An End to Suffering: the Buddha in the world

Reviewed by Edward Skidelsky, The New Statesman, Nov 10, 2004

An End to Suffering: the Buddha in the world
Pankaj Mishra Picador, 422pp, 17.99
ISBN 0374148368

London, UK -- 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 imagination.

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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