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Lions Roar : May 2010
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2010 30 You’ve done a number of biographies of his- torical figures, like Napoleon and Lyndon Johnson, but the life of the Buddha as it’s been handed down to us is more the story of a spiritual journey than a collection of agreed-upon facts. How did you approach a biography that is as much philosophical as historical? The fact that there isn’t much known about the Buddha was actually my release. That is, I made the problem into the solu- tion. I remember saying early on to one scholar that searching for the historical Buddha didn’t really interest me. He said, “Good,” that they had given up on that search in the nineteenth century. That freed me, because I’m interested in the meaning of the story and the message of hope it carries today. We can set the story in its historical context, you know, what India was like 2,500 years ago, but we can’t say we know for a fact that the Bud- dha was born in Lumbini. As Merwin says early on, we don’t care. So that allowed me to focus on the archetypal story, the spiri- tual, inner journey. This broadcast on PBS will have the largest American audience for a serious presenta- tion of Buddhism ever. You are introduc- ing Buddhism to millions of people. That’s quite a responsibility. Well, I recognize the responsibility. That’s why I was glad to be able to screen it for people like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Pankaj Mishra, the scholars advising me, and many others, so that they could tell me at an early stage whether I had something wrong. The experts who’ve seen it felt confident, and that gave me the confidence that I’d done it right. I would say the basic story you’ve told is the life of the Buddha as described in the Pali canon, and therefore reflecting the Therava- dan understanding of who the Buddha was. That may be in part true because the Pali canon is the one the scholars tend to turn to first, but it’s a complicated discussion. I feel it’s the interpretations that are the story. It’s midrash, but Buddhists do it too—it’s people who interject their own