I’ll write about my backpacking trip tomorrow (too tired at the moment), but for now, here’s a review of An End to Suffering I wrote before I left:
Pankaj Mishra’s book An End to Suffering has a lot of good things going for it, but ultimately I found it frustrating. I’m not saying it’s not worth reading, exactly; I don’t regret having read it, but I thought it has unfulfilled potential.
The basic idea of the book is to explore Buddhism from a number of angles: the history and teachings of the Buddha, the history of Buddhism in Asia, the European “discovery” of Buddhism in the 19th century, the response of western philosophers such as Nietzsche, the role of Buddhism in the contemporary world, and Mishra’s own discovery of and thoughts about the Buddha. The book moves back and forth among these approaches, and it moves around in time, considering early on the 19th-century response to the Buddha and only later giving an account of the Buddha’s life.
Mishra mixes the personal with the social, historical, and political. He gives a lot of details of his life in India and his later travels to England and America, and he discusses his changing ideas about the west and about his religious experiences. I find books that connect the personal to social and political issues can be deeply engaging: not just giving the dry facts about Buddhism (although those are good), but discussing what those facts mean to the author. I like to observe congenial minds making sense of information and ideas, and thinking through their implications, for the world and for the author.
But I’ve seen this sort of thing done better than it is here. One of my favorite books along these lines is Diana Eck’s Encountering God, where she considers similarities between Christianity and Hinduism, and writes about her own religious struggles along the way. I learned a lot about both religions, I found myself moved by Eck’s personal experience, and it helped me think through my own religious history. I’m always on the lookout for more books of this sort – in fact, if you know of any, please let me know!
Mishra does discuss his personal experience of Buddhism, but I got the sense that he hadn’t quite sorted out his feelings and ideas fully. This appears to be a story of his early dislike of India and fascination with the west – its explorers and philosophers – which changes over time into an appreciation of Buddhism as a viable response to the troubles of the western world. But this change is never really fleshed out, and, if this is the story he is trying to tell, it’s unconvincing. I’m not sure he’s resolved this tension between his relationship to east and west. What comes through most strongly is his admiration for all things western. Now, complicated feelings are potentially very interesting, but I want to see that the author has fully come to terms with them. Perhaps Mishra wrote the book too early in his life, before he has had time to make sense of his past.
Maybe it is a problem with the way he structures the narrative. His jumps in time end up confusing the arc of the story, so that what could be a clear narrative – about moving from a dislike of India and a fascination with the west to a more balanced view of both – becomes all jumbled up in the reader’s mind. For example, one of the first things he discusses is the “discovery” of Buddhism by 19th century European explorers, a very promising topic. But I don’t know why he writes about this first, and he never explains. In his telling of the story, he praises these explorers for their bravery, and he recognizes that they did harm too, participating in European colonialism, but the impression I get is that he is still fascinated by them almost in spite of himself and that he’s not really fully acknowledging their very mixed legacy.
At times his narrative jumps become hard to follow, and I found myself wondering again and again why he was writing about a particular topic at that moment. The book needs more framing, I think. I wanted to know where we were going and how we would get there. Or, if I couldn’t have that, I wanted to come to trust Mishra that he would take me somewhere worthwhile. I don’t HAVE to know exactly where a writer is headed, after all. I actually really like narratives that wander a bit. But I have to trust the writer, and I didn’t really trust Mishra.
So, read the book for some great information about Buddhism. It’s valuable for its discussion of Buddhism in the west. I didn’t need another book giving me the basic facts of the Buddha’s life and his teachings, as I’ve read those before, but this book offers more than that. But I think Mishra hasn’t quite gotten control of his own story yet.