An end to suffering

suffering

Travel, philosophy, literature, personal growth, history, the Buddha and his teachings all intertwine in this fascinating journey of an author who attempts to come to terms with his Indian background and his yearning for something which would present to him an acceptable picture of the world and alleviate his feeling of his own shortcomings. Pankaj Mishra (An End To Suffering. The Buddha in the World, Picador, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004) presents a balanced view of what the Buddha means in the world: this is not an earnest attempt at proselytizing, nor a high-brow disapproval. Looking at Buddha  “in the world” may seem a most ambitious undertaking, but Mishra is able to lead the reader, in 15 chapters, through the maze of Buddhisms, among a plethora of authors who both knew Buddha’s ideas and admired them, as well as those who were familiar with these ideas and were critical of them. Granted, he is more concerned with the United States (perhaps because it  represents the idea of ‘the West’ more than on any other country), but he also includes Russian, French, British, Indian  literary figures and philosophers who may have been attuned to Buddhist ideas.  Furthermore, his account of the Buddha’s life and accomplishments is accompanied by his own growth as an author and by his awareness of his place in the world.

This is a book rich in historical detail, full of parallels between the teachings of the Buddha and the musings by poets (for ex., Hesiod, Jack Kerouac, Osip Mandelstam) and novelists (Proust, Dostoevsky, Borges, etc.)  as well as philosophical ideas (Epicurus, Socrates, Descartes, esp. Nietzsche, Tagore, and others). These comparisons are by no means based only on the actual familiarity of the authors with Buddhism. The comparisons are also made on the similarity of concepts between Buddhism and the intellectuals’ ideas, so they reflect the wide-ranging possibilities of connections that the Buddha’s teachings have in the intellectual realm, even if the individual is not familiar with Buddhism. One of the great merits of this book is a most clear presentation of the Buddha’s life and his teachings. The other value of the book is the non-centre view of modernity: the description of India’s problems stemming from its post-colonial but wannabe ‘Western’, i.e. modern state is devastatingly honest. The sadness felt by the author of so much human pain inflicted on humanity by radicalization and fanaticism for any  movement exudes from each chapter. But the most essential value of the book stems from the author’s questioning his self-worth and his life’s value. Although one has the impression that Buddhism does not provide the antidote to the author’s questioning of his self-worth, and it does not impart value to his life, it does provide some explanations to why human behaviour is as it is.

In conclusion, this is a book to be cherished and read many times. The wealth of ideas and concepts provided will surely keep the mind working for a long time, and the humanity and humility of the author will definitely be a constant reminder of intellectual honesty.

What follows is a general outline of each chapter.

In the chapter “The invention of ‘Buddhism’ ” Mishra makes it clear that

the Buddha (“the enlightened one”) was not God, or His emissary on earth, but the individual who had managed to liberate himself from ordinary human suffering, and then, out of compassion, had shared his insights with others. He had placed no value on prayer or belief in a deity; he had not spoken of creation, original sin or the last judgement. (p. 28)

Thus, the Buddha was “more of a trenchant thinker and psychologist rather than a religious figure” (29); therefore, this thinking,  focused as it was on strengthening (by meditation and other ascetic practices) one’s own will to curb craving and suffering, did not involve the need for a large scale restructuring of state and society, most unlike the thinking of the intellectual fathers of the modern world  (Rousseau, Hobbes, and Marx) (29). Rejecting the religious orthodoxy and abstract speculation of the Brahmin philosophers he shifted his interest to ordinary human experience to  underline the fact that neither the individual self nor the world is stable, and that our desire for things “innately impermanent makes for frustration, turning life into perpetual discontentment” (p. 43). So for the Buddha, the release from suffering was the only worthwhile spiritual aim.

This chapter deals with the history behind the inspiration that Buddha provided for many intellectuals in Europe and America in the nineteenth- and early twentieth century. The sources of this inspiration were gathered in writings of dilettanti in the 17- and 18 hundreds – British invaders (officers, explorers, surveyors, such as Francis Buchanan, manuscript collectors, for ex., Houghton Hodgson,  etc.),  French tourists (for ex., the naturalist Victor Jacquemont and others before him), accounts often clouded by superiority complexes and lack of material remains.

