[Paleopsych] New Statesman: Review of An End to Suffering: the Buddha in the world

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An End to Suffering: the Buddha in the world 
Monday 8th November 2004

An End to Suffering: the Buddha in the world 
Pankaj Mishra Picador, 422pp, £17.99
ISBN 0374148368
Reviewed by Edward Skidelsky

    On receiving this book, I casually assigned it to the shadowy category
    of "oriental wisdom", a category familiar to me from the likes of
    Idries Shah and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. I later regretted this lazy
    presumption. An End to Suffering is entirely free from the cliches of
    eastern spirituality. It is a disengaged, highly intelligent account
    of a young writer's growing interest in Buddhism, interspersed with
    many fascinating observations about modern India and the west. These
    observations in fact constitute the book's main subject, the theme of
    Buddhism being little more than a string on which to thread them.
    Pankaj Mishra grew up in a high-caste but poor Hindu family in the
    1970s and 1980s. He quickly freed himself from his parents'
    traditional piety, finding an alternative source of inspiration in the
    great European novelists and philosophers. Hindu scriptures he
    dismissed as belonging to India's "long, sterile and largely
    unrecorded past". The west - that of Gustave Flaubert, S0ren
    Kierkegaard and, above all, Friedrich Nietzsche - absorbed his
    youthful dreams.
    Yet Mishra is unable to find anything in the "cruel, garish world of
    middle-class India" that corresponds to the idealised west of his
    imagination. When finally he travels to London, his disappointment is
    only heightened. His alienated descriptions of contemporary England -
    a land "overlaid with broad concrete strips on which cars glide with
    toy-like precision" - are among the best things in the book. Here is a
    society "so prodigiously organised for expansion and consumption" that
    it can absorb "even the few individuals who once stood opposed to it".
    The life of a young London woman, with its desultory romances, leaves
    him dismayed. If this is the promised end of history, then history is
    a process without meaning.
    Mishra's alienation is twofold. He is an outcast from the traditions
    of his own society, yet unable to embrace the rhetoric of progress
    that once inspired men such as Vivekananda and Jawaharlal Nehru.
    Buddhism alone speaks to his predicament. It is, on the one hand, a
    resolutely "post-traditional" religion, finding no meaning in the
    rituals and dogmas of Hinduism or any other historical faith. Yet at
    the same time it counsels against grandiose schemes of political
    redemption, and against the endless multiplication of desire that
    constitutes modern capitalism. It is thus ideally suited to those who
    find themselves stranded, like Mishra, between past and future,
    between tradition and modernity. The impulse drawing Mishra to
    Buddhism is at root identical to that of Arthur Schopenhauer and many
    other Europeans and Americans following him. It is disenchantment with
    History, the Moloch of the modern world. Although initially suspicious
    of the fakeness of so much western Buddhism, Mishra eventually comes
    to view it with sympathy and respect. It is one of the many ironies of
    this book that Buddhism should return to India through the mediation
    of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Kerouac.
    Mishra is an earnest, intelligent writer, bringing to his subject
    something of the intensity of the 19th-century Russians. Yet his prose
    can be stiff, with a bookish, obligatory quality, which suggests that
    he has not yet fully overcome his outsider's awkwardness. His
    explanations of Buddhist teaching are clear but textbook; his
    descriptions of nature, although presumably sincere, are somewhat
    "literary" in feel. Mishra's writing really springs to life when he is
    describing his alienation from Indian and western society. It is these
    moments of disillusionment and withdrawal which best capture his
    All of which suggests that Mishra's interest in Buddhism is more
    negative than positive, more a matter of repulsion from than
    attraction to. But perhaps this negativity is inherent in Buddhism - a
    religion founded, as the title implies, on the hope of putting "an end
    to suffering". Mishra observes, surely correctly, that much of the
    west's obsession with the Buddhist "void" is simply a projection of
    its own death-romanticism. Yet it cannot be denied that Buddhism, in
    contrast to the main western religions, is essentially a via negativa.
    Mishra quotes the words of Buddha to his female disciple Vishakha, who
    visits him one day with her sari and hair wet from a purification
    bath. She explains that a beloved granddaughter has just died. Hearing
    that she wishes for many more sons and grandchildren, the Buddha
    wonders if she will ever be without wet hair and clothes. And he says:
    "Whoever holds a hundred things dear has a hundred causes of suffering
    . . . but whoever holds nothing dear has no suffering . . . they are
    free from sorrow, free from despair." There is nothing quite like this
    in Judaism or Christianity, and it is bound to strike many western
    readers as chilling.
    Nietzsche, who features throughout this book, was less sympathetic to
    Buddhism than Mishra admits. Although preferring it to Christianity,
    he none the less saw it as the product of an old, exhausted
    civilisation. Whether or not this judgement is true of Buddhism in its
    original form, it certainly seems to capture an important aspect of
    its contemporary appeal. For Mishra and many others, Buddhism fills
    the vacuum created by the collapse of religious and political hopes.
    It is appropriate that it should find its home in California, a land
    fulfilling what Nietzsche specified as the preconditions of Buddhism:
    "a very mild climate, very gentle and liberal customs, no militarism;
    and . . . it is the higher and even learned classes in which the
    movement has its home". The oldest of the world religions has, by a
    curious irony, proved itself the most adaptable to the end of history.

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