January 22, 2009

Krista's Journal: A Conversation with New Relevance for Today's Economic Uncertainties

January 22, 2009

Do desiring and acquiring make us happy? Does large-scale political change really address human suffering? These are the questions with which our program with Pankaj Mishra opens. In preparing to rebroadcast this interview from 2005, we listened again to Mishra's calm, wise assessment of the era in which Gautama Buddha sought and achieved enlightenment. And as I listened, I could only think how palpably these questions are before us all right now as the economy continues to falter, as friends and colleagues lose their jobs, and the new Obama administration begins. What really matters? What do we really need for happiness? Where does authentic, enduring change begin? The objects of our desire and our existential yearnings rarely point to what genuinely matters. The future we pin our hopes to — financial and otherwise — is illusory. These are the insights that made the teachings of Gautama Buddha so earth-shattering centuries ago. And they have, perhaps, never been more relevant, more poignant, or more painful than they are now. Pankaj Mishra is a deeply literary, intellectual writer — not inclined to find answers in religion. He grew up in the land of the Buddha's birth with little interest in him or the Hindu gods of his parents' devotion. But he began to pursue the Buddha as a philosopher and social thinker after he found the Buddha's ideas and legacy turning up in the writings of great Western thinkers — Rilke and Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Einstein. He finds in Oscar Wilde a playful paraphrase of the Buddha's insight into fickle human nature: "In this world there are only two tragedies, one of not getting what one wants, and the other of getting it." Pankaj Mishra's reflective voice, with a truly global perspective, is salutary to hear anew now, on many levels. Already in 2005, as you'll hear, he reflected with me on the tragedy and danger of Kashmir. This year, he was on the pages of The New York Times drawing lines between that tragedy and the horrific attacks in Mumbai. Most presciently and astonishingly, perhaps, he alerts us to echoes of a kindred critique of modern political economy — the very dynamics which, driven to excess, have now landed us in crisis — in that icon of free market thinking, Adam Smith. Before Smith published his Wealth of Nations in 1776, he made poignant observations about the human cost of capitalist progress in his Theory of Moral Sentiments of 1759. In excerpt:

"The poor man's son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition, admires the condition of the rich. Through the whole of his life, he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose, which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquility that is at all times in his power, and which, if in the extremity of old age, he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it. Power and riches appear, then, to be what they are, enormous machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniences to the body. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much and sometimes more exposed than before to anxiety, to fear and to sorrow, to diseases, to danger and to death."

You'll find a companion to this conversation in our Repossessing Virtue project — a new, shorter interview with Pankaj Mishra on the current economic crisis. Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg also reflects trenchantly on how Western attitudes towards suffering deepen the personal damage of economic uncertainty. Listen to these and other wise voices from the worlds of medicine, business, religion and other fields. Maybe the teachings of Gautama Buddha have a place in your grappling with current events. Let us know what you discover.

Recommended Reading

Image of An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World
Author: Pankaj Mishra
Publisher: Picador (2005)
Binding: Paperback, 422 pages

A vast and original retelling of the last 3,000 years of history, and a reflection on the modern world, by tracing the legacy of the Buddha.

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is an Indian journalist and author of several books, including An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World. He is also a regular contributor to the New York Times and the British newspaper The Guardian.