“The World of the Buddha” depicts the ancient Indian history, the Aryan invasion of the Indo-Gangetic plain where other civilizations had thrived, the sacred religious knowledge (Vedas) these invaders elaborated into rituals the correct formulas of which were possessed by the Brahmins and live on even today.  It is assumed that the caste system originated around the 8th century BCE when there were four social groups: kshatriyas (rulers and warriors), brahmins (priests, thinkers, law-givers) vaishyas (landowners, merchants, money lenders) and shudras (darker-skinned aborigines or mixed breed without membership rights to the other groups). From nomadism and tribal bands, this culture evolved into stable agricultural society and towns, threatening the Brahmin-imposed social hierarchy as the merchant class enjoyed unprecedented economic power. But this order was shifting from independent republics towards more centralized monarchies when Buddha came of age. He was born as Gautama Siddhartha (“he who fulfills his purpose”) to a kshatriya clan, the Shakyas, who controlled what are now the borderlands of India and Nepal (the location of the  region’s capital city, Kapilavistu, is still disputed). His father Suddhodhana kept him protected but expected from him a future of tending the family’s farm, and possible chieftainship. Apparently, as a child, the Buddha was very fragile and delicate. He never knew his birth mother, Maya, who passed away while he was only seven days old. Her sister, Mahaprajapati, looked after him from then on. The Buddha was raised in  knowledge of the sacred Vedas, in the belief of ultimate reality (brahman), of the existence of the soul (atman) which is subject to reincarnation and therefore in the final analysis the brahman is identical to the atman. This union was knowable through a rigorous self-discipline (yoga)  and through meditation which controlled emotions and passions. The theory of rebirth went through various elaborations, and was based on human actions (karma) in all human endeavours, and Mishra offers this concrete example:

Sanskrit poetics assume that the individual reading and responding sensitively to a poem brings into play the experiences of his past lives, and that an unresponsive reading on his part can be put down to insufficiently refined previous experience. (p. 105)

The never-ending cycle of action and consequences, taught by the Brahmins, found also detractors: men who rejected the idea of karma and the Brahmin-defined social order. These homeless wanderers and spiritual seekers (sramanas) of which the Buddha was the greatest, unleashed a revolution of ideas in North India. They stressed the renunciation of the active life: this renunciation was the best way to avoid karma and endless life of suffering. They also challenged the Brahmin orthodoxy by establishing sects, prescribing their own mental and spiritual exercises, and stressed that each individual has to realize the truth personally, through long practice of asceticism or meditation. Those who left their home and family became wandering sadhus (mendicants) indifferent to weather, dirt, pain. The general population fed and sheltered them, admiring their dedication and renunciation. These homeless philosophers occasionally met each other, debated in a relaxed and democratic way publicly – among the audience there was also the young Siddhartha.

“The Death of God” focuses first on the philosophical, social, and political underpinnings of the revolution of ideas which the Buddha brought to the ethical level. General unhappiness, dismantling of the old social order, loneliness, widespread social insecurity, all conspired to bolster the momentous tendency of the sramanas to do away with the old teachings of the Brahmins. Clearly, Nietzsche took up the question that sramanas were too grappling with and each answered in their own way:

When, finally, all the observances and customs upon which the power of the gods and of the priests and redeemers depends will have been abolished, when, that is to say, morality, in the old sense will have died, then there will come – well, what will come then?              (quoted from Nietzsche, Daybreak; p. 113)

The European answer stays solidly on the foundations of science, but this answer led to the use of knowledge for one’s advantage rather than to the quest for the meaning of the world.

