Interview – Part II with Adam Grydehøj about his debut novel I HAVE NOT ANSWERED

by Kimberly Beek

As promised, here is Part II of my email interview with Adam Grydehøj. Since you can look at the last few posts for an introduction to his debut novel I Have Not Answered, I’m just going to dive right in to the second half of the interview.

Part II

KB: It is in the narrator that you most meld cosmologies, and I hope you can speak to the writing experience of this hybridization. For example, can a trow or dwarf also be a preta?

AG: Once I started thinking through the mindset of a preta and the fact that it would necessarily be unaware of its own nature, I got to thinking about what else a preta would be unaware of. It would be highly unlikely for a preta to have knowledge of the cosmology of which it is a part. But a preta would certainly wonder about the world in which it found itself. The novel’s narrator is immensely frightened by the world. Its greatest fear is encountering one of its own kind, which from a theological perspective could be the equivalent of the nightmare of the mirror with no eyes. Seeing itself for what it really is would cause a psychological break for which the narrator, in its unconscious state of heightened desire, is not yet prepared – this is the point beyond which the narrator cannot cross. We can see this expressed in the dreams that the narrator prompts in Innes, where the narrator – through Innes’ dream-eyes – is forced to repeatedly encounter its own image yet manages to trick itself into thinking that this image is always illusory or deceptive.

So the narrator and – we gather – other non-human spirits have created a cosmology to explain their own existence. There are Those Who Came Before, the Earthy Ones, and so on, beings of immense power on whom it might be possible to pin some of the blame for the damnation suffered by the spirits of everyday life. Personally, I don’t even think that the island of Foula is evil; Foula is just an excuse for the cruelty of the spirits’ world. Yet the spirits themselves contest and negotiate the truth of this cosmology. The narrator is acutely aware that humans have their own cosmologies: in a Shetland context, first pre-Christian deities, then the Christian god, then the Viking gods, then the Christian god again.

KB: If cosmologies are hybridized in I Have Not Answered, was it your intention that the Buddhist cosmology be the overarching cosmology in the novel?

AG: There is an overarching cosmology beyond the knowledge of the narrator or any of the other characters in the novel, and this is evident in the fact that the narrator is disturbed both by Christian prayer and by smoke from Buddhist incense. Religions are negotiated locally, but the cosmological truth is universal.
Since I am indeed imagining the narrator as a preta, the novel’s overarching cosmology is most definitely Buddhist. The fact that the narrator lives in Shetland does not represent a contradiction for me as an author because of this distinction between local explanations of the world on the one hand and the ‘true’ cosmology of the novel on the other. From this perspective, those beings that Shetlanders refer to as trows, that the English call fairies (a generic term), that the Japanese call yōkai would all be preta; they just would not necessarily be recognized as such. In this sense, the narrator is not a trow. This is just the only word that Shetlanders would have for it.

Here is a caveat: If Northern Europe ever possessed complex cosmological systems of thought prior to the coming of Christianity, we have no clue as to what these may have been. People today may seek to piece together mythologies on the basis of old written sources (all of which were written by Christians), but really, there is little evidence as to what people actually believed. The ‘native’ cosmology in the novel (with the crawling things, Foula, the Earthy Ones, Those Who Came Before) is all invented by me and has no roots in anything that used to be believed.

Even now, I have no idea what ‘fey streamers’ might be or what they may mean. They are simply mysteries. And they are mysteries for the narrator as well, who is constantly engaging in myth building.

KB: In your debut novel, you have managed to combine European myths with Buddhist myths through dream sequences, imagery and symbols. For example, I recognize the symbols of the chalice and the harp from Celtic myths. Is this merging something you did consciously and, if so, what were some of the challenges you dealt with when combining myths?

AG: Celtic myth, per se, plays virtually no role in the novel. Inasmuch as the novel’s characters discuss folkloric systems, they are discussing a Scandinavian-derived system rather than a Celtic one (on account of Shetland’s history of Norse colonization). However, in practice, various folkloric systems merge, and there are huge similarities between supernatural traditions from around the world, in part because, for whatever reason, peoples around the world seem to have very similar supernatural experiences, which are then explained on the basis of these peoples’ various cultural contexts. We thus have the taboo against the naming, the taboo against eating or drinking otherworldly food or drink, the taboo about revealing the existence of a supernatural lover, etc. across most of the world’s cultures. The symbols of the chalice and the harp, what do they symbolise? I have no idea. But for some reason, these are symbols that run through certain sorts of supernatural stories across cultures, without the necessity of cultural transmission (i.e. cultures come up with these similar or sometimes identical stories independently of one another). So in this sense, the combination of various cultural traditions was not difficult for me.

