[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'An End to Suffering': Philosopher King

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The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > 'An End to
Suffering': Philosopher King
5.2.6, first chapter appended


AN END TO SUFFERING: The Buddha in the World.
By Pankaj Mishra.
422 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.

    ONE night during the time I was reading this book, I had the odd
    experience of bumping unexpectedly into its author. At the lower
    Manhattan holiday party of a stylish magazine, I was briefly
    introduced to an owlish fellow with a Brahminical beard who smiled at
    me amid the din of a crowded sake bar. You occasionally hear of
    writers, especially when their books are of long incubation, coming to
    resemble their subjects, and my fleeting glimpse of Pankaj Mishra
    seems to offer uncanny proof of the phenomenon. For here, surely, was
    the young Siddhartha Gautama himself: a scholar-sophisticate, a
    personality both cosmopolitan and ascetic, at large and at home in the

    Such, at least, is the portrait Mishra draws of the sixth-century B.C.
    Indian princeling who would become known in his own lifetime as the
    Buddha, the enlightened one. Born in a small city on the dusty plain
    at the foot of the Himalayas, he came of age at a historical moment
    when city states and villages ruled by tribal elders were giving way
    to centralized kingdoms and empires, a transformation that brought
    with it chaotic social and cultural upheaval. Individual lives were
    suddenly subject to the whims of distant rulers; merchants, soldiers
    and itinerant preachers were all on the move. War and famine swept
    human truths, along with human lives, before them.

    The time was ripe, then, for a visionary who could explain -- and
    perhaps even cure -- some of the pain, frustration and sorrow he saw
    around him. By the time the Buddha died, at about the age of 80, he
    had preached to thousands, walked many miles across northern India,
    counseled kings and founded a civilization that would eclipse the
    great empires of his day, stretching eventually from Tibet to

    Mishra himself was born in 1969 to a displaced and dispossessed Hindu
    Brahmin family that had left its village near India's Nepalese border
    and migrated to the city. He grew up, he says, amid a society not
    unlike the one the Buddha had addressed two and a half millenniums
    earlier: one beset with dislocation and upheaval, where ''each person
    still had to bear in solitude the knowledge that the old props of
    caste and community were gone and that the awareness of being an
    individual brought both freedom and pain.''

    In 1992, fresh out of the university in Delhi, Mishra moved to a small
    Himalayan village to continue his education, to read and write and
    travel among the mountain towns and old colonial outposts. It was then
    that he began to research and write the book on Buddhism that he has
    only now completed. (In the interim, he published two other works, a
    novel and a travelogue.)

    ''An End to Suffering'' is part biography, part history, part travel
    book, part philosophic treatise. But perhaps it could best be
    described as a work of intellectual autobiography. I say
    ''intellectual'' rather than spiritual, let alone religious. Mishra is
    not a Buddhist -- he ''couldn't sit still'' long enough to meditate
    successfully -- and his story is not a narrative of conversion or a
    road map to inner peace, at least not in the expected sense. It is,
    rather, the tale of his attempts to delve into the legacy of one of
    the world's greatest philosophers.

    The Buddha, as Mishra describes him, was not a prophet -- not a
    religious figure but a secular one. Indeed, ''he had placed no value
    on prayer or belief in a deity; he had not spoken of creation,
    original sin or the last judgment.'' He likewise ignored the question
    of why sin and evil exist in the world, which has obsessed nearly
    every major religion. The Buddha's concern was purely practical: to
    relieve suffering, both material and existential. His precepts weren't
    couched as revelations from on high, delivered with the crash of
    thunder; instead they came as small quotidian insights: ''I well
    remember how once, when I was sitting in the shade of a jambu tree on
    a path between the fields. . . .''

