BUDDHISM AT WORK: by George D. Bond. Kumarian Press, 2003. Paperback, 158 pages. $21.95.
This review was originally conceived as a small literary conceit, a faux dialog bookending Pankaj Mishra’s introspective journey into Buddhism and George Bond’s exploration of Sarvodaya, a social movement based on Buddhist and Gandhian ideals.
Suddenly, a week before this review’s deadline, Papa Kakosa, my wife’s youngest uncle, passed away. Instead of going for a morning walk with his wife, Purnima Kaki, he had a cup of chai, shared laughter with his family, and felt the sweating onset of the end. The hospital in Jodhpur couldn’t stop the heart attack. The planned afternoon visit of his daughter’s prospective father-in-law couldn’t slow the inevitable. He was 55.
A few days earlier, Chitra Parayath, who I did not know, but with whom I shared these book review pages, died in a car accident while visiting the tsunami-stricken islands of her childhood to write a series of articles about the tragedy that took away hundreds of thousands of lives. She was 44.
There are so many other deaths—privately and publicly grieved—that are too painful to contemplate in their cumulative sorrow. Touched by the loss of a gentle soul like Papa Kakosa, I’ve found myself pushing back hard against both sukha and dukha, joy and suffering.
Death is perhaps the only end to suffering. But for as long as humans have reflected on the purpose of life, priests, laypeople, philosophers, and kings have looked for ways to end suffering in life itself. Indeed, an end to suffering is what Siddhartha Gautama, the disillusioned kshatriya prince, sought in his path toward enlightenment as the Buddha.
After the Buddha’s death, his teachings spread widely through Asia: within India itself under the patronage of rulers such as Ashoka, and then south into Sri Lanka, east into Thailand, and eventually northeast toward China, Korea, and Japan.
As he himself traveled toward Buddhism, Pankaj Mishra sought to understand how Buddhism traveled beyond India. Mishra’s book, An End to Suffering, deftly brings together his personal journey with the history of Buddhism. He reflects that someone like himself, “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.”
Mishra is an earnest writer. His writing alternates between personal narrative and academic exposition. The earnestness is endearing when applied to the personal, and at times tiring when applied to the academic. Thus the experience of reading An End to Suffering is akin to being on a skiff in the choppy waters of the Indian Ocean: one rides the wave to its height with Mishra on his journey into Buddhism, but the wave crashes as he instructs the reader about the history and literature of Buddhism.
In college and young adulthood, Mishra was fascinated that some of the greatest Western intellectuals (Nietzsche, Hesse, Thoreau, Borges, Einstein, and others) “appreciated the ideas presented … by an obscure Indian sage under a tree.” He later fled his oppressive middle-class upbringing in Delhi to read and write in Mashobra, a pastoral town near Shimla. Mishra believed that a “new life was beginning for [him] in which [he] too would have a claim on the world’s ample store of happiness.” Mishra’s book is the outcome of his pursuit of happiness.
By the end of the book, it appears that the author has merely reconciled himself to suffering rather than transcending it. He writes, “Yet this strange journey had also made a strange man of me. When I looked back, I saw many different selves … In few of these restless, grasping selves … could I find as much as a trace of humility, or compassion.” A few pages later, Mishra closes his book looking outside of himself: “What did the Buddha, who had lived in a simpler time, have to offer people fighting political oppression, social and economic injustice, and environmental destruction?”
One answer to Mishra’s question is found in George Bond’s Buddhism at Work. “The world can clearly benefit from Sarvodaya’s message of peace … These teachings provide an essential antidote to the forces of globalization and Westernization that tend to emphasize individualism and competition … Sarvodaya has shown that this materialistic philosophy based on desire creates structures of violence that lead the world away from peace and closer to social and environmental destruction.” Balancing social empowerment and personal awakening, Bond’s slender volume nicely complements Mishra’s more expansive work. (Full disclosure: George Bond taught my Hinduism class at Northwestern University, where he is a professor in the Religion Department.)
If Bond and Mishra were in dialogue, Mishra might ask, “Professor Bond, I see more clearly what the Buddha has to offer our complex times, but is Sarvodaya an idealized utopia? Is it Buddhism applied to the Sri Lankan village context, or does it have more universal validity?”
Bond might quietly point to his book and say, “I believe Buddhism at Work describes the evolving mission, vision, and values of Sarvodaya. Founded in 1958 by A.T. Ariyaratne as a means to village empowerment, Sarvodaya is socially engaged Buddhism that can scale from one village to thousands of villages, from one nation to the planet earth. But be clear that Sarvodaya is not simply applied Buddhism. It is built on three strands: Gandhian ideals, ecumenical spirituality, as well as Buddhist philosophy.”
Mishra might interject, “But again Professor, isn’t this some kind of utopia you are describing?”
Bond would good-naturedly reply, “Yes, it is. However, as I write, ‘it is utopian in a positive and prophetic sense … Sarvodaya has taught countless individuals how to awaken themselves to these spiritual values by working to awaken their communities.’ Mr. Mishra, if you had the choice of living only 55 years, each day lived with gentle compassion and loving kindness, or 110 years of greed, hatred, and delusion, what would you do?”
The reflective Mishra would say, “I know what I would want to do, but I’ve been traveling the world to find out what I would do.”
Engaged in this dialogue, Bond might conclude, “To that, I can only share with you Sarvodaya’s enduring interrelationship of the individual and society—you build the road and the road builds you.” —Rajesh C. Oza
For Papa Kakosa, who was a “bridge” to the Gandhian ethos that you must be the change you want to see in the world.