An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World
Pankaj Mishra
New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004
442 pp.; $25 (cloth)

Who was the Buddha? Who was the man who left such a promising life to search for something as impossible as an end to pain? What would it have been like to reach that point—an end to suffering, a life beyond craving?

Twelve years ago, Pankaj Mishra set out to answer those questions. The quest led him from Marx and Nietzsche to a Zen retreat in California to a Muslim convention in Afghanistan sponsored by Osama bin Laden, and it involved reading a small library of philosophy and history.

An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World was worth it. It is a remarkable hybrid—travelog, history, memoir, philosophical treatise and biography. The organization is jumbled at times, with the author’s reflections on various excursions through India and Europe, for instance, followed by chapters outlining the Buddha’s view of the insubstantiality of the self and phenomena. But everything is so well researched, original, and compelling that the awkwardness seems unimportant.

The book begins after Mishra leaves college in Delhi and decides to go somewhere remote and write about the Buddha. He wasn’t Buddhist. His parents were Hindu Brahmins who had migrated from the village to the city before he was born. Early on in his education he had had no interest in the mythology and religions of his homeland, which seemed to belong to “India’s pointlessly long, sterile and largely unrecorded past.” His passions were English literature and European philosophy. He first read about, and was drawn to, the Buddha after reading about him in Nietzsche’s works and other Western writings.

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