Disclaiming the Buddha
After a lifetime in book publishing I’ve grown accustomed to the art of the elegant disclaimer: the modest suggestion in the Acknowledgements that the author couldn’t possibly have written it without the support of his/her (long-suffering and devoted) family; the invaluable input of (Great and Good) colleagues; and the helpful comments of various close (namedrop) friends.
This is customarily followed by an apology for any remaining errors and oversights (slavery, the empire, global warming etc) and/or a declaration of monstrous self-effacement. The most immodest author I ever worked with began his magnum opus with the statement, ‘Nothing in this book is original.’
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I found myself penning words which I can only describe as sincere. When I wrote that this was ‘a genuine case of the more I found out the less I knew’ it was nothing less than the chastening truth. I was, I admit, being slightly less honest when I thanked various friends and scholars for their advice and comments. What they said was often dispiriting because it exposed my all-too-obvious limitations – though I did find some consolation in the fact that none of them seemed to agree with each other. After all, ‘The jewel of Buddhism has many wonderful facets.’
Another unfortunate by-product of a lifetime in publishing is a tendency to be more excited about the book that hasn’t yet been written than by the one that’s about to appear. Pocket BUDDHA already felt very old by the time it popped up on Amazon. Moreover it‘s slightly embarrassing to confess that the 128 pages (including Preface, Endmatter and of course Acknowledgements) took me two years to deliver.
In fairness I had other things to do along the way, and the final 22,500 words were culled from more than five times that amount, after at least thirty rewrites. In fact when I think back to how long it really took me – it’s been over half a lifetime. My desire to write a biography of the Buddha is as old as my interest in practising Buddhism.
I’m struck by three words from that last sentence: ‘Buddhism’, ‘practising’ and ‘biography’.
Who or what is a Buddhist? I have a long-held scepticism of all ‘isms’ (including Scepticism) and the more I found out about the varieties of what is labelled ‘Buddhism’ the more difficult it became to generalise with confidence. It was all so much easier before I started!
As to practising, I’ve always struggled with sectarian divides and ‘faith’ groups; but the paradoxical effect of bumping up against the limits of my intellect was just that – a recognition that Buddhism is about more than merely rational argument. I think I’d always known this in my heart of hearts. Deep truth lies in poetry rather than prose.
In terms of biography, the more I wrote the more I was struck by the essential paradox of trying to encapsulate the ‘life’ of a man whose teaching was all about impermanence and the idea of ‘no fixed self’. I remain convinced that the Buddha was an actual historical human being. But the idea of writing a ‘biography’ with its conventions of ‘proof’ and ‘evidence’ became increasingly difficult as it was obvious that the evidence was so distant and had been so elaborated over time.
More and more I realised the importance of a book I’d read many years ago – Siddhartha by Herman Hesse – and the love affair I’d had with the beauty of his writing and the sublime quality of his vision. This, I realised, had shaped my quest for someone (no doubt idealised) who not only asked the questions I had, but actually embodied the answer to those questions.
I guess what it boils down to is giving myself permission to find out what I thought and why I thought it. That way, I figured, at least one reader would be happy. I’m not sure I succeeded; but I excuse myself that, in the pursuit of an essentially selfish goal, I may have reached out to some other people along the way.
So there you have it. A disclaimer to a disclaimer! I just hope the Buddha would have understood.