    He was, in many senses, a modern man, maybe even the first modern man,
    because he put into words the anomie and angst that are the daily
    companions of billions of modern lives. (Perhaps it's appropriate that
    northern India, which was the birthplace of some of the world's first
    cities, should also have been a birthplace of individual identity.)
    Yet the Buddha also recognized that the only real peace could come
    from within. Despite the flickering, flamelike nature of the self, he
    found, at the center of its inconstant, all-consuming dance, something
    steady and true.

    Mishra, educated in the Western humanist tradition, first approached
    Buddhism through the medium of the Western scholars, archaeologists
    and explorers who ''discovered'' it in the early 19th century. He
    vividly evokes their slow realization that they were not dealing with
    a mythological figure -- in the 1820's, ''British scholars at the
    Asiatic Society in Calcutta still thought that the Buddha had been
    Egyptian or Ethiopian, or perhaps was another name for the Norse god
    Woden'' -- but a human being who had lived once upon a time in India,
    as real as Plato or Aristotle. Likewise, Mishra delights in finding
    echoes of Buddhist thought -- conscious or otherwise -- in the words
    of Western writers as disparate as David Hume (''The mind is a kind of
    theater'') and Oscar Wilde (''In this world there are only two
    tragedies, one of not getting what one wants, and the other of getting

    In the final chapters of ''An End to Suffering,'' Mishra leaves his
    Himalayan village and goes down into the world -- first among the
    towns and cities of India, plagued with poverty, religious strife and
    social breakdown, and then to Europe and America. Arriving in London,
    the first Western city he has ever visited, he is overwhelmed by the
    sight of commuters pouring wordlessly out of an Underground station,
    ''looking neither left nor right, as if impelled by a great inner
    panic.'' Here, it seems, is a society aching for the Buddha's balm; it
    may be no coincidence that the sage's first lay followers, in the 6th
    century B.C., were members of India's rising commercial class.

    But Buddhism, Mishra recognizes, is ''not easily practiced in the
    modern world,'' where almost everything is ''predicated on the growth
    and multiplication of desire, exactly the thing that the Buddha had
    warned against.'' In the United States, particularly, ''as Alexis de
    Tocqueville had noticed in the early 1830's, individual self-interest
    was the very basis of the brand-new commercial and industrial society
    that Europeans had created in the seemingly unlimited spaces of the
    New World.'' And yet Buddhism has taken root and flowered here.
    Perhaps, Mishra suggests, it is beginning to play -- though still in a
    small way -- the role Tocqueville foresaw for religion in America, as
    a moderating influence on society's worst excesses and strains.

    Given the scope of its ambitions, ''An End to Suffering'' could easily
    have become a disorganized ramble. But Mishra's book is in the best
    tradition of Buddhism, both dispassionate and deeply engaged,
    complicated and simple, erudite and profoundly humane.

    Adam Goodheart is the C. V. Starr Scholar at Washington College in
    Chestertown, Md.
First Chapter: 'An End to Suffering'


    The days were shortening with intimations of winter when I returned
    from the inner Himalayas to Mashobra. When spring came, and the roads
    cleared, I began to travel to the Spiti and Pin valleys. There, in the
    lonely cold deserts, speckled wherever the snow melted into streams
    with green oases of pea and barley fields, and watched over by hilltop
    monasteries of sun-baked bricks, I saw many more images of the Buddha.
    I visited Tabo, and found the oldest monastery in the region still
    full of lamas, as jaunty in their maroon robes as the prayer flags
    fluttering from electric poles in the treeless expanses.

    I came to recognize the colourful murals and to understand somewhat
    the symbolism of the mystical circular diagrams (mandalas) on the wall
    hangings. I could spot from afar the distinctive shape of the gompas,
    or Buddhist monasteries; and although I felt excluded by the faith
    they expressed, about which I knew little then, I came to value them
    for their solitude and distance from the known world.

    I was intrigued, too, by the monks, their childlike simplicity,
    cheerfulness and serenity. I attributed these qualities to the plain
    and undemanding world the monks lived in, until I found out that some
    of them had travelled to, and spent time in, Europe and America. One
    of them had studied in a monastery near Lhasa for about twenty years;
    I was surprised to know that his subjects had been logic,
    epistemology, cosmology, psychology and ethics as expounded in
    Buddhist texts written in India as early as the second century AD.

