Program Particulars: The Buddha in the World

January 22, 2009

Program Particulars

*Times indicated refer to Web version of audio

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(01:44–02:54) Music Element

"The Multiples of One" from Awakening, performed by Joseph Curiale

» Enlarge the image The Upper Ganges Valley (India) at the time of the Buddha showing the major sites. (Courtesy: BuddhaNet)

The Upper Ganges Valley (India) at the time of the Buddha showing the major sites. (Courtesy: BuddhaNet)

(01:48) Story of the Buddha

Born near Kapilavastu on the border between Nepal and India, Siddharta Gautama is thought to have lived between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE. Since the Buddha's life was not chronicled until several centuries after his death, many accounts of his life exist. But, it is commonly held that he was born to a king of the Shakya clan, who belonged to the ksatriya (warrior) caste.

Renouncing the luxury and comfort of his position, he left his wife and son to pursue the path of the bodhisattva — a person who seeks to discover the path to freedom from suffering, and then teaches it to others. After years as a seeker and wandering ascetic, the Buddha achieved enlightenment while sitting under a pipal tree at Bodh Gaya. He articulated the "four noble truths" of human experience: life is suffering (dukkha), suffering is rooted in desire, suffering can be cured, and the remedy for human suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path.

As Mishra translates from the Pali text, the Vinaya of the Mulasarvastivadins, the Buddha is quoted as saying, "Destroyed is rebirth for me; consumed is my striving; done is what had to be done; I will not be born into another existence." For some little-known historical detail on the years of Buddha's life and teaching, listen to this exclusive audio (mp3, --:--) of Pankaj Mishra that wasn't included in the radio program.

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(02:48–04:29) Music Element

"Vaisnava Bhajan" from Hollow Bamboo, performed by Jon Hassell, Ry Cooder, and Ronu Majumbar

(03:25) Buddhist Thought in Western Literature

Schopenhauer's philosophy draws from the basic tenets of the Four Noble Truths and can be read in more detail in his 1818 work, The World as Will and Representation (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung). A visit to India in 1911 served as the impetus for Herman Hesse's 1922 novel, Siddhartha, which became a cult classic in the 1960s.

Krista cites Einstein in the early 20th century:

The mystical trend of our time, which shows itself particularly in the rampant growth of the so-called Theosophy and Spiritualism, is for me no more than a symptom of weakness and confusion. Since our inner experiences consist of reproductions, and combinations of sensory impressions, the concept of a soul without a body seem to me to be empty and devoid of meaning. The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.

» Enlarge the image (Photo: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

Buddhist monks and political dignitaries from Sri Lanka, China, Mongolia, Korea, Nepal, Singapore, Cambodia, and other Buddhist countries participate in The International Conclave on Buddhism and Spiritual Tourism in New Delhi, India in 2004. The three-day meeting culminated in a dedication ceremony at The Mahabodi Temple in Bodhgaya — the location of the Buddha's enlightenment. (Photo: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

(10:06) Buddha and Suffering

In An End to Suffering, Mishra reflects on the tumultuous events taking place in India during the Buddha's lifetime:

There was plenty of suffering during the Buddha's time too – and people had fewer distractions with which to dull the pain. There was the suffering of people uprooted from their native habitats and forced into cities. There was the suffering of loneliness caused by the breakdown of the old social order. There was also suffering caused by wars of conquest: the large new armies of the big kingdoms of Kosala and Magadha overrunning the smaller republics. The Buddha's own clan, the Shakyas, were slaughtered in one such war a few years before his death. Organized greed, war, genocide – they were not unknown to the Buddha. They seem to have led him to his suspicion of the amoral individualism which was rapidly emerging in the India of his time and which was reflected in the politics and the philosophical speculation of his peers. Their presence partly explains the obsessive way in which he tried to undermine the idea that there was anything like an autonomous or stable individual self. …………… In his own time, the Buddha saw the men created by the new social and economic forces of North India. His primary audience existed in the urban centres where people felt most acutely their new individuality as a burden and were attracted to nihilism as preached by the new thinkers, such as the Ajivikas, who attacked the moral laws of karma. He could sense the dangers inherent in men freed from traditional morality and claiming to be self-directed individuals. …………… The Buddha, too, began with a biological image of man as ruled by impulses and desires – the same image that inspired Adam Smith and Hobbes. But he might have been puzzled by the assumption that the private satisfaction of these impulses and desires would not only somehow bring about an ideal state and society but also eventually make the individual more self-aware. His own attempt was to reveal how unchecked desire led to the individual's alienation from both nature and human society.

