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In many ways, Buddhism has become the global religion of the modern world. For its contemporary followers, the ideal of enlightenment promises inner peace and worldly harmony. And whereas other philosophies feel abstract and disembodied, Buddhism offers meditation as a means to realize this ideal. If we could all be as enlightened as Buddhists, some imagine, we could live in a much better world. For some time now, however, this beatific image of Buddhism has been under attack. Scholars and practitioners have criticized it as a Western fantasy that has nothing to do with the actual experiences of Buddhists.
Avram Alpert combines personal experience and readings of modern novels to offer another way to understand modern Buddhism. He argues that it represents a rich resource not for attaining perfection but rather for finding meaning and purpose in a chaotic world. Finding unexpected affinities across world literature—Rudyard Kipling in colonial India, Yukio Mishima in postwar Japan, Bessie Head escaping apartheid South Africa—as well as in his own experiences living with Tibetan exiles, Alpert shows how these stories illuminate a world in which suffering is inevitable and total enlightenment is impossible. Yet they also give us access to partial enlightenments: powerful insights that become available when we come to terms with imperfection and stop looking for wholeness. A Partial Enlightenment reveals the moments of personal and social transformation that the inventions of modern Buddhism help make possible.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Avram Alpert teaches writing at Princeton University. He is the author of Global Origins of the Modern Self, from Montaigne to Suzuki (2019). He is also coeditor of Shifter magazine and has written cultural criticism for outlets including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Brooklyn Rail, and Truthout.
"The stories about the Buddha, with their promise of awakening and liberation, are among the richest and most inspiring tales ever told. By focusing on the creation and complexities of a new, twentieth-century Buddhism, and the novels it has produced, Avram Alpert's A Partial Enlightenment delivers a brilliant work of literary history less concerned with the mythology of absolute perfection than the embedded, political, and existential realities that make modern Buddhism—an authentic way to 'fail better'—relevant for our lives today. "
--Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage, winner of the National Book Award