Karen Armstrong's Buddha
“Buddha” is equal parts biography, analysis of myth, and historical contextualization. The first two go hand in hand – as with Jesus, none of the source literature about the Buddha was written when he was alive, and over the years much mytholigical sediment has accrued, not least because no one was really in the business of providing a historical biography. They were interested in selling a religion. Armstrong keeps both balls in the air through the course of the book, to great effect.
The historical context, however, was the most interesting. As little as I knew about the Buddha going into this book, I knew even less about Northern India, c. 500 BC. Armstrong situates it in The Axial Age, a time of great social upheaval and multiple revolutions in thought, in multiple regions across the world. The Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, and Zarathustra are idiomatic, but it also includes Plato, “the authors of the Upanishads, Lao Tzu, Homer, Socrates, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Thucydides, Archimedes, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Deutero-Isaiah”. That’s a pretty sweet all-star team you got there.
More specifically, Armstrong’s emphasis on context allows you to see what Buddhism’s innovations actually were. Buddhism is unique amongst today’s religions in its godlesness and emphasis on ‘enlightenment’. That would not have distinguished it from the competition at the time – such concepts come from the contemporaneous yogic tradition. The innovation was the concept of the ‘middle way’, which was essentially “not too hedonist, not too puritan.” The notion of the non-existence of the atman (self, ego) is the other key new thought that I can’t say I’ve totally got my (selfish, egomaniac) head around.
If you’re at all curious about the origins of Buddhism, the life of Buddha or spirituality in general, I’d heartily recommend this book.