Who was the Buddha? We think we know. Named Gautama (or Siddhartha, or Shakyamuni), he was the son of a king, born around 563 BC in Lumbini, in what is now Nepal. His father, in a vain attempt to shield his son from the harsh realities of human existence, secluded him in a state of cloistered comfort. But stepping out of his gilded prison into the world, Gautama realised the truth of sickness, old age and death. Intent on understanding the nature of suffering, he pursued the life of an ascetic until, finally, sitting in meditation under the Bodhi Tree, he attained enlightenment, realising the path to liberation – the so-called Four Noble Truths.
A real man then, whose philosophical insights transformed man’s understanding of himself. This is the picture that we in the West have of the Buddha. But as Donald Lopez, an American academic who has written extensively in the past about the Western encounter with Buddhism, demonstrates in this erudite, discursive