For longer than a century, since its discovery by western scholars, Buddhism has attracted many people in Europe and America. Its admirers have ranged from Jack Kerouac to Claude Levi-Strauss and, more recently, from Steven Seagal to Tina Turner. Peter Conradi claims in his admirably brisk and stimulating book that five million Americans and up to four million Europeans are Buddhist; and that these numbers are growing all the time. What explains Buddhism's appeal among even those who are indifferent to, when not contemptuous of, Christianity, Judaism and Islam? Could it be because, as Conradi puts it, "Buddhism lacks dogmas" and even demands "intellectual and personal independence and scepticism in its practitioners"?
As Conradi tells it, his conversion to Buddhism came after an existential crisis in the Aids-haunted 1980s. "Fear and trembling were my special subjects; I could have majored in panic." Instead of taking a few of the 22 million tranquillisers prescribed in one year alone in the UK, he began to explore Buddhist meditation. Apparently, it calmed him down. Soon, he was learning to look at himself and the world in a new light.
As a meditator, observing the unruly procession of thoughts in his mind, Conradi discovered that he "is not identical to his thoughts, nor need he be limited by them". He found liberating the Buddhist idea that "the self is not a fixed or changeless product but a dynamic process always seeking an illusory resting place where it might finally become 'solid'".
Quoting Iris Murdoch, a mildly curious observer of his journey towards Buddhism, Conradi asserts that if "everyday consciousness consists in low, self-centred states of illusion", Buddhist meditation brings about a "radical change of perception". The Buddhist "literally sees a different world from the bad or mediocre man".
This is more believable now, when multinational corporations prescribe meditation for their employees, than it might have been in the 1980s. According to a recent report in the New Scientist, committed Buddhists have been found to have an unusually active left prefrontal lobe in their brains - the lobe associated with "positive emotions, good moods, foresight, planning and self-control".
But what are the larger consequences of such findings? How do they affect the world in which we live? Conradi has little time for what he calls the "cant in a liberal democracy about being left free-to-be-oneself". Meditation, he writes, "shows one's mind itself as unfree". Conradi claims that Buddhism is "especially relevant" to people in the west who "are perishing from the knowingness, nihilism, cynicism of the age as from a lack of oxygen". He says he feels this cynicism within himself as a "significant part" of his identity", and thinks that Buddhism gives "hope to those of us who are hurt by the speed and aggression of the modern world".
These claims have more to them than a convert's fervour. Buddhism teaches a radical suspicion of intellectual concepts - of knowledge of any sort detached from actual experience. It stresses the importance of living life in the present, with a high degree of self-awareness and compassion manifested in even the smallest acts. It may actually help some people in gaining an understanding of a complex and diverse world.
It is certainly very pleasing to imagine the effects of meditation on Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. There are few promoters of liberal democracy in the Middle East who could benefit more from better foresight and planning, and from less arrogant intellectualism. It may be too much to expect them to heed the Buddha's warning that greed, hatred and delusion drive most human action and are the source of all suffering. But, perhaps, the Buddhist vision of the human self as "plural and unstable, full of potential" would help them to see human beings as not essentially good, or evil, or as any one thing, but as dynamic processes.
It is unlikely, however, that Cheney will exchange his bunker for a vegetarian Zen retreat any time soon, or even concede that Saddam Hussein, far from being an ever-present threat to world peace, was becoming a toothless monster, addicted to writing trashy novels and likely to be gently toppled in the not-too-distant future. America and, to an extent, the rest of the world will continue to be run by people too blinded by their own concepts to examine the underlying crude assumptions in their thinking.
Buddhism will only partly assuage the political impotence felt today by many people in Europe and the US. It never conceived of the radical, large-scale social engineering that almost all modern western ideologies of the right or left - socialism, free-market democracy, liberal imperialism - advocate. It believes in individually achieved, rather than collectively organised, redemption. Conradi quotes an early dalai lama who said that the meditator, faced with an intractable world, starts with repairing his own shoes instead of demanding that the whole planet be covered immediately with leather.
Not surprisingly, Buddhism in the west appears a refined form of self-help, with meditation as its most widely available and practised technique. Its metaphysics and epistemology remain largely unexplored; they require a leap of imagination that most people seem to be unwilling or unable to take. Conradi himself steers clear of explaining the key Buddhist ideas of karma and reincarnation which, as Glenn Hoddle would attest, are fraught subjects for people brought up to believe that all human beings are born, or at least should be considered, equal.
Buddhism runs up not only against deeply internalised political ideologies in the west but also against many obdurate psychological and emotional habits. On one of his first visits to the US, the Dalai Lama was bewildered to hear students at Harvard confess that they suffered from "self-hatred". The Dalai Lama, who was raised in a tradition much less keen on individualism, did not know what the phrase meant and had to consult the more westernised men in his entourage. Conradi quotes him concluding in another instance that "westerners really are different".
Conradi attributes much of this difference to westerners being prone to "flagellate" themselves. They are, he asserts, "specialists in guilt". Much of his own suffering that led him to Buddhism was, he later recognised, self-inflicted and self-perpetuating: it was like "using a knife to damage oneself".
"I am both wound and knife," Baudelaire wrote, and the French-Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, who was one of Buddhism's better-read admirers, claimed that people in the west, the "sybarites of suffering", as he called them, were better placed to understand Baudelaire's masochism than the Buddha's rigorously rational therapy. This was not only due to two thousand years of Christianity. For Cioran, the modern age in the west began with "two hysterics: Don Quixote and Luther". It emphasised action and work, however mindless, over passivity and contemplation, and it had produced "a race of convulsionaries" who had imprinted on the whole world the "stigmata" of their own history. In the process, they had rendered themselves incapable of grasping such "forms of wisdom and deliverance" as Buddhism.
This sounds too general and pessimistic. But Cioran, a chronic insomniac, was partly dramatising his own failure to transform the equanimity offered by Buddhism into his "daily substance". He was obsessed by the Buddha and Lao-tzu partly because they seemed to him the "true sages" he could not find among his spiritual and philosophical ancestors - Pascal, Baudelaire, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. He thought that these great critics of secular modernity had merely described, not overcome, a new spiritual impasse faced by human beings; they were "malcontents, triflers, fanatics whose disappointments or excesses we must continue".
Conradi himself quotes a French Catholic priest who in his nineties was asked what, if anything, he had learned about the human heart after continuous exposure to its darkest secrets. Nothing at all, the priest first replied. Then, after some reflection, he said that he had understood one thing: that there are fundamentally no grown-ups.
Conradi writes that practising Buddhists such as himself, who meditate regularly and try to live ethically, wistfully look forward to growing up one day. This sounds like an impossible hope. Greed, hatred and delusion, the sources of all suffering, are also the source of life and its pleasures, however temporary. To vanquish them may be to face a nothingness which, for some people at least, is more terrifying than liberating. Nevertheless, as Conradi seems to say, the effort is worth making. Whether successful or not, it can amount to a vocation in itself, a complete life, and have a noble quality that is rare in these intellectually self-satisfied and politically confusing times.
Pankaj Mishra's book about the Buddha will be published by Picador in October
The Buddhist Scriptures, edited by Donald J Lopez, are newly published by Penguin (£9.99)