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Poisoned arrow pointillism.

IN her brilliant memoir, Tiger's Eye, reflecting on the inadequacy of the accounts she offers of her parents, Inga Clendinnen writes: 'We build up our pictures of people intimately known by a kind of pointillism, a thousand flecks of experience laid on the canvas'. Given the multiplicity of impressions constituting such portrayals, Clendinnen realises the risk of 'grotesque simplification' in writing about them. Such a risk attends any biographical sketch.

Since Clendinnen was writing about her parents, her pointillism does not fall foul of Dr. Johnson's famous biographical rule that 'nobody can write the life of a man but those who have eat and drunk and lived in social intercourse with him'. The intimacy she can claim gives her picture credibility, even though she can convey so few of its constitutive pinpricks.

The figure on whom I wish to focus is remote compared to any parent. Over the centuries, countless 'flecks of experience' have been laid on the canvas of history in an attempt to catch something of his extraordinary personality. This has resulted in a whole gallery of competing pictures.

Lack of intimacy and diversity of interpretation means my account cannot lay claim to the kind of authority biography has when conducted at close quarters and with access to uncontested evidence. Is it worth proceeding given such limitations? Clendinnen focuses on parents, key figures in the personal politics of any family. My subject's life has relevance on so much wider a scale that, for all the difficulties involved in sketching it, it is well worth making the attempt.

I have so far shied away from the most obvious of the biographer's tasks: identifying the person in question. Such evasiveness is necessary given the weight of assumption borne on his name--or, more strictly, on the name by which we now know him, for as one commentator has observed: 'if we are historically sober we have to admit that we have no idea what he was originally called by his family and friends'. Revealed too soon, his 'name' risks prompting readings I do not wish to sanction. Using Clendinnen's private lives to preface this very public one is a tactic meant to stay the hand of presupposition and the stereotypes it holds.

There are many reasons for trying to retrieve a life after it has gone. Being aware of them helps identify, if not untie, the knots binding subject and biographer together. Love and loathing provide equally strong motives but will produce quite dissimilar accounts. In Clendinnen's terms, we emphasise different flecks of experience according to whether our intention is to celebrate or demonise. Even if in some particulars it may seem far from worthy (his desertion of wife and child, for example), I'm drawn to this particular life because it provides a touchstone for that most elusive of blueprints: how to live well.

The social and political challenges of the twenty-first century are so daunting that any attempt to address them can seem doomed to failure; thus the terrible slide into apathy evident in our culture--countless lives not lived well. The gulf in scale between problems and the remedial action open to individuals is such as to engender a sense of powerlessness. What can we do about global warming? Should we surrender some of our cherished liberties in the interests of prudent action against terrorism? To what extent should we countenance genetic engineering? What are the rights of the unborn? Who has first call on our charity, victims of a distant disaster or the disadvantaged who live only streets away? What responsibility do we have for the starving millions whose anonymous representatives crowd our media with their suffering? How can we respond to fundamentalism and bigotry without ourselves embracing intolerance? What should our relations be with those whose attitudes to woman or to education or to freedom are radically opposed to ideals we hold dear? When is military intervention justified?

In our pluralistic, globalised culture, where a whole raft of diverse and difficult issues jostle for our attention, it's easy to lapse into cynicism, the resigned shrug that says we're helpless to improve things beyond our own individual comfort. And so we live lives of distraction, amassing material wealth, as if computer games and DVDs, fast cars and exotic holidays, mindless TV shows and an abundance of food and drink could blot out the cries of the oppressed and allow us to pick our way painlessly across a nightmare landscape of insoluble problems.

The individual on whom I wish to focus began life blind to its problems and cocooned in luxury. His early experience of sensual and material indulgence gives his biography a striking contemporary resonance. We're told he dwelt in sumptuous comfort, surrounded by young and attractive servants. Conversation on any topic that might perturb him was forbidden. He was immersed in a distracting froth of perpetual entertainment. Nubile dancers, so one ancient account reports, 'entertained him with soft words, tremulous calls, wanton swayings, sweet laughter, seductive glances'. These dancers 'were well versed in the subject of sensual enjoyment and indefatigable in sexual pleasure'. An attempt was made to censor out of his experience anything that might threaten pleasure. Serious issues that touched on want or fear, illness or injustice were kept hidden. Even fallen leaves and withered flowers were carefully disposed of before he could glimpse them so that no hint of death was ever given.

