Buddha by Karen Armstrong

The problem with Armstrong’s little biography of Buddha is that the Buddha has no biography — that’s the whole point of being a Buddha. There are fragments of biographical material on Siddhartha Gotama, of course, & quite a lot of historical & cultural information about his place & time. That’s what Armstrong uses to write her “biography” of Buddha & though she lays this all out in her Introduction, she never really seems to understand the difference. But the more basic problems with the book are these: 1. Armstrong appears to have the sort of knowledge of Buddhism you’d get from taking a couple of undergraduate classes; 2. she has a thesis about the Axial Age that assumes a kind of religious universalism & that universalism pretty much has to erase Buddhism (& Christianity & Islam & Judaism & etc.) There is not much mention of the fact that Buddhism is the one non-theistic religious tradition to have emerged in the first century BCE. Not a very useful book for Buddhists because Armstrong doesn’t seem to “get” Buddhism & probably not very useful for non-Buddhists because the version of Buddhism presented here is filtered through the screen of a universalist ideology.

Old Guy

There are several people in my academic department who have been around the university more years than me, but I have the second most “seniority in rank,” an admittedly obscure academic concept that just means I’ve been a full professor longer than all but one of my colleagues, even though there are others who have been at the university more years. I mention this not to claim any sort of status, but as the context for the fact that I find myself much-consulted by younger colleagues & even (occasionally) deferred to by others. It’s the first time in my life, I think, that I have had this sort of role. I find it daunting, in fact. This was really brought home to me today when I was given the responsibility of chairing my  department’s Tenure & Promotion Committee in a year when we will be conducting third-year reviews for three tenure-track colleagues.

The third-year pre-tenure review is a kind of temperature-taking that is designed to inform both the faculty member who is being reviewed & the department about the faculty member’s progress toward a successful tenure process three years down the road. It is in everyone’s interest to get the review right & to be a transparent as possible in setting out procedures & assumptions. Based on my earlier job of chairing a difficult search committee, I have a reputation for running transparent evaluation processes, which may be one of the reasons I got this job. I don’t mind, though it will mean a good deal of relatively boring clerical work (in which I have the good fortune to be assisted by the best department secretary I’ve ever encountered); another thing about being, institutionally at least, an old guy, is that you develop a grudging respect for the various institutional procedures. In my department, such procedures have operated most of the time more effectively than not, though there have been a couple of spectacular exceptions.

I spent the morning scheduling meetings & sending emails to arrange peer evaluations of classes, met with the committee, brought the chair of the department up to date, then went off to teach my classes. At an institution like mine, all of this other stuff is supposed to be about teaching those classes, bringing our knowledge & experience as scholars into the undergraduate classroom. That, finally, is why we go to the trouble to get the bureaucratic details right. It is east to forget this, especially when you have been around a long time & many processes have become routine, nearly invisible to conscious reflection.