Biography 23.1 (2000) 239-242
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The biographical genre is at the very core of the Buddhist tradition, and one of the most prominent and potent modes for propagating the Buddha's teachings. Indeed, the Buddha's own life serves as the paradigm for all Buddhists, monks and laity alike; through his life story, the fundamental philosophical and ethical truths known as the dharma are conveyed and humanized. But as the essays in this fine volume attest, the biographical genre in Buddhism extends considerably beyond the specific life of the Buddha, and incorporates the lives of individual monks, lay persons, and kings--serving, as Juliane Schober puts it in her preface, for "mapping diverse realities onto one another," through which "local cosmologies are integrated into universal ones," and the pristine Buddhist ideals and modes of practice of the past "are recreated in the present lives of others" (ix).
This is an unusually consistent and integrated edited volume, such that one can quite easily read it from start to finish and in the process gain a comprehensive sense of the place and function of biography in Buddhism. Furthermore, the interdisciplinary breadth of the essays as a whole is both impressive and a welcome change from the dominant focus on words and texts in Buddhist studies. But it also becomes apparent by the end of this volume that this multiplicity of contextual and critical concerns is really a necessity, because biography in the Buddhist tradition is not simply a textual or narrative affair, but includes painting, sculpture, ritual, and even architecture. A basic set of themes is echoed in many of the essays--the individual life as part of a continuum, the historically specific moment seen in the context of both the past and future, and the continued active presence of the Buddha in the world--approached from different angles and with different critical concerns, certainly, but in such a way that the individual nuances of the essays compliment rather than clash.
The essays in Part One, "Buddha Biography in Textual and Visual Narratives," provide a conceptual framework that lays out some of the basic themes and structures of Buddhist biographies. Frank Reynolds explores the mythical dimension of the Buddha's life story as recorded in several jataka texts, and argues that Buddhists constructed the Buddha's biography in such a way that taken as a whole, it systematically provides the basic paradigm for the entire Theravada tradition, linking all of the Buddha's past lives through a continual lineage that serves to orient and legitimate religious, social, and political life. Mark Woodward analyzes the intersections between the Buddha's biography (and those of his followers) and the doctrinal and [End Page 239] philosophical veins of the tradition, and he suggests that the Theravada tradition essentially denies the specifics of history through a biographical genre that presents what he calls an "open-ended cosmology." In the process, the Theravada tradition is saved--and here Woodward invokes Mircea Eliade--from the terror of history, the meaninglessness of the specific and the individual. In the final essay of Part One, Robert Brown focuses on the visual representation of the Buddha's prior lives on certain ancient Southeast Asian and Indian monuments. He argues, somewhat controversially but quite persuasively, that such images are not in fact "illustrations" of textually expressed stories--that they are not intended to "tell" a story at all--but rather serve an iconic function, by which he means that they were there to be venerated and interacted with as, in effect, manifestations of the Buddha in the present.
Part Two broadens the focus to include the extended biography of the Buddha, and the ways in which the Buddha's own life story was expanded to encompass and inform the biographies of a wide variety of his followers, from the monk on the path toward enlightenment and nirvana, to the...