    I began to write a travel essay, in which I tried to record my
    surprise at finding traces of Buddhism in these remote Himalayan
    valleys. I wrote about the other kind of Indian Buddhists I had met
    before: they were Dalits, low-caste Hindus, millions of whom had
    converted to Buddhism since the 1950s in an attempt to escape an
    oppressively caste-ridden Hinduism. I tried to describe how these
    politically active Buddhists, who did not appear to take much interest
    in spiritual matters, differed from the monks in the Himalayan

    The small bookshop on the Mall in Simla was well stocked with books in
    English on Buddhism - in expectation, the owner told me, of the
    European and American tourists who came looking for writing on
    spiritual figures and themes, and often travelled from Simla to the
    hill town of Dharamshala, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan
    community in exile.

    One of the books I found there was an English translation of the
    Milindapanha (Questions of King Menander), which I had seen mentioned
    as a basic text of Buddhist philosophy in an essay by the Argentinian
    writer Jorge Luis Borges. King Menander was a Greek who reigned in
    north-west India, now Pakistan, in the first or second century BC. He
    is said to be among the rulers of the time who embraced, or was at
    least familiar with, Buddhism. The book, which was preserved in Ceylon
    for centuries, consists of Menander's conversations with an elderly
    Buddhist monk called Nagasena.

    Their dialogue on the individual self, which drew explicitly upon the
    Buddha's ideas, had particularly struck Borges. It begins with
    Menander asking Nagasena his name. Nagasena says that his name is
    'only a generally understood term, a practical designation. There is
    no question of a permanent individual implied in the use of the word.'

    Menander replies, 'If there is no permanent individuality, who gives
    you monks your robes and food, lodging and medicines? And who makes
    use of them? Who lives a life of righteousness, meditation and reaches
    Nirvana? Who destroys living beings, steals, fornicates, tells lies,
    or drinks spirits? ... If your fellow monks call you Nagasena, what
    then is Nagasena? Would you say that your hair is Nagasena? Or your
    nails, teeth, skin, or other parts of your body, or the outward form,
    or sensation, or perception, or the psychic constructions, or
    consciousness? Are any of these Nagasena? Are all these taken together
    Nagasena? Or, anything other than they?'

    Nagasena answers no to all of Menander's questions.

    Menander says, 'Then for all my asking I find no Nagasena. Nagasena is
    a mere sound! Surely what your reverence has said is false!'

    Nagasena now takes over the questioning. He asks Menander, 'Your
    Majesty, how did you come here - on foot, or in a vehicle?'

    Menander replies, 'In a chariot.'

    'Then tell me,' Nagasena asks, 'what is the chariot? Is the pole the

    'No, your reverence,' Menander replies.

    'Or the axles, wheels, frame, reins, yoke, spokes, or goad?'

    Menander replies that none of these things is the chariot.

    'Then all these separate parts taken together are the chariot?'

    Menander again says no.

    'Then is the chariot something other than the separate parts?'

    'No, your reverence,' Menander says.

    'Then for all my asking, your Majesty,' Nagasena says, 'I can find no
    chariot. The chariot is a mere sound. What then is the chariot? Surely
    what your Majesty has said is false! There is no chariot!'

    Menander protests that what he had said was not false. 'It is on
    account of all these various components, the pole, axle, wheels and so
    on, that the vehicle is called a chariot. It's just a generally
    understood term, a practical designation.'

    'Well said, your Majesty!' Nagasena replies. 'You know what the word
    chariot means! And it's just the same with me. It's on account of the
    various components of my being that I am known by the generally
    understood term, the practical designation, Nagasena.'

    There were many such clear and simple exchanges in the book,
    illustrating the Buddhist view of individual identity as a construct,
    a composite of matter, form, perceptions, ideas, instincts and
    consciousness, but without an unchanging unity or integrity.

