The Buddha’s Cure

Pico Iyer – The New York Review of Books

Note: I’ve talked extensively about this beautiful book in the Reading Table section and elsewhere. hf
Pankaj Mishra
An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World
by Pankaj Mishra
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,422 pp., $25.00
In his new book, Free World, Timothy Garton Ash remembers the friends he had behind the Iron Curtain who used to tell him, “We are the West trapped in the East.” There are many kinds of East, as Garton Ash quickly acknowledges, and yet sometimes they seem to be linked by this theme of imprisonment and what arises out of it, a longing for enlightenment and liberation (in a secular form). We in the West have watched for years would-be refugees going off to find—or lose— themselves in India, or in a Buddhist monastery, eager to absorb the “wisdom of the East.” Yet what’s awaiting them at the other end, increasingly, is people hungering for the wisdom of the West.
The West, for those far away, means a haven of modern thinking, reason, and clear-headedness, qualities not always apparent at home, and a refuge from ritualism and superstition; those who long for it are Occidentalists in a hopeful sense. And though such admirers are to be found in every traditional or impoverished culture, they are especially conspicuous in countries such as India, where centuries of British rule have left many people thinking of London or Oxford as the natural culmination of their ambitions, social or intellectual. Nirad Chaudhuri was able to complete his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, in some sense, by moving to North Oxford; V.S. Naipaul, though growing up far from Asia, began to take an interest in his Eastern and colonial roots only after he had established himself in England, and felt he could bring a Western sense of history and critical inquiry to his often disheveled homelands. The note of sorrow and even bitterness one increasingly hears in his work comes in part from his sense that, having arrived at last in the West, he finds it crumbling all around him.
Pankaj Mishra is the latest distinctive heir to this tradition, and his deepest theme is how the dream of the West at once inspires and confounds a hopeful young man in small-town India who longs to escape the “cruel, garish world of middle-class India” and to remake himself, much as Naipaul has done, through books and reflective wanderings alone. Mishra’s first book, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (1995), describes his travels around a provincial India where a new video-and-Vegas culture is creating a bumptious bourgeoisie that has taken in the latest toys from the West, but has no sense of how to use them. His first novel, The Romantics, in 2000, brought the theme closer to home by describing an Indian student in Benares, his head full of Flaubert and Turgenev, watching, in bewilderment and with mingled wonder and disappointment, the Western visitors around him picking up and dropping philosophies and partners with an ease unimaginable to him. These drifters look nothing like the people he has met in the pages of Edmund Wilson or Schopenhauer; more hauntingly, though having had the benefits of Enlightenment cultures, they seem lost themselves, confused and disenchanted. The book is moving because it shows us the passage to the East as it looks from the other side of the fence, Siddhartha, you could say, as it might seem to one who looks for the answer to life’s riddles to Germany.
In An End to Suffering Mishra carries his quest further by recounting his reflections, over a dozen years, on the Buddha. The Buddha has obvious appeal to him as a fellow rebel against the abstractions and corruptions of the Hinduism of his day, spurning the unending speculations of Brahmins who tell those of a less fortunate caste that karma means their fate is fixed, and their duty is to defer to Brahmins. The Buddha, though entirely Eastern by origin, provides an example, in fact, of the very qualities that Mishra has long admired in the West: reason, rigor, and the power of the mind (Buddhism can more easily be called a highly empirical “science of mind” than a religion). In his account of the Buddha’s life, Mishra presents us with a restless young seeker who becomes almost a model of roaming meditation and unflinching self-inquiry. Not the least of the ironies that lie behind this deeply serious and thoughtful book is that perhaps the greatest philosopher the Indian subcontinent has ever produced is increasingly fashionable in India because he is regarded as an icon of the West.
An End to Suffering is, in effect, three different books woven together: a searching account of the author’s own coming of intellectual age; a patient and meticulous retelling of the Buddha’s life and philosophy; and an attempt to place the Buddha in the setting of Western thought, from Plato to Borges. In other hands, such an ambitious mosaic might seem like two books too many, and there are times when Mishra’s efforts to connect almost everything in his life, from his travels in Kashmir to his talk with the brother of Gandhi’s assassin to the precedent set by the Buddha, can seem strained. But he is the rare writer who is at ease as a historian, philosopher, traveler, and memoirist, and the combination of roles allows him to produce a book that few others could even have attempted.
