Karen Armstrong, author of Buddha (Penguin Classics), is considered to be one of the leading religious thinkers of our era. Her appearance at Kentucky Author Forum also served as a kickoff event for the Center for Interfaith Relations’ annual Festival of Faiths in 2004. Buddha is a compelling blend of religion, biography and philosophy, offering an examination of the relevance of Buddhism for our own times. Her other books include the New York Times bestsellers A History of God, Islam and The Spiral Staircase.
A former Roman Catholic nun, Armstrong teaches at Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism and received the 1999 Muslim Public Affairs Council Media Award. Following September 11, 2001, she became a frequent contributor to conferences, panels, newspapers, periodicals, and other media, on both sides of the Atlantic, on the subject of Islam. She lives in London.
Though her life in a British convent is now 30 years behind her, Armstrong was, for sometime, tagged the “runaway nun,” the rebellious ex-Catholic with outspoken opinions about religion. She spent seven years in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus during the 1960s and later wrote a tell-all book, Through the Narrow Gate (St. Martin’s Press, 1982), that bemoaned the restrictive life. (The frightened nuns did not know the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 had ended for several weeks; they were not allowed to inquire about the outside world.)
Born a Roman Catholic in the countryside near Birmingham, England, in 1945, she gave up on religion after her time in the convent. “I was suicidal,” she said of life in her late 20s. “I didn’t know how to live apart from that regimented way of life.”
With an undergraduate degree in literature from Oxford University, she began teaching 19th and 20th century literature at the University of London and worked on a PhD. Three years later, her dissertation was rejected. Without it, she did not qualify to teach at the university level, and she took a job as head of the English department at a girls’ school in London. Not long afterward, she was diagnosed with epilepsy. “After six years at the school I was asked to leave, but nicely,” she said. “My early life is a complete catastrophe. It all worked out for the best.”
The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness (Random House) tells of her spiritual journey after the convent and a string of discouraging personal setbacks. Finally, in 1976, she was diagnosed and given proper treatment for her epilepsy, and was released from her “private hell.” Writing became her true calling and her own inner story and spiritual quest began to emerge.
She left the school in 1982 and began working on television documentaries. The story that took her to Jerusalem set her on a new career path and changed her earlier impressions about God. She went from atheist to “freelance monotheist” but as never returned to the Catholic Church or joined any other.
Armstrong searched for the links that Islam, Judaism and Christianity have in common. Three of her books—A History of God (Ballantine, 1993), Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (Knopf, 1996) and The Battle for God (Knopf, 2000)–show what unites the faiths. Each, Armstrong writes, has developed the image of one Supreme Being who was first revealed to the prophet Abraham. All have historic links to Jerusalem. And more recently, each has built up a rigid conservative strain as a reaction against the modern world. Armstrong has received honors as a bridge builder who promotes understanding among the three faiths.
“It’s inevitable that people turn to more than one religious tradition for inspiration,” she said. “It’s part of globalization.”
“Religion is like a raft,” she said, explaining the Buddha’s view of it. “Once you get across the river, moor the raft and go on. Don’t lug it with you if you don’t need it anymore.”
Buddha (“the awakened”) was the title given to Siddhartha Gotama, the son of a Nepalese rajah. According to tradition, Gotama left a life of luxury at age 30 and devoted himself to years of contemplation and self-denial, finally reaching enlightenment while sitting beneath a tree. Henceforth known as Buddha, he spent his life teaching disciples about his beliefs (embodied in the Four Noble Truths) and the goal of achieving the enlightened state of Nirvana.
Armstrong’s account of Buddha reveals him as both the archetypal religious icon and as a man who eschewed his noble caste in pursuit of peace in the midst of worldly suffering. Renouncing his family and the comforts of his home, he chose to don the robes of the homeless religious ascetics. By practicing rigorous meditation and self deprivation, Gotama experienced a profound spiritual transformation, shedding egotism and selfishness. She carefully ties the Buddha’s time to our own and champions his spiritual discoveries with an understated dignity.
Robert Siegel interviewed Karen Armstrong at Kentucky Author Forum. Siegel, host of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” has worked with NPR for more than 20 years, delivering news and interviews with both a wry wit and precise attention to detail.