A Unique travel and spiritual adventure

In “Buddha or Bust,” a journalist turns a National Geographic assignment into an informative, learned yet witty book on Buddhism in the modern world.

By Ward Lauren / Special to The Malibu Times

Veteran freelance journalist Perry Garfinkel, who admits to “falling on and off the meditation cushion (of Buddhism) for 30 years” was unwittingly experiencing one of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths-suffering-when “the Buddha appeared to me in the form of the juiciest assignment of my life” just after Labor Day 2003.

National Geographic magazine had accepted his proposal to write a major feature vaguely entitled “In the Footsteps of the Buddha.” Deftly parlaying 10 weeks of expense-paid travel into 20, Garfinkel turned the feature into a book, “Buddha or Bust-In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness and the Man Who Found Them All.”

The book is a unique travel and spiritual adventure that covers nine countries and explores the places-both old and new-that have come to represent the essence of a 2,500-year-old self-attainable power. Garfinkel traveled to some of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world, including the birthplace of the Dalai Lama in Tibet and the famed Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India, where the Buddha attained enlightenment.

Garfinkel’s journey began in Southern California. He had come here from his home in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. and was living in Woodland Hills in the summer of 2003, drawn by some book projects that fell through, leaving him in a somewhat desperate condition financially. His desperation was compounded by chronic back problems stemming from a mild case of scoliosis that has dogged him throughout his life.


It was at this point that he nearly became a writer for this newspaper. To stem his deteriorating employment situation, he responded to an ad for writers in The Malibu Times. He had the credentials; years of experience as features editor of Martha’s Vineyard Times and a long string of freelance articles for major publications, including the New York Times.

But during the interview, Garfinkel learned that the position was for part-time work only, which would not cover his needs. So he found himself back in the throes of Buddha’s Noble Truth. And then came the happy word from National Geographic.

Of the many significant places to which his journey brought him, each of which supplied bits of Garfinkel’s Buddhist learning mosaic, one of the most moving turned out to be a place little associated with Buddhism: Poland. There, he visited Auschwitz and Birkenau.

The Buddhist connection? The first of the Four Pillars upon which he built a system of belief: The human condition of suffering.

“The experience at Auschwitz, sitting on the tracks in the Zen position,” Garfinkel said. “Well, you see, I’m half Polish. Some of my mother’s own aunts and uncles died in the Holocaust. So to reach a state of non-anger or judgment, non-blame, all in the Buddhist tradition, was extremely difficult, and I’m still working on it.

“It’s meditating on it without attaching your own experience to the suffering. You kind of have to learn to take it in a sense of, as the saying goes, ‘(expletive) happens!'”

Another profound experience, Garfinkel said, was going to a jail in India, where a section is cordoned off for the prisoners and guards to practice meditation.

“Seeing them all doing the meditation practice, and seeing how profoundly it changed their attitudes about being in prison… the guards said it truly turned them into human beings, not animals who just abused these guys,” Garfinkel said.

In Thailand, he joined a group of “ecology monks” who ordain trees as Buddhist monks to protect them from being clear-cut by illegal loggers. Garfinkel described an ornate ceremony in which they chant and meditate and wrap a string around everybody who participates, wrist to wrist, as a symbol of the connectedness of all living things.

“Since most Thai people are Buddhist, they wouldn’t cut down a tree they think of as a Buddhist monk,” Garfinkel said. “This is actually having a slow but somewhat helpful impact on the destruction of the rainforest in northern Thailand.”

The highlight of his interviews with people of extreme knowledge and authority in the practice of Buddhism was his meeting with the Dalai Lama.

“He’s an amazing guy,” Garfinkel said in his typical down-to-earth patois. “Very charismatic, very generous in his time with me. As I say in the book, he had me at ‘hello.’ When I was with him everything seemed to make all the sense in the world, he was just so brilliant. Then when I transcribed the tape, it was like sentence fragments, so much was said between the words.

“So I went fishing for what was the meaning here. I actually counted the number of times he used certain words, like reading tea leaves for cryptic meanings. He used words like ‘reality’ and ‘intellect,’ ‘the mind,’ ‘intelligence.’ It was more like Buddhism as a science of mind.”

A delightful chapter in the book dealing with Buddhism in America is called “Back in the Om of the Free and the Brave.” Garfinkel tells of his meeting with Wes Nisker, the man who calls himself the world’s first Buddhist stand-up comic.

“I’ve known Wes for a long time,” Garfinkel said. “He’s from Berkeley and he’s a riot. He tells funny Buddhist jokes, but he’s a serious Buddhist practitioner and has written several books.” Both men being Jewish, they belong to a uniquely American sect called Bu-Jews, he writes. Nisker calls them Bu-ish.

“I’ve already started channeling the Bu-ish guru, the Swami from Miami who reads astrology charts by day and at night does rope tricks in the lobby of the Fontainebleau,” Nisker is quoted in the chapter; “Before I became a Buddhist I worried about my life. Now I worry about my next life.”

Garfinkel’s own attraction to Buddhism began when he read Ram Dass’ “Be Here Now.” In 1973, he went to India, began covering the East-West synthesis, writing for magazines such as East-West Journal. He helped start the New Age Journal and wrote about Buddhism for Psychology Today and other publications.

“So I’m kind of like the observer and the observed in the Eastern spiritual movement in the West,” Garfinkel said. “I began this National Geographic assignment as a journalist who dabbles in Buddhism, but by the end I decided I’m a Buddhist who dabbles in journalism.”

In learned, informative yet witty and down-to-earth language that sprinkles its revelations with enough contemporary humor to keep it moving at an enjoyable pace, “Buddha or Bust” is an inspiring and entertaining look at, and a totally fresh view of, one of the most popular spiritual forces in history.

With a copy in hand it will be easy for any reader to follow one of meditation’s basic concepts: “Don’t just do something. Sit there!”

Garfinkel will tell his personal story and discuss his book, which was released June 20, at a book-signing at Diesel, a Book Store, on Sunday at 2 p.m. The bookstore is located at 3890 Cross Creek Road.

For more information about the appearance, call 456.9961.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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