By Louis De Lauro
“Pain is pain,” states Anthony Bourdain near the beginning of his last episode of Parts Unknown while visiting the hidden Himalayan country, Bhutan.
I took a walk through this beautiful world
Felt the cool rain on my shoulders
I took a walk through this beautiful world
I felt the rain getting colder
– Queens of the Stone Age
While watching this episode I hang on Bourdain’s every word. I stare into his eyes when they are not hidden by sunglasses and I wonder about life and death—his life and death (and mine too…I want to see tomorrow). Anthony Bourdain’s life was better than mine, I think. Yet, tomorrow was not in his plans.
Americans advocate for the pursuit of happiness, suggests a Bhutanese wise man in Bourdain’s last episode. But people in the Bhutan are actually happier than Americans. There’s something to learn here I think—maybe too much to learn.
In my mind, Bhutan is simply Buddhist people living on delicious dumplings and two dollars a day, loving life, loving the planet and each other. I am happy Bourdain’s last adventure is in Bhutan, I think. I am happy his last adventure will be a happy one.
I am a Western Zen Buddhist, so in my mind, I pretend to have a deeper understanding of Buddhism as I watch Anthony Bourdain visit Eastern Buddhists in Bhutan. I have always romanticized Bhutan and its self-imposed isolation. Located between India and Tibet, it is an environmental wonderland. It’s a place I want so desperately to visit one day. This episode is a dream I think.
“No Starbucks, No KFC, No Cloud, they don’t really want you to visit,” states Bourdain. This makes me laugh.
Early in the episode, Bourdain and his travel buddy, director Darren Aronfsky, tour the city and the remote country and enjoy laughter and good food. And they interview several wise men who offer them Bhutanese hospitality and enlightenment. Still early in the episode, I am paralyzed. I am caught off guard.
“Is it enlightening to think about death each day?” asks Bourdain.
“Yes, it is.” answers a Bhutanese wise man.
I know it is good to brace yourself for death, but Bourdain’s death has turned this question upside down in my head, and it hits me: Did Buddhism help kill Anthony Bourdain?
Eastern Buddhists often put less value on this life. This life does not matter so much–this life is just practice. The next life matters, many Eastern Buddhists think, and the life after that. As a Zen Buddhist, I am fully focused on this life, I think.
“This is all an illusion,” a Bhutanese wise man tells Bourdain.
And Bourdain’s response is, “Life has been a dream.”
This response frightens me a bit. Normally I would think Bourdain is enjoying the conversation. He’s teaching us. Instead, I think, Bourdain knows this life is not the life he wanted. Somehow this life he is living is painful and too much for him, and for a few seconds, I feel very sad.
I feel a bit better when the wise man tells Bourdain, “The Dalai Lama says, every day, when you rise up you, try to be as good a human being as possible, that is more important than being religious.” And Bourdain agrees.
And for a brief second, I have recovered. Buddhism did not help kill Bourdain, I think. Why would I think that? He was ill I remind myself, and again I’m sad.
During the episode through Bourdain’s eyes I experience: Yak hide, Yak jerky, Yak cheese with oil fried chili, spicy Sichuan peppers, phallic symbols sold as souvenirs, (yes, you read that right), harrowing cliffside drop-offs, and picturesque views. And I am so thankful I’ve met Bourdain on my flat screen. He has truly been one of my greatest teachers I think.
His teaching is effortless. He simply traveled somewhere unknown and embraced the people. He listened to them and learned from them, and then he summarized what he learned. What an amazing teacher, I think, and it is awesome to think so many others feel just like me about Bourdain.
I also learn in this final episode that Bhutanese legend tells us that nasty demons inhabit the Bhutanese forests. I hear the word demons and I automatically think about the demons that inhabit minds. I wonder about the horrible and invasive thoughts that engulfed Bourdain, and his demons frighten me.
I think about my family, my friends and people I only barely know. I want them to slay their demons or learn to live with their demons. I want them here with me for as long as possible. And I miss Bourdain.
The Bhutan episode is beautiful. It’s smart and nearly perfect.
And I think to myself Anthony Bourdain was beautiful; he was smart. Clearly, he was far from perfect. Maybe he was a mess; he was ill. I never really met him. But I loved him. And so did you.
Americans advocate for the pursuit of happiness, suggests a Bhutanese wise man in Bourdain's last episode. But people in the Bhutan are actually happier than Americans. There's something to learn here I think---maybe too much to… Click To Tweet
Editor: Dana Gornall
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