Chapter 1 one
A 2,500-Year-Old Idea That’s More Relevant Than Ever
You can’t ever get everything you want. It is impossible and you will never fully succeed. Luckily, there is another option; you can learn to control your mind, to stop outside of this endless cycle of desire and aversion. You can learn not to want what you want, to recognize desires but not be controlled by them. —The Buddha
The fundamental teachings of Gautama, as it is now being made plain to us by study of original sources, is clear and simple and in the closest harmony with modern ideas. It is beyond all disputes the achievement of one of the most penetrating intelligences the world has ever known. —H. G. Wells, in Outline of History
The man who taught me the most about Buddhism wasn’t a monk with a shaved head in saffron robes. He didn’t speak in Sanskrit code, and he didn’t live in a Himalayan monastery. In fact, he wasn’t even a Buddhist.
He was Carl Taylor, a lifelong San Franciscan who looked to be in his late 40s. At the moment he just looked cold, sitting upright in a bed rolled into the gardens off the hospice ward at Laguna Honda Hospital near San Francisco’s Twin Peaks. It was a high blue-sky summer afternoon, but in this city that often means a bone-penetrating chill. Carl was dying of cancer.
I was spending a week with the Zen Hospice Project, a group of Buddhist volunteers who assist the staff of the 24-bed hospice unit at this, one of the largest public long-term-care facilities in the United States. The project, now emulated around the world, uses two of Buddhism’s central teachings—awareness of the present moment and compassion for others—as tools to help bring a degree of dignity and humanity to those in the last stages of their lives. They’re not easy lessons to learn.
I sat beside Carl, helping adjust the well-worn flight jacket he used as a blanket. He wore his terminal diagnosis with resigned bravado. I tried to make small talk, but it was going terribly. What words of solace can you offer someone who doesn’t have long to live and knows it?
“So what kind of work do, er, did you do?”
Long silence. Slow drag on his cigarette. An eternity passed as we watched a white tuft of cloud break the blue monotony and move across the sky.
“I don’t really talk about my past.”
Okay. Squirming to keep the conversation moving forward, I mentally scrolled through my list of questions. But if I couldn’t ask about the past and there was no sense in asking about the future, that left only the present. And in the present, I was learning, there are no questions; there is just being. This made me feel awkward at first: Stripped of his questions, the journalist has no identity.
But Carl seemed content to have me just sit there, my company alone helping to ease some of his suffering. Once I accepted that I had nothing to do, nowhere to go and, perhaps most important, no one to be, I relaxed. Carl glanced sideways at me and smiled. We both understood I had just learned a small lesson. Together we watched another cloud go by.
That week I learned other lessons from the Buddhism 101 syllabus—lessons about the impermanence of life, about our attachment to the way we want things to be and the disappointment that comes when those things don’t come to pass, about physical and mental suffering, about the value of what Buddhists call sangha, which best translates to community. But most of all I saw how the lessons one man learned in India 2,500 years ago have been updated and adapted to the modern world.
Around the globe today there is a new Buddhism. Its philosophies and practices are being applied to augment mental- and physical-health therapies and to advance political and environmental reforms. Athletes use it to sharpen their game. Through it, corporate executives learn to handle stress better. Police arm themselves with it to defuse volatile situations. Chronic pain sufferers apply it as a coping salve. Because its teachings have such contemporary relevance, Buddhism is now experiencing a renaissance—even in countries like India, where it had nearly vanished, and China, where it had been suppressed.
Buddhism is no longer just for monks or Westerners with disposable time and income to dabble in things Eastern. Christians and Jews practice it. African Americans meditate alongside Japanese Americans. In the United States alone, the number of self-declared Buddhists jumped from 400,000 in 1990 to more than
3 million by 2001, James Coleman, a sociologist at California Polytechnic State University, writes in The New Buddhism. And according to a 2004 study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, one in eight Americans—more than 37 million—believe that Buddhist teachings have had an important influence on their spirituality.
The Zen Hospice Project is one example of “socially engaged Buddhism,” a term coined by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who was exiled from Vietnam in the 1960s for his nonviolent antiwar activities. Still “engaged” at the age of 79, he traveled in his native country for three months in 2005—the
30th anniversary of the Communist Party takeover of Vietnam—spreading Buddhist teachings where he had once been a pariah.
