Scholars of the New Testament speculate that the Gospel of Mark was the first of the canonical Gospels to be composed, sometime between 68 and 73 CE, or thirty-five to forty years after the Crucifixion. It was followed by Luke and Matthew, and then John, which was not composed until sometime between 90 and 110 CE. Jesus himself, of course, wrote nothing, so our understanding of his teachings relies on these rather belated accounts, from which Christians have drawn thousands of portraits of Jesus, both verbal and visual, portraits that are often in direct conflict with one another: gentle rabbi, revolutionary zealot, prophet of the end time, mystic of love, harbinger of the messiah, and the messiah himself.
What, then, can be said about the alternative Jesus, depicted (as his advocates like to point out) sitting in solitary meditation beneath a tree rather than nailed to a wooden cross? The encyclopedia will give the Buddha’s dates as 563-483 BCE, but recent scholarship suggests that he may have lived as much as a century later. If something as straightforward as the years of his birth and death are subject to controversy, what can be said about his teachings? Like Jesus, he wrote nothing himself. But unlike Jesus, his teachings were written down, not thirty-five years after his death but 350, and not in the land of his life and teaching, India, but on the island of Sri Lanka. What can possibly be said with any confidence about the Buddha’s words and thoughts?
In his new book, the noted Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, apparently undeterred by the disjunctions of time and space, tells us. Mishra began work more than a decade ago on a historical novel about the Buddha while living in the quiet little town of Mashobra, near the former British hill station of Simla, in the foothills of the Himalayas in India. But the project stalled:
I couldn’t have known then that it would be impossible to understand the Buddha or his teachings from books alone, and that I would have to leave Mashobra and enter the larger world, travel to places as different as America and Kashmir, England and Afghanistan, learn to see differently the western writers and intellectuals I idolized, before I could begin to understand the Buddha, his teachings, and their special relevance in these troubled, bewildering times from which his own age seemed, superficially at least, so remote.
Mishra’s hope was that writing the novel would help him fill gaps in his knowledge of his country’s past “and give me the historical sense I felt I lacked.” He seems to have abandoned the historical novel because his interest turned from the Buddha in the past to the Buddha in the present.
It was only in the spring of 2001, after returning to London from a trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan to report on the Taliban, that he decided to return to the Buddha, but in a work of nonfiction rather than a novel. Mishra had visited Peshawar, once a cosmopolitan Buddhist city, where shaven-headed teachers of a sublime philosophy of mind had been replaced by bearded preachers of jihad, condemning the infidels of their imagination.
The book that he has written is not simply a life of the Buddha. An idiosyncratic, sprawling work of some 400 pages, An End to Suffering moves back and forth between biography, tales of eccentric nineteenth-century European travelers to India, a memoir of Mishra’s philosophical education and philosophical manifesto. The life of the Buddha that he recounts retains, however, some of the characteristics of the novel he had planned. Mishra often writes as if he knows his subject’s most intimate thoughts, telling us, for example, that the younger Buddha “dreamed of travel to what to him then seemed impossibly distant places,” and that the older Buddha “was understandably anxious about admitting women into a celibate order of men.”
Yet the Buddha’s age is remote from ours, and we cannot divine his thoughts. Indeed, according to Buddhist doctrine, the Buddha had no dreams and was never anxious. Thus, in important ways, the Buddha who lived in India some 2,500 years ago must remain inaccessible. Mishra’s Buddha, the Buddha he portrays as the savior of modernity, is a creation of modernity.
The Buddha was but one of many gurus on the north Indian scene in the sixth (or fifth) century BCE. Almost all the rest disappeared into the mists of time, but the Buddha remained, whether because of the wisdom of his teachings or the patronage he received from kings and merchants, or some combination of the two. The community of monks that he established flourished in India for almost two millennia before disappearing for a variety of reasons, the most visible of which was the destruction of monasteries by invading Muslim armies.
Buddhism had been dead in India for almost 500 years when its remnants–monuments, stone inscriptions, statues and texts–were encountered by officials of the British East India Company and various European adventurers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. From these remnants, European Orientalists (in the good sense of the term) imagined the Buddha, without necessarily ever encountering a Buddhist or, in the case of many of the great Sanskrit philologists, ever setting foot in India. This Buddha, born of a latter-day Enlightenment, bore all the marks of the Age of Reason: He taught a simple philosophy, free of dogma; he was an empiricist and an egalitarian, making his teachings available to all social classes. His was a rational religion without a god, if it was a religion at all. And like the anti-Papist scholars who first translated Buddhist texts, he was opposed to all ritual and priestcraft. It is this Buddha that Mishra discovers, not in an Asian language but in English (the language in which Gandhi first read the Bhagavad-Gita). Mishra admits that “perhaps I wouldn’t have got too far with my interest in the Buddha had I not known about his renewal by the West in the nineteenth century, or how many of the European and American writers I admired had praised him.”
