Book Review: Buddha or Bust

Buddha or Bust: In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness, and the Man Who Found Them All by Perry Garfinkel, Harmony (June 13, 2006), 336 pages

Buddha or BustWhen Perry Garfinkel was granted an interview with the Dalai Lama in Dharmashala, he wanted an to start with an expensive ice-breaker. So Perry first went to Xining, the capital of the Chinese Province of Qinghai which was near to the village where the Dalai Lama was born. There he met Gongbu Tashi, the Dalai Lama’s nephew and got a message recorded from him for his uncle. Later when Perry met Dalai Lama, he played the message for him.

The meeting with Dalai Lama was the final part of his 10 week journey to understand why Buddhism is growing in popularity around the world. Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in United States, after Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. He also wanted to understand why an idea 2500 years old is still relevant today and if Buddhism can help solve many of the world’s problems. For this, he travels on assignment from National Geographic to the place where Buddhism originated and is still practiced like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Hong Kong, China, Japan, France and  United States.

One reason why Buddhism has become relevant is because it is active in social causes. In Nagpur, India he meets Dalits who have been converted to Buddhism by Ambedkar. He cites this as an example of a new Buddhist movement based on social equality and as a rejection of the oppressive caste system. He also meets Dr. Narendra Jadhav, a Dalit convert and principal adviser in the Department of Economic Analysis and Policy for the Reserve Bank of India who says that one of the benefits of  the conversion is that now they can give their children names like Siddharth and Pradnya instead of Dagoo and Kacharu.

In Sri Lanka he meets Dr. A.T.Ariyaratne, the founder of Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, a political organization at a grassroots level that is Buddhist based. In Thailand he finds the group International Network of Engaged Buddhists and also monks involved in preventing illegal logging.  Like how water takes shape of the container, Garfinkel discovers that Buddhism fits into the cultural vessel of each country to which it has migrated. In Thailand he goes to Wat Bang Phra where he meets a monk who is into religious tattoos and various other people who are into Buddhist art. In the Shaolin Temple in China he meets monks who practice martial arts and in Japan he meets Buddhist calligraphers.

It is not just in social movements that Buddhism has made its mark. In Tihar jail he meets prisoners who have undergone transformation after practicing vipassana, a meditation technique practiced in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism.  In United States clinical patients have reported decreases in physical and psychological symptoms by practicing Buddhist meditation.

Buddhism has popularity among people of other religion as well. Garfinkel and his friends belong an American sect called Bu-Jews. They are Jews who practice Buddhism and about 30 percent of the American Buddhists are of Jewish Background. It is in San Francisco that Garfinkel meets Wes  Nisker, who claims that he is the world’s first Buddhist stand-up. One of his lines is – “Before I became a Buddhist, I worried about my life”. Pause. “Now I worry about my next life”.

There have been valuable contributions from people belonging to other religions in making it popular. The meditation technique which the Buddha practiced, vipassana, was lost to the world, until it was bought back to India from Burma by S.N.Goenka, a Hindu. In Worcester in United States, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn adapted vipassana to help non spiritualists and called it Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) and now it is offered all around the country by various hospitals.

Though Buddhism originated in India and reached all around the world, Garfinkel now sees instances of cross pollination where Buddhism has benefited from ideas in the West. In Hong Kong, he meets a Chinese clinical psychologist named Helen Ma who took an eight-week intensive training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in Worcester and took it back to her country. In Thailand he meets monks who bought back contemplative education from Naropa University in Colorado to Bangkok and in India he meets Shantum Seth, Vikram Seth’s brother who discovered Buddhism in California and now conducts Buddhist tours in India.

While Buddhism took roots easily in some countries, in countries like China there was a conscious effort to control and restrict Buddhist activities. With the Cultural revolution, violent suppression of Buddhism was one of the goals which resulted in the Dalai Lama taking refuge in India. Instead of Buddha’s four noble truths, Chairman Mao offered his own truths in the Little Red Book called Quotations from Chairman Mao Tsetung which included gems like truth no (2) the minority is subordinate to the majority and (3) the lower level is subordinate to the higher level. Probably under due to fear, the Chinese people whom Garfinkel meets say that there is religious harmony in China as if they have never heard of what is happening in Tibet.

He also notices various ironies within the movement. In Deeksha Bhoomi in Nagpur, while among the Dalit converts, he notices a woman squatting and cleaning the floor who is ignored by everyone. While the Dalit converts wish each other as Jai Bhim, the woman responds with Namaste for which she is chided as it is an address entrenched in Hindu values with which they don’t want any ties. In Thailand he meets Sulak Sivaraksa, founder of International Network of Engaged Buddhists who goes on criticizing Goenka,  Thich Nhat Hanh and Hinduism. In Sri Lanka he meets Buddhists who are at war against the Tamil Tigers and learns that the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Solomon Bandaranaike, was assassinated by Talduwe Somarama, a Buddhist monk.

Perry Garfinkel has an good sense of humor. He is also very cynical. But for a person who has been involved with spiritual movements since the 70s he shows an utter lack of knowledge of Hinduism. In Mumbai he stays with two close disciples of S.N.Goenka who have been practitioners of vipassana. After their discussion of the practice, the husband Rohit shows Perry, idols of various Hindu gods to whom he prays. “Once a Hindu, always a Hindu”, he generalizes as if it is a contradiction.

The book filled with interesting anecdotes is an easy read and gives a quick report on various Buddhist movements around the world. It also shows how Buddhism is adapting itself to be relevant in the 21st century, but still I could not figure why it was titled “Buddha or Bust”.
Listen: Perry Garfinkel on KQED Forum

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One thought on “Book Review: Buddha or Bust

  1. I read all this article about varnam. I like it about deeply discussion on buddhism.specially about DR Babasaheb Ambedkar conversion because My father & Uncle played most Important role with DR Babasaheb in the conversion.
    now it is neccesary to all human kind to accept buddha teaching

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