Readers of The Romantics will recall that Mishra can evoke an earnest young Indian’s experience of his world with uncommon beauty and plangency, and his account begins with a heartfelt description of how, in flight from the chaos and confusion of urban India, he settled, many years ago, in a tiny village in the hills of northern India “facing the empty blue valley and remote mountain peaks in the north.” There, with nothing for company but his books and his own thoughts, he set about excavating the Buddha’s history and identity, in part, perhaps, to help acquire a sense of history and identity himself. To recover a past, it could seem, might be the first step to charting a future.
Mishra’s strength in such passages lies in his ease with his own vulnerability, his readiness to present himself as questing, uncertain, full of hopes for the West that the West is unlikely to fulfill. He responds to the Buddha as one who questions everything, even the mind and the world we think we know; but he also turns this questioning spirit on the Buddha, asking how his ideas for individual transformation can help the social order, and how much they merely encourage the unfortunate to accept their lot in life.
Most Indian writers now prominent in the West—Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, and Amitav Ghosh, for example —were educated and have long resided in the West; Mishra’s work gains particular force from the fact that he grew up entirely in India, in a railway town “that had no bookshop or library,” the son of an improvident Brahmin family displaced by Independence. His father, he writes, grew up “several hours away by bullock cart on an unpaved road” from the institutions of British India, and his own story (as the dust jacket of the Random House edition of The Romantics describes his fictional character Samar) is that of the “classic young man from the provinces, propelled by curiosity and passion beyond his comprehension.”
Many scenes in the new book are strikingly similar to those in his novel (fiction and nonfiction seeming to flow together in Mishra as a single insistent attempt to resolve questions of belonging). He gives us an articulate college friend, and a return to the friend’s home village; Western women flirt with Eastern traditions, as if unsure of whether it’s exoticism or wisdom they’re after; there is a description of the Sunday morning Brahminical rites of the narrator’s father, reminding the son of how estranged from his ancestors he is; and the young man takes himself off to a quiet village in the hills (in The Romantics, this is Dharamsala). In both books, the wish to find a voice of one’s own in cacophonous India, and to understand a West that exists mostly in one’s head, has a special urgency for a young man who cannot be confident that he will ever travel farther than Nepal.
Anyone who has been to India knows how calm and settled its mountain communities can seem after the swarming intensity of the plains, and Mishra evokes with perfectly modulated lyricism a world few of us have seen from within, describing the rhythms of daily life in Mashobra (population 2,000), where he savors at last the luxurious phrase he’d met only in books: “I read all morning.” You can feel the meditative quiet and seclusion of his surroundings, “the soft bells of the old English church” chiming in the distance, and much as Naipaul in his Enigma of Arrival evokes a landlord next to his solitary cottage who comes to stand for imperial anomie and decline, so Mishra, in what could be called The Enigma of Transit, describes a landlord, Mr. Sharma, who, in his lonely scholarship and air of unfulfillment, embodies for the young writer the destiny he wishes to escape.
It is central to Mishra’s story that we owe the rescue of the Buddha from complete obscurity to Europeans: it was Europeans, he tells us, who invented the very word “Buddhism,” around 1820 (though he doesn’t tell us, as Karen Armstrong does in her recent biography of the Buddha,[*] that in the nineteenth century many scholars believed the Buddha himself was an invention of Buddhism), and it was European amateurs who worked hard to recover texts that had been lost and even to dig up the Deer Park at Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his first discourse. To Hindus like Mr. Sharma, we learn, the Buddha is just another local god, a figure of legend more than of history; Buddhism for them is in any case often a refuge for low-caste Hindus who wish to escape the hierarchy into which they were born (in 1956, more than 300,000 Dalits, or “Untouchables,” converted to Buddhism in a single stroke, to get rid of their dead-end status). For Mishra, as for Hegel, Indians are sunk in a “magic somnambulic sleep”; as recently as the nineteenth century, he tells us, many British scholars thought the Buddha was Egyptian or even Ethiopian, so forgotten was he in the region of his birth.