In southern France, at his Plum Village retreat center, he regularly hosts, among other groups, Palestinians and Israelis in workshops on conflict resolution and peace negotiation. Such sessions often begin with animosity, Rev. Hanh told me, and just as often they end with embraces.
“It all starts with a spin on an old adage: ‘Don’t just do something, sit there,’ ” he said in a wisp of a voice. A rail-thin man with large ears and deep-set eyes, Rev. Hanh was sitting on the porch of his cottage overlooking verdant Bordeaux vineyards. It seemed incongruous to be talking in the heart of a region that attracts worshippers of Bacchus, not the Buddha. “With all this socially engaged work, first you must learn what the Buddha learned, to still the mind. Then you don’t take action; action takes you.”
Indeed, action had taken me on an expedition of epic proportions, an ambitious and at times arduous journey in search of mankind’s most endangered—and elusive—prey. I circumnavigated the globe in pursuit of nothing less than truth, meaning and happiness. I tracked a man almost half a billion people today firmly believe found all three—and then some. Then I navigated this man’s legacy, charting the migration and mutation over two millennia of the rather simple tactics he developed for capturing this quarry.
He has gone by many names—Tathagata, Sakyamuni, Siddhartha Gautama—but is most recognized by the form of address that honors his wisdom: the Buddha, “the awakened one.”
Though his philosophy gave rise to a religion long practiced throughout Asia and, over the last century, in pockets of the West as well, my quest was not of a religious nature. Nor, I now believe after studying his life, was the Buddha’s. He—like me, like you, like anyone who thinks, feels, emotes—simply wanted answers to questions that are of such a universal nature that they transcend the isms and cut to the soul of what it means to be human. Questions that plague, taunt, challenge, befuddle, frustrate, inspire and drive people on from approximately the moment they are weaned.
“Who am I?”
“Why am I here?”
“What is this whole thing called life?”
And the biggie: “How can I make it to the weekend with a little less suffering and a little more happiness?”
Truth. Meaning. Happiness.
I was questioning all three—and quickly coming to what seemed in my mind to be the very plausible conclusion that none of the three existed—when the Buddha appeared to me in the form of the juiciest assignment of my life. And none too soon.
National Geographic magazine accepted my proposal to write a major feature vaguely entitled “In the Footsteps of the Buddha.” Keeping my ego in check, I learned that I got the assignment because one of the magazine’s ace photographers, Steve McCurry (he shot the famous profile of the angry green-eyed Afghani girl), already had a running start with images of Buddhist monks and statues largely from throughout Asia. They advanced me a hefty expense budget, issued me a round-the-world unlimited-stops business-class plane ticket and shot me up with all variety of vaccinations while I shot myself up with typical journalist’s fantasies of cover stories and Larry King appearances. “See you in ten weeks,” they said. I parlayed that 10 into 10 more, plus a little more travel money and, eventually, the book you hold in your hand. But what I really got back was much bigger—nothing near enlightenment but a cosmic bailout for sure.
I organized the expedition with the chronology of Buddhism in mind. From the Buddha’s birthplace at the border of India and Nepal, I would follow his path in India. Then I would track the teachings’ passage, first to Sri Lanka, and then through both Southeast Asia and the Himalaya Mountains to China and Japan, eventually on to Europe and the Americas. In effect, I would circumambulate the globe, in the same manner that Buddhists circle sacred sites or temples three times. My angle was to report on the worldwide engaged Buddhism movement, about which I thought I knew something but which turns out to be much more widespread than I imagined. In Engaged Buddhism in the West, Christopher S. Queen, a Harvard lecturer on religions, defines socially engaged Buddhism quite simply: It is “the application of the dharma, or Buddhist teachings, to the resolution of social problems.” Spearheaded by an international interconnected web of nonprofits and NGOs—from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), in Berkeley, California, to the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), based in Bangkok; from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, in Northampton, Massachusetts, to the Greyston Foundation in Yonkers, New York; from Zen Peacemakers in Montague, Massachusetts, to Thich Nhat Hahn’s Community of Mindful Living, with branches throughout the world—Buddhist practitioners were coming out the monasteries, literally and figuratively. Establishing AIDS/HIV treatment centers in Cambodia, participating in peaceful protests against executions at San Quentin State Prison north of San Francisco, launching prison reform initiatives in India, counseling young teens at pregnancy centers in Thailand, and more, monks and lay people were actively trying to lessen suffering in the world.