    'I think, therefore I am,' Descartes had said; and when I first came
    across these famous words as an undergraduate they expressed all that
    then seemed holy to me: individuality, the life of the mind. It was
    comforting to believe that the human mind was capable of acting
    rationally, logically and freely upon the inert outside world. I was
    attracted, too, by the idea of the authentic self, which I had picked
    up from the French existentialist philosophers, who for some reason
    were very popular in India. These descriptions of the self - as a
    discrete entity shaped through rational thought and act - helped
    offset the uncertainties (financial, emotional, sexual) that I lived
    with then.

    But the dialogue between the Greek king and the Buddhist monk seemed
    to refute intellectually the Cartesian I', by implying that one cannot
    speak of a separate self or mind thinking 'I think' inside the body,
    inasmuch as this self is nothing but a series of thoughts. It
    suggested that the `I' was not a stable and autonomous entity and
    indeed was no more than a convenient label for the provisional
    relations among its constantly changing physical and mental parts. It
    also matched better my experience: of finding incoherence where there
    was supposed to be a self, of being led on by stray thoughts, memories
    and moods, and thinking that nothing existed beyond that flux.

    I read other books. I learned quickly that although Buddhism often had
    the trappings of a formal religion - rituals and superstitions - in
    the countries where it existed, it was unlike other religions in that
    it was primarily a rigorous therapy and cure for duhkha, the Sanskrit
    term denoting pain, frustration and sorrow. The Buddha, which means
    'the enlightened one', was not God, or His emissary on earth, but the
    individual who had managed to liberate himself from ordinary human
    suffering, and then, out of compassion, had shared his insights with
    others. He had placed no value on prayer or belief in a deity; he had
    not spoken of creation, original sin or the last judgement.

    He had spoken instead of a suffering that was manmade and thus
    eradicable. He had confined himself to human beings living everyday
    lives with desire, attachment, pride, jealousy and hatred. He had
    analysed the workings of these emotions and asserted that they arise
    from a craving for and an attachment to a self that has no true
    existence. He had developed analytic and contemplative techniques
    which helped prove that neither the self nor the phenomenal world are
    solid, stable and discrete entities, and which attuned the human mind
    to 'things as they really are': interconnected and in a state of

    The Buddha was, broadly speaking, an empiricist who denied that there
    are any fixed substances underlying appearances; this is true as much
    for what one feels to be one's inner self or ego as for the outer
    world. He claimed that experience, rather than speculative
    metaphysics, holds the key to wisdom. He assumed that the quality of
    all human experience depends on the mind and so had been concerned
    with analysing and transforming the individual mind. To see that one
    was neither identical with one's thoughts as they arose continuously
    and discursively in one's mind, generating desire, anxiety, fear and
    guilt, nor indeed limited by them, was to be aware of the possibility
    of controlling them and of moving towards a new kind of spiritual and
    intellectual freedom.

    Clearly, the Buddha had been more of a trenchant thinker and
    psychologist than a religious figure. He, and later interpreters of
    his ideas, had investigated in detail the contents of human
    consciousness; they had located in it a quality of will which when
    strengthened through meditation can become an effective barrier
    against craving and suffering.

    But, reading the often very abstract and difficult Buddhist treatises
    on the mind, I often wondered why the Buddha, ostensibly the founder
    of a religion, had concerned himself with this kind of close and dry
    analysis of the inner world of experience; why had he not extended his
    analysis to the external world, tried to establish clear, distinct and
    certain foundations for knowledge, and founded, like Descartes, a
    tradition of scientific enquiry? Certainly Buddhism with its rational
    outlook was immune to the kind of conflict between religion and
    science that defined modern western philosophy.