Mishra spends some pages on his reminiscences of his university life in Allahabad, of visits to his friend Vinod’s home town, observing the injustices, seemingly endless,  perpetrated in India not only by the British but also by the Indians. Some people blame Gautama Buddha and Gandhi for the passivity and resignation of the Indian character, and for poverty and weakness. The massive changes that occurred in India (and elsewhere), from petroleum lamps to electricity, from life regulated by the sun to life regulated by the clock, from quiet of the countryside to the roar of the locomotives, were too rapid. How was India to react to this change, which, according to Mishra, was not random, since there seemed to have been a will and a purpose behind it? (p. 136) What was this modern world? How did one get into it? What were its benefits? (p. 138) In Europe, independent nations, based on “relatively homogeneous groups, seemed to reconstitute disparate human beings into citizens of a productive and efficient society” (139). Mishra brings in thinkers such as Marx, Hobbes, Alexander Herzen, Ivan Turgenev, and other intellectuals to underline that there existed also the recalcitrant posture of non-Western societies to “catch up with the West” (140).  The West became a success story and Asia and Africa must emulate it.  But paradoxically, the West was also a hot-bed of conflicts and ruthless exploiters of their colonies. The Hindu philosopher Vivekananda’s experiences with the West as well as those of the Buddhist Anagarika Dharmapala became sources of attitudes for young Indians to debate.

In “The Long Way to the Middle Way” the narration returns to the Buddha’s youth, his questioning of the existence of old age, suffering, death. Later, he married and had a son, still living in luxury. But he was not happy; he was lonely and had self-doubts. Probably with the support of a sramana, he left his family, his palaces, and his life of wealth and began his new life with short hair, no beard,  new yellow robes, an alms-bowl, and freedom. The Buddha meets various sramanas, meets with princes (especially important is his meeting with Bimbisara, king of Magadha), visits gurus (Alara Kalama, Udraka Ramaputra). Once he had learnt whatever there was to learn, he moved on, elaborating on the techniques and ideas he picked up from others. The Buddha reached stages of meditation beyond the first, that of detachment from his surroundings and preoccupations, feeling free of desires or other strong emotions and in which the meditator feels a high degree of comfort. “In the next two stages he stops thinking altogether and also transcends his feeling of comfort before reaching the fourth stage when he is aware only of the object of concentration and indeed has become one with that object.” (167) However, according to the Buddha,”concentration and endurance were important means, but without a corresponding moral and intellectual development, they by themselves did not end suffering.” (168) Having undergone severe ascetic practices, starvation, and withdrawal from society, he  “did not attain the special and wonderful knowledge and insight transcending the affairs of human beings”, and he still wondered if there could be another way to attain enlightenment. He pondered the possibility that seeking too hard was prohibiting him from achieving his purpose.

The chapter entitled  “The Science of the Mind” considers the Buddha’s enlightenment, which according to tradition happened under a pipal tree, one April or May during the full moon. The enlightenment consisted of having learnt “the four noble truths of human experience: suffering, its cause, the possibility of curing it, and its remedy. Knowing this, he felt liberated from ordinary human condition.” (p. 174) It also meant, that he would not be born into another existence. His enlightenment was not the result of divine intervention but of nine hours of meditation (so the legend goes) and more probably was due to his six-year long experience as meditator, ascetic and thinker. Later Buddhist philosophers refined and elaborated his enlightenment experiences. Today, psychiatrists and psychologists use mindful meditation in their practices, and neuroscientific research supports some of the Buddha’s observations. Buddhist philosophical contemplations did not elaborate and follow the path of scientific observations and explanations.

This was because Buddhist philosophers had different, more pragmatic, goals. They aimed not so much to transform the external world through science and politics, or to build nuclear bombs, as to help human beings understand the nature of mind and rid themselves of the negative emotions – anger, hatred, malice, jealousy – caused by their attachment to such solid-seeming entities as self and world. (p. 186)

The chapter entitled “Turning the Wheel”, analyzes the consequences of the Buddha’s  enlightenment both for him and for his followers and detractors. He tries to share his insight with others, gurus, ascetics, and sramanas. Most were unreceptive. His first sermon (Setting in Motion of the Wheel of the Dharma) illustrates his understanding of the Middle Way, i.e. one ought to follow neither the extreme of giving oneself up to indulgence in sensual pleasures nor the extreme of giving oneself up to self-torment since both are unprofitable. These are his four noble truths (189-190):

  1. Dukha, i.e., “suffering”
  2. Samudaya, i.e., suffering caused by craving (trishna)
  3. Nirodha, i.e., the cessation/cure of suffering
  4. Marga, i.e.the way leading to the cessation of suffering, consisting of an eight-fold path: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.

