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Review: Jeff Greenwald’s Shopping for Buddhas

BY DIANNA COSTELLO

No matter what’s going on in your life, if you walk down the streets in Kathmandu you’ll run smack into a metaphor for it. That’s what I love–and fear–most about Nepal.
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After reading the first chapter of Jeff Greenwald’s Shopping for Buddhas, I couldn’t help but think it’s a miracle he’s still alive and had the chance to write this book. In 1987, while he and a companion were staying in a primitive lodge in the Nepal Himalaya, a blinding blizzard with whiteout conditions came out of nowhere. Rather than face the uncertainty of being trapped for days on end without food or water, they joined a Swiss couple and began a harrowing descent in waist-high snow and howling winds down the cliff-hanging mountainside. After finally arriving in Kathmandu, they found out that the stock market had crashed that very same day. Realizing the transitory nature of both life and wealth, Greenwald reasoned that the sanest and most logical thing to do was to purchase a Buddha. At least it could serve dual purposes: provide him with a piece of art that would appreciate in value and, at the same time, provide him with spiritual lessons in nonattachment.

So begins the obsessive quest (and hilarious romp) that transports Greenwald and his readers through Nepal and Tibet as he searches for the perfect Buddha. But as he quickly learns, searching for perfection becomes an impossible task. There are just too many different types of Buddhas and poses to choose from, too many sizes and colors, and hundreds of different traits that one must learn in order to positively identify an authentic Buddha. Whoever thought buying a Buddha could be so complex? Certainly not Greenwald, but as he visits village after village, shop after shop, he becomes an expert himself, learning how to identify the most esteemed and sought-after Buddha features.

In celebration of the book’s 25th anniversary and a newly published edition, Greenwald made a recent appearance at Distant Lands bookstore in Pasadena for a presentation and book signing. Describing his first visit to Nepal, in 1979, he told the crowd that he experienced an overwhelming feeling that he had returned to his spiritual home. In the book, he sums up why we are mysteriously drawn to a particular place. “We go where we need to go, and then try to figure out what we’re doing there. It took a surprisingly long time for me to realize that all these trips to Nepal and environs were united by a single fundamental theme: The need to steep my cerebral cortex in the culture and religion of the region, in the hope that as much of it would soak into me as possible.”

This soaking-up of Nepal continued in subsequent trips, until he decided to use shopping for a Buddha as a conceit for writing this story, as well as a foil to explore his own personal problems. As he says in the book, it became a way to focus his trip and find the perfect Buddha pose that would “embody the state of mind that would fix me up once and for all.” Secretly, his hope was to reignite his stalled efforts in writing this book and talk about his conscious fear of success. “I mean, if the problem is fear of success and you can somehow eliminate the fear, then all that’s left is success: gleaming out there on the horizon like an illuminated skyline, brilliant, inevitable, you couldn’t miss it if you tried.”

When Greenwald begins shopping for Buddhas with his friend, he pokes fun at their bargain-basement approach to spirituality and enlightenment. “It was as if here, in this distant exotic land, we were compelled to raise the art of shopping to an experience that was, on the one hand, detached and almost Zen—our ultimate goal was, after all, enlightenment—and on the other hand, tinged with desperation, like shopping at Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s during a one-day-only White Sale: viciously predatory, and laced with the fear that the choicest Buddhas would be gone, snatched up if we hesitated too long or neglected to visit each and every shop the very day that new work was due to arrive.”

As we follow Greenwald on the mythical path of a hero’s journey, he encounters tests and trials along the way that challenge his misleading assumptions and beliefs, whether it’s his inability to recognize the high lama he has been seeking when she finally appears or his smug dismissal of a “self-styled guru” who predicts Greenwald will end up in a mental institution because of all his neuroses. Throughout his search he examines statue after statue, almost making the big purchase multiple times, but ultimately rejects them all for some minor flaw that makes him lose interest. We begin to wonder if he’ll ever find the perfect Buddha, but when he finally does, he is speechless and we are relieved. “I felt like a kid at Christmas time, staring through a frosted windowpane at the Flexible Flyer of his dreams. Images of coasting fearlessly across the thin ice of this particular lifetime, my new Buddha by my side, danced giddily in my head.”

Yet even when he’s finally reached his goal after a time-consuming search, he resists buying this perfect Buddha and walks away; it’s double what he planned to spend. As readers, we’re ready to strangle him at this point, but in a flash of insight, he changes his mind and justifies the expenditure. “What, I asked myself, is $650 if it can help me sizzle those two words—‘I’m afraid’—out of my life? What price enlightenment? Is it a bargain-basement commodity, or do you get it when and where you can, and damn the expense?”

The eve of his departure from Nepal, Greenwald takes an evening stroll under the full moon through Kathmandu’s market district and finds himself bewitched by it. “Time and again I could have sworn it was stage lighting, and that I had wandered onto a Hollywood set or into a dream. Every alley was a nook-filled diorama, ancient and crumbling yet awkwardly modern, still off balance after the past decade’s rough shove toward Westernization.”

As he watches troupes of musicians and parades of worshipers walk by, he suddenly realizes that he’s sitting in front of the chaotic marketplace where he has shopped for the last few months. “And as I sat there, marveling at the seemingly impossible transformation, the whole catalog of disguises that Kathmandu slips into and out of suddenly flashed across my inner eye with dizzying, flipbook animation. A city, I realized, becomes far more than a passive repository of its people; it can also play the role of magus, mask dancer and sage.”

As Greenwald heads home to the United States the next day with his statue, he learns than not even a perfect Buddha can work magic. A customs official at the Nepal airport examines his bag and confiscates the statue. Greenwald doesn’t have the necessary clearance tags, something he forgot to do in the frenzy to replace his lost passport and ticket. Despite arguing endlessly with the official, what happens next is the true source of his enlightenment and the invaluable lesson he was meant to learn on this journey.

Greenwald’s fascination with the many disguises of Nepal, which he calls “a vast spiritual fermentation tank,” is interwoven with his fascination for the many facets of Buddhism and the belief in bodhisattvas, something he discusses at length in the book. Bodhisattvas are beings who have attained the level of buddhahood or nirvana, and even though these enlightened bodhisattvas don’t need to be reborn again, they choose to come back to help all human beings become enlightened. As examples, during his talk he showed slides of people he believes are living bodhisattvas: people from the conservative end of the spectrum, such as philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, to the radical end, such as members of the punk rock group Pussy Riot, who are trying to reform prison conditions for female inmates in Russia. Instead of looking up to so-called “heroes,” Greenwald suggests that we cherish the bodhisattvas who surround us in our everyday lives, for they are the real heroes, the people who devote their entire lives to service. Greenwald ended his presentation with this parting thought: Don’t try to buy the perfect Buddha but try to be the Buddha of your dreams.

Dianna Costello is an award-winning writer/producer who has worked in film and television since 1986. She holds a master’s degree in film from the American Film Institute (AFI), a master’s in television/radio from Syracuse University, and a bachelor’s in English from the University of Massachusetts. Her short film Graffiti, produced while she attended AFI, has won numerous national and international awards, including an Academy Award nomination. Dianna lives in Los Angeles and is currently finishing her first novel, a supernatural mystery set on Nantucket Island.