[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
By ADAM GOODHEART
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
First Chapter: 'An End to Suffering'
By PANKAJ MISHRA
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
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
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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