“The Buddha: Life and Afterlife between East and West” by Philip C Almond


The Buddha of the Mahayana tradition anchored in such ancient Indian texts as the Jataka Tales or the epic Buddhacharita is a godly figure: he is born without causing any pain or suffering to his mother; he is born without sexual reproduction, moving from the heaven to the womb of his mother in the form of an elephant. Or that he is omniscient at birth. He speaks and walks immediately after his birth. Yet, this is not the Buddha that most people would recognize today or associate with the Buddhism of meditation and mindfulness. In his book The Buddha: Life and Afterlife between East and West, Philip C Almond traces the history of the story of the Buddha: how it underwent a transformation from being a story about divinity and miracles to becoming a story about a human being who set the example of how following the Middle Path can liberate oneself from suffering in life. 

The Buddha: Life and Afterlife Between East and West, Philip C Almond, (Cambridge University Press, February 2024)
The Buddha: Life and Afterlife Between East and West, Philip C Almond (Cambridge University Press, February 2024)

Some details remain the same in the overall story. For instance, the Buddha renounces the world after he comes face to face with the reality of death, old age and disease, and finds enlightenment after contemplating for many years. But the Buddha, the person, gets painted in a different light in different traditions. For instance, the ancient Greek sources mention him as someone who is venerated by the “naked philosophers” of India. In the 13th century, William of Rubruck , a Franciscan friar visiting the court of Genghis Khan’s grandson Mongke Khan, found the Buddha to be the deity or the god of the “idolaters”. Roughly around the same time, Marco Polo too frames the Buddha as the founder of “idolatrous” beliefs in Ceylon. A century and a half later, the story of the travel of the Buddha’s biography gets even more interesting with a Venetian editor remarking on Marco Polo’s work that the figure being referred to by Marco Polo is Saint Iosaphat from India who was converted to Christianity by Barlaam, referring to a well known legend of that time and place. This legend was borrowed from the Arabic text The Book of Bilawahar and Budhasaf believed to have been composed around 900 CE. About a couple of centuries later, Portuguese soldier and chronicler Diogo do Couto (1542-1616) observed that the Buddha and Josaphat or Iosaphat were the same person.

It is with the 13th-century Christian King Hethum I (or Hayton I) of the Armenian kingdom of Celicia, that the Buddha acquired a sense of historicity. Hethium suggested, among his other observations about Buddhism, that the Buddha must have lived around 1787 BCE. Scholars such as Eugene Burnouf (1801-1852), the father of modern Buddhist studies, dedicated themselves to the study of the Sanskrit texts on which other texts from Tibet or China were based. Thus began the practice of focusing on texts for an understanding of Buddhism, a focusing on one central figure, paralleling Christianity and Western thought in general, rather than contextualizing him in terms of broader and more multi-layered views of divinity that came naturally to scholarly interventions in, say, Hinduism: after all, no one tried to historicize the Hindu deity Shiva or Brahma. This shift is worth exploring because of what it did to the way the Buddha came to be circulated in colonial imagination.

For instance, in the 19th century, interest in the Buddha and the story of his life (rather than the mythology around him) became the stuff of poetry writing competitions, especially after the publication of Sir Edwin Arnold’s poem The Light of Asia. Almond argues that the Buddha, the “light of Asia” was undergoing what Jesus, the “light of the world”, was going through:


The disenchanted lives of the Buddha were the result of a general tendency within nineteenth-century history writing to exclude the supernatural and the miraculous from the developing discipline of history. The quest for historical truth was leading away from the Christ of faith to the Jesus of history. So also with the Buddha.


The “disenchanted” Buddha, shorn of the stories of miracles as visible in the ancient Indian texts such as the Lalitavistara, was here to stay. The Sri Lankan monk Walpola Rahula (1907-1997) wrote in What the Buddha Taught (1959) about a Buddha on similar lines of humanizing him:


A man and only a man can become a Buddha. Every man has within himself the potentiality of becoming a Buddha, if he so wills it and endeavours. We can call the Buddha man par excellence. He was so perfect in his “human-ness” that he came to be regarded later in popular religion as “super-human”.


Thus disappeared the Buddha of the miraculous birth, the Buddha of the ancient texts that spoke of prophecies and wondrous tales around his life. Almond’s argument at the end of the book after comparing the different avatars of the Buddha in so many traditions is that the humanized Buddha of the 19th century is the Buddha people, especially in the West, know today. Almost every account of the Buddha’s life, including the ones in sources such as the encyclopedias, attempts to historicize him, while also adding a disclaimer “thus goes the story”. There is no “evidence” to establish the Buddha existed but that does not stop scholars from narrating his “biography” in the form of a life story. Almond suggests that this has a lot to do with making Buddhism relatable, something that other religions cannot do with their emphases on miracles and fables. The story with the Buddha has been made very straightforward and consumable:


Thus, whether the story of the Buddha is history or legend, fact or fiction, he remains an exemplary human figure, whose life provides a ‘romantic’ ideal to be followed. As the Oriental ‘other’, now acceptably disenchanted, the Buddha is a symbolic antidote to the ills of modernity in the West. The disenchanted Buddha is thus able to serve as the foundation of a new Western naturalised Buddhism… In the texts of the Mahayana tradition, he was a divine, heavenly figure, worshipped by all, available to transfer merit to his devoted followers. In Western naturalised Buddhism, the Buddha is the inspiration for every individual’s personal quest for meaning. That is because the Buddha of the modern West is exactly like us. His enlightenment is ours – if we follow his example and seek for truth. So, in the West, the Buddha exemplifies neither a superman, nor a god, but rather the individual created in the European Enlightenment – freed from external constraints in the present, unencumbered by past ideals, and capable of self-knowledge, self-management, and self-fashioning.


Almond’s book is anchored in scholarship and intense research. However, if its argument of the processes of the humanization of the Buddha gets circulated in the ordinary conversations about meaning of life or questions of effort and agency, it is very likely to provide a huge sense of relief to those struggling with the question of the Middle Path. It is a great solace to know that the Middle Path is not an easy “human” thing in the sense of being a cake walk. It is a result of the gradual distortion or exaggeration of the limits of human agency.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.