A marvelous poem of Seamus Heaney's begins: 'The way we are living, timorous or bold, will have been our life'. What kinds of lives are in the making in our world today? Too many are broken, impoverished, oppressed, unable to realize even a fraction of their potential. They will attract no biographer's interest and seem only to have minor walk-on roles in some crowd scene of dreadful deprivation and brutality. But, for many in the West, there is surely a sense of existing neither in boldness or timidity but in the same kind of pampered indulgence that my subject experienced. We live amidst the babble and glare of advertising that urges a minority of our planet's population to consume a lion's share of its resources whilst millions languish in poverty. We gorge ourselves as others go hungry. The rivers, seas and forests on which we all depend are routinely befouled as we surf the Internet for titillation and engage in moronic games shows. Self-gratification and enthralment to the trivial increasingly characterize society. Our media daily display what George Steiner dubs 'the pornography of insignificance', when what's unimportant is elevated into something of seeming interest. Things that just don't matter consume acres of time, our most precious non-renewable resource. We doze away our days.

Long ago in India, a man woke up. Just as, when the wind blows through a forest, countless individual leaves are stirred by its passing, so his awakening blew like a powerful wind through human history. The man came to be given the title 'Buddha', which means 'Awakened One'. He was someone who eschewed the pornography of insignificance thrust upon him, who walked away from blindfolding comfort and chose instead a life of compassionate concern.

The fact that his teaching grew into a system of thought and practice that has influenced many national cultures ought not to obscure the fact that, essentially, the Buddha was interested in the politics of the person. Responsible self-governance was his priority. How many of our elected representatives have mastered that most fundamental of political procedures before embarking on the attempt to govern others?

Born and brought up in what is present-day Nepal, debate continues about the precise dates of the Buddha's birth and death. A reasonable estimate might be 490-410 BC. Now often referred to as the 'Middle Way', this name reminds us of how firmly Buddhism is rooted in the Buddha's life, for the path he took was a middle way between two extremes. Skilful avoidance of extremes was a personal characteristic of the Buddha's that became a core value in the philosophy he founded. It is a value much needed today.

The first extreme was imposed; the second embraced by choice. Neither, as he came to realize, offers a satisfactory way to live. Shortly after his birth, his father, a wealthy and powerful man, asked fortune-tellers about his son's future. One predicted the Buddha would become either a great ruler, consolidating and expanding his patrimony, or a great teacher, uninterested in power or wealth. When he inquired what might make him follow this latter path, the Buddha's father was told this would happen only if his son encountered dukkha.

Dukkha is the spark that led to the Buddha's awakening; it is the pivot on which his life turned. It constitutes the malady he spent a lifetime tending in himself and others. It is this same malady that underlies the diverse problems facing us today. That it is so rarely addressed directly is indicative of the extent to which we have lost touch with root causes and fundamental principles. The key importance of dukkha can be gleaned from the Buddha's famous summing up of his entire philosophy; 'I teach but two things; dukkha, and escape from dukkha'.

What is dukkha? It is the taste of unanswered questions that lingers in the mind, troubling us with a feeling that our existence requires more of a sense of purpose than that provided by mundane preoccupations. Dukkha is what we feel when the beauty of a perfect day is tinged with recognition of our mortality; it comes embedded in our experience of fear, pain, sadness, envy, regret. It occurs in the terrors that visit us in waking and in sleep, in our sense of helplessness when faced with the scale of things. It can be psychologically and politically disempowering.

The Buddha's father, desiring an heir to follow in his footsteps, and mindful of the factor identified as likely to steer his son's life in what he regarded as the wrong direction, decided to prevent the Buddha from ever encountering dukkha. Given the human condition, this is clearly an impossible task, but the story of the lengths to which he went in order to perform it, and how the Buddha did come to experience dukkha nonetheless, help to underscore just how inescapable it is. Versions of the story vary, but many portray the young Buddha as under virtual house arrest, surrounded by every sort of sensual and material delight. Any happiness experienced in such artificial conditions, whilst enjoyable at its moment of occurrence, cannot last. Once we come down to earth from such a gilded cage, the end of the illusion is inevitable. It is impossible to shield someone forever from the nature of life.

The story of the Buddha's encounter with dukkha had been formalised into a linked series of incidents known as the four sights. Escaping from his cushioned confinement on three separate occasions, the Buddha encountered classic manifestations of dukkha in the form of old age, illness and death. This made him realize how trivial were the pleasures with which his father had attempted to blinker him. What is the point of such dalliance when set beside the trials people must undergo? The fourth sight--of a wandering sage, someone engaged in a search for truth--inspired the Buddha to embark on his own quest for something that would give life a more satisfactory meaning than mere indulgence.