According to the Buddha, suffering was universal, felt by almost everyone alive, and he assumed that it was individual misperception or ignorance of the true nature of the self which caused this suffering. (190) Suffering is not only old age, sickness, death, mental anguish, physical pain, but also the impermanent and uncontrollable imperfect nature of the phenomenal world. Schopenhauer, Hume, Montaigne, Flaubert, Proust also dwelt on the impermanence of worldly things and of the individual self.

As a grand principle purporting to explain all of human life, trishna doesn’t seem much unlike Hegel’s Spirit of History, Schopenhauer’s Will, or Nietzsche’s Will to Power: something we can’t actually observe or verify, something vaguely metaphysical. The closest western parallel to trishna is Schopenhauer’s will to live, the blind force that lies behind life on earth...(196)

The Buddha traced suffering to actual human experiences of which the mind is a receptacle: experiences of impulses that underpin any individual action (changing posture, daydreaming, taking a break). These impulses are endlessly changing, and are not the result of an active decision by the individual, which is why the individual can’t be the cause of his own suffering. These impulses are the result of a human tendency of “clinging” (upadana), which “flourishes because of man’s profound ignorance (avidya) of the nature of the self and things as they actually are: impermanent, unsatisfactory, essence-less. Clinging produces our typical and renewable desire for status, power, wealth and sexual love. But, as the Buddha never tired of repeating, to desire complete and secure happiness with an elusive self and in an impermanent world is to court frustration and discontentment.” (196) He also redefined karma as “choice or intention” to act since a man acts by body, speech and mind. According to Mishra, the Buddha resembles the Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics who claimed that philosophy must expel the suffering of the soul.

After completing his first sermon, the Buddha won his first disciples who became ordained monks – probably the first such monastic sect in the world; soon, other bikshus joined in the sangha, including women.  The appearance, routine, and rules of the bhikshus changed little over centuries, and their duties to offer themselves to society as a model of virtuous behaviour and self-awareness continue to this day.

The next chapter traces the author’s travels through rural India, stopping at towns reeking of moral and physical squalor. He misses his accommodations in Mashobra, where he spent his time reading and studying,  and his landlord, Mr Sharma.  He notes the unimaginable fall of Bihar from the summit of intellectual and spiritual achievement to utter dereliction. He describes his meeting with Helen, an American student who many years later becomes a Buddhist monk and who he thinks has a greater awareness of the world than him: he saw her political stance and efforts in Nicaragua and Haiti “as another instance of the diverse advantages she enjoyed as an American – the same advantages that now permitted her to make herself into a Buddhist nun.” (258) And he avoids meeting her once he sees her back in India. His stay in London jars his emotions as he sees the city that he knew from literature and pictures come alive. He travels to France and then to America. He visits particular places because he wants to be where Proust had set his characters’ longing for fame, or where Emerson had preached self-reliance, or where Thoreau had translated Buddhist texts. (250) But he realizes his love of western writers and philosophers had been a form of idolatry, and that he has to see them as individuals shaped by circumstances. His observations of the mechanization of modern life, built around the gratification of individual needs, leads to no clarifications but only to more platitudes.

