Bracketed by a Clash of Ideas, Buddha’s Story, Cleanly Told

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

A teenage boy in the West might keep some soft porn under his mattress. Life was different for the young Pankaj Mishra. “For years, I had felt a small thrill at the sight of the sentence, ‘I read all morning.'”

He grew up in an India that was distasteful to him. In Delhi, he deplored “the hollowness of the city’s promise and the mean anonymity of the lives it contained.”

In 1992, Mr. Mishra abandoned the plains of India for the former British hill station of Simla, hoping to study and write. The colonial charm he was seeking was gone, wiped out by “a four-decade-long socialist torpor.” Chance led him instead to a nearby village and an affordable cottage.

Now he could fulfill that boyhood dream of reading all day. Settled into the foothills of the Himalayas, his ambition to write the life story of the Buddha remained as close and as distant as the largest mountains. The Buddha’s life story does eventually fuel this book-with the author’s own story inserted as a parallel narrative strand. Mr. Mishra had read the accounts of European travelers, and “envied their ability to insert their personal being into the impersonal flow of events.”

In the Buddhist philosophy he methodically examines, one learns that envy entails a karmic return. Near the close of the book, Mr. Mishra looks back at the versions of himself he’s presented and comments: “In few of these restless, grasping selves … could I find as much as a trace of humility, or compassion.” Such is the pain of that personal insight, such is the frequency and frankness with which Mr. Mishra displays his distaste for the people he meets, it seems fairer not to further unravel this thread of his book.

However, let me note the peculiar linguistic structure Mr. Mishra builds for his personal narrative. I haven’t encountered a more Edwardian style since Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, almost every noun attached to an adjective and few verbs unadorned. He can surprise with the beauty of a sentence: “Naked children floated paper boats in the larger potholes on the road; mud draped their brown legs as cleanly as breeches.” Then almost immediately the adjectives and adverbs crowd in again.

An End to Suffering is in its prime when Mr. Mishra is in pure storytelling mode, which he sustains throughout his detailed and informed account of the Buddha’s life.

But before that account starts-and as soon as it is over-the book gets tangled in the author’s wish that the Buddha “had founded, like Descartes, a tradition of scientific enquiry.” We are danced through a dizzying and often numbing series of philosophical vignettes that can be tangential at best to the Buddha story. Nietzsche, Proust, Oscar Wilde, Tagore, Ashoka, Alexander the Great, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Marx, Rousseau-a motley crew trips across these pages, keeping the Buddha on his toes. Thrown together, their ideas inform and resist each other in a way that strangely simplifies the complexities of our 21st-century perspective.

Mr. Mishra’s Buddha is rendered distinct by an opening statement: “Clearly, the Buddha had been more of a trenchant thinker and psychologist than a religious figure.” For a Buddha written with sympathy for the man’s spiritual dimension, try Karen Armstrong’s fine Buddha (2001). Mr. Mishra prefers the Buddha of action to the mystical Buddha of contemplation. He tells how the original Buddhist word for meditation, bhavana, is not about sitting but “means culture or development … the creation of a wholesome climate through constant awareness.” Though he gives a clear exposition of a Buddhist sangha or community, he can’t stand the company of the San Francisco Zen sitting group he briefly joins, and he has even less patience when it comes to meditating alone. Descartes’ dictum “I think therefore I am,” Mr. Mishra tells us, once “expressed all that then seemed holy to me: individuality, the life of the mind.”

Through the horrors of succeeding millennia, through the miasma of supernatural, misguided and demagogic religions, the Buddha slowly asserted his authority as the supreme distiller of self-knowledge. In 2001, Mr. Mishra attended a conference of 200,000 young radical Islamists near the border with Afghanistan; he came to be “saddened to think of the human waste they represented.” “What did the Buddha, who had lived in a simpler time, have to offer people fighting political oppression, social and economic injustice, and environmental destruction?” His answer to these trenchant questions came in the wake of the attack on the Twin Towers (which he saw burn and collapse on an Indian peasant neighbor’s black-and-white TV). He repeats “what the Buddha had stressed to the helpless people caught in the chaos of his own time: how the mind, where desire, hatred and delusion run rampant … is also the place-the only place-where human beings can have full control over their lives.”

With that knowledge in place, Mr. Mishra began to write about the Buddha. The writing process must have been a form of meditation, for though the focus wanders elsewhere in the book, the Buddha’s story comes through with true clarity. The welter of thought that surrounds it might drive any true Buddhist to his own form of meditation, in order to clear the mind. Which is surely well and good.

Martin Goodman is the author of On Sacred Mountains (Heart of Albion). Bracketed by a Clash of Ideas, Buddha’s Story, Cleanly Told