Pankaj Mishra never figured out how to meditate. "I managed to concentrate on my breathing and block all thoughts from entering my mind...
Pankaj Mishra never figured out how to meditate.
“I managed to concentrate on my breathing and block all thoughts from entering my mind for up to two minutes before the dam broke,” he writes.
But then, with “An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 432 pp., $25), Mishra didn’t intend to write a meditation manual.
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Instead, he is out to theorize the Buddha’s thought, to contrast it, not with the ideas of Christ or Muhammad, but with those of Plato or Marx. At the same time, Mishra tells a coming-of-age story about himself, and how he comes to see the Buddha as a revolutionary thinker, an important historical personality and, perhaps most surprisingly, “a true contemporary.”
Mishra grew up in small towns on the plains of North India, not so far from where the Buddha wandered, but where, he notes, nearly every trace of the Buddha and Buddhism had faded centuries before.
In 1992, Mishra, then in his early 20s, moved to a small village in the Himalayan foothills. He began to write. And, in a landscape where Buddhist monasteries seemed “part of the natural scenery,” he began to think and read about the Buddha.
Pankaj Mishra will read from “An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World,” 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; co-presented with Chaya; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com); and at 7 p.m. Tuesday, University Temple United Methodist Church, 1415 N.E. 43rd St., Seattle, $3 donation (206-632-5163).
“It seems odd now,” he writes, “that someone like myself, who knew so little of the world, and who longed, in one secret but tumultuous corner of his heart, for love, fame, travel, adventures in far-off lands, should also have been thinking of a figure who stood in such contrast to these desires: a man born two and a half millennia ago, who taught that … happiness lay in seeing that the self, from which all longings emanated, was incoherent and a source of suffering and delusion.”
Today, it seems that Mishra has realized many of his youthful longings, and at a relatively young age. “An End to Suffering” is his third book. The writer and commentator divides his time between London and India and contributes frequently to The New York Review of Books and other publications.
Mishra writes most gracefully about himself and his surroundings. He’s had some practice: his excellent novel, “The Romantics,” is autobiographical, and his first book, “Butter Chicken in Ludhiana,” is a collection of his travels in provincial India.
So it’s little surprise that his descriptions of the Indian countryside, and Indian byways in particular, always hit their mark. Any third-world traveler will recognize, for instance, the triumph of landing a window seat on a long-haul country bus: “after that bit of luxury, the crowd, the bad road and the dust seemed not to matter.”
But in “An End to Suffering,” Mishra shows that he’s much more than a gifted memoirist. Working from original texts (in translation), he constructs a vivid and sometimes jarring picture of the Buddha, who had, among other traits, “the brusqueness of a busy doctor.”
Mishra situates this crisp figure at a pivot in Indian history. In the sixth century B.C., urbanization was threatening Brahmin hegemony, and warring kingdoms made for an unsteady political climate.
Buddhism offered a sort of spiritual self-determination that contrasted sharply with the predestination orthodoxy of the time. In politics, the Buddha emphasized the importance of community — in spite of all of Buddhism’s focus on detachment. He also promoted the idea that rulers ought to be responsive to their subjects, much different from then-current notions of divinely sanctioned kingship.
Mishra may have struggled with Buddhist meditation, but he grows to see the Buddha himself as a hero, a radical thinker committed to the idea that the mind is “the place — the only one — where human beings can have full control over their lives.”