A number of books have been written on the life of the Buddha. What makes yours stand out from the rest?
Warrior of Peace is a historical account of the Buddha’s life, but it is also an imaginative account – it straddles the historical and the mythical, as it were. I wanted to do more than just produce an objective and historically accurate biography of the Buddha from everything that we already know about him – I wanted to focus on the Buddha’s inner experience to explore everything that we don’t know. And I think for us, as ordinary unenlightened beings contemplating the life of an extraordinary enlightened being, exploring the mystery of the Buddha’s life is, in a sense, the heart of the business. As Buddhists it is essential that we imagine being the Buddha, that we connect with our capacity to become a Buddha.
Is Warrior of Peace a work of fact or fiction?
It is certainly based on historical fact in the sense that the Buddha was quite clearly a historical figure whose teaching had a profound effect on human history in all sorts of ways. But more than being concerned with the Buddha’s place in history, Warrior of Peace is interested in asking the reader to connect with the story, to become part of it, and it is this that brings it into the area of fiction, if you like. The Buddha’s teaching continually brings us back to our own experience, and of course awakening can only be understood as an experience, not as an idea. So in some ways the most important thing is not who the Buddha was and what he did but what he represents for us.
What do you think it is about the Buddha’s message that makes it still so relevant and powerful today?
The Buddha’s teaching is about suffering and the ending of suffering, and this is a basic human message that is relevant to all times and to all places. The Buddha was very clear about the fact that everything in life is secondary to our basic humanity – we are human beings before we are Buddhists, Westerners or any other label that we may identify with. And it is this insistence of getting behind the label to our actual experience which is as a really important message for our time, as it is for any other, I think.
When we imagine the Buddha, do you think that it is most helpful to see him as a superhuman being or a normal human being like ourselves?
In Warrior of Peace, I really wanted to encourage the reader to think of the Buddha, first and foremost, as a human being. The Buddha wasn’t predetermined to become enlightened. In fact, for much of his life he didn’t even know what enlightenment was – he was confused and he suffered and in a sense he didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing. So I wanted the reader to be able to empathize with the difficulties that he faced and to know that the path that he embarked on was one that we can all follow.
However, I think that it’s equally important that we don’t lose sight of enlightenment as a radically different kind of attainment from our ordinary kind of attainments. Although the Buddha was a human being, what he achieved took him beyond where our human conditioning can take us.
So balancing the human and enlightened sides to the Buddha’s personality is a difficult project, but it’s one that I wanted to engage with in the book because I think it’s important to have a sense of all the different levels of the Buddha’s being.
You describe the Buddha as a revolutionary for his time. If we are also going to be Buddhist revolutionaries, which of the Buddha’s teachings do you see as being in most urgent need of expression?
Well, we live on a very small planet now, so we somehow really do need to be able to get on with each other as human beings. And I think one thing that the Buddha does emphasize is that if we are going to have any sense of the truth, we have to be able to let go of hatred, because truth and hatred simply do not go along with one another.
The Buddha’s opposition to animal sacrifice (which was a widely accepted practice of his time) is a specific example of the way in which he expressed this principle of non-hatred and non-violence towards all living beings. However, there was another reason for his criticism of animal sacrifice that concerned the efficacy of the practice. People were killing these animals in an attempt to change the weather patterns, or something equally crazy like that, and the Buddha was pointing out that animal sacrifice simply does not work on this level.
So I suppose if our aim were to become Buddhist revolutionaries, we would need to begin not only by cultivating compassion but also by cultivating awareness of the ways in which we’re going about trying to be happy and considering whether or not they actually work. We could look at the whole culture of modern capitalism, for example, because although it has perhaps achieved a limited amount of good in certain ways, there’s also something drastically wrong and even slightly mad about it. We’re chasing after things that simply aren’t going to satisfy us, but not only that – we’re destroying whole ecosystems in the process. So there is a lot of greed, hatred and delusion going on.
If your readers could take away one overriding message from your book, what would you like that to be?
I suppose I would like readers to come away with the sense that they can start from where they are – that whatever their present situation, they can begin to practice the Buddhist path fully. By simply doing something positive, saying something positive or thinking something positive we can really change things, here and now.