The chapter “Looking for the Self” returns to the life of the Buddha, his sermons, and above all his doctrine of “dependent origination”, which the author did not, at first, understand. According to his own admission, perhaps his understanding was limited by his perception of the Buddha as a thinker like Descartes, Kant, or Hegel – but the Enlightened one was not interested in dismantling or building a philosophical system (as they did), but his aim was therapeutic. The self was for him a process, rather than a substance, a becoming rather than a being. Consciousness, too, was primarily a reaction to stimuli: a visual consciousness, an auditory consciousness, etc. , stimuli which arise and fall constantly. The author claims that David Hume had a view of the self close to that of the Buddha. “The idea of reality as a process, first proposed by Heraclitus, entered the mainstream of western philosophy only with Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, William James and the discoveries of modern physics.” (259) And yet, everything is connected and in a state of change, nor random and chaotic but by a stable process of causation.  The Buddhists offer a twelve-point chain of “dependent origination”:                                Through ignorance,  volitional actions are conditioned;                                                    through volitional actions, consciousness is conditioned;                                                       through consciousness, mental and physical phenomena are conditioned;                  through mental and physical phenomena, the five senses and the mind are conditioned; through the six faculties, mental and sensory contact is conditioned;                           through sensory or mental contact, sensation is conditioned;                                        through sensation, desire is conditioned;                                                                           through desire, clinging is conditioned;                                                                               through clinging, the process of becoming is conditioned;                                                 through the process of becoming, birth is conditioned;                                                   through birth, decay, death, pain, etc.  are conditioned.

In other words, the Buddha posited a world which with its diversity, its structures and capacities had come into being as the result of prior actions of living beings motivated by greed, arrogance, passion and envy – by what he called klesha, afflictions, and their latent counterparts: ignorance, desire for sensual pleasure, thirst for existence, grasping onto identity, etc. Death does not end the causal connectedness: this made rebirth somewhat plausible, and it remains the one part of his teachings that requires a leap into faith. Other Buddhist thinkers elaborated on the notion of dependent origination, such as Nagarjuna, for whom each entity is empty of essence and nothing can be known except in terms of something else.

“The Fire Sermon” documents the slow but steady increase of the Buddha’s followers beginning with  those from the commercial class, i.e., people who were not a part of the Aryan caste system, lived in urban areas, and were open to new ideas. The increase of followers meant that women were asking to be a part of a Buddhist sangha (sect).  The Buddha’s stance was clear: the conditions for women were more severe than for men, and his thought was that he had expected his teachings to last a thousand years, but now that women were accepted, they would last only five hundred years.  This chapter also discusses the radically different view the Buddha held regarding fire – an element so crucial to the Brahmins’ religious worldview. Some enemies of the Buddha’s teachings did not stop at debating: there were attempts at this life and at taking over his sangha.

Although Buddhism is not concerned with political phenomena, as the chapter on “A Spiritual Politics” shows,  the teachings, to reach a wider audience, needed a convert in the king class. The conversion of Bimbisara, the king of Magadha, “appears a crucial event in the history of Buddhism” (p. 280). A further political move brought the Buddha to become a friend and advisor of Prasenajit, the king of Kosala. Furthermore, there was need to set some rules of the sangha, and it was to be structured as a small republic, which required a full assembly for reaching important decisions. If dissension among the sanghas appeared, the dissenters were to remove themselves and form a new group: clearly not a sentiment which puts the majority decision on a pedestal. But this attitude also saved Buddhism from sectarian wars, since its offshoots appeared early (Mahayana and Theravada, for example). But the monks’ duties included responsibilities towards the society that fed them and sheltered them: they were to enter the life of the society and direct everyone to honorable ends. In Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma, the monks exercised a lot of influence, even if sporadically. In Tibet, a monastic order ruled the country from the seventeenth century. The Buddha, being opposed to any kind of aggression, warned specifically against arms trade.