It’s possible at times to hear an intelligent young man’s impatience with his surroundings in some of this: Mishra’s India sounds as hostile to self-realization and ambition as the bourgeois Germany of many of the novels of Hermann Hesse. When The Romantics came out, some readers in India pointed out that in its very first paragraph its Indian author alluded to Benares as the “holiest of pilgrimage sites that Hindus for millennia have visited,” a little as if an American writer were to call New York in one of his books “the dynamic commercial center that many Americans dream of visiting.” Their fear that his work was aimed principally at a foreign audience was quickened by the fact that a major figure of fascination in the book is actually called Miss West. Yet Mishra is poignantly alert to the insufficiencies of the West, and he unfolds his narrative with such candor and such modesty that it soon becomes evident that self-definition is a matter of real importance to him.
All of us create a Buddha (or any icon) out of our own needs, perhaps, and Mishra’s Siddhartha is very much a creature of the head more than the heart, a solitary, displaced traveler a little like himself. In place of the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am” (as Armstrong also notes), the Buddha radically cut through virtually all our conventional concepts of being and selfhood, to the point where “I” and “think” and even “am” all cease to exist. One of the striking achievements of An End to Suffering is its careful and lucid attempt to set the French notion of Enlightenment against the Buddhist one. In Europe, after all, the Enlightenment was a matter of philosophers offering new visions of society; in the case of the Buddha, typically, it refers only to the individual learning to still the mind, to go beyond the place where systems and theories of all kinds exist, and so see through the mind, in every sense.
Like most other writers, Mishra presents the Buddha as more physician than metaphysician, a deeply pragmatic soul simply concerned with easing the burden of suffering. A large part of his liberation came in the man’s very modesty; he was, he stressed, not an exceptional being; he had no special powers; he was just an ordinary person, doing what any ordinary person can do if so he applies himself. “Mere faith in what the guru says isn’t enough,” he always insisted, in Mishra’s paraphrase (much as his most visible follower in the world today, the Dalai Lama, does even now). “Be your own refuge” was the heart of his doctrine. “Seek no other refuge.”
Karen Armstrong begins her recent biography of the Buddha by saying that “there is not a single incident in the scriptures that we can honestly affirm to be historically true”; and yet, like Mishra, she describes the Aryan culture of small towns and wandering ascetics into which the Buddha was born, six centuries before the birth of Christ, and emphasizes that there was a “spiritual hunger” abroad then, rising from “a widespread malaise and bewilderment resulting from the change and upheaval that urbanization brought with it.”
The comparisons with our own time are evident, both for her and for Mishra (and as Mishra does, Armstrong finds correspondences with the Buddha’s ideas in Hume). Where Mishra goes beyond Armstrong is in attempting to see how the Buddha’s life can throw special light on his own; he approaches the story not as a scholar, or as one who feels any need to call himself a Buddhist, but as a thinker, moved by the Buddha’s almost scientific program of self-discovery. “I had never been religious-minded,” he writes at one point. “I didn’t think that mystical self-absorption was the best way to approach an objective historical reality, [but] I began to meditate, thinking that it might somehow help me understand the Buddha.” There is little in his book of the radiance and uplift of Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, or Andrew Harvey’s A Journey in Ladakh, two enduring general introductions to Buddhism in practice; and yet in their place Mishra’s book has a depth and deliberation that earn our trust.
Mishra’s larger aim is to put the Buddha in the setting of Western thought, as if to resolve the breach in himself between Western learning and Eastern circumstance, and, with his erudition and range, he is able to tell us that Wagner planned to write an opera on the Buddha, Rilke carried a small bust of the Buddha around with him, Einstein called Buddhism the religion of the future (since it was compatible with science, refusing to hold to what could not be empirically proved), and Claude Lévi-Strauss said that all that he had learned and thought was no more than was found by the “Sage at the foot of the tree.” Many of the freshest pages in the book offer striking correspondences between the Buddha’s ideas and those of Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius, even Adam Smith and Montaigne. Perhaps the central figure among such thinkers is Nietzsche, who saw early on that the fading of the Christian god might propel people toward a rational philosopher from the East who proposed a struggle against suffering rather than a struggle against sin. Buddhism, for Nietzsche, “is a hundred times more realistic than Christianity—it has the heritage of a cool and objective posing of problems of its composition, it arrives after a philosophical movement lasting hundreds of years; the concept ‘God’ is already abolished by the time it arrives.”
