Mystical or Mythical? Meditations on a Teen 'Buddha'

A 15-year-old Nepalese boy may have meditated for months, sans food or water. Some see a "new Buddha." Skeptics smell a scam. George Saunders told the story for GQ. He tells Linda Wertheimer he came away impressed.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Writer George Saunders is best known for his short stories, but in the June issue of GQ Magazine, Saunders writes about his recent visit to a mystical, maybe mythical boy in Nepal. The child, a 15-year-old from rural Nepal, was said to be sitting under a tree meditating, for seven months, without food or water. George Saunders went to find out if the 15-year-old Nepalese boy was possibly a saint, a new Buddha, or a con, a scam. He joins us now from member station WAER in Syracuse, New York. Welcome to our program.

Mr. GEORGE SAUNDERS (Writer): Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, your first stop on the journey to see the meditating boy was Katmandu, and you write at some length about the powerful impression that place made on you, the impression of extreme poverty and squalor and maybe a rising out of that spirituality.

Mr. SAUNDERS: You see so clearly that basically what we do here on earth is try to feed our faces, you know, try to take a piece of metal and make it a slightly more valuable piece of metal so you can sell it, so you can buy some rice. There are also - there was this one walk I took, where I just kept seeing these sick, sometimes deformed people, mostly older women. And somehow the whole idea of, as the Buddha says, life is suffering. In that setting, it really comes across that not only is it suffering in a kind of esoteric, spiritual sense but for the Nepalese people every day is a kind of a struggle to keep yourself out of the most painful parts of human existence.

So then to go into that kind of world in search of this boy who, as I came to understand it, was looking for a way to transcend all that pain, was really, really quite moving.

WERTHEIMER: So the boy was quite impressive, I gather?

Mr. SAUNDERS: You know, it's so interesting. For me, this trip was a lot about the way you project something at a distance. You know, you hear about this kid and your mind projects all kinds of possible hoaxes. And to actually go out there and suddenly be walking toward this boy, and get the full force of the kind of serenity of the setting, and the profundity of it really was very different than I expected.

Somehow when I thought about it, I thought, well, probably there's a community of people who are doing this thing somehow. Maybe it's a hoax. I don't know. And I imagined this tree. But there must be some kind of a stage, or a kind of a staging area around the tree. Probably people wait back there with and maybe feed him at night, or something. But you get there and you see this incredibly beautiful, at that time, 15 year old boy just sitting under a tree. There's nothing around him.

At this point his hair, which I think started in a crew cut, had grown down past his nose. And he's sitting there dusty, almost like he's growing out of the tree. And he just doesn't move.

WERTHEIMER: I mean, are you absolutely sure that you were looking at a living creature, not some kind of an extraordinary, dusty statue?

Mr. SAUNDERS: One of the persistent rumors was that he had died, or that he was a clay statue, or that he had lapsed into a coma. And honestly, from as close as I could get, you really couldn't tell. But then, of course, the - not to jump ahead, but about the 10 month mark, one morning, the boy disappeared after being here uninterruptedly for 10 months. They came to the site in the morning. The fence had been cut. There was a little pile of his clothes supposedly under the tree. And he was just missing.

So he reappeared nine days after that to say that the site was too loud. He couldn't concentrate. He couldn't do what he had to do. So he was going to go deeper into the jungle and he would be out in six years. And then the last thing he said was, Tell my parents not to worry. And he hasn't been seen since.

WERTHEIMER: You also visited his mom, who you described as the lapsed Catholic that you are, immediately put you in mind of the Holy Mother.

Mr. SAUNDERS: Very much because she was just visible uncomfortable talking to me. She didn't - I think she had actually done a number of interviews over the last - over the six months. And you know, at first the whole village, including the family, were skeptical and a little angry, and a little embarrassed. And they would say to him, why are you acting like - the translation was, why are you acting like a retard? And there were some local kind of hoods who would come and poke him with sticks.

His family tried to tempt him with food. And he just wasn't budging. He wouldn't move. He wouldn't speak. One of the most moving things about this story is the way that gradually his family and his community was convinced. And you would expect, you know, if you went to some small town in Oklahoma and decided to pull a scam, you know, I'm going to go sit out in the middle of the prairie and not eat, somebody would be in on it who would turn. And this town...

WERTHEIMER: Who would out you, right.

Mr. SAUNDERS: Exactly, because it's too tempting. And there's a little bit of money involved, and so on. And in this town, the level of reverence for this kid is just unbelievable.

WERTHEIMER: Hmm.

Mr. SAUNDERS: And it was really impressive to see that.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you seemed to have had some sort of spiritual experience of your own, as if maybe you were in some kind of holy presence. I wonder how you left it in your own mind.

Mr. SAUNDERS: I'm still working on it, to be honest with you. I would say - I mean, in the piece, I try to just observe. Here's what I saw. Here's what I heard. Here's what I felt. But anyone who's been out there will say something really extraordinary is going on with this kid. My feeling is just everyone has the potential to do what he's doing. But he's just sort of the Michael Jordan of meditation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAUNDERS: But you know, I'm going to go back there in six years when he comes out. And maybe you can come with, we can check it out.

WERTHEIMER: Mr. Saunders is well known for his collection, Civil War Land In Bad Decline. His most recent book is called In Persuasion Nation.

George Saunders, thanks very much.

Mr. SAUNDERS: Thank you very much.

WERTHEIMER: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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