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.
The way of the world–its violence and beauty, symmetry and chaos, drama and grace–when examined closely and without sentimentality, is almost unbelievable in its power and complexity, and J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine is one of the more successful attempts at exploring this phenomenon. A wonderfully peculiar hybrid of field guide and travelog in which observation and obsession collide, it’s a work of substance, captivation, and terror that far surpasses what one might expect from such a slim volume.
Baker’s stated purpose is to track a pair of peregrine falcons from Fall to Spring across eastern England. Patient and dogged, Baker details a vivid world that’s seemingly void of humans and in which falcons are those that set everything in motion. Baker’s kinship with the peregrines progressively deepens, eventually arriving at a point when he seems to slough off his humanness in an experience “of proximity, of identification.” (p. 138) Slowly but surely, he’s acculturated into the hawks’ terrain.
Baker’s appraisal of landscape, arguably as crucial to this work as the peregrines, is rendered in a clean, crisp, and compact prose that none-the-less possesses a high concentration of insight and import. The writing is deceptively lyrical, and, being equal parts pithy and potent, I found myself regularly revisiting passages in an effort to unpack deeper meanings and revel in Baker’s stunningly evocative descriptions and deft wielding of metaphor. In regards to this expressive treatment of nature and, particularly, terrain, Cormac McCarthy’s western landscapes may come to mind, but Baker is far more lucid and exacting, avoiding bombast and dealing instead in acuity and accuracy that, though simmering, are every bit as dramatic.
This is a book to be savored and re-explored. It’s a singular work, one that implies and implicates far more than is directly present in the text. It’s about falcons, to be sure, but it’s also about being human, being present, and being a part of something far larger than we often realize.