When some people retire, they move on to pursue pleasures or projects that are radically different from their careers. Philip C. Almond, who retired as an emeritus professor of religious thought from the University of Queensland, Australia, in 2005, instead leaned into his academic passions. He’s written a book practically every year since his retirement on big ideas—esoteric and spiritual topics within religion, such as witchcraft, the antichrist, God—and PW called his Mary Magdalene: A Cultural History “a top-notch work of Christian cultural analysis” in its starred review.
“I’ve had the privilege of being able, since I’ve retired, to do the kinds of books that many academics don’t get the freedom to do,” he says. “Humanities academics don’t need vast amounts of lab equipment or money, but they do need the time to think and write.”
Almond’s new book, The Buddha: Life and Afterlife Between East and West (Cambridge University Press, April 2024), focuses on the life of the Buddha, an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama who lived in the fifth century BCE, founded Buddhism, and has fascinated Almond since he was a PhD student in the 1970s. The book builds on Almond’s well-regarded 1988 title, The British Discovery of Buddhism, which examined British encounters with Buddhism during the Victorian period. According to Alex Wright, senior executive publisher and head of academic books at Cambridge, that title expanded the understanding of how the Eastern religion materially changed when it was encountered and appropriated by the West.
In the 19th century, during the height of global British colonialism, “the West goes looking for the historical Buddha, just as it did in the same century for the historical Jesus,” Almond says. It was then that British and other Western cultures “took the traditional lives of the Buddha, full of gods and goddesses, demons, water spirits, and a whole ritually supernatural enchanted world” and “stripped away” those elements. Rather than embracing the supernatural elements of the Buddha’s life story, Almond says historical texts were gathered by Western missionaries, colonial authorities, and travelers and used to transform the Buddha into “a philosophical figure rather than a divine figure or enlightened superman” in the Western imagination.
The Buddha also explores why Western thinkers were attracted to Buddhism, and how the contemporary understanding of Buddhism—as a religion that embodies the twin ideas of mindfulness (careful attention to sensory details) and meditation (the contemplative process of quieting the mind)—became so prevalent.
In documenting the Buddha’s life story and the intellectual history of Buddhism, Almond calls the Buddha “a very human figure who provides a model by which some sense of modern nihilism and disenchantment can be overcome.”
Wright, who has worked with Almond for nearly 30 years, calls the author “a peerless cultural historian” who writes “readable prose—a rare gift among academics.” Wright says Almond’s 2014 title The Devil: A New Biography (Cornell Univ.) has sold more than 10,000 copies, noting, “Most scholars would give their right arm to sell 10,000 copies of a scholarly book.”
When asked why his academic titles are so successful, Almond shared his writing process: “Avoid going down rabbit holes readers might get bored with.” He adds, “I always keep two questions in mind: how much does the reader want to know about this question, and how much does the reader need to know?”
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer and coauthor of The Yoga Effect: A Proven Program for Depression and Anxiety.