After the Buddha’s death, “Empires and Nations” “were coming into fashion” (p. 293), and this chapter deals with Buddhism in these new political circumstances. From the invasion of Alexander the Great (not a great influence on the Indian culture and vice-versa, Greek art laid the grounds for a Buddhist art known as Gandhara), to Ashoka’s first large-scale attempt to apply Buddhist ideas to ruling a state, to the central and south Indian kingdoms  of the Satavahana kings (Nagarjuna’s benefactors, it seems), to the Gupta dynasty (supporting Buddhist philosophers such as Asanga and Vasubhandhu and Dignaga).  After the seventh century there seems to be a decline of Buddhism as a guiding principle for statesmen. Although many rulers embraced the ideas of non-violence, plurality of human beliefs, importance of dialogue, it was impossible to keep within the teachings. More recent examples show Buddhist monks supporting the Sinhalese nationalists in Sri Lanka (1980s violent civil war with Tamil Hindu separatists), Buddhists in Japan supporting militarist and imperialist campaigns in Asia (early twentieth century).  In the West, nationalism comes under severe scrutiny, but imperialist and military interventions become more and more violent. For many reasons, India had a rough time after becoming independent from the British, liekly because the system of administration was foreign, and  the centralized state “set itself up as a supreme arbiter in the lives of its citizens”: dissent was dealt with ruthlessly, Kashmir became a hotbed of violence. Indians of all persuasions allowed themselves to use any means in order to prop meaningless abstractions like “national integrity” (p. 318). Can the Buddha enlighten the economic and political preoccupations of the modern world?

The Buddha seems far away from the world-historical events that preoccupied men like Rousseau, smith, Marx and Valéry: the rise of individual in a market society; the scramble for profits by the new individuals created by the break-up of old moralities; the creation of centralized states; the conquest and organized exploitation of peoples and their resources around the world; the violent revolutions based on the seizure of state power and private property.  (329)

Old age, disease, death, desiring and clinging – the most natural processes individuals know – proved to him the fact of suffering. To what extreme diagnoses and prescriptions would he have been provoked had he witnessed the twentieth century, the high intensities of suffering human beings inflicted and continue to inflict on other human beings, the wars, the massacres, the famines, the Holocaust, the Gulag? It was easy to imagine the Buddha from a simpler time who stressed the need for loving-kindness, and who could only be utterly bewildered in a historically more complex age by the enormous ordeals of human beings. But there was plenty of suffering during the Buddha’s time too – and people had fewer distractions with which to dull the pain. … Organized greed, war, genocide – they were not unknown to the Buddha. (330)

But the preoccupation with mental awareness and the acceptance of the fact that everything is connected in the world may lead to nihilism or may become the target of degraded forms of Marxism (Tibet, Vietnam). Some parallels are drawn between the Buddha and Gandhi (who was not a Buddhist), especially the latter’s methods of satyagraha (non-violent persuasion).

“Western Dharmas” is a chapter focusing on the author’s stays in London (as an author, journalist, commentator on international events). History was his guide to London, and he concludes that “the past that was still alive for me was unrecognizable for most English people my age.” (351) In San Francisco he met Helen again, who as a Buddhist nun was involved with a hospice for AIDS patients and worked with homeless people. It reminded him about his early experiences with Buddhist thought through brochures and publications that spanned Buddhism,  Psychoanalysis and Ecology. He was discovering many facts about Buddhism, such as it was the oldest to come about, but latest to become a world religion. He took part in a Zen meditation retreat (“it seemed to be a peculiarly western way of dividing time – like the idea of confirming leisure to weekends. p. 358), where he wondered about the ethnically-diverse participants’ need to look for alternatives to their ancestral religions. The different types of Buddhism he encountered in America were due to the fact that Buddhism had to”adjust itself to a set of cultural assumptions fundamentally inimical to it.” (362), but Buddha himself “was inclined to modulate his teachings for the sake of his audience” (364). Mishra outlines the various ways different types of Buddhism (Zen especially) entered the United States: individual intellectuals, authors (such as Jack Kerouac), as well as middle-class people and workers in the corporate world. Mediation became the central practice, not only because it was emphasized by the Buddha but also because it was a release from the every-day irritating, nervous,  stressful consciousness and it permitted the meditators to engage in their other activities.