    It seemed that the Buddha had had other priorities and that he had
    been concerned almost exclusively with the inescapable fact of
    suffering. But here, too, he seemed to differ radically from the
    intellectual fathers of the modern world, Rousseau, Hobbes and Marx.
    For he had presumed to offer a cure for human suffering that did not
    involve large-scale restructuring of state and society.

    Mr Sharma, whom I told about my growing interest in the Buddha,
    couldn't say much about this. He had taken to dropping in more often
    than before, and he appeared to have loosened up a bit. He told me
    more about his life. He had grown up in a village near Simla, among
    apple and pear orchards. He had spent no time at all on the plains; he
    spoke with something like pride of how his few visits there had proved
    to be ordeals. When he spoke of the Himalayas as a place of exile and
    refuge, when he told me about the nearby regions which the Pandava
    brothers in the Mahabharata had visited thousands of years ago, he
    seemed to be speaking not so much of the myths of the race - the idea
    of the Indian plains with their relentless heat and dust as a trap -
    as of his own life.

    He had never married; family life with its obligations was, he said,
    not for him. But he seemed not altogether at ease in his self-imposed
    solitude. I wondered if he sometimes resented it, and wished, like
    everyone else, that he could have had another, more active and
    fruitful life, far away from the small place where he had spent, and
    was now to end, his life.

    He seemed a bit puzzled by my interest in the Buddha. He said that
    Dalits, low-caste Hindus, who had converted to Buddhism thinking it to
    be something opposed to Hinduism, had dragged the Buddha's name
    through mud. For the Buddha was actually the tenth incarnation of the
    Hindu God Vishnu, and had emerged from the mouth of Brahma, and
    therefore was part of rather than opposed to the Hindu tradition.

    I told him that this was more myth than history. The Buddha may have
    emerged metaphorically from the mouth of Brahma, but the evidence
    collected by British scholars in the nineteenth century had proved
    that he had also been a flesh-and-blood being, a figure no less
    historical than Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed, and, furthermore, that
    he had lived and died not far from where we were. I also told Mr
    Sharma that I had been to the Buddha's birthplace in Nepal and seen
    the iron pillar erected there by Ashoka, the third-century BC Indian

    * * *

    The Buddha's birthplace is called Lumbini, and is just north of the
    vast Indian plain across which the great rivers of the subcontinent,
    the Ganges and the Yamuna, flow. The legends of the Buddha speak of it
    being close to the Himalayan foothills. This gives the place romance:
    tall mountains and waterfalls and pine forests as the backdrop to the
    Buddha's luxurious childhood.

    But when you finally get there - after a long, arduous journey within
    either India or Nepal - the high mountains to the north are no more
    than a rumour; at best, an added chill in the winter breezes, and a
    faint swelling on the horizon on clear spring days. The feeling of
    being exposed in the vast flat land never leaves you, especially in
    the summer when, after weeks of blistering heat, whirlwinds of fine
    dust and dry leaves scatter across the exhausted rice fields and the
    huddled villages of mud and straw.

    Occasionally, there are clusters of mango and tamarind trees and
    ponds: oases of shade and cool, where the physical world regains form
    and colour. The land that looks so parched grows quickly green after
    the first rains of the monsoons in late June or early July. Two months
    of monsoons impose an unruly lushness upon it. But the endless rain
    wearies; the prickly heat saps energy; and the rivers and streams
    often burst their banks, turning the earth into obdurate mud. It is
    only during the months from October to March that the weather stops
    being punitive. All day long a mellow light falls gently over the busy
    fields and the villages from a tenderly blue sky. The evenings are
    short, and the nights often chilly.

    In 1985, when I visited Lumbini, I was sixteen years old. I had just
    left home for the first time and was living as a student in Allahabad,
    one of the emerging urban centres of the Buddha's time and now a
    decaying old provincial city in the Gangetic plain. I travelled
    cheaply and very slowly, on trains pulled by steam engines and country
    buses and, once, on a ferry over a dangerously swollen muddy river,
    passing through the places that the Buddha as a young scion called
    Siddhartha had dreamed of visiting.


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