Thursday, September 10, 2009

Perry Garfinkel's "Buddha or Bust": Book Review

Travelling in Buddha's footsteps, Garfinkel pursues "engaged" followers who apply dharma to heal the world. Parleying a 5,000-word "National Geographic" commission into a brisk report, if perhaps too rapid for those less familiar with Buddhism today.

Such speed, for instance, early on raises questions. Going east from America, Garfinkel reaches not the Buddha's Indian birthplace first to start his account, but a Zen Peacemakers retreat held at Auschwitz. From a New Jersey family with Polish Jewish roots, Garfinkel as expected brings baggage to this experience. Yet, he mentions offhand the fact that retreatants stay at the contested Carmelite convent's dorm adjoining the camp; he also seems to underplay the question of making a more universalist statement out of the Shoah at its ground zero impact.

Kaddish is recited and the names of a few of the six million recited, but summing this up with the fact that Garfinkel could 1) get angry and spread revenge; 2) hide and avoid the truth; 3) accept its inexplicablity and align it with a Buddhist refusal to comprehend some things appears only to postpone this immensely difficult question's resolution, for evil was done for explicable reasons, not out of some mysterium tremendum. He sums up that out of this "incomprehensible" encounter how he can choose rather to "feel more alive," but this option for acceptance failed to satisfy me-- yet the Shoah for many observers remains a topic that cannot be resolved in words.

The next chapter recovers with a very well-told look at Buddha's life and teachings. I have read a few of these, but Garfinkel shared fresh bits. I did not know that Siddhartha on leaving his sleeping wife and child in one version did not tiptoe away after a parting glance one night, but in an alternate telling, awakened his wife to make love with her one last time before tiptoeing away. I'm not sure which action was more or less worthy; Garfinkel notes how Buddhist feminists may be troubled by this anecdote still, and it's always troubled me too.

Garfinkel shares an echo of such tension caused by renunciation of the world and family when the reforming King Ashoka's wife, fearing her husband's born-again devotion to the Buddha, destroyed the branch planted by the king from the original Bodhi tree. The author holds as a follower that "ripples of change," as Ashoka showed in India, happen by individual initiative with engaged Buddhists rather than relying on political or social transformation to affect change for the better.

The chapter from the longest continuing Buddhist nation, Sri Lanka, does disappoint a bit, perhaps overshadowed by the Sinhalese majority's war with the Tamil Hindu minority that complicates simple equations of Buddhists with peace; in Thailand as well, there's a sense of gloom at corruption and squalor. A moment of insight comes, however, when while watching a monk practice his meditation for a few minutes, Garfinkel blurts out from his heart: "take me there"-- not the mountain behind the monk's cell so much as the place within his soul.

In Bangkok and Hong Kong, the East-West exchange of mutual influences for engaged globalized Buddhism enter our mediated age. An Indian businessmen harried by communicating with New York bosses a whole work day away by e-mail reminds Garfinkel of the tensions of staying in touch 24/7 as one's way of making a living. He clarifies that while the East has been allied with being and the West with doing, in the emerging, commodified Buddhist network across electronic and business lines, therapies and meditation labs, teachers and students criss-crossing, that such facile demarcations are blurring.

In China and Japan, the challenges of retailing Buddhist tradition to tourists and natives alike seem to dispirit Garfinkel. The Dalai Lama's cousin, by an amazing side trip near the border of Tibet, parrots Communist harmony and freedom of religion to Garfinkel, who records these words to play at an interview with the Dalai Lama in exile. As with many jaded journalists, Garfinkel reports that his meeting with the Dalai Lama seemed to spark energy within the most cautious and world-weary interviewer.

Back in America, a visit to Naropa U. in Colorado and a look at how Buddhism gets packaged move as expected, tidily but a bit drearily. Garfinkel intersperses his own understandings of his Buddhist-Jewish-secular outlook too sparingly. He may as a journalist want to subsume his own life within his travels, but his discussion of how suddenly while talking with a Zen priest his own belief in God blinked out needs more than a paragraph or so of elaboration.

He's on, of course, to a profound difference between Buddhism and conventional religions as belief-based systems by definition. He holds that belief in God propels suffering, the self-vs.-non-self, me-not-me dichotomy that separates us from everything and everybody else. God, Garfinkel posits, is not something or someone else, and Buddhism places the awesome responsibility for undoing the damage done upon ourselves alone. He advances the Zen "don't know mind" similarly when tackling the Shoah at Auschwitz earlier on, but there persisted for me in this narrative a sidling away from how he was taking on the question of human correction of evils, after all at the heart of an socially engaged Buddhism.

In closing, his own traveller's tale has many exciting moments and involving stories, but it also shares a middle-aged tiredness with its author. He takes up his life's challenge and seeks answers in a method that refuses pat answers for eternal verities that other faiths promise. Nevertheless, this may prove after all, then, a more honest story than I expected, a lesson in the "bust" on the way looking for a "Buddha." (Posted 9-10-09 to Amazon US and my blog.)

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