As I mentioned, the narrator is constantly engaging in myth building. There is no evidence that the narrator actually ever sees other supernatural beings, though it does have memories (or are they invented memories?) of a time in the past when it was not alone. Therefore the narrator is constantly negotiating its own cosmology and expresses that other supernatural beings are similarly engaged. Did Those Who Came Before ever truly exist? Who dug the tunnels deep within the Earth? Are there even any tunnels at all? As readers, we only encounter the tunnels in dreams, and there is a passage (pages 190-191) that suggests that each individual excavates his or her own mental tunnels in order to avoid having to confront his or her own inner truths.

KB: Why tell this story through a semi-omniscient, third person narrator who also happens to be a hungry ghost?

AG: I’ll be honest: This narrator was a real pain to write. By its nature, it needs to be both unaware of its own nature and unable to fully understand human emotion. It also needs to (wrongly) believe that it is not exercising its will in the world. It’s very difficult to make a character like this the driving force behind a novel’s plot.

Indeed, I’ve experienced that almost everyone who’s read the novel regards Innes as the protagonist. I guess I’ll just have to get used to that. For me though, Innes is the antagonist. We can feel sorry for Innes, and I don’t doubt that he loved Sal or, later, May (even if his love for May is a projection of the narrator’s own desires), but I would guess that Innes was a bit annoying even before he had his heart broken. It’s hard to tell since we only have indirect access to Innes’ thoughts (via his dreams and his writings). Innes’ role in the novel is to resist the narrator’s attempts to find an outlet for his will. And Innes actually does a pretty good job of it for a while.

The trouble for Innes is that the narrator is attracted to him precisely because of Innes’ misguided attempt to destroy his own will. Innes is not a random victim of supernatural attack. He is inviting this attack upon himself, and his very efforts to defend himself against the attack serve to further heighten the attack’s intensity. When Innes realizes that something is wrong with him, he seeks to starve his will. Yet starvation of will is, in the novel’s worldview, the ultimate expression of willfulness, driving the narrator to constantly reinforce Innes’ willfulness.

So Innes is only an interesting character in relation to the narrator. Innes is afraid that he’s sometimes wearing a psychological ‘mask’, but only at the very end of the novel does he gain awareness of the true horror of the situation: that he has in fact become someone else’s mask. As in Shindo’s Onibaba, it is unclear as to who is haunting whom. Fundamentally though, this is the narrator’s story, and only the narrator can tell it.

KB: Did you have an intended audience in mind when you wrote the novel?

AG: I knew that a good portion of the intended audience would simply be Shetlanders. I always wished that novel would have a Buddhist readership, but practically speaking, I think it’s rather unlikely that it will be widely read in these circles since the novel is only implicitly Buddhist. It is entirely possible to read the novel without engaging in any Buddhist interpretation whatsoever. Interestingly, the novel is being marketed as a supernatural thriller and as an example of ‘weird fiction’ (i.e. as related to the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and the concept of ‘cosmic horror’). Thematically, the novel is quite different from these genres, particularly in the Western tradition.

KB: How do you think your novel will be received in Shetland?

AG: I think that the content of the novel will be well enough received in Shetland, and some people will be happy to see a treatment of ‘trows’ that is not comic in tone. However, there’s a good chance that a lot of folks will be angry about the way in which I’ve dealt with the local dialect. I’ve basically taken aspects of the actual dialect and used them to create something that isn’t dialect – but that’s readable to a wider audience. This might not go down well!

KB: Your novel certainly goes down well as a work of Buddhist fiction. Like certain aspects of Ruth Ozeki’s Booker Prize nominated 2013 novel A Tale for the Time Being, your debut work I Have Not Answered is at the forefront of narratives that combine Buddhist cosmology and myth with European or North American cosmology and myth. Thank-you for the opportunity to read your novel, discuss it with you through email, and share it here on the Buddhist Fiction Blog.