At times, these comparisons can seem abrupt (“like Rousseau, the Buddha disliked selfishness, and upheld the value of compassion”), and I was reminded of the Dalai Lama pointing out, as he often does, that, though the Buddha and Marx have much in common, it is the differences between them that are ultimately more important: they can no more see eye to eye than a man looking at his thought processes and one staring at a factory. The intellectual history in An End to Suffering is impressive, but never quite so moving as the single image of Samar in The Romantics (though it could be Mishra) wistfully admiring a postcard picture of Proust on his windowsill in a dusty Indian town.
In the second half of the book Mishra discusses myriad figures from the history of civilization and thought, from Alexander the Great, through the Emperor Ashoka, to Tagore, and sometimes the names go by in a blur. At one point, for example, of his dream of being a writer not bound by India’s past, he writes:
That ambition was inseparable from the modern bourgeois civilization of the West; and from my earliest days as a reader I had sought, consciously or not, my guides and inspirations in its achievements—in the novels of Flaubert, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Proust; the music of Brahms and Schubert; the self-reckonings of Emerson, Thoreau and Nietzsche, and the polemics of Kierkegaard and Marx.
It was clear from the works of these men that to be a writer was to engage rationally with, rather than retreat from, the world; it was to concern oneself particularly with the fate of the individual in society.
In fact, if anything is clear in Emerson and Thoreau, it is that they deliberately chose to see the individual and society as entirely separate; the individual, for them, could find his self only outside conventional society. Indeed, both “Self-Reliance” and “Civil Disobedience,” like almost everything they wrote, seem to argue that to be a writer is not to engage with the world, but to make a better life outside of it. In any case, 203 pages later, Mishra writes, “The individual figures I had admired in India—Montaigne, Flaubert, Proust, Tolstoy, Emerson, Nietzsche—[were] people who had been marginal within their own societies, alienated from, and often actively opposed to, their main political and economic tendencies.” (Other readers may alight on the word “men” in that first excerpt, and note that there are no traces of George Eliot or Virginia Woolf cited here to illuminate the Buddha’s thought.)
As his personal story draws to an end, Mishra describes, touchingly again, how he arrived in London at long last, found work as a broadcaster and writer, and yet, attaining the place he had always dreamed of, found himself strangely unsatisfied, homesick even, much like the Western seekers he had observed in Benares. He travels to America, happily unencumbered for him by expectation, and even goes through an extended Buddhist retreat near San Francisco. Amid the violent nationalisms that he has witnessed from Afghanistan to India, Mishra turns more than ever to the Buddha for his concentration on the mind alone as the place where we can control our own destinies, free of ideologies or received ideas; unlike most philosophers, after all, the Buddha not only diagnosed the world’s delusions, but offered a solution to them to which all of us have access.
But the book is really Mishra’s story rather than the Buddha’s, and at its best it gives the so-called “clash of civilizations” an inward and urgent intensity. For millions today the conflicts of East and West are matters far from abstract, as they find themselves tugged one way by their traditions, which may seem increasingly moribund, the other by modern technologies and institutions that seem foreign and often menacing.
There are times here when a reader may feel the shadow of V.S. Naipaul, the secular master of solitary wandering and unsparing introspection, hang quite heavily over Mishra’s writing. Here is the same impatience with would-be revolutionaries, the fascination with historical travelers at the expense of contemporary ones, and, most of all, the search for self in a culture that is seen as having lost all contact with itself and with its history.
But Mishra’s very willingness to practice meditation in his little cottage, the tenderness he brings to lost Westerners whom Naipaul is more apt to see in terms of pride and humiliation, his very interest in the Buddha (where Naipaul has reposed his faith at times in a distinctly secular vision of human civilization) all show that he can go where the older writer has not. Indeed, the place that Mishra and others of his generation have found in the cultural conversation of the West is to some extent the result of what Naipaul and his contemporaries achieved. When Naipaul and R.K. Narayan, Derek Walcott and Samuel Selvon were beginning to make their way in English letters, there were few precedents for them; the weight of colonialism was felt firsthand; and when Naipaul, for example, left Trinidad, he could not be sure he would ever see his family again. Now history has moved so quickly that the West is ever more hungry for voices from the East.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *