Thursday, April 26, 2007

John Strong's The Buddha, a biography

John S. Strong. The Buddha: A Short Biography. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2001. xv + 203 pp. Illustrations, tables, Sanskrit glossary, bibliography, notes, index. $15.95 (paper), ISBN 1-85168-256-2. Reviewed by Jessica Main, Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University. Published by H-Buddhism (September, 2003) [Book Review]

The approach of scholar John Strong's biography of the Buddha has broad applicability to pre-modern Southeast Asian history:
Strong begins with a concise description of the history of scholarship on the Buddha’s life that stretches from the late nineteenth century to the present. Then, he contrasts these academic portraits of the Buddha with "tales that have been remembered and revered, repeated and reformulated" (pp. 1-3) by practitioners of Buddhism throughout its history. Avoiding a strictly factual search for the "historical Buddha," Strong provides "a middle way between remythologizing and demythologizing, between myth-making and history-making" (p. 3). He discusses the human, contextual, and rooted parts of the Buddha’s life as well as the supernatural and mythical ones.
First, there are the visits by the Buddha to various localities that you often find in local chronicles (e.g. Tai state of Kengtung, Eastern Shan States). Second, there are the hagiographic accounts of Burmese kings in Burmese chronicles like U Kala's Mahayazawingyi. This includes descriptions of royal coronations (consecration, bhiseka) ceremonies that one finds in chronicle texts and religious inscriptions:
Next, Strong shows how the Buddha’s biography simultaneously reveals and reinforces the wider dimensions of Buddhist artistic production, ritual, doctrine, and history. In a series of brief sections, he describes the reciprocal relations that link the life story of the Buddha, the practice of pilgrimage, and the worship of relics Strong describes the ways in which sacred biography, art, and ritual reinforce each other.
Strong discusses rituals such as the water pouring ritual accompanies many important historical events in the Burmese chronicle such as Bayinnaung's reconquest of Pegu (Hanthawaddy, Hongsa) after the Mon rebellion of 1550 that deposed Tabinshweihti.

Strong also expands the notion of biography "beyond the one-life paradigm,"not unlike Yukio Mishima's trilogy, to previous lifes by including the Jataka tradition.