What are "familiar strangers"?
Familiar strangers are really just those strangers along the path--whether it's this old guy I met in Mexico, or this Russian soldier who's probably technically one of the most horrible people I've ever met in terms of the stories that he shared. These are all strangers in that I've never met them before but they are strangely familiar at the same time, because they are reminiscent of something that you feel is a part of you.
In your book you preface each chapter with a piece of Siddhartha Guatama's story. Siddhartha left behind his life as a prince to embark on his spiritual quest. Do you see your spiritual journey as analogous to his?
I would never be so arrogant as to compare myself to the Buddha, but I think Siddhartha's story is so resonant because it has a lot of similarities to many [people's stories]. Because it's really a simple story. It's about a kid born into privilege who is blessed with everything but he just isn't finding meaning and then seeks a different path. In some ways that's certainly something I've experienced, but that's not to say I've necessarily found any sort of enlightenment or any answers. But it's definitely spurred the journey--this curiosity, this intrigue about the world--and it can't be just as simple as being born and having these things given to you and then that's it.
So there is only so much you can get from your parents.
Exactly. You have to go on a certain exploration yourself.
Oh, definitely. I was taught when I was very young it's not worth doing unless you really enjoy it, draw some fulfillment from it, and it has resonance in the world. So everything I do--whether it's working on the book, Channel One, or working on a comic book--it's all in the same spirit.
A lot of your assignments have put you in the middle of religious strife--Kashmir, Israel, etc. Do you see religion as the cause of these conflicts, or is it something else in human nature?
I think religion is a product of human nature. I don't think that we can attribute suffering necessarily to religion. But I think fanatics--no matter what brand of fanaticism--link onto things like religion. So I don't think it's fundamentally the fault of any religious institution.
Do you think it becomes problematic when spirituality becomes institutionalized?
I definitely think so. For example I was in the Middle East not too long ago during this whole siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. What you find is that in the news all the rhetoric revolves around religious fundamentalism and fanaticism. But at heart what people really want are the same basic things on both sides. They want to feed their families, they want to be able to go to school or go to work safely without the threat of being shot and they want some measure of respect and acknowledgement from the rest of the world.
So what do you think the answer is?
There's a great saying in one of the Eastern traditions that if you want to change the world you need to change your perspective of it. And I think the media plays a huge role in terms of going out and getting an accurate portrait of what's going on in the world.
I feel that's pretty important in terms of what I was trying to do with this book. I was not trying to go out and look at conflicts and simplify them and say o.k., here's the solution. But I really wanted to explore them, explore some of the deeper issues; and try to introduce the idea that what we need to do is go and get a better understanding and only then can we start to think about what some of the solutions are. Frankly I think we in the media tend to simplify things--and I'm certainly a culprit of this as well--because we have to under certain constraints. What we tend to do is brand an entire culture because of the behavior of a few lunatics, and that's something that we have to get away from.