Monday, June 13, 2011

Book Review: Gotama Buddha

Kosei Publishing kindly sent me a review copy of Hajime Nakamura's two-volume Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the most Reliable Texts. I occasionally enjoy reading works about the Buddha that are based on historic and authentic sources. And this extensive and formerly published work (Vol. 1 in 2000 and Vol. 2 in 2005) doesn't disappoint.

After careful research and consideration, Nakamura--who died in 1999 and who was a renowned authority on Indian philosophy--puts Buddha's birth place in the city of Kapilavatthu, which no longer exists but "was in the foothills of the Himalyas on the banks of the river Bhagirathi..." The correct dates of the Buddha's birth and death, says Nakamura, are 463-383 B.C.E., with his awakening at the age of 35. He lived and taught until he was eighty.

Nakamura vigilantly details all of his sources. Thus, it may take the reader a while to come to the numerous truths in this work. But the clarifications are many, ranging from Mara's infamous temptations of the Buddha (they were likely embellishments from disciples who knew four women in Uruvela (the town in which he awoke) who "were strongly bound to the Bodhisatta," and his alleged use of supernatural powers to cross the Ganges when he didn't have money for the ferry (the author writes that "undoubtedly a lay person paid the Buddha's ferry fee, or he boarded anyway, and was ultimately allowed to cross").

But yes, he did come to his understanding under a bodhi or bo tree--but only after he had "abandoned his ascetic practices" and began "taking ordinary material food," so that he could more easily understand--through "contemplation accompanied by investigation"--his true and present nature. Perhaps he saw that his grasping for "enlightenment" was actually getting in the way of his seeing!

Nakamura informs us that so much of the Buddha's writing is contradictory because he wrote little or nothing himself (everything was recorded--and not always accurately, or added later). Also, he preached and talked in different ways, "according to the occasion and the nature of his audience." The works with the strongest nondual flavor include the Diamond Sutra, Lotus Sutra, and some of the selections in the beautiful Udana (a collection of "inspired utterances" of the Buddha).

The author notes that "we have no record of the exact time and date of the Buddha's death." But he did give specific orders about his cremation to Ananda, his principal disciple and first attendant (who, fortunately, was blessed with retentive memory), saying "Do not concern yourselves with honoring the remains of the Tathagata...You should strive for the true goal...Be earnest, be zealous, and be intent on the true goal, never flagging."

Nakamura then shows how passages by later commentators were added to the above words, which then became: There should be a glorious stupa (remains of the Buddha) "to honor the Tathagata" with garlands, perfumes, and cosmetics. It goes on and on in that vein, and this was certainly what the author called "the beginning of deification" of the Buddha, where many things that he is reported to have said or done simply didn't occur.

Nakamura sums this deification up beautifully when he writes: "Gotama was called the Buddha ('Enlightened One') because he had realized eternal Truth (the Dharma); by this reckoning, all who realize the Truth must equally be buddhas. The designation 'buddha' implies neither supernatural existence nor a mysterious being. It does not [my emphasis] suggest that such a person might be some kind of transcendental deity." Precisely.

In order to read and assess this excellent work for yourself, go to Kosei Publishing. The trade paperback volumes are priced at $19.95 for Volume 1, and $29.95 for Volume 2.


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