Today's date:
Summer 2005

What Would the Buddha Think?

Pankaj Mishra is author of The Romantics and An End to Suffering: The Buddha In The World.

London—NPQ’s interview with Rene Girard is fascinating. Having written recently a book on the Buddha and his relevance to the modern world, I am tempted to see what a Buddhist view of the existential and spiritual situation you discussed may look like. Certainly, the Dalai Lama, whom I regard as the most articulate representative of the Buddhist world view, views with considerable skepticism the secular materialism prevailing in the Western world. He would agree, with some qualifications about the word "religion," that "without religion, societies go to the dogs." He no doubt believes that a life relatively free of "egoism and desire" is possible, and indeed, given the present circumstances, is much desirable.

But he would also argue that such a life can be achieved without faith in a God or the conviction of superiority of Buddhism or Christianity. Maybe the new Pope was speaking about this faith-less aspect of Buddhism when he defined it as "auto-erotic spirituality." I think most Buddhists would not mind this description, however pejoratively it may have been intended. Buddhism, alone among all major world religions, sees the ethical life as the highest form of spirituality—a life made possible by an intense awareness, helped by the practice of meditation, of one’s thoughts, actions and their consequences: the knowledge of how suffering has causes in the mind, which can be alleviated by continuous attentiveness, by acts of compassion and empathy.

The Buddha said of his diagnosis and cure of suffering, "Verify within yourself." He was opposed to orthodoxy of any kind; he proposed no gods or explanations of how the world came into being. This has made it possible for Buddhism to avoid the potentially damaging conflict with science, and diminished credibility, that Christianity had suffered in the previous centuries. This also makes it easier for people in the modern West to assimilate Buddhist ideas into their secularized lives.

Coming to the debate about relativism in Europe, I suspect that much of it will remain an argument about whose values or culture are superior unless we step back a bit and consider, among other things, the traditional perception of the West in the societies many of the Muslim immigrants come from. After all, most of the Muslims are in the West because their own societies were rendered uninhabitable by, first, Western colonialism, and then the destructive forms of Western political philosophy and ideology: heavily armed nation states built around the idea of endless economic growth, many of which were used by the West and the Soviet Empire to fight the Cold War, and which now struggle to rebuild their war-torn, shattered economies, occasionally helped, or most often damaged further, by the prescriptions of the IMF and World Bank.

To say this is not to incite guilt or remorse among people in the West, but to attempt to explain how Muslims may appear intransigent as they face what they see as new aggressive demands from the West for integration, reformation, etc. In any case, what is it they ought to integrate into? I must admit to being surprised at finding Girard approving of integration even as he deplores the secular postmodern culture of Western societies that in his own words has "drifted beyond the pale." The logic of his argument would seem to support greater space for Islamic cultures to flourish within a secularized Western Europe.

In the current political climate, it is perhaps just as easy to suspect the entire Muslim population of Holland of extremism, or grow anxious about Europe going Muslim, because of one terrible crime as it is to take a purely text-based view of Islam. Faith is, of course, hugely important in Islam, and the Shariah can furnish examples of extreme fanaticism, but none of this has precluded, or can preclude, Muslim tolerance of, and coexistence with, people of other faiths. The well-known example is of the Ottoman Empire which accommodated Jews at a time when they were welcome nowhere in Europe. There are many lesser known examples of Muslims in South Asia both living with and ruling, largely peacefully, large Hindu populations.

How do Europe’s current problems with immigrants and relativism look when contrasted to this long history of multiculturalism in Asia? European nation states have achieved a degree of social and cultural homogeneity after centuries of wars, revolutions and ethnic cleansing, the last of which happened very recently, during the population transfers after the Second World War. They have been further homogenized, and secularized, in the postwar years of relative affluence by American-style middle-class consumerism. Now, they are troubled by the growing presence in their midst of foreigners from unknown lands, although, it must be remembered, many of these Muslims helped rebuild their postwar economies and contributed to their present affluence.

