Karen Armstrong spent seven years as a Roman Catholic nun, an experience she recollected in her two volumes of best-selling autobiography, Through the Narrow Gate and Beginning the World. She is the author of the world-wide best-seller, A History of God (which has now appeared in more than thirty languages), the acclaimed History of Jerusalem and, most recently, The Battle for God. She is a teacher at the Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism and, in 1999, she received the Muslim Public Affairs Council Media Award.
Attempting to write about someone at the centre of an entire philosophy - now followed by over 350 million people worldwide - takes courage indeed. Happily, Karen Armstrong has produced a superb study of the Buddha that functions as an indispensable introduction to one of the most enigmatic individuals in world culture. As Armstrong emphasizes at the beginning of this lucid, engrossing biography, all facts known about Siddhatta Gotama - the Buddha's real name - derive from what is known as the Pali canon, a collection of manuscripts that took shape generations after Gotama's death but contain verifiable historical material. This canon combines key teaching with anecdotes but contains no structured narrative of the Buddha's life. As a result, large parts of it remain shrouded in mystery and many facts remain questionable, but Armstrong proves that the key events in Gotama's life - those that moved him forwards towards the revelation of 'dhamma' or fundamental truth - can be believed with confidence. She realizes that the deficit of evidence makes a conventional biography impossible but feels that Gotama's story has particular resonance today, as we live in a time of transition where traditional experience of the sacred is often dismissed and new ways of finding ultimate meaning in life are sought. It was in the sixth century BC that the young Gotama left behind the privileges of his comfortable home and embraced the ascetic life of an itinerant monk. Perplexed by the pain and suffering he saw as intrinsic to the human condition, Gotama felt there must be a way to achieve 'Nibbana' (Nirvana in Sanskrit), ultimate enlightenment gained from self-knowledge rather than through any acknowledgement of a Supreme Being. He always insisted that his teachings were based entirely upon his own personal experience and so life and work became inextricable. As he expressed it, 'He who sees me sees the dhamma and he who sees the dhamma sees me.' Succinct and yet admirably broad in scope, anyone seeking information on the Buddha - or on the basic tenets of Buddhist belief - will find this an excellent source of inspiration. (Kirkus UK)