements of human experience. The question is whether we do them skillfully or unskillfully: with or without craving and aversion. In any case, mindfulness is just one part of the path he taught: as one Buddhist teacher says, he didn’t teach the Nobel Onefold Path.
My sense of what it means to do justice to the Buddha’s teachings comes from my training in the Triratna Buddhist Community and my efforts to make sense of them for myself. So I would say it means taking Enlightenment seriously, and focusing on the elements of that teaching that are central to it, especially the path to Enlightenment. We can learning from the various Buddhist traditions without accepting them uncritically. I think that’s the sort of viable middle way western Buddhists need between the secular and the traditional responses.
WB: You end the book with the sense that the Buddha is still untrackable (I think here of the image from the Buddhist tradition of the tracks of birds in the sky). You say that neither philosophy, nor myth, nor even an image capture the Buddha, and that perhaps the best guide is ‘the example of Gautama’s remarkable life.’ But — and this is my final question — what remains of this example and this life when we remove the philosophy, the myth, and the images?
I’m not suggesting that we should remove the philosophy and the images, and the myths have value as well but that the narrative of Gautama’s life includes these and also gives us something more. I see Gautama Buddha as a real person who lived, breathed, got old and died, and I think that careful attention to the sources brings us close to that person. What you are left with when you turn away from philosophy, myth or images alone and return to the life is the story of a man who sets out to understand the origin of suffering and ends up with an unfathomably profound insight into consciousness and experience. That sense of the Awakened man, whose stature dwarfs even texts and the teachings is what I tried hardest to evoke in writing Gautama Buddha.