January 22, 2009

Krista's Journal: Discovering the Human Aspect of the Buddha

May 31, 2007

I love books that invite me into large worlds of experience and thought. By that measure, and by many others, Pankaj Mishra's An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World is an extraordinary book. I knew I wanted to speak with him as soon as I cracked it open. He does something, for starters, that seems so logical — and yet is missing from our popular curiosity about Buddhism. He goes in search of the historical Buddha, a man of a particular time and place. Buddha neither claimed to be divine nor, as Pankaj Mishra stresses, did he mean to create a religion. But his human identity became ethereal and abstracted. The story of the beginnings of his life and his calling — his upbringing as a prince in a palace, his dramatic change of life after he encountered human misery for the first time — was passed down as an outline that rings of fairy tale. For many centuries Buddhism was lost in India, the country of his birth, and left to be "discovered" by 19th-century western colonizers, archeologists, and explorers. Pankaj Mishra grew up in late 20th-century India imagining Buddha as one of the many Hindu gods his parents worshipped. Mishra was an intellectual, in any case, with little interest in India's spiritual past. Then, to his surprise, he found the ideas and legacy of the Buddha turning up in the writings of great Western thinkers like Rilke and Hermann Hesse, Schopenhauer and Einstein. Nietszche claimed in the Buddha a kindred spirit — a philosopher who could speak to an age of social, political, and religious upheaval. When Mishra investigated the Buddha's historical origins in India, he found a world that echoed the confusion and violence of Nietschze's age and our own. He proceeded to trace the legacy of the Buddha's social insights across history and to apply them in the present. For me, he effectively sidelines the ubiquitous image of the Buddha as a large-bellied, placid figure, sitting still, eyes closed literally and figuratively to politics, economics, the stresses of ordinary life. Mishra finds in the Buddha's thought a critique of politics and "progress" in the modern world that for him — as a journalist, an intellectual, and a human being raised in India — have never quite added up. Not too long ago, in the early 1990s, the American political scientist Francis Fukayama created a minor furor when he proclaimed "the end of history." With the fall of the Soviet Union, he argued, capitalism and liberal democracy had been vindicated, and the future would be defined by their inevitable and permanent hold. But for all the criticism Fukayama's theory drew, Mishra sheds light on the very real sense in which this idea has in fact prevailed, terrorism and entrenched global inequities notwithstanding. Mishra provocatively compares the ideology of liberal democracy and market economy to utopian ideas of previous eras such as Marxism — in that it is taken on faith as a sure, comprehensive system for collective progress. This is where, again provocatively, the Buddha comes in. The Buddha, Mishra says, understood that large-scale political and economic structures could never spell the end of human suffering, or the creation of societies in which human beings, if you will, genuinely pursued happiness. Alone among social philosophers, the Buddha concerned himself with "a close and dry analysis" of the inner world of experience. And to the helpless people caught in the chaos of his time — as to 19th-century thinkers mesmerized by the tumultuous upheavals of theirs — the Buddha spoke with singular clarity: "The mind, where desire, hatred, and delusion run rampant, is also the place — the only place — where human beings can have full control of their own lives." We cannot control everything and everyone around us, the Buddha taught, we can only control our experience of the world, our perceptions and conclusions in the present, and the way we choose to live. In his investigations, Mishra uncovered affirmation for his thought in unlikely places. The Enlightenment architect of free trade, Adam Smith, mused that however superior capitalism might be as a driver of industry, it would utterly fail to address the most basic human afflictions of "anxiety, fear, sorrow, diseases, and death." Mishra would not call himself a "Buddhist," I believe, but he offers an erudite and compassionate defense of the "movie star" Buddhists it is easy to make light of today. Here are people, he says, who have achieved everything their society has trained them to pursue; they have reached the pinnacle of what they have been taught to see as success. But the teachings of the Buddha speak to their concomitant discovery that, on a deep inner level, fame and fortune are also worth little. 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 view of the world is uncomfortable and opinionated and as subjective as it is learned. And I do ask him the hard questions that his theories raise. For example, if everyone in the world ascribed to this way of being in the world, would industry, economy, and politics cease altogether. Listen for his answers and ponder them critically, as I continue to do.

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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.