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Back to Buddha

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Are the teachings of the Buddha—conceived two and a half millennia ago—truly relevant to modern life? Fascinated by this question, the novelist Pankaj Mishra, best known in the United States for his novel The Romantics and his essays in the New York Review of Books, spent more than a decade probing the Buddha’s life and teachings and the shifting political backdrops against which they took place.

Mishra, who was born into a traditional Hindu family in a small railway town in northern India and attended the university in Allahabad, was making a fitful start as a writer when he moved to a tiny Himalayan village in the early 1990s and began to conjure a book—a novel, he then figured—about the Buddha. Years of research, travel, and pursuit of his own elusive sense of self finally yielded a very different tome; An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004) is a sweeping, multilayered account that mixes an insightful portrait of the Buddha’s time, an erudite reckoning of how the world (especially the West) has understood and misunderstood him through the centuries, and a candid narration of Mishra’s own meandering physical and psychospiritual journey. While his leisurely exegesis is sometimes tough reading, in the end it’s profoundly rewarding, for Mishra is tireless and unflinching in his effort to make tangible the Buddha’s insights into the causes of and cure for suffering—and their urgent relevance to modern life.

Phil Catalfo spoke with Mishra at his hotel when he passed through San Francisco on tour earlier this year.

PHIL CATALFO: You wanted to write this book for many years, and struggled to come to some understanding of the Buddha in contemporary terms.

MISHRA: The events of 9/11 forced me to clarify a lot of my ideas. It’s hard to remember the complacency with which a lot of us lived before then. We were focused on getting richer, but there was also a lot of malaise. At the same time, I was traveling to violence-ridden places —Kashmir, Afghanistan—and finding only inadequate solutions to the problems of suffering and violence.

Existing systems [like capitalism and socialism] came with a certain ideology about what we’re here to do: consume, produce. I saw these systems were not going to work. And I began to see how the Buddha had offered another vision of people—the quality of their ethical life and mindfulness. This was his way of addressing the problems of his own time.

That’s where I began to see that Buddhism is not some antique system like that described in the Dead Sea scrolls; this is very relevant, very modern. He was addressing the plight of the modern individual, who is bewildered by what he is experiencing, what is going on around him, and can’t make sense of it, doesn’t know his place in it, and also suffers because there’s no connection with the past.

I also began to think about uprooted peoples, cultures displaced by wars and new political systems—and I began to see myself as uprooted. I saw what happened to my father [who , as Mishra writes in the book, left the land his family had worked for generations to take a modern job in the city, losing his links to his own lineage and culture]. So I began to really understand the Buddha in terms of the practical problems of suffering, dislocation, and alienation.

PC: And yet, you don’t call yourself a Buddhist.

PM: No, I’m wary of that, and so was the Buddha. He said you can’t take things on trust, you have to verify them for yourself and live your life and begin the process of mindfulness all over again every day.

Phil Catalfo is a freelance writer and a contributing editor for Yoga Journal.