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The Sutra Solution

Indian novelist Pankaj Mishra scours the Buddhist past for answers to modern ills.

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It is only in the last few pages of An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World that Pankaj Mishra directly addresses the concerns of his title, and here the “world” is defined as the spectacle of 9/11. Mishra watches it on a fuzzy TV in a poor man’s hut in Mashobra, an Indian village to which he’d first retreated in 1992 to write a historical novel about the Buddha. Back then, 23 years old, deeply in love with Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Thoreau, and all things Western, he’d envisioned his task as a romantic quest. Only procrastination and an autodidactic streak spared Mishra from producing yet another young man’s Siddhartha.

What he’s given us instead is a book-length essay on Buddhism as a series of intellectual traditions just as politically relevant as they are spiritually comforting—a worldview in which the certainties with which we combat suffering are themselves the cause of that suffering. “An acute psychologist,” writes Mishra, “[the Buddha] taught a radical suspicion of desire as well as of its sublimations—the seductive concepts of ideology and history.” Listening to a speech by Donald Rumsfeld days after the September 11 attacks, recalling his travels among the fundamentalist madrassas of Pakistan, Mishra for the first time imagines the Buddha not as a historical figure or as a counterpart to philosophers of the West, but as “a true contemporary” with news for anyone dreaming, in abstractions, of “Democracy,” or “Freedom,” or “Islamic Virtue.” “The mind,” Mishra writes, summarizing the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth, “is where the frenzy of history arises.”

And yet history, particularly that of the life of the mind, is what makes Mishra’s book—part travelogue, part biography—such compelling reading. Mishra was born poor and nominally Brahmin; since 1992, he has achieved through journalism a “secure, stolid, middle-classness.” All along, though, he has been making excursions into Buddhism, following the trails blazed by nineteenth-century European adventurers who did so much to unearth the “peculiarly dead places” where the Buddha once lived and taught.

India, he writes, once the “fount of wisdom,” is “now engaged in slavishly imitating Western countries,” an assessment that wounds Mishra’s quiet nationalism—and, one would think, his intellectual vanity, since Mishra himself came to his Buddhist studies through such figures as Borges and Thoreau. Mishra looks to the Buddha, “one of the great men, if not the greatest man, born in India,” for an untapped source of Indian pride. It doesn’t hurt that so many of the Western writers he admires were themselves armchair Buddhologists. Mishra’s explorations of this diverse company make for a consistent East-West rhythm throughout the book, as the author twins the Buddha’s insights with a series of speculative thinkers, including Hume, Nietzsche, and Marx.

Marx makes more than one appearance. As a student at a public university that has since crumbled to near anarchy, Mishra dreamed simultaneously of the revolution and of obtaining an American baseball cap; years later, he looks with sadness on subsequent classes of college communists, much more devoted to their cause, much more likely to die in Indian prisons. Mishra abandoned Marxist solutions, but not the attentiveness to suffering that once led him to embrace them. Visiting the United States, he is stunned by “the stark wilderness of the malls and parking lots of suburban America”; in the Indian state of Bihar, he observes “a caste of rat eaters starved due to a shortage of field mice.”

Buddhism, Mishra suggests—or rather, the example of the Buddha—may provide “redemption.” Here Mishra takes a neocon, “end-of-history” detour, arguing that the Buddha shows us an escape from ideology. But he concedes the wisdom of the second-century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, who insisted that “all known realities are constructed realities”—that is, that the notion of an end of history is an ideology itself.

It may be Nagarjuna who accounts for Mishra’s realization that his Western heroes were men of their times, no purer of thought than his friend Vinod’s idol, Vivekananda, a nineteenth-century proto–Ayn Rand who has since become a patron saint of India’s right-wing Hindu nationalists. For Vinod, “ ‘[T]here are no rules . . . except those that strong men make for themselves and enforce upon others.’ ” Mishra recognizes in this comment a dim echo of his own former hero, Nietzsche. Buddhism, Mishra writes, quoting Nietzsche, “ ‘has the heritage of a cool and objective posing of problems of its composition. . . . It stands, in my language, beyond good and evil.’ ” To Mishra in his youth, that also meant the Buddha was outside of history. This stance was what compelled his first romantic attraction to Buddhism. But Vinod also provided him (albeit inadvertently) with a clue to the illusion of philosophical purity. It turns out that Vinod did not come to his law of strength through reading Vivekananda, but through family history: grief for his sister, murdered by the family to whom she’d been married off, “for not bringing sufficient dowry.”

That’s one way to achieve an end to suffering. And then there is Buddhism’s Eight-Fold Path, a rather unliterary road of “Right Speech” and “Right Effort” and so on. For those as disinclined to asceticism as to fundamentalism, An End to Suffering offers a “middle way” of Mishra’s own devising, a curvy, book-lined path of unfrenzied history and amateur philosophy. That is the “redemption” that Mishra, still a secular Hindu, finds in the Buddhist tradition—a life of the mind in which the mind itself is a collection of passing questions.

An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World
by Pankaj Mishra
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 422 Pages. $25.


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