Interview – Part I with Adam Grydehøj about his debut novel I HAVE NOT ANSWERED

by Kimberly Beek

Adam Grydehøj holds a Ph.D. in Ethnography from the University of Aberdeen U.K. He is most interested in islands and folklore in a contemporary context. Currently, he puts his ethnographic skills and his years of study of folklore to good use as the Director of Island Dynamics, an organization that uses cultural anthropology, economic geography, foreign and public policy, and tourism studies to “create and communicate island studies knowledge through conferences, courses, research and consulting.” Adam is very much a global citizen with a comprehensive understanding of how remembering the past, and the ways in which we do so, affects possibilities in the present.

imgresAdam’s debut novel I Have Not Answered is being marketed as a ‘supernatural thriller’, so readers of this blog may wonder how it also fits into the realm of Buddhist fiction. In my first communication with Adam, he wrote of I Have Not Answered that “I did consciously write it as a Buddhist novel – or rather, I thoroughly edited it into being a Buddhist novel from the end of the first draft onwards.” There are overt Buddhist elements in the narrative, since the seeming protagonist of the novel, Innes, practices Buddhist meditation in an effort to overcome some of his perceived challenges. Innes is a researcher who finds himself embroiled in strange circumstances while researching folklore in Shetland. What is more surprising, however, is the seamless interweaving of Buddhist cosmology into the perspective offered by the novel’s narrator, the real protagonist of the work. It is this interweaving that puts emphasis on the ‘supernatural’ in the label ‘supernatural thriller’.

The following interview with Adam may, in fact, provide a ‘flipside’ reading of the novel, since I Have Not Answered is set in Shetland and will likely be read as a novel about a particular locale, steeped in the locale’s inherent cultures and concerns. And the novel’s reception will be shaped by the reader’s interpretation of the narrator. So I feel very fortunate to have interviewed Adam through email in order to get an ‘author’s insight’ into a debut novel that is, indeed, a work of Buddhist fiction, and so much more.

What follows is Part I of a very rich, illuminating exchange with Adam Grydehøj about his first novel, I Have Not Answered (Beewolf Press: Copenhagen, Denmark, 2014). Part II will be posted next week, so I hope, dear reader, that you return to read both parts.

Part I

KB: Can you share with me a bit about your own experience with Buddhism?

AG: My own experience of Buddhism is a bit difficult to express.
When I first started my ‘academic career’ as a bachelor’s student at The Evergreen State College, Washington State, I began by studying philosophy and comparative religion, which later morphed into folk belief and then, rather awkwardly, into small island governance and economic development. I suppose that this early background in comparative religion gave me some expectations for dealing with these sorts of subjects while my later work on folk belief taught me to distinguish between lived (or apparently lived) supernatural experience, feelings of religious devotion, and myth.

I did not start paying any attention to Buddhism whatsoever until after my son, Sigurd, was born in 2004. It actually began, inauspiciously enough, with Godzilla. As a child, I had watched quite a few ‘B-movies’, having inherited the tradition of American B-movie viewership from my mother. I thought that Sigurd might enjoy them. He thus received a pack containing DVDs of five early Godzilla films (1954-1974) when he was four years old. Sigurd really enjoyed these, and though we had been watching these in the English dubs, I thought that it couldn’t hurt to introduce him to some other Japanese films (which also gave me an excuse to finally watch some cinematic masterworks). It was through this that Sigurd and I moved from Godzilla into Kurosawa (both his historical/samurai films and those taking place in contemporary Japan) – and we have maintained a joint interest in Japan and Japanese movies ever since. Indeed, on the basis of films like Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Hidden Fortress as well as Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy, Sigurd came to regard himself as a Buddhist. The sort of conception of Buddhism that one would derive from such movies is, of course, very different to the more ‘peace-and-love’ focused vision of Buddhism that is most common in the West these days. This has been reinforced in Sigurd through our reading of the Heart Sutra, parts of the Lotus Sutra, Musashi’s Book of the Five Rings, etc.

But here, I must separate myself from Sigurd, for with my academic background and mindset, I have not been able to as straightforwardly accept the trappings of Zen Buddhism without worrying about the cosmology behind it. In so many present-day understandings of Buddhism, particularly here in the West, the emphasis on elements of the Buddhist tradition that fit our current social context (often mediated through Theosophist and post-Theosophist thinkers, particularly W.Y. Evans-Wentz) obscures culturally difficult ideas concerning the suffering that is inherent in the concept of a vast cycle of death and rebirth trending toward Nirvana. So, even at the time when I was most engaged with Buddhism per se (during a romance with a practicing Buddhist, which partly coincided with the writing of this novel), I was never able to accept the forest without investigating the trees, as it were.

At the same time, I came to be increasingly fascinated with how East Asian culture negotiates these issues, particularly in films (not all of which I showed to my son!). Japanese movies like Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968); Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes (1964); and Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964) show a willingness to explore the interface between Buddhist cosmology, lived practice, and human psychology. In these films (and many other East Asian films, not all of them involving supernatural subjects, that take up the Buddhist traditional mantle), Buddhism is not a path to immediate self-realisation; it is a path to further suffering. As indeed should be the case, given that, from a traditional Buddhist cosmological perspective, it is highly unlikely for human protagonists to be on the cusp of Nirvana.

