Turning the Wheel
Pankaj Mishra’s « An End to Suffering » is the best literary non-fiction Indian book in a decade and one of the most beautiful books ever published in Buddhist literature. A reader can embrace it for its beautiful, shimmering prose, for the exact, honest autobiographical details that serve the narrative perfectly, its gripping, contemporary and moving narrative of the Buddha’s life, the complex and lucid way it criss-crosses and unravels history, philosophy, scholarship and the alluring, intimate breath of its travel narrative through ancient and present-day Buddhist India.
Document type: Book
The journey for Mishra began 10 years earlier when he left college and moved in 1992 « to a small Himalayan village called Mashobra ». Once he settles into Mr. Sharma’s cottage, he begins travelling « to the inner Himalayas, the Buddhist-dominated regions of Kinnaur and Spiti. » He went on these long journeys, he writes, « attracted by nothing more than a vague promise of some great happiness awaiting me at the other end ». « The bluish air trembled with temple bells ». « Moths knocked softly against the oil-stained glass of the lantern. » It is in Mashobra that the idea to write a book on the Buddha first emerges. « It seems odd now: that someone like myself, who knew so little of the world, and who longed, in one secret but tumultuous corner of his heart, for love, fame, travel, adventures in far-off lands, should also have been thinking of a figure who stood in such contrast to these desires : a man born two and a half millennia ago, who taught that everything in the world was impermanent and that happiness lay in seeing that the self, from which all longings emanated, was incoherent and a source of suffering and delusion. »
It is only several years and a couple of books later that this search turns from intellectual to spiritual. « I can’t recall, » he notes, « a spiritual crisis leading me to the Buddha. But then I didn’t know myself well; the crisis may have occurred without my being aware of it. In my early twenties, I lived anxiously from one day to the next, hoping for a salvation I could not yet define. » But a decade later one afternoon in London he feels a sense of crisis. « But on that afternoon in London, a few weeks after my return from Pakistan, when I thought again of the Buddha, I had become aware too of the futilities of my own life…and I couldn’t always suppress the quiet panic at the thought that the intellectual and spiritual vagrancy I had come to know was all I had to look forward to, no matter how much I knew or travelled. »
It is in the last few pages of this 400-page book that Mishra reveals that he could now see the Buddha as « a true contemporary »; « an acute psychologist » who had seen that the mind, where suffering arises from, is also the only place where suffering ends. « I now saw him in my own world, amid its great violence and confusion, holding out the possibility of knowledge and redemption — the awareness, suddenly liberating, with which I finally began to write about the Buddha. » Make no mistake: though the author says that in his « grasping selves » and his « nexuses of desires » he could not find « as much as a trace of humility, or compassion », the act of writing An End to Suffering is an act of loving kindness, humility and courage. It is Mishra the writer turning the wheel of the Buddha-dharma in the way only he knows. I was persuaded by its literary beauty as well as the author’s own (self-effacingly stated) dukkha and enlightenment.
I can’t think of too many Buddhist writings that are as beautiful and transforming as An End to Suffering. Perhaps Karen Armstrong’s Buddha, Sherab Chodzin Kohn’s The Awakened One, Peter Matthiessen’s Zen journals, Nine-Headed Dragon River, Stephen Batchelor’s Verses from the Centre, Jeffrey Paine’s Re-Enchantment and Pico Iyer’s Sun After Dark. Mishra’s book is the rarest of things in contemporary literature : a masterpiece of literary spiritual writing.