Saturday, June 20, 2009

Pankaj Mishra's "An End to Suffering": Book Review

It's a triple convergence: a Northern Indian writer's coming of age, an account of the Buddha from the same region from whence his followers were eradicated or assimilated centuries ago, and an attempt to align Buddhist philosophy within a Western, secular framework. Mishra's worked hard on this book, but it feels as if its penultimate draft. His reflections, however, may inspire readers towards insights that transcend the clichéd East-meets-West recitals indulged in by many who write about India.

Mishra sums up with equal facility the thoughts of the historical Buddha and Nietzsche; he compares David Hume's warnings about happiness bound too closely to suffering with the Four Noble Truths of dharma. He explores secularism's appeal with Marx and sets this against Vaclav Havel's caution. He integrates a survey of dharma within subcontinental unrest among his compatriots. Encouraged by modernism, his father's post-independence peers broke with tradition, but their heirs face a steep climb towards material success-- already gained by millions of Westerners who've reached the top already. In his Himalayan retreat, Mishra reads and writes, trying to become a journalist and thinker, separating himself from his humble roots yet resenting those who, like a blonde Sausalito scion, seem to parade before his native gaze their Buddhism and their immersion into the customs of his homeland as if "indulging their privilege."

This tension permeates Mishra's analysis, and enriches what strives to be a presentation of Buddhist contexts, Indian culture, and Western ideas. It's an uneven blend, but there's nourishment in these ingredients. Still, you never grasp fully why Buddhism all but vanished beyond the obvious Moghul invasions, and there's surprisingly scanty coverage of the "untouchable" Dalits who converted en masse to Buddhism halfway through the 20th century. The notion advanced then of a "Red Buddhism," or how Sri Lankan leaders conflated Buddhism with nationalism, stay marginalized at best.

More successfully, Mishra connects his student love of Nietzsche with his curiosity about the Buddha's roots, and out of this fresh juxtaposition, there's enough to keep you interested. Even if the attention given, say, Buddhism in the West, is scanty. Many ideas and scenes come retold from his sources rather than refreshed and made vivid through his eyes as he lands in England, or travels in San Francisco or treks among the Taliban: you want more of his personal impacts with culture clashes.

He describes sights simply: a scribe in a deserted temple first gets him thinking about Buddhism; a village nearby scatters down steep, rocky slopes. He lets you hear the leaves of the pipal tree such as under which the Buddha gained his breakthrough; he shows you the loneliness of an Indian woman who he visits in London for the first time. He equates energy sustained across the material world with a consciousness that can never be extinguished once created. He compares de Tocqueville's diagnosis of frontier restlessness and American faddishness with the Buddhist sense of "trishna." The book cries out for more extensive attention to spiritual tourism. He offers a marvellous quote from Nietzsche about the "precondition" of Buddhism that's perfect for Prius-driven, coastal California: "a very mild climate, very gentle and liberal customs, no militarism; and that it is the higher and even learned classes in which the movement has its home. The supreme goal is cheerfulness, stillness, absence of desire, and this goal is achieved." (qtd. 362)

Mishra finds his voice late on; chapters on "A Science of the Mind" and "Turning the Wheel" earlier do explicate finer points of dharma vis-a-vis Western concepts well, but the direction after wobbles as he ruminates his own maturation within a 1990s-era globalization that consumes more than he's already digested. Notes show the wide range of his research, but more time may have been needed for such a formidable array of ideas to have been distilled by-- in this narrative-- yet a young writer and thinker. For instance, I was anticipating E.F. Schumacher's "Small Is Beautiful" localized economics to make an appearance. While it did, like many appropriate references, it proved only a glimpse. Follow-through, with Havel, with Schumacher, with the impact of Buddhism on such figures as the Western nun Helen from Marin County, the fate of his friend Sophiya who preceded him to London, would have helped.

When Mishra contrasts Nietzsche's "passive nihilist" reaction to the Buddha with his own conception of Shakyamuni as a true "superman," you feel that the writer's finally on to a novel concept. Gautama uses, Mishra argues, the ego to free the ego. By this personal liberation into renunciation, which needed even more emphasis than the rather over-subtle final pages display in their understandable touches of humility and reticence after candor earlier, the book finally arrives at its thesis.

The Buddha wasn't removed from his tumult; he showed his listeners how to jump off from the wheel of "desire, hatred and delusion run rampant." (402) There's glory in immersion in modern comforts and gadgets, but there's great suffering and brutal chaos. The place of control exists within only our mind. Freedom comes not from the breakup of feudalism and the profits of capitalism, but from a way to overcome the impasse set up for Mishra and his generation of Indians. They, no less than ourselves in the West, have been offered ideological and spiritual and tangible rituals of consumption. But these, Mishra realizes, infatuate rather than reward us.

Instead, rather than pitting individual frenzy vs. social aggression, both identities remain interdependent. The Buddha "challenged the very basis of conventional human self-perceptions-- a stable, essential identity-- by demonstrating a plural, unstable human self-- one that suffered but that also had the potential to end its suffering." (403-4) Mishra concludes: "An acute psychologist, he taught a radical suspicion of desire as well of its sublimations-- the seductive concepts of ideology and history. He offered a moral and spiritual regimen that led to nothing less than whole new way of looking at and experiencing the world." (404) Half a page later, the account ends; we can only surmise by reading his story back into the previous four hundred pages how Mishra himself perhaps gained transformation as he came to appreciate the Buddha and "to discover him as a true contemporary."

I'm not sure, finishing this, who the ideal reader of this book may be. As one from California, with an interest in Buddhist history, Indian travels, and Western intellectual reflection on belief and politics and popular culture, Mishra's combination proved the right book at the perfect moment. He has seen the temptations of the West's chattering classes, the degradation of the East's leaders, and he seeks an alternative for all-- no matter where they live and die. Freedom rests not on solidarity with class or caste that will be driven by revolution (or religion?), but a humbler kindness that occupies itself with "the mind and body of the active, suffering individual." This concern redirects "individuals from the pursuit of political utopias to attentiveness and acts of compassion in everyday life." (335)

Autonomy, the Buddha preached and showed, comes not from self-directed individuals or economic imperatives, but from a radical departure from the myth that once we choose and pursue our desires in the marketplace, we will then attain fulfillment. Mishra warns that this delusion constitutes "the hypothesis which lies even now, in an age where mass manipulation is a respectable industry, at the basis of modern civilization." (331)

P.S. For readers unfamiliar with Buddhism, I'd recommend a primer before this, such as Karen Armstrong's or Daisaku Ikeda's short lives of the Buddha, or Damien Keown's "Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction"; an intriguing counterpart to the Indian odyssey that mingles Western countercultural seekers with native reactors may be the Irish writer Manchán Magan's "Manchán's Travels" (all reviewed by me on my blog and Amazon US). (See also Jean-Francois Revel & Mathieu Ricard's 1996 dialogue: "The Monk & the Philosopher, which I am now reading, for more on Western science & politics clashing or merging with Buddhist philosophy. Review of Mishra posted to Amazon US 6-16-09.)

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