Situating Buddhism in the contemporary West is often most successful when one details their personal journey and/or de-emphasizes any esoteric rituals and traditions in favor of focusing exclusively on practicality. By dislocating Buddhism from its roots, it can be approached simply as kind of mental technology–a set of tools and techniques for guiding one’s mind and energy toward functional insight.
But what about societies that have a long history with Buddhism? India, in this case, is quite peculiar, as it’s the birthplace of Buddhism, and, yet, it’s been lacking a substantial Buddhist presence for over a millennium. What can Buddhism offer to contemporary India? It’s this question that Pankaj Mishra strives to answer in An End to Suffering, and it turns out that, while disassociation from history and tradition is impossible in a place like India, approaching Buddhism, and the life and legacy of the Buddha specifically, is perhaps best achieved by turning inward.
Part history, part cultural study, part biography, part memoir, An End to Suffering is deeply personal and, at times, quite digressive, ranging from subcontinental travelogues to analyses of Nietzsche to reveries of days spent reading and writing in the Himalayan foothills. We learn of how Mishra first grew interested in the Buddha as a young man, and how his then blurry grasp of Buddhist thought, history, and practice led him to brush it all aside in favor of more assertive and seemingly relevant thinkers, philosophies, and politics. This makes sense: for a young man craving an identity that’s not confined by the strictures of India’s complex past, the Buddha–with his philosophy of non-self and his privileging of the present over past and future–isn’t a terribly obvious choice.
Yet, it turns out it’s exactly this denial of self that Mishra needs in order relieve not just his anxieties of identity, but those that plague contemporary society as a whole. Mishra ultimately understands that following in the steps of the Buddha means living a life less reliant on ideology and releasing one’s self from the constructs of identity, class, race, and history. It’s about a freedom from the past. It’s about becoming, instead of being.