So, to tie these various strands of my own life together, I am approaching Buddhism from a specifically East Asian perspective, rooted in 1) my academic interest in vernacular religion, 2) my love for good movies, and 3) my personal desire to learn about what motivated the thinking of a person who was very special to me.

KB: Clearly your experience of Buddhism is different than that of the novel’s main character, Innes. What can you tell me about the character Innes’ experience and ‘translation’ of Buddhism? He seems to be using Buddhism rather than practicing it.

AG: I honestly do not know how Innes got interested in Buddhism. The narrator does not have sufficient insight into Innes’ psychology (or perhaps human psychology in general) to be able to tell us this. I rather suspect that Innes picked up Zen Buddhism at some point in secondary school and did a lot of research about it. It is pretty clear to me that his learning is ‘book learning’, and he is placing his superior knowledge of the historical written sources above the experiential knowledge of other practitioners, as is evident in the scene at the yoga club in the town of Lerwick. Innes’ real problem, of course, is that he is attempting to use Buddhism in an instrumental manner, striving toward detachment in order to dull himself to the pain he feels from his failing relationship with his girlfriend (Sal). I imagine that Innes had a lot of knowledge of Buddhism prior to the problems in his love life, but I do not imagine that he was particularly emotionally engaged with Buddhism until then. What Innes cannot see is that his faulty Buddhist practice, his stubborn asceticism, is drawing him toward (temporary) damnation, not toward eternal liberation.

Innes is seeking to give his life meaning by solving what is really a very minor, though very complicated, academic riddle. As with his dangerous Buddhist practice, he fails to understand that it does not matter how the story ends. It is the process that matters.

I think that Innes gains a measure of self-understanding at the end of the novel, but I also think that, by the time this comes, it is too little, too late, and a part of me wonders whether Innes’ next incarnation is going to be like the narrator’s current form. Innes’ experience cannot really be understood without recourse to the narrator’s experience.

KB: After much mulling, re-reading of passages and contextualizing, I can only conclude that the narrator is a trow (fairy). Am I off on this?

AG: To me, the narrator has always been the centre of the book, the protagonist who drives events forward. This causes technical difficulties for telling the story, obviously, since the narrator needs to interact with the other characters while not speaking (it – he? – has a single line of spoken dialogue) and is generally invisible.

I know that the narrator is going to be regarded as a trow. This is unavoidable, for trow is the word that exists for the narrator in the cultural context in which the narrator finds itself. There are even indications that the narrator associates itself with what people are terming trows. The people of Shetland are not aware of the true nature of such trows. Besides which, none of the Shetlanders in the novel, with the possible exception of Graham, actually believe in trows.

Yet trow itself is just a word. The narrator is conflicted about words. For the narrator, words have power, are something to be feared – but it is the intention behind words that give them meaning, not the sounds or the concepts themselves. As in (fairly universal) folk belief, names have particular power, and the narrator’s namelessness as well as its inability to ever learn Innes’ name are an indication of its own impotence, of its own curse. To me though, the narrator is no more a trow than a yokai or a dwarf or a ghost or whatever else humans might choose to call such things on the basis of their own culturally mediated experience.

What I know – and what the narrator, crucially, does not know – is that, cosmologically speaking, it is a preta or hungry ghost, destined never to achieve what it desires most. What the narrator desires most seems to be connection with a human. At times, it seems to be seeking a romantic connection, but based on how events in the novel play out, I would guess that the narrator is unconsciously seeking to project its own nature onto a person, to attain actual unity. There are indications that the narrator’s attempts at achieving such connections always end in death. The narrator is not evil, but it is inherently malignant to humans. When the narrator someday gains self-awareness, someday comes to understand this, it will at last be able to move closer toward liberation – a step up in the cycle of rebirth. Will this take another two years, two millennia, millions of years? I have no idea. Perhaps we can gain hope from the end of the novel that the narrator has learned something. But perhaps not, for we know that the narrator is cursed with forgetfulness, which we also know is a function of its damnation.

KB: How did you come to the idea of the narrator? After reading the novel I cannot imagine the story told by any but this narrator, but I have never encountered anything like this before.