Someone looking at European societies from, say, India might plausibly assert that they have had no recent acquaintance with social and cultural plurality, which has long existed in many parts of Asia, and which was threatened only when Asian societies colonized by the West tried to turn themselves into European-style nation states—as happened during the partition of India, the scale of whose violence dwarfs all other conflicts in eight centuries of Hindu-Muslim coexistence. Perhaps, the traditional form of the secular nation state cannot deal with plurality of the sort the immigrants threaten to introduce into Europe. If so, it may be more productive to imagine new political forms than to echo vague demands for Muslims to integrate into a culture which is hardly what one likes oneself.

This brings me to your very stimulating discussion of globalization. "Mimetic rivalry" sounds absolutely right. Globalization is driven by a vision of Western consumer lifestyles which native elites in Asia and Latin America have embraced. And given how much it costs to support these lifestyles, competition and conflict are inevitable, regardless of whether the playing field is round or flat. After all, Japan, the first Asian country to Westernize itself in the 20th century, didn’t waste much time in challenging American and British domination of Asia. So although Indian and Chinese cities may look more like New York and London, and flatter a certain kind of insecure Western expert, India and China’s search for energy resources for their growing middle classes is bound to bring them in conflict with the West, perhaps, with America, if not Europe. So we may see another round of destructive wars in this century.

What can religious leaders do to avert them, to persuade people of the necessity of conceiving a life beyond egoism and desire? I was very moved to read Rene Girard’s account of the Gospels as opposed to the "cycle of violence." As we know, Mahatma Gandhi was greatly inspired by this particular message and gave it a central role in his political-spiritual vision and method. But I wonder if he would have endorsed Girard’s claim that Christianity is superior to all other religions. Despite his reverence for the Gospels, and the person of Christ in particular, Gandhi was a Hindu and made no bones about being one. At the same time he sought to persuade no one of the superiority of Hinduism. He opposed religious conversion on the grounds that people should stick to the traditions they were brought up in.

I am not sure if people in the West insisting on the superiority of Christianity would do much more than aggravate already existing cross-cultural tensions—the US army general who recently claimed that his God is bigger than all other gods is unlikely to have made any converts in America, not to mention the Muslim world. And who will be persuaded by these assertions in India or China, apart from some devout Catholics? I wonder if it is not more relevant to try to find traditions—in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam—which chime with the truth of the Gospels. This is what Gandhi, that great improviser, tried to do: to attempt a synthesis in the unique historical moment he found himself in, when no one religion or ideology appeared able to alleviate on its own economic exploitation, political oppression and spiritual suffering—a crisis of modernity which, we probably agree, is now more complex and bewildering than it was in his own time.


Buddha Meets Nietzsche

Frederic Nietzsche praised Heraclitus for discovering "the eternal and exclusive process of becoming, the utter evanescence of everything real, which keeps acting and evolving, but never is." The impact of this stunning notion, Nietzche wrote, "is most closely related to the feeling of an earthquake, which makes people relinquish their faith that the earth is firmly grounded. It takes astonishing strength to transpose this reaction into its opposite, into sublime and happy astonishment."

Nietzsche never ceased to think of the Buddha as a passive nihilist, and so failed to see that the Buddha, far from wallowing in Oriental nothingness, had offered a practical way of achieving such a sublimation: how human beings, beginning with mental skillfulness and meditation, could reach a perception of trishna, the state of endless desire, insecurity and frustration, and control and transmute their basic strivings into a recognition of impermanence.

In his freedom from ressentiment, greed and hatred, the Buddha was like the superman who had liberated himself from the "morality of custom" and acquired "a power over oneself and over fate," which has "penetrated to the profoundest depths and become instinct."

Like Nietzsche, the Buddha too had attempted to reaffirm the natural dignity of human beings without resourse to the ambitious schema of metaphysics, theology, reason or political idealism.

This was the Buddha’s own project of self-overcoming. It was based on his unillusioned insight into what human beings, though bound by society, by impersonal forces they barely understood, could still do: realize within their own being and share with others the conditioned nature and interdependence of things, and the need for an ethical life—all aspects of the Buddha’s teaching that were not only rediscovered by Buddhists in the West but also echoed by some of the great spiritual and intellectual figures living through the extraordinarily violent century prophesized by Nietzsche.

—Pankaj Mishra, adapted from "An End To Suffering: The Buddha in the World"