The chapter on “Overcoming Nihilism” is focused on Buddhism in ‘America’, its almost mainstream appearance. While meditation was practiced, “Few people explored its metaphysics and epistemology, partly because the key Buddhist ideas of karma and reincarnation were fraught subjects for people brought up that all human beings are born, or at least should be considered, equal in all respects.” (372) Buddhism had to come up against  other deeply intellectualized political ideologies, and psychological and emotional habits. The anecdote about the Dalai Lama is instructive: he heard some students at Harvard confess that they suffered from “self-hatred”. The Dalai Lama, who “was brought up in a tradition much less keen on individualism”, did not know what the expression meant. Mishra explores Nietzsche’s idea of the end of religion as the “most terrible news” because the consequence could be the possibility that other beliefs would lead people to reach a “private reconciliation with the general malaise”. No rapprochement is possible between the nihilistic attitude of Nietzsche and Buddha’s self-overcoming.

“The Last Journey” returns to the Buddha’s last days: he lived to be about eighty,  he had spent the monsoon months at a monastery near Shravasti, had journeyed and preached across North India. He ate a  meal in Pava after which he suffered from bloody dysentery which exhausted him: he knew he was dying. Even in his last moments, the Buddha repeated that “all things that are pleasant and delightful are changeable, subject to separation and becoming other….whatever is born … is subject to decay” (386).

“Committed to Becoming”, the last and the most gloomy chapter, recounts the original idea for this book to trace the teachings and evolution of Buddhism. The author was traveling to Afghanistan after the Taliban defaced the statues of the Buddha and mosque preachers railed against various infidels, with the consequence that there was no memory of Asanga and Vasubhandu, the fourth-century Buddhist philosophers who had  lived in in the area; the whole cosmopolitan life of Buddhism vanished from even its greatest centre in the Indian subcontinent (390). He attended an international conference of radical Islamists and he  realized the awful consequences for the radicalized youth who were uprooted from their native villages, whose ancestors created one of the greatest civilizations, but “who had now little to look forward to, except possibly the short career of a suicide bomber. The other kind of future once laid out for them failed. This was the future in which everyone in the world would wear a tie, work in an office or factory, precise birth control, raise a nuclear family, drive a car and pay taxes.”(392) The march to modernity became harder and more frustrating. Those who were attempting a change “knew that there remained no unknown lands and peoples for them to conquer, control and exploit. They could only cut down their own forests, pollute their own rivers and lakes, and seek to control and thereby oppress their own people, their women and minorities.” (p. 393) These uprooted individuals dreamed a western dream of revolution, but this only underlined the fact that their rage went against imagined entities such as ‘America’ or the ‘West’, which the grand majority of them did not really know. Interestingly, the author muses on his own situation – by then, he is in his thirties, he had traveled, and had  written books and articles: a kind achievement given his modest beginnings.

For much of my life, I had been oppressed by the shame of being poor and ignorant and belonging to backward-looking community, of not truly possessing a language, and of not having any clearly defined gift or talentI had in time overcome these fears, partly by learning the ways of the modern world, picking up its primary language, English, and educating myself through the immense literature available in it. I had become  one of the privileged few who had overcome their disadvantages and found a provisional home in the West. In time, all that had initially struck me in England as inscrutable  …  had lost its power to alienate. Yet, this strange journey had also made a strange man of me. When I looked back, I saw many different selves…(395)

He still doubted that his intellectual and spiritual vagrancy was all he had to look forward to, and he could not suppress the  “quiet panic” knowing this.  He came back to Mashobra where many changes had occurred. He realized that his quest for understanding the Buddha had given him some sense of the effort needed to control one’s greed, hatred and delusion. But

I was still uncertain where the Buddha’s teachings stood in relation to the unmanageably large political and economic conflicts that increasingly decided the fates of most human beings. … I couldn’t see how they could be applied to the conduct of modern nations and empires, the clash of ideologies that had shaped much  of the contemporary world, and the globalization that reflected an actual state of economic and political interdependence. 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? It was easier to see what he hadn’t promised. (398-399)

