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Buddhadharma : Summer 2010
79 summer 2 01 0 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly In part 2 of his book, Penner turns to more interpretive issues relating to the Buddha’s life story, in particular to “the quest for the historical Buddha.” His view stems directly from the admonition to “take the legends seriously,” and he argues that scholarly accounts asserting an historical core to the Bud- dha story are off base and without foundation. Increasingly, he notes, scholars like Rupert Gethin are admitting that there is no way to separate myth from history in Buddha narratives, and therefore there is no way to know what his actual words were because it is impossible to ascertain the credibility of the texts that are being used. Since the quest for the histori- cal Buddha is, without further evidence, doomed to failure, according to Penner, ascertaining the exact dates of the Bud- dha is also impossible, which scholars like Heinz Bechert have argued for some time. It may be that scholars will take issue with Penner’s approach, but there are at least two reasons why this book should be considered seriously. The first has to do with the practitioner. The Buddha’s story is important because it high- lights moments of crisis and resolution in the Buddha’s life that are exemplary in Buddhist practice. It helps the practi- tioner think about questions like “Should I renounce?” or, “Should I teach?” In addressing such questions post-Penner, we ask: Does it really matter whether the Buddha existed or not, or whether we have evidence for our answer? If con- clusive evidence were found that the Buddha was actually a person, then he would provide a human model for follow- ers’ own salvific efforts. Buddhist practice would be a doable proposition because there would be a person just like us who had once, historically, persevered successfully to liberation. Without there being such a person, the life story can only act as a guide, and the practitioner must follow one of the Bud- dha’s final admonitions, that is, to take example solely from the teaching and the discipline, and not from a master. The book reminds the reader of the power of the idea of an historical Buddha because it affirms that the Buddha’s experi- ence is available to all humans. Penner’s argument to the con- trary, however, pushes the practitioner to ask what Buddhism would be without Gotama Buddha—a proposition that the Buddha himself is said to have put forward in his final days. The second reason this book is important has to do with scholars. It may be that the boldness of Penner’s argument will encourage new studies on the historical evidence for the Bud- dha’s life, as well as future debates about what evidence would affirm Gotama Buddha as an historical personage. If it does either of these things—encourage reflection on a Buddhism without the Buddha, or push for new study on the historical Buddha issue—Penner’s book will be of interest not only for what it is—a new biography based on the legends—but also for what it might do. Reviews SUNY PRESS.EDU Edited by Gary Storhoff and John Whalen-Bridge American Buddhism asaWay of Life The Emergence of Buddhist American Literat ure Edited by John Whalen-Bridge and Gary Storhoff Foreword by Maxine Hong Kingston • Afterword by Charles Johnson AMERICAN BUDDHISM AS A WAY OF LIFE Explores a range of Buddhist perspec- tives in a distinctly American context. $24.95 pb THE EMERGENCE OF BUDDHIST AMERICAN LITERATURE “A thought-provoking analysis of the myriad ways American literature has contributed to our Buddhist practice and vice versa.” — Tricycle “A groundbreaking anthology of critical writings making vital new connections between buddhadharma and American literature.” — Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly $24.95 pb Buddhism & American Culture from GARY STORHOFF & JOHN WHALEN-BRIDGE, editors