And I would get to cover it all.
For even a dabbler such as I would have described myself, getting the green light on the assignment was like winning the trifecta of Buddhism. I would gain multiple levels of “merit,” highly desirable chips redeemable in this lifetime or the next. My work would be what Buddhists call “right livelihood,” meaning not only was my job not harming other sentient beings but also my writing subject might benefit mankind and the environment. I would get to interview some of Buddhism’s leading thinkers and practitioners, meaning every day would be like auditing a course entitled “Ultimate Dharma Talks.” I would get to stand in places where the Buddha stood, sit in caves where he sat, walk across rice fields where he traveled—just to visit these sites, the Buddha told his followers, was to gain merit and insight. Plus, I was getting paid to do it, I would see my byline in one of the world’s most recognized magazines, and hopefully I’d be elevated to the A list of Interesting Dinner Guests on the small island where I live. Could love and enlightenment be far behind?
On a personal level, the timing was excellent. Things were falling into place. Finally. It felt as though someone had suddenly sprinkled magic dust on me, and its effect was to reverse the slippery slide my life had taken. What I didn’t know at the time was that things would get even better. For a while. Then they would, well, change. And change again.
To understand the full epic-ness of this expedition, we have to go back to . . .
July 2003, the shag-carpeted floor of my mother’s New Jersey living room, my back in a spasm, my mother hovering over me. Zero latitude, zero longitude of my life. It is one year since my father’s death and it is just catching up how much I miss the man I spent so much time pushing away. I had come home for the unveiling, the Jewish tradition of visiting the gravesite one year after interment. I am, for all intents, homeless, temporarily living in corporate housing in the Valley, L.A.’s waiting room for has-beens, wannabes, and never-will-bes. The woman I am dating had nicknamed me Mr. Turtle; I could fit all my worldly possessions on the West Coast in my Subaru Forester, and often did. That same girlfriend, whose very L.A. lifestyle I would never to be able to afford, which she herself can’t afford, has put me out after discovering some improprieties I am too embarrassed to repeat even to myself.
My so-called career is being flushed down the toilet bowl. Two ghostwriting projects I had relocated to California for have fizzled. The New York Times, to which I had been contributing since 1986, lately has rejected every story idea I’ve proposed. It’s been months since my last significant writing work. I have put my life on credit cards while waiting for this Grail of a Geographic assignment to come through. But I am losing hope. The thought that the attempt has been an exercise in self-delusion leaves me free-falling into oblivion, not to mention literary obscurity. One of my mother’s lines keeps coming back like an errant mantra: “Perry, you don’t have a pot to piss in.”
And now this. I am writhing on the floor, eating shag carpeting. Minutes before I had bent over in an awkward maneuver—riding a bicycle, I had stopped to lean over and pick up a turtle that was waddling across the street—and experienced what felt like a drum roll ripple down the left side of my lower back. My back completely gave out; the left side crumbled like a graham cracker and I could not stand. Somehow I got myself back to my mother’s a few blocks away and now I am collapsed on the floor. The irony does not escape me that trying to save my namesake, a turtle, has caused my current predicament.
No position is comfortable. I know the feeling well. This is the third “back event” in two years that has left me so debilitated I had to lie in bed for 10 days, dosed to the legal limit on Advil, left to crawl to the bathroom because I could not stand. And did I mention the pain and suffering!? I immediately recognize the severity of the situation and in my mind am already canceling the flight I had booked back to L.A. for the next day, intending to give my West Coast life one more shot. I am imagining days laid up in a suspended hell realm called New Jersey, albeit a shag-carpeted hell realm.
My mother is sitting there nagging me with her shouldas. “You shoulda packed last night. You shoulda been more careful. Why do always put everything off to the last minute?” It’s a fast track to her critique of my entire life, predictably ending with the “pot to piss in” punch line.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Buddha or Bust by Perry Garfinkel. Copyright © 2006 by Perry Garfinkel. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.