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(11:32–12:17) Music Element

"Wide Sky" from Fascinoma, performed by Jon Hassell

(13:07) Quote of Oscar Wilde

In An End to Suffering, Mishra writes about the Buddha's insistence on people finding the root cause of trishna, or impulsive cravings. In the following passage, Mishra relates Wilde's well-known aphorism to the Buddha's thoughts on suffering:

Clinging produces our typical and renewable desire for status, power, wealth and sexual love. But, as the Buddha never tired of repeating, to desire complete and secure happiness with an elusive self and in an impermanent world is to court frustration and discontentment. Even the fulfillment of all of one's desires could bring only short-lived happiness. For as Oscar Wilde put it, "In this world there are only two tragedies, one of not getting what one wants, and the other of getting it.

» Enlarge the image Mishra's view of the Himalaya Mountains from the balcony of his room in India. (Photo: Pankaj Mishra

Mishra's view of the Himalaya Mountains from the balcony of his room in India. (Photo: Pankaj Mishra)

(13:25) Citation from from Mishra's Book

Krista cites a passage from "A Science of the Mind," a chapter in An End to Suffering. Here is an expanded version:

The Buddha worked with the insight that the mind was the window onto reality for human beings, without which they could access nothing, nor even assume the existence of a world independent of their perception, consciousness and concepts:

It is within this fathom-long carcass, with its mind and its notions, that I declare there is the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world.

This was not the absolute idealism of the kind found in western philosophy. The Buddha did not assert that everything was a projection of the mind, or that ther was a thing-in-itself out there. He spoke rather of the phenomenal world arising out of interdependent causes and conditions.

The world and its objects had no intrinsic characteristics or true nature — or at least none that could be perceived outside human mental processes. Their colors, sounds, smell and textures weren't independent of the perceiving mind. They came into being through the process of sense organs perceiving and interpreting data through instants of consciousness.

This is illustrated by a story in Buddhist scriptures about two blind men who wished to know what colors were. One of them, who was told that white was the color of snow, assumed that white was "cold"; the other man, who was told that white was the color of swans, thought that white went "swish-swish."

Happiness and suffering, fulfilment and frustration — the mind was indispensable in all of these processes, even when they emerged out of conditions seemingly external to us. To control the mind, then, was to change radically one's relations with the world.

(14:00) Tibetan Victims of Torture

In April 2000, the United Nations Committee Against Torture received a report from the Government of Tibet in exile, "Violations by the People's Republic of China Against the People of Tibet," concluding that China continues to engage in widespread and systematic violations of the Torture Convention in Tibet. Despite the persecution that's taken place since the Chinese Communists invaded Tibet in 1951, the Dalai Lama has insisted on a non-violent approach to the Chinese and threatened to resign his post if Tibetans shed blood.

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(16:56–20:04) Music Element

"Sarabande from Suite No. 2 in D Minor" from The Cello Suites: Inspired by Bach, performed by Yo-Yo Ma

(18:06) Reading from Adam Smith's The Theory of the Moral Sentiments

Adam Smith, a noted economist and social theorist, was part of the Scottish Enlightenment that took place in the late 18th century. In 1776, he published his seminal work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, which covered concepts such as the role of self-interest, the division of labor, the function of markets, and the international implications of an unregulated, free enterprise economy. But, it was a 1759 treatise on ethics and human nature, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, that launched Smith's career and gave him prominence among his contemporaries:

The poor man's son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition, when he begins to look around him, admires the condition of the rich. … It appears in his fancy like the life of some superior rank of beings, and, in order to arrive at it, he devotes himself for ever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness. … 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 tranquillity 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 and operose machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniencies to the body, consisting of springs the most nice and delicate, which must be kept in order with the most anxious attention, and which in spite of all our care are ready every moment to burst into pieces, and to crush in their ruins their unfortunate possessor. They are immense fabrics, which it requires the labour of a life to raise, which threaten every moment to overwhelm the person that dwells in them, and which while they stand, though they may save him from some smaller inconveniencies, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. 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.

In An End to Suffering, Mishra comments on the writings from philosophers such as Marx and Smith, who expressed some caution about an unfettered marketplace:

Marx had ideological reasons to fear what the endlessly renewed needs of the individual might lead to. He thought that "modern bourgeois society, a society that has conjured up such mighty means of production and exchange, is like the sorcerer who can no longer control the powers of the underworld that he has called up by his spells." But even Adam Smith, the proponent of free trade, had wondered early in his life if power and wealth, "those great objects of human desire," can make one immune to "anxiety, fear, sorrow, diseases, danger and death." He had considered the idea that happiness could be secured through desiring more things than one needs a deception and had eventually concluded that it is "well that nature imposes on us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind."

