Posts Tagged ‘Buddha’

Karen Armstrong: The Great Transformation

May 15, 2022

    I’ve thought highly of the books of Karen Armstrong over the years; her approach to the study and history of religion and theology I have found very enlightening and thought-provoking. I’d never describe her works as popularising; they are detailed, careful, well-explained and do demand a certain amount of personal sympathy with the subjects she tackles.

This tome – The Great Transformation – however, I found rather different, and I will confess at the start that I skimmed a good deal of it, because there was so little in my existing knowledge that I could use to link in to the incredibly detailed exploration of the worlds of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah over the space of several hundred years. In other words, here is a far less accessible work than any others of hers that I’ve read. The links with Jeremiah, Jewish history and the Hebrew scriptures and Christian Bible I could latch onto, the rest not so much.

So not a book for the general reader, even someone reasonably well-versed in the history of religion as I thought I was; there’s an enormous amount of minutiae here, as well as a great weight of (necessary) speculation, given that so much of what she describes is largely lost in the mists of time. She was interesting on the history of Israel, the territory, its gods (!) over time and the gradual emergence of monotheism and the eventual codifying of the Jewish faith and practice.

I think she is detailing the gradual movement from religion as mere ritual to its eventual emphasis on ethical behaviour, with the internalisation of religion as a crucial development. She also emphasises movement from oral to written tradition in scripture, particularly among the Jewish people. I’ve always had a sense of the Old Testament as a chaotic and repetitive text, and lately read much about its gradual and relatively late development, but from Armstrong I have a picture of its being even more chaotic, of its contradictory content, merged stories with varying and different purposes behind them. It seems even more of a mish-mash than I thought possible.

Equally, I was surprised to discover just how early on the notion of questioning and challenging everything in an effort to understand and get to the bottom of things developed in Greek philosophy, and the fact that it was getting on for two millennia later before the West fully embraced this approach.

Another book that I cannot recommend to a general reader; I’m glad I dipped into and skimmed it but there was just too much I could not really understand or make sense of from my relatively limited and Western perspective. It’s good to be reminded of one’s own limitations from time to time…

Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha

October 13, 2020

     I’m not sure what exactly it is that occasionally but regularly draws me back to a couple of Hermann Hesse’s novels. It’s probably the idea that the whole of life is a quest for meaning and understanding. Hesse was a very popular writer in my student and hippy days – oh so long ago now! – and I acquired almost all of his novels and short stories, most of which have sat untouched on the shelves since then. Only Narziss and Goldmund, and yesterday again, Siddhartha are the ones I return to. And in some way, I find them both very hard to read, not in the story sense, but because they confront me so forcefully with my own life and yearnings and search for understanding…

Siddhartha is short, readable at a sitting, and there is also a good librivox recording I’ve listened to a couple of times whilst on my travels. As the title suggests, it focuses on the Buddha and his followers, but with the focus on the spiritual quest of a single individual. As I read this time, I tried to plot out what he actually derived from his different life experiences.

He starts out with everything a young person could wish for: beauty, popularity, intellect but these are not enough: he rejects these, along with his father’s expectations of him. Already he has inklings that ultimately the answer to one’s yearnings must lie within oneself. He flees from his self, denying it and following the path of asceticism. He becomes suspicious of teachers: he has realised the importance of seeking one’s own enlightenment, not someone else’s. The parting from his lifetime friend Govinda, who makes a different choice, is painful to read, and yet the importance of fidelity to oneself is emerging. Alone-ness of the self, the utter aloneness of one’s individuality, is scary, and yet cannot be avoided.

He tries the worldly path of material success, wealth and beautiful women: self-gratification is shown to be both incredibly pleasurable and highly seductive, capable of permanently diverting one away from the quest. It is not the solution, for pursued to its end, even what you had previously learned will be lost. Finally, realising that this is happening to him, he walks away from it all. Indulging the self had repulsed him.

Water, a river becomes a metaphor, as he returns to a ferry crossing he used many years before, and attaches himself as an apprentice ferryman for the remainder of this existence, realising that time does not have to exist, and that the long search which has occupied his life in different ways, is actually an ongoing and unending preparation of the soul…

Or, that is what this novel said to me this time around. I hope I have another call to read it one day.

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