Wednesday, June 13, 2007

"Buddha or Bust" by Perry Garfinkel

The subtitle of this book pretty much says everything: "In search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness and the man who found them all"

Garfinkel gets a very sweet assignment from National Geographic at just the right time of his life. He is pretty much broke, living with his mother after a bad breakup, and has just had his back go out, again. His pitch for an article about Buddhism has been given the green-light, and he needs this assignment to be his best ever.

It wouldn't hurt if he found some enlightenment of his own, as well.

This is not so much about finding happiness (as I thought when I first decided to read it) as it is a history of the phenomenon that is Buddhist religion. I had no idea that there were so many subsets of Buddhism nor the changes that it's gone through over the ages and with the migration of the religion from country to country. And like Garfinkel, I had no idea that there have been wars fought over it as well. This came as quite a shock to the author, who always thought of it in peaceful terms. I was quite surprised myself, although I'm not sure why. It does seem that history reflects followers of organized religions willing to fight others for their beliefs; why would Buddhism be any different than, say, Catholicism? And no, I'm not picking on the Catholics, so please don't leave me any hateful comments. They just popped into my head first, thank you very much.

In the end, the fact that this is more a history book and less a self-help/self-awareness book makes it less appealing, I think. I did find some of the history interesting, some even fascinating, but what I really wanted to know about were the people that the author encountered. There are anecdotes about his "handlers" on his travels, and I wish he'd spent a bit more time writing about them.

I have to say, the best chapter of the book is the next-to-last one, in which Garfinkel gets to interview the Dalai Lama. That was incredible! I am now insanely jealous (not a very Buddhist emotion, I know - the irony is not lost on me). I have always thought the Dalai Lama to be the most serene person on the planet, so much so that I wish I knew his secret. I mean, really, can anybody be that happy all the time? I know he probably isn't, but let's face it - all the pictures out there show him smiling that beautiful smile. I want to feel that way, and I think Garfinkel did too. Maybe if we could learn to be more like the Dalai, the world would be a better place. As Lennon said, "Imagine......"

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