No large-scale social engineering advocated by all creeds, philosophies, religions, and -isms could entertain Buddhism. Mishra learned of the 9/11 attacks in Mashobra and a terrible image arose in his mind: that of the many uprisings in India, murders, suicide attacks on individuals and institutions – these “obscured the fact that the brutality of the world had come to America.” (400) The Buddha’s answer here would seem to be that the mind is the only place where human beings – however helpless – can have full control over their lives: what seems like necessity weakens in the mind’s self-knowledge, since concepts are revealed as fragile and arbitrary constructions, and real freedom becomes tangible. Mishra ends with his vision of the Buddha in this world, now, “amid its great violence and confusion, holding out the possibility of knowledge as well as redemption”. (404)

 

 

 

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Captain Fantastic

cptnfant

This is a great movie: from the gut reaction of shedding some tears to laughing out loud, it has us also wonder about some basic questions of parenting. Above all, this little jewel underscores the generally well-observed fact which almost no one adheres to: do not make value judgements about people and their actions, since you don’t know the whole truth. In the case of Ben, the truth is that he  made his 6 children live in the forests of the US Pacific Northwest because he wanted his wife to get better by attempting to make her lose the chains of mental illness, not because he was some type of freaky hippie.

Here are three questions-considerations stemming from some scenes in the film which made an impact on me:

  1. Is knowledge acquired from books such a bad thing?  Ben’s oldest son (Bo)  claims that he does not know anything that has not been written in a book:                                     I know nothing! I know nothing! I am a freak because of you! You made us            freaks!  And mom knew that! She understood! Unless it comes out of a fucking book, I don’t know anything about anything!                                                                                  This is interesting, since nowadays, teachers often say  that students don’t know anything because they do not read and therefore are not appropriately familiar with any topic.  Furthermore, Ben’s 4-year old daughter knows not only what the Bill of Rights is, but she can also quote the individual amendments. Ben’s sister’s children (boys over 10) do not know what the Bill is. One could ask what the utility of knowing the Bill of Rights is while living in the wilderness. Either everything written has a value no matter where one lives (and therefore one can actually think about many, many topics and put arguments together, making one’s own mind  naturally), or nothing has a value and therefore making one’s own mind does not come easily (and one is easily persuaded). The film clearly leans on the side of usefulness of books for the cognitive growth of children, especially as the father asks the children to talk about the ideas that the book evoke (not to describe the plot).
  2. When will a “controlling” parent stop being such a parent? In the film, Leslie’s  father controls the way her body is to be disposed of,  even though it is contrary to her last wishes. What does it exactly mean when a parent/caregiver says to his/her child: “I am doing this for your own good”? Different parents have differing opinions of what this “good” means. The film attempts to give children the right to express their own “good”. In this meaning, the title of the film may be misleading.
  3. Is spirituality always connected to giving/receiving gifts? Noam Chomsky is the spiritual godhead in the film and celebrating his “birthday” means Ben’s children get gifts. Gifts which are bought in the store; therefore, the film seems to be saying that even a “wild” education falls prey to  consumerism.                                                                                                                                                                                                          One of the most entertaining  lines of the film mentions Marxists, Trotskyit, Trotskyist, and Maoist almost all in one breath, the other reflects the mother’s desire to have her body cremated according to the Buddhist tradition and then flush the ashes down the toilet.  A number of American cultural traditions and problems are either made fun of or questioned (giving some wine to children, obesity, consumerism, hypocrisy, ostentation of wealth, etc.). It would be most instructive to hear what children and young adults think of the film.  All in all, since the idea to live in wilderness as a family was not really the initial push toward this type of unconventional education, it is difficult to make judgements about it. Suffice it to say that good parenting is never just parenting: it is also (maybe above all) the relationship between the parents. The dynamics may be unpredictable (one child or more? one parent or more? religious background or atheistic or agnostic? right-leaning or left-leaning politically? etc. etc.) but in conclusion, parenting is always unwitting experimentation.