AG: I came to the idea of having the narrator be a ‘hungry ghost’ as a result of wondering what kind of emotional life such a being might have. What is the psychology of the compulsion to destroy the thing that one loves the most, and to be unaware that one is doing so? Just as Innes mistakenly believes that he is observing people from a position within the world without intervening in the working of the world, so too the narrator genuinely believes that it exists in isolation, that its own actions and thoughts do not affect those of Innes. The narrator fails to realize that Innes’ words and visions have gradually begun echoing its own and vice versa. The narrator shows no comprehension that it is “the uncanny presence in the room.” The instant that the narrator realizes this, its (present stage of) damnation will be over. The nightmare imagining of the mirror without eyes (pages 68-69) presents the narrator at the cusp of self-realisation and thus of self-destruction and renewal, but burdened by its karma, there is a point beyond which the narrator cannot yet progress.

KB: The way you crafted the narrator suggests a good deal of flexibility. Why did you choose this form for a narrator? As far as I have read, this is the first version of a hungry ghost in contemporary popular fiction (written for a Western audience) that is not a psychologized version of a human character, but is imagined as an actual preta.

AG: I came up with the idea for this narrator precisely because of the lack you note. There are plenty of excellent fictional accounts (in both literature and film) of human encounters with the supernatural. There are also plenty of accounts of the supernatural’s encounters with people, though these often have something of a post-modern flair. An exception could be Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem, depending on how you interpret the story. Meyrink, who was himself interested in Buddhist (and more broadly, Theosophical) thought, is a strong influence on my own writing.

At any rate, I got to thinking that a preta would likely have a very interesting psychology and set of emotions. I hypothesized that an inherent aspect of this state of being would be a lack of awareness that one was a preta.

This is the central tragedy of the narrator of I Have Not Answered. It possesses insufficient self-awareness to recognize its own fundamental malignancy. If it possessed this level of self-awareness, it would no longer be a preta. Instead, it believes that it has succeeded in distancing itself from the world and in having conquered will. It is this mistaken belief in its own lack of desire that leads it to destroy others, ironically by pushing others (in this case, Innes) toward greater willfulness. The curse of the preta is thus precisely that it is unconscious of its will.

—————————-

Stand-by for Part II!

Kimberly Beek is Currently Reading I HAVE NOT ANSWERED by Adam Grydehøj

The first novel by Adam Grydehøj, I Have Not Answered, is unlike anything I have read before. The publisher’s web site, Beewolf Press, provides the following blurb:

I Have Not Answered, Adam Grydehøj’s powerful debut novel, brings a Scandinavian chill to the literature of Scotland. Stark, lyrical prose roots this supernatural thriller in a keen sense of place. As a meditation on love, loss, and the masks we wear to hide our true selves slowly transforms into a horror story of the soul, I Have Not Answered demonstrates how silence and disquiet can be evoked in words.”

The novel I Have Not Answered is the story of a young researcher named Innes who has gone to the Shetland islands in search of a story that, he believes, will solve all of his problems, from the academic to the emotional. The research trip is welcome as he is trying to distance himself from his past relationship.

It is not Innes’ story, however, that keeps the reader coming back, but curiosity about the narrator, a being who is drawn to Innes and also draws Innes in to its own story until lines are crossed, veils of reality are lifted, and there is no going back to the beginning because it has come and gone with the Shetland fog.

Adam contacted me a few months ago about his novel, which he says was consciously edited as a work of Buddhist fiction. I jumped at the opportunity to read I Have Not Answered and to conduct a lengthy email interview with Adam about his debut work. The interview will be posted in the next few weeks. Until then, enjoy the novel’s dedicated web site here – I Have Not Answered – and make sure, as you’re clicking around the page and reading the pop-up boxes, to click on the title in the top left of the screen to get to the real fun.

Announcing New(ish) Buddhist Fiction – BUDDHALAND BROOKLYN by Richard C. Morais

Buddhaland Brooklyn by Richard C. Morais was published by Scribner in December, 2013. The novel is modelled on nostalgic fictional memoirs that condense a lifetime into a symbolic year. And so is told the story of curmudgeonly, repressed Buddhist monk Reverend Seido Oda whose Japanese superiors send him to an Italian neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York, to build a temple. By all accounts, and reviews, Morais’ novel is a wonderful story that is worth reading and savouring.

“The Hunt for Xanadu” led me to the Buddhist Fiction listopia on goodreads!

One of the unexpected blessings of this blog is a connection with authors. I started the blog at the request of a few colleagues who wanted me to create a list of Buddhist fiction and even point out works that would be useful in university classrooms. Since then, the blog has taken on a life of its own and one aspect of that life is interest from authors who feel their works may fit into the category of Buddhist fiction. In fact, this is how I met the Buddhist Fiction Blog’s wonderful contributing editor Chris Beal, who is herself an author and was a creative writing teacher.

Recently I was contacted by author Elyