I recently read Pankaj Mishra’s An End to Suffering
while I was travelling in India. I stumbled across the book whilst visiting my sister in Delhi, and it turned out to be synchronistically relevant for my journey to McLeod Ganj, a Tibetan Buddhist settlement nestled in the lush mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh.
An End to Suffering is a semi-autobiographical narrative which tracks the writer’s growing understanding of Buddhism as he meets different people, visits holy sites and reads more about the life of Gautama Siddhartha, who later became a ‘buddha’ or ‘awakened one’.
The book combines factual detail with personal insight with a fine balance that compels the reader to turn its pages. We learn as much about the writer’s personal aims and ambitions as we do about the Buddha’s renunciation of his desires. The prose flows smoothly and delicately from one chapter to the next, and before you know it, you’re mourning the ‘end’ of a good book. Pankaj Mishra’s writing style is very easy to get into: it is simple yet effective.
I had read about Buddhism before, but I had never understood it in as much depth as I did during my trip to McLeod Ganj. The tiny hill station accommodates hundreds of monks, nuns and almost as many tourists. In a humble and serene house inside the main monastery resides the present Dalai Lama. I wasn’t able to meet him during my visit, but I did get a chance to learn about Buddhist teachings. What became very clear to me was the dichotomy between Buddhist practice and Buddhist culture. As with any religion, the paraphernalia of culture and ritualism overshadows the philosophy that the Buddha related in north-east India a few centuries ago.
There are some very diligent Buddhists in McLeod Ganj, but most of the monks are swayed by the western tourism which supports and influences the settlement. It is common to see monks with mobile phones, garbed in maroon robes and perhaps wearing rollerskates too. I do not mean to judge the choices of free individuals, but more to teach myself to see the difference between spiritual practice and cultural influence. In Hindu worship, we see blind ritualism occurring all the time, when people follow age-old customs whilst refuting the underlying spiritual values through their daily actions. We all do it to some extent.
Reading An End to Suffering whilst in McLeod Ganj made the Buddha’s teaching come alive with meaning. The Buddha’s observations are very relevant to our modern world, where, due to forced Chinese occupation, Tibetan natives face grueling conditions to leave their country, only to be trapped in ‘democracies’ where drugs and capitalism serve to numb the pain of consciousness. This is just one of many examples that show how we are destroying ourselves and our planet in the present age.
The Buddha taught that life is ‘dukkha’, which means restlessness (commonly translated as ‘suffering’). This restlessness arises from our own cravings to either attain something or be free of something. But whatever joy or pain we feel in our chase for things, it is all temporary. We want our joy to last and our pain to fade forever, but both these things keep coming and going. The Buddha’s answer is to awaken to this reality, the reality that is flux and change and nothing more. He suggests that by awakening, our cravings will ebb away and we will find an end to suffering.
Pankaj Mishra’s reminiscences of his own childhood, travels and achievements provide the backdrop of an example for the Buddha’s explanations. We see Mishra confront his own cravings and the flux of his changing life. But all the while, do we notice the flux in our own lives as we read? I would recommend this book to anyone interested in seeing Buddhism in a personal light.