Indeed, his book is the product of a dizzying process of cross-cultural exchange. The Buddha, an itinerant teacher of northern India during the Iron Age, founded an order of monks and nuns that spread south to Sri Lanka and eventually throughout East and Southeast Asia. The European explorers, philologists and colonial officials who discovered the ruins of Buddhism created a view of the Buddha and of Buddhism (a term with no correlate in a Buddhist language and that, according to the OED, first appeared in English in 1801) that existed nowhere in the Buddhist world. This view of the Buddha came to be adopted by Buddhist elites across Asia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who used it both to combat the efforts of Christian missionaries (as in Sri Lanka) and to defend their faith against attacks by the modern nation-state (as in Japan). Mishra finds this Edwardian Buddha in his reading, certified by his favorite European writers. And he finds the teachings of this Buddha being practiced not in India but in Marin County. It is this Buddha that Mishra prescribes to an international Anglophone world as the appropriate remedy to the woes of our world, an end to suffering:
He had not only diagnosed the new intellectual and spiritual impasse faced by human beings at a time of tumultuous change: he had also tried to overcome it. In the process, he undermined many assumptions that lie behind the political and economic arrangements of the modern era.
Mishra’s is a Buddha that most of the millions who have been called Buddhists over the millennia would not immediately recognize. He is a demythologized Buddha, who does not speak of rebirth or nirvana; whose goal is not the annihilation of the cycle of birth and death but the creation of understanding and harmony within it. For Mishra, the Buddha’s most important teaching was that there is no self, and he returns to it again and again, in often eloquent exposition: “The world [in the sense of all common individuals in the world], whose nature is to become other, is committed to becoming, has exposed itself to becoming; it relishes only becoming, yet what it relishes brings fear, and what it fears is pain.”
In the course of his wide reading in European philosophy, Mishra discovered striking resemblances between various teachings of the Buddha and Western writers, from Socrates and Pythagoras to Hume and Hegel to Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche. Thus, after citing a passage from Montaigne, he observes that a “similar view of changeable man prompted the Buddha” to describe the process of consciousness. The Buddha’s “austere vision,” he suggests in one of many jarring comparisons, “is not far from the one found among the greatest of modern novelists, Flaubert and Proust.” Mishra does not mention Kant, who cautioned against drawing too much meaning from apparent similarities, noting that “since human reason has been enraptured by innumerable objects in various ways for many centuries, it cannot easily fail that for everything new, something old can be found which has some kind of similarity to it.”
But comparison is how we try to make sense of the unfamiliar, and the Buddha has been made modern by comparing him to this or that Western thinker for more than a century. Mishra does not claim any historical link between the ancient teachings of the Buddha and the insights of the modern novelist. Rather, he suggests that they sound alike because they are true, and that the Buddha saw long ago what European thinkers (with the exception of certain ancient Greeks) have only belatedly come to understand.
Mishra’s European hero is Nietzsche. He is a curious choice since, although the German philosopher praised Buddhism over Christianity, he also saw it as a “nihilistic turning away from life.” While acknowledging this skepticism, Mishra nonetheless portrays the Buddha as the true Übermensch, “who had liberated himself from the ‘morality of custom’ and acquired ‘a power over oneself and over fate,’ which has ‘penetrated to the profoundest depths and become instinct.'” One of the most famous passages in the Buddhist canon, from a text regarded by scholars as early, states, “Abstain from all unwholesome deeds, perform wholesome ones, purify your mind: this is the teaching of the buddhas.” But the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose; it is admittedly tiresome to select this statement from among the thousands attributed to the Buddha as proof that his teachings were not “beyond good and evil.” The more interesting question is the role that Nietzsche and other European thinkers play in Mishra’s attempt to catapult the Buddha into modernity.
The Buddha surpasses all European philosophers, in Mishra’s view, not only because he anticipated them by two millennia but because he “had not been content with vivid description or eloquent lament”; they only identified the symptoms, while he prescribed the cure. That cure, Mishra argues, is nothing short of the transformation of the mind. The Buddha “offered a moral and spiritual regimen that led to nothing less than a whole new way of looking at and experiencing the world.” Mishra does not mention that nirvana, the state of ultimate transformation, entailed the annihilation of the mind.
Everything that Mishra says about the Buddha has been said many times before, although he often says it with particular grace. But perhaps this should not be taken as a defect. In Buddhist philosophy, there is no greater sin than innovation, because there is nothing that is true that the Buddha did not already say, or at least mean. As one text says, “All that is well spoken is spoken by the Buddha.” And the Buddha himself is famously reported to have said that what he understood, the content of his enlightenment, was nothing new; he was only discovering what previous buddhas had understood in the past, and what future buddhas would understand in the ages to come. Whether buddhas come or go, the nature of reality remains the same.
The Buddha was also famous for his extraordinary pedagogical skills, for teaching what was appropriate for the moment, using his telepathic ability to discern the needs and capabilities of each member of his audience. And so Mishra’s Buddha is a Buddha for our time. He is a liberal democrat, concerned with the power that large states lord over the small, committed to a participatory process of decision-making, indeed, calling into question all forms of autonomy and individuality, “the hypothesis which lies even now, in an age where mass manipulation is a respectable industry, at the basis of modern civilization.” Even amid all the constraints imposed by mass culture, Mishra claims, it is still possible to liberate oneself from false consciousness, to gain self-realization (that there is no self) and to “share with others the conditioned nature and interdependence of things, and the need for an ethical life.” Freedom, but without God; moral values, but without Jesus, or Mohammed. Mishra’s hero is a Buddha for the blue states, but one sadly shorn of his miraculous powers to chasten confident kings.