» Enlarge the image Ashoka Engraving at Lumbini

This inscription reads 'King Piyadasi (Ashoka), the beloved of Devas, in the 29th year of the coronation, made a visit to Lumbini and paid his homage. Realizing the Buddha was born here, a stone railing was built and a stone pillar erected. Because the Lord was born here, the Emperor had the people of Lumbini village freed from some tax and entitled them to the eighth part only.' (Source: Lumbini and other Buddhist sites in Nepal, Nepal Tourism Board / Photo: Charlie Phillips)

(22:45) Reference to Ashoka

The Emperor Ashoka (PDF, 1581 kb) was the first leader to rule over a united India in the third century BCE. After a series of wars and a final battle at Kalinga (now Orissa), he declared himself an upasaka, a Buddhist layperson, and adopted Buddhist policies of non-violence and social welfare. He abolished wars in his domain, banned the death penalty, restricted hunting, and constructed facilities for convalescent care.

To let his edicts be known throughout his lands, he had rocks and pillars engraved with his moral philosophy, grounded in the ideals of Buddhism, stating his revulsion of violence, including the importance of taking care of animals of all kinds. He sent his son Mahinda and daughter Sanghamitta to Sri Lanka where they converted the ruler and people to Buddhism. The Third Buddhist Council was held at his capital Pajaliputra, India, in the seventeenth year of his reign.

In 2001, Asoka, a fictional account of the emperor's life story was released on film. It was directed by Santosh Sivan and starred Shahrukh Khan and Kareena Kapoor.

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(28:44–31:18) Music Element

"Isa Lei" from A Meeting by the River, performed by Ry Cooder and V.M. Bhatt

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(31:17–33:09) Music Element

"River Song" from Hollow Bamboo, performed by Jon Hassell, Ry Cooder, and Ronu Majumbar

(31:43) First Reading from An End to Suffering

Pankaj Mishra ends An End to Suffering with the chapter "Committed to Becoming." Following is an expanded version of the reading in the program:

It was what I began to see more clearly that autumn in Mashobra: what the Buddha had stressed to the helpless people caught in the chaos of his own time: how the mind, where desire, hatred and delusion run rampant, creating the glories and defeats of the past as well as the hopes for the future, and the possibility for endless suffering, is also the place — the only one — where human beings can have full control over their lives.

The mind is where the frenzy of history arises, the confusion of concepts and of actions with unpredictable consequences. It is also where these concepts are revealed as fragile and arbitrary constructions, as essentially empty. What seems like necessity weakens in the mind's self-knowledge, and real freedom becomes tangible. This freedom lies nowhere other than in the present moment — the concrete present, the here and now, that the Buddha had affirmed over the claims of an abstract past and an illusory future. To live in the present, with a high degree of self-awareness and compassion manifested in even the smallest acts and thoughts — this sounds like a private remedy for private distress. But the deepening and ethicizing of everyday life was part of the Buddha's bold and original response to the intellectual and spiritual crisis of his time — the crisis created by the break-up of smaller societies and the loss of older moralities. In much of what he had said and done he had addressed the suffering of human beings deprived of old consolations of faith and community and adrift in a very large world full of strange new temptations and dangers.

» Enlarge the image Two Afghans sit at the based of the world's tallest standing statue of Buddha in central Bamiyan province of Afghanistan. In 2001, the ruling Taliban destroyed it with rockets, dynamite, and artillery fire. (Photo: Jean Claude-Chapon/AFP/Getty Images)

Two Afghans sit at the based of the world's tallest standing statue of Buddha in central Bamiyan province of Afghanistan. In 2001, the ruling Taliban destroyed it with rockets, dynamite, and artillery fire. (Photo: Jean Claude-Chapon/AFP/Getty Images)

(32:48) Taliban's Destruction of Buddha Statues

The image to the left shows two Afghans sitting at the base of the world's tallest standing statue of Buddha in central Bamiyan province of Afghanistan. In 2001, the ruling Taliban destroyed the statue that was erected between the second and fifth centuries with rockets, dynamite, and artillery fire. Read W.L. Rathje's article, "Why the Taliban are destroying Buddhas," to learn more about the history of the statues and the impetus behind the Taliban's razing of the historical sites.

