In Print

Journey in the footsteps of the Buddha

By Kate Feiffer - June 8, 2006

"Buddha or Bust: In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness, and the Man Who Found Them All," by Perry Garfinkel. Harmony Books, a division of Random House, 2006. $24.95. 336 pages.

Have you heard the one about the journalist who began his journey in the Buddha's footsteps in Poland?

Chances are you haven't - at least not yet.

The punch line, which is well worth the price of admission, can be found at the beginning of chapter three in Perry Garfinkel's engaging, informative, and at times hilarious new book, "Buddha or Bust: In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness, and the Man Who Found Them All."

Mr. Garfinkel, a former editor of The Times Calendar section, left the paper and the Vineyard five years ago to continue his freelance writing career. Two plum ghostwriting assignments for books brought him to southern California. But when both book projects went belly up, and a proposal for an article he had submitted to National Geographic Magazine lingered in limbo, Mr. Garfinkel found himself flat on his back on his mother's beige shag carpet.

Author Perry Garfinkel. Photo by Sara Piazza

"I hit rock bottom professionally, personally, and emotionally. I had no work, my back went out, and my relationship was rocky," recalls Mr. Garfinkel.

Two months later, an editor at National Geographic called with an assignment for a feature article about socially engaged Buddhism. Then the book offer came. Harmony Books, a Division of Random House, liked a proposal Mr. Garfinkel had submitted about traveling - both spiritually and literally - in the Buddha's footsteps and through the ever-widening swath of contemporary Buddhism.

And so it was that Mr. Garfinkel lifted himself off his mother's rug and boarded a flight to Auschwitz in Poland, thousands of miles away from Lumbibi, India, the Buddha's birthplace. (Again, you'll have to read Chapter three to find out why Poland.)

While traveling through India, Sri Lanka, China, Thailand, Japan, France, and the United States, he conducted hundreds of interviews.

"I always asked two questions," says Mr. Garfinkel. "How did you get into Buddhism? And why do you think Buddhism has become so popular in the world today?"

Often those he interviewed had little other than their Buddhist beliefs in common. He spoke to a man incarcerated in a New Delhi prison who takes part in a Buddhist-based program for inmates. He visited a fallow rice field in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to see the work of a Buddhist artist. He interviewed a Chinese television star and successful businesswoman who is also a devout Buddhist. And yes, he interviewed His Holiness The Dalai Lama. (The Dalai Lama also gave Mr. Garfinkel an impressive blurb for the back of the book.)

A personal journey, too

The book is a hybrid of sorts - part social theory, part history, part travelogue. Mr. Garfinkel examines and explains conflicting historical information about the life of Siddhartha Gautama, or Buddha, and marvels at the globalization and Madison Avenue-ization of Buddhism today. He notes that in Thailand, where Buddhism is almost a national religion, there are separate lounge areas for monks in the airport. And he also observes that in the U.S. there is no shortage of Buddhist practitioners: "You can take Buddhist meditation classes upstairs from a 7-Eleven or a mandala-making workshop next to a Best Buy."

The funniest sections, especially for those of us who know the author, are the behind-the-scenes accounts of the journalist at work, and, particularly, the man behind the journalist-at-work.

"The book started as a journalistic project and became a personal journey," says Mr. Garfinkel, who has been back on the Island for more than a year. "It became a personal journey into Buddhism from a guy who had been covering the East/West thing for thirty years. But I didn't know just how personal it was going to get," admits Mr. Garfinkel.

Or perhaps just how delightfully honest (if in fact he's being honest and not just playing it for the laughs) he would dare to get.

"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," writes Mr. Garfinkel. "Plus, I was getting paid to do it. I would see my by-line on 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."

Island inspiration

Mr. Garfinkel started visiting the Vineyard for the first time during the summer of 1976. Three years later he returned and says, "I realized why writers write here."

So he rented a house for the winter, penned a draft of a book and attended a writer's group, whose members included historian David McCullough, novelist Marianne Wiggins, photographer Peter Simon, and writer Stan Hart.

"This is a place where you can be pulled back from the community and in the community at the same time," says Mr. Garfinkel, which is one of the reasons he chose to return to the Vineyard to write "Buddha or Bust."

The West Tisbury house he's rented for the past several winters has served him well. "Through the good graces of Mark Mazer, I was given the opportunity to rent the Milton and Virginia Mazer house," says Mr. Garfinkel. "I was a great fan of Dr. Mazer's book ["People and Predicaments," Harvard University Press, 1976]. It was formative in my understanding of Island psychology. And then I found out that Virginia was an avid reader. There isn't a book in the West Tisbury library that doesn't have her name in it. And she was a writer too. So between the two of them there was great writing energy here." He also notes the generations of college students who have penned theses in the house added to the literary spirit that the house endowed upon him.

Given the house, the book contract, the subsequent book, the National Geographic story that was published in 25 countries, and the chance to meet the Dalai Lama, one has to wonder whether Mr. Garfinkel found the truth, meaning and happiness, he went in search of?

"Yes," he says. "But they are ephemeral. They change every day, and they are there to rediscover every day."

Perry Garfinkel will be speaking and signing copies of his book at The Bunch of Grapes, Main St., Vineyard Haven, on Friday, June 16, at 7:30 pm. He then departs for a book tour to New York, Colorado, Oregon, and California.