Monday, October 03, 2005

An End to Suffering

For some reason I haven't been using this space to record the books I read. I think that's an oversight that I intend to start correcting.

This weekend I finished Pankaj Mishra's 'An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World' which was a very peculiar book indeed. Charitably, one might consider it a mixture of memoir and travelogue with historical , political and philosophical treatise; less charitably, an aimless, meandering self-indulgent volume.

For myself I could certainly have done without all exposition of Schopenhauer and particularly Nietzsche who apparently found much to admire in Buddhism. I also thought for a few horrible moments that I was going to presented with some daft idea that "Buddhism" was invented by the Orientalists who unearthed and proved its Indian provenance but that danger came and went.

There is also a surreal section in which the narrator goes to stay in East Sheen and stumbles upon Richmond Park the relevance of which entirely escaped me.

That said, for all the book's disorganisation I have learned a lot more about Buddhism, which interests me more and more as a moral philosophy.

It seems to me that it is about as far away as it is possible to be from the California cartoon caricature of Zen. It is an austere discipline with a prime objective of improving character through diligence. I wonder how it got mixed up with hippy notions of reverie and abandon? Perhaps through some confused and bastardised inheritance from Ginsberg and the Beats?

I find Buddhism very similar to Stoicism - and so does Mr. Mishra. He quotes Marcus Aurelius, sounding very Buddhist, on constant self awareness

Everywhere and at all times, it is up to you to rejoice piously at what is occurring at the present moment, to conduct yourself with justice towards the people who are present here and now.
I'm now reading, at Chris and Kim's recommendation, Donna Tartt's 'The Secret History' which is a thriller about a what happens when a cadre of students attempt to summon Dionysus by recreating a real, ancient Greek bacchanalian ceremony. This is a long way from Buddha and the Stoics.

I read chapter one yesterday. I can't help but laugh every time the twins "Charles and Camilla" turn up. I guess those names didn't have the same resonance when the book was published in '92.

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