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Book Review: Buddha or Bust by Perry Garfinkel

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For many people, the name Buddha conjures up the image of a statue – a shirtless monk with a fat belly that you rub for good luck. Although I had a bit more of an understanding than that, when I got a new book featuring just such a Buddha statue on its cover with the title Buddha or Bust: In Search of Meaning, Happiness and the Man Who Found Them All, I somehow expected a rollicking road trip full of adventure and one-of-a-kind characters. 

While the book has its share of adventure and characters, it's hardly On The Road or a wild Hunter S. Thompson ride.  Instead, it's one man's round-the-world report on the current state of Buddhism and how it has adapted within many different political environments and cultural changes.  If that doesn't quite fit the image I'd created in my head, the book still took me places I'll never go and taught me things that most people will never know.  As far as I'm concerned, that's a book worth reading.

Buddha or Bust started as a National Geographic magazine article and blossomed into a full-length book.  The author, Perry Garfinkel, is an American who has been a practicing Buddhist for many decades, so he can talk knowledgably on the subject while still making it easy for the layman to keep up.

Garfinkel's plan was to loosely follow the path of the original Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who gave up his princehood at the age of 29 (as well as leaving his wife and child) to take the ultimate "finding himself" trek, a six-year odyssey that eventually led to enlightenment under the famous bodhi tree. 

(By the way, that fat, laughing Buddha that so many of us know is not "the" Buddha but a later monk whose benevolent personality gave him the reputation as one who could bring happiness and good luck to others.  Sort of a Buddhist Santa Claus.)

Because the original Buddha's path is not completely pinned down, and because Garfinkel doesn't have an unlimited budget from National Geographic, he has to make some concessions, and his travels aren't quite chronological – some don't trace the Buddha's path at all. Indeed, Garfinkel starts at, of all places, the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. You can find out why for yourself if you read the book, but it does make for a powerful beginning.

Much of Garfinkel's trip is in the steps of the Buddha, however, and he is in turns inspired by and disappointed in what he finds.  Many of the famous Buddha sites are, predictably, tourist traps. On the other hand, Garfinkel finds in many places "engaged" Buddhism, meaning the local Buddhist leaders aren't just meditating; they're out trying to make positive changes in their countries and/or local communities.  Ironically, many of the international Buddhist leaders he meets confide that they've learned much from Buddhists in the United States, a perhaps surprising cross-pollination in that Westerners are often stereotyped as practicing the "lite" version of Eastern religions.

Maybe the most captivating aspect of the book, from my view, was stories of the leaders and other individuals Garfinkel meets as he travels around the world.  From prisoners who've embraced Buddhism behind bars to the Dalai Lama, most have trod an interesting path to where they are today. Perhaps that's appropriate, as Buddhism seems to be more about the journey than the destination. 

If you have no interest in Buddhism, Buddha or Bust isn't going to provide hours of entertainment or convert you.  But if you do have an interest in what it's all about, Garfinkel's trip is a neat introduction to what Buddhism is, even if what it is might be different in different parts of the world.

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About Justin McHenry

  • duane

    Well done, Justin.

    Ironically, many of the international Buddhist leaders he meets confide that they’ve learned much from Buddhists in the United States ….

    Could you provide a couple of examples?

  • Garfinkel uses a number of examples:

    In Bangkok, academicians from the local Buddhist universities had visited Naropa University in Colorado (the only accredited Buddhist college in the U.S.) to observe how meditation is integrated into the curriculum, which is unlike how it is done in their university.

    In Hong Kong, Garfinkel meets a Chinese clinical psychologist who has based her practice around a Buddhist stress reduction training she received in Worcester, Massachusetts.

    A Japanese Buddhist priest discusses “engaged Buddhism” as something that originated in the West or at least is more embraced in the West, and he is frustrated in trying to build a more engaged community locally.

    Not current but also relevant, Garfinkel talks about how in the 1800s a handful of enthusiastic Westerners had gone east to visit Buddhist sites only to find that they were more motivated to keep the tradition going than the locals.

    Garfinkel takes great pains to say that he’s not suggesting Westerners are teaching Buddhism to those whose tradition it is. Instead, he’s saying that in many places where Buddhism is part of the culture, it’s not so much practiced as assumed, and the many Westerners who practice with such enthusiasm can give a new appreciation that perhaps has waned in Buddhism’s original birthplaces.

  • duane

    OK, Justin, I see. Your last paragraph in #2 makes it clear. Very interesting. Thanks for the reply.

  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!