Having been alerted to dukkha by the first three sights, and inspired to seek ways to overcome it by the fourth, the Buddha left the pain-free cocoon his father had spun for him, abandoning his wife and young son in the process. At first, he followed various recognized teachers. Then, feeling he had progressed beyond their wisdom, set out on his own. It is at this point in his life that he embraced the second extreme by reference to which the Middle Way came into focus. The Buddha now engaged in fanatical ascetic practice. He fasted, kept himself from sleeping, sat in the full heat of the sun, denied himself all but the most minimal of comforts. Such austerities were employed in an attempt to gain insight into the fundamental nature of existence. The image of the Buddha at this stage in his life, a classic of Buddhist art, shows him as a terrifyingly gaunt, skeletal figure. He was clearly someone with the strength to endure extremes. More impressive, though, than any fanatical power of endurance was his ability to see he was on the wrong track, admit he was mistaken and try a different course of action.

Realising that deprivation was getting him nowhere, the Buddha broke his fast and ate (at which point the small following of disciples who had gathered round him left in disgust at what they perceived as weakness). Determined to break through to a new level of wisdom, he sat down beneath a tree and resolved to meditate until he found the answers to life that he was seeking. The enormous psychic upheaval the Buddha experienced during this period of intense concentration is symbolized in the story of his struggle with Mara, a personification of life's easy options. As Michael Pye suggests, the battle with Mara--another favourite motif in Buddhist art--can be seen as 'a mythologised account of a psychological event'. Finally, through his own discipline and determination, the Buddha found the answers he was looking for. This awakening is the crucial watershed in the Buddha's life and the key reference point for Buddhism. It was the foundation on which his teachings were built. For the remainder of his long life (he died of food poisoning when he was eighty) the Buddha tried to explain his vision of how to handle dukkha. In so doing he changed the way in which millions of lives were led.

Are any of our contemporary ideologies built on so secure a foundation? Can our leaders claim an authority-bestowing awakening of the same order as that which underscores the policies the Buddha offers? Have they successfully negotiated their own personal revolutions? Turned their back on mere indulgence? Have they honestly confronted dukkha--let alone found remedial strategies for it? Too often, they--and we--seem stuck in the kind of luxurious illusion, or blinkered dogmatism, from which the Buddha courageously chose to walk away.

Somewhere beneath the paper-thin membrane of whatever reconstruction we piece together from the bare-bones of the Buddha's traditional biography lies the unreachable weight of the actual, the solidity of what once was, what really happened moment by moment. But even dealing with a person intimately known, even looking back a mere few decades, the imagination--as Inga Clendinnen shows--has little enough below it by way of a safety net of accuracy as it tries to cross time's high-wire stretching out between the generations. How much more is that the case when we attempt to cross the dizzying altitudes separating the Buddha from the present.

Who was the Buddha? We know little about the individual behind this title. We cannot trace the contours of his consciousness, know the imprint of his person as it fell upon those around him. And, as with every subject on whom the biographer's gaze falls, the roots of the Buddha's personality soon push through the fragile confinement of an individual life and lose themselves in the deep loam of time, raising questions that touch on the mystery of being as much as on the vanished particularities of this one fleeting life. For who knows, really, where any of us begin, where our thoughts or feelings, or the actions that they prompt, have their true moment of genesis? Moreover, what little is known about his life tends to be indelibly intermixed with a rich mythological overlay. It is hard to distinguish fact from fiction. Yet, for all this, some sense of the Buddha's unique personality and its relevance for our time still reaches us across the centuries.

One story sums up a characteristic of the Buddha's that is particularly relevant to our information-befuddled era--his ability to prioritise, cutting through complications and keeping the focus clearly fixed on what matters. The Buddha told the story in response to a follower who kept asking abstruse questions.
 There was once a man who, unexpectedly, found himself shot by an
 unseen assailant. Looking at the arrow sticking from his side he
 wondered about the identity of the person who had tried to kill him.
 Was his assailant a farmer or a merchant? Was he tall or short,
 bearded or clean-shaven? Perhaps some detail of the arrow would give
 a clue as to who had shot it. Was it made of teak, or banyan? Were
 the flights made from goose or crow feathers? Was the poison
 staining the shaft hemlock or arsenic? Could he remember offending
 anyone such that they might want him dead?

Instead of doing the one thing that urgently needed to be done--pulling the arrow out and attending to the wound--the man wasted time on irrelevancies. Too often in contemporary politics those engaged in debate about the various poisoned arrows that afflict us--AIDS, poverty, terrorism, threats to the environment--seem preoccupied with the detail on the shafts rather than pulling them out. They would do well to learn from the Buddha's example. Here was an individual who overcame feelings of powerlessness, the lure of indulgence, and learnt how to govern dukkha.

Over-emphasising the fleck of the poisoned arrow could result in precisely the kind of 'grotesque simplification' Clendinnen feared. There is more to the Buddha's biography, obviously, than any single incident. But the selective pointillism that picks it out identifies an essential pre-requisite for effective political action. Unless we cultivate the sense of priorities borne of the yearning to live well, we risk drowning in a sea of insignificance.

Dr Chris Arthur is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Wales, Lampeter.
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Author:Arthur, Chris
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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