Buddhism is on the rise in Brazil, and West Tisbury journalist Perry Garfinkel has some ideas on why.
He’s the author of the 2006 national bestseller Buddha or Bust: In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness, and the Man Who Found Them All. When the Portuguese edition of the book was released in June, Mr. Garfinkel traveled to Brazil, where the national census shows the percentage of Roman Catholics there has dropped from about 90 to 70 per cent since 1980.
He spent a week speaking to Buddhist groups in Rio de Janeiro.
“One of my theories was that Buddhism is growing in popularity now because these times resemble the time Buddha lived in. A lot of political corruption, a lot of violence, overcrowded cities — the first urban centers may have been established then — and searching for a fractionalization of religious practices,” Mr. Garfinkel said. “Violence is on the rise [in Brazil], and ghettoes — called favelas — are overcrowded and taking over the mountain tops.”
A year after he first spoke about Buddha or Bust here, Mr. Garfinkel is giving four more talks around the Island — the first tomorrow at 4 p.m. at Sun Porch Books in Oak Bluffs.
“I spoke locally last summer and I have some new insights,” he said. “I’m really happy I’m going to be able to speak here and share these insights I’ve collected over the past year.”
He will also speak at the West Tisbury library Wednesday at 7 p.m. Next Friday, Oct. 12, the Mansion House Inn & Spa in Vineyard Haven will host a talk at 5:30 p.m. On Sunday, Oct. 14, he’ll be the guest speaker at the Unitarian-Universalist Church service in Vineyard Haven.
His insights extend far beyond Brazil, however.
“One of the things that I do see, as I’ve talked and continued to read and study, is truly the flexible application of these simple Buddhist practices and philosophies to everyday life,” he said. “I’m not just flogging a book, I’m sharing some useful tools for living,” he added.
Mr. Garfinkel said he has been on and off the meditation cushion since the early 1970s, but his experiences in the past three years have brought him closer to that cushion and to the practices and philosophies of Buddhism.
“The art of practicing Buddhistry is to remember, to stay awake and aware. Now, with more frequency, I forget less. Everything from where did I leave my keys to saying something to somebody that might be subtly offensive or insensitive to them,” he said. “I can see that it’s not just what happens on that mediation cushion, it’s what happens with each moment and each interaction.”
Practicing Buddhism has been difficult for him at times.
“It is a delicate balance to stay present, in the moment, in the face of the daily opportunities to let yourself get stressed, allow yourself to get angry, disappointed. In a funny way, the more I learn about Buddhism, both the easier and the harder it gets,” he said.
If, for instance, he hopes his book will be a success, or hopes his next book idea will be picked up by a publisher, that is against the Buddhist teaching to not have expectations that could lead to disappointment.
“The daily ups and downs of a freelance writer are spiritual grist for the mill,” he said.
This past year has been a rewarding one for Mr. Garfinkel too. Buddha or Bust was selected for the anthology Best Buddhist Writing, 2007. He has also been asked to be a Mind.Body.Soul columnist for the Huffingtonpost.com.
“The success of the book is always a double-edged sword. It did make a couple of newspaper bestseller lists, and I was thrilled. Writing as a profession is always a struggle. The book hasn’t made me rich, but it has enriched me,” he said.
In a strange twist, the book tour has also led Mr. Garfinkel on a circuit of chi chi spas, speaking to the spa staff and guests at five-star hotels.
“I’ve seen that the so-called holy trilogy of the wellness movement — the body, mind, spirit — I saw that the body was getting well pampered, and there were attempts to bring spirituality to the spa experience, but the mind was not involved. I think they think we’re too much with our minds, so leave your mind at the door,” he said.
The wellness movement is the basis for his next book idea. He wants to explore the indigenous roots of the modern wellness movement, tracking herbal remedies and healing systems back to their origin.
In November, the Leading Hotels of the World — an international network of 430 five-star hotels — is flying him to Monaco to give the spa talk, entitled Buddha Massage: The Ultimate Pampering of the Mind.
“It enhances your experience if you’re a little more present,” he said. “Mindfulness is a more contemporary word to use than Buddhist meditation. As soon as you mention Buddhist meditation, you picture the Dalai Lama in a mountain cave.”
That conference may lead to more invitations from spas to speak — a prospect Mr. Garfinkel welcomes.
“It’s tough work, but someone had to volunteer,” he joked.
Since embarking on the book tour, Mr. Garfinkel’s confidence in answering questions about Buddhism and life has grown.
“To borrow a phrase from The Accidental Tourist, I feel like the accidental dharma teacher. Dharma is the basic principals of Buddhism,” he said. “When I was traveling around the country, I was fielding questions that I didn’t feel I should answer as a dharma teacher.”
But after three years reading, interviewing and exploring his own spiritual philosophy, his comfort level grew with knowledge.
“I don’t think [Buddhism] is a religion. It’s a philosophy, a psychology and a science,” he said. “Buddhism is inclusive, not exclusive. You can do Buddhist meditation without giving up God or your gods.”
Mr. Garfinkel is Buddhist and he is also Jewish — and a journalist to the end.
“I am still very much the journalist. I am still more journalist than Buddhist I’d say.”