(33:20) Warring Factions in Kashmir

After the partition of India in 1947, the region of Kashmir has been claimed by both India and Pakistan. The 1972 Line of Control border divided the region into two parts. The predominant religion in the Jammu area is Hinduism in the east and Islam in the west. Islam is also the main religion in the Kashmir valley and the Pakistan-controlled regions.

» Enlarge the image Two Afghans sit at the based of the world's tallest standing statue of Buddha in central Bamiyan province of Afghanistan. In 2001, the ruling Taliban destroyed it with rockets, dynamite, and artillery fire. (Photo: Jean Claude-Chapon/AFP/Getty Images)

Click on the map above to enlarge a map containing the latest census figures (1981) for the religious composition of Jammu and Kashmir. (Source: Kashmir Study Group)

Although the religious composition of the population has somewhat shifted since 1947, there had been a relative peace between the Hindus and Muslims of Kashmir since the 13th century when Islam emerged as a major religion in Kashmir. According to India's 1981 census (the 1998 census did not include these figures), Muslims make up 74.9 percent of the population of Kashmir, Hindus compose 22.6 percent, and Buddhists less than one percent.

(37:42) Reference to Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr is considered by many to be one of the most important American theologians of the 20th century. To learn more about Niebuhr, listen to "Moral Man and Immoral Society," a On Being program focusing on his public theology and the lessons contemporary society can glean from his thinking and writing.

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(31:17–33:09) Music Element

"Dhun In Rag Pahadi" from Saradamani, performed by V.M. Bhatt

(40:28) Mishra's Description of 9/11 Attacks

Krista cites a passage from Mishra's An End to Suffering in which he — while living in Mashobra, India — describes his thoughts during the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks:

I listened to the radio; talked on the phone to friends in New York. Terrible images arose in my mind, images that seemed to have accumulated over the last twenty years, during the several militant uprisings in India, scenes from the aftermath of the tens of thousands of murders and hundreds of suicide attacks on individuals and institutions. They obscured what I struggled to articulate to myself: that the brutality of the world I had grown up in had come to America.

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(42:47–45:20) Music Element

"Dawn: Rag Kirwani/Maqam Nahawana" from Saltanah, performed by V.M. Bhatt and Simon Shaheen

(43:21) Second Reading from An End to Suffering

In An End to Suffering, Mishra recounts how his reflection on the Buddha and the state of the world coincided with his travels to Kashmir, Pakistan, and Afghanistan:

It took me some time to sort out my own responses to all this. I knew about the corruptions of jihad; of the leaders grown fat on generous donations from foreign and local patrons, sending young men to poorly paid shahadat (martyrdom) in Kashmir and Afghanistan. But I hadn't expected to be moved by the casual sight in one madrasa of six young men sleeping on tattered sheets on the floor. I hadn't thought I would be saddened to think of the human waste they represented – the young men, whose ancestors had once built one of the greatest civilizations of the world, and who now lived in dysfunctional societies under governments beholden to, or in fear of, America, and who had little to look forward to, except possibly the short career of a suicide bomber. The other kind of future once laid out for them had failed. This was the future in which everyone in the world would wear a tie, work in an office or factory, practice birth control, raise a nuclear family, drive a car and pay taxes. There were not nearly enough secular schools to educate these young men in the ways of the modern world – and few jobs awaited those who had been educated. The forward march of history was to include only a few of them. For the rest, there would be only the elaborate illusion of progress, maintained by a thousand "aid" programs, IMF and World Bank loans, by the talk of underdevelopment, economic liberalization and democracy. But the fantasy of modernity, held up by their state, and supported by the international political and economic system, had been powerful enough to expel and uproot them from their native villages. … Having lost the protection of their old moral order, their particular bonds and forms of authority, they hoped to stave off chaos and degeneration by joining such authoritarian movements as Hindu nationalism and radical Islam, by surrendering their dreams to demagogues like Bin Laden.

(48:55) Buddhism in America

Mishra notes that many people are living out their Buddhist practice in the United States. For a small sampling of voices in our country, listen to these SOF programs in which people of all vocations discuss how their work and faith intersect: medical anthropologist Joan Halifax in "A Midwife to the Dying," police captain Cheri Maples and business consultant Larry Ward in "Brother Thây: A Radio Pilgrimage with Thich Nhat Hanh," journalist Mariane Pearl in "A Spirit of Defiance," and author Sharon Salzberg in "The Meaning of Faith."

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(42:47–45:20) Music Element

"Ganges Delta Blues" from A Meeting by the River, performed by Ry Cooder and V.M. Bhatt

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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.