Pascal, in the 17th century, suggested that the world's ills derive from our inability to sit quietly alone in a room. Reading this celebrated passage, I thought about Buddhism and its emphasis on solitary meditation, on disengagement. How different would everything be if it had taken hold in all those places where rivalrous monotheisms prevail?
Yet Pascal, who exhibited much of the scepticism he deplored, would have been quick to comment that staying contentedly indoors is to surrender everything outside to the virulent passions of others. Those countries that, at different times, have succumbed to Buddhism have been no less prone to violent strife than elsewhere. Even Tibet, routinely projected as a magical realm of peace, was riddled with corruption and bloodshed long before the Communist Chinese takeover, though perhaps never to the degree Buddhist Burma is today. The only difference is that, among Buddhist peoples, warfare has rarely been perpetrated in the name of faith.
Buddhism manifests other vulnerabilities. If, as the Buddha allegedly taught, the world and everything contained therein is illusion, it is by no means obvious why this should not apply to Buddhist doctrine itself. Again, the insistence upheld by many Buddhists that all things have an essence is faintly absurd. Ideas and concepts may have essences, but things (stones, cups, even an egg) are arguably just things.
Even so, Buddhism does exercise an enduring appeal, either because of its focus on the processes of thought itself, or because it represents a welcome alternative to the narrative, ends-driven traditions of monotheism. The vexatious questions surrounding the nature of God do not arise, while "the problem of pain" is met head-on. Buddhism acknowledges that suffering is endemic, however illusory; for all its abstractions, it seems anchored in the evidential.
The new book by Peter J Conradi (best known as Iris Murdoch's biographer) takes all of this and more on board. However, the blurb describing "a self-help book for cynics" is miscalculated. It is not that, but a finely turned, ruminative and cultured essay on what it is like to be a Western Buddhist.
Conradi does not describe a conversion. Rather, he was drawn gradually toward Buddhism in the 1980s, following a vaguely-described crisis that involved panic attacks. When these occurred, meditation, taught him by (among others) a relatively austere Tibetan master, provided as effective an antidote as any pharmaceutical preparation.
"Don't just do something," Conradi admiringly quotes the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh: "Sit there!" Yet, west of the Pamirs, going Buddhist presents its own discomfiture, a sense of un-belonging that would not occur in Sri Lanka, say. Conradi remains sharply aware that his commitment remains minoritive, while being gay adds poignancy to his confession.
Yet he assures us that the cure for existential anomie found in Buddhism makes it worthwhile. Memorably, he identifies cynicism and mysticism as the effective poles of our mental being. Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens (responsible for "demythologising" Mother Teresa) are among the few who expressly test his patience. Conversely, Iris Murdoch looms large as a surrogate master, for all that she half-wishes Conradi would wear a crucifix during one of his many retreats.