An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World
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.
After college, he rejected the usual professional route of law or business, and in the book’s prologue we find him headed for the Himalayas with the intention of writing. He rides a bus to Simla, a mountain resort popular with nineteenth-century British colonials, expecting to see a place like the romantic images he’d gotten from novels. Instead, he finds a tacky commercial tourist city. On the way home, though, the bus stops at a rural village where he finds exactly what he was looking for—a rustic mountain cottage for rent.
There, Mishra attempts to write, but he spends more time daydreaming on his balcony gazing at the Himalayan peaks or staring at the coals in his little room. On walks to town, he pores through the dusty volumes written by Colonial administrators and explorers, containing their confused early descriptions of the Buddha, who was basically unknown to the West before the nineteenth century. Because the concept of “Buddhism” didn’t exist in India or surrounding lands, Europeans generally assumed that the Buddha they discovered in old texts and monastic ruins was another Hindu god.
Mishra visits Lumbini, the Buddha’s birthplace, accompanied by a friend, a roue who entertained a parade of prostitutes in his college rooms. The friend confides in him about the family’s dark secret—his sister was murdered by her husband and in-laws. She had married above herself, and the family could do nothing about it. Over the years, during Mishra’s travels reporting on terrorists in Pakistan and during a lonely visit to London, he encounters many other examples of the suffering that the Buddha set out to alleviate.
The Buddha, Mishra tells us, was born into a time of great—and familiar-sounding—social and economic upheaval. Small kingdoms, like Kapilavastu, where the Buddha was born and raised, were being invaded by larger, newly powerful city-states, and inhabitants of long-settled villages were being driven into unknown territories. In the Buddha’s lifetime, a clan of his relatives was thrown into pits by conquerors and trampled by elephants. As Mishra alternates between memoir and his account of the Buddha’s time, the similarities become hauntingly apparent.
It’s not surprising then, that in exploring the Buddha so thoroughly, Mishra winds up revealing more about himself and his own times. Some might question a Buddha who seems so modern, and one who is described as experiencing anxiety, hope, and fear well after his enlightenment. But the Buddha was renowned for his ability to vary his teachings to benefit different audiences, and he obviously has much to say about modern suffering. An End to Suffering has a rich, large feel and gives a sweeping sense of history. The Buddha, it is clear, can speak to the mess we are in now, and his message is rare: it is intended to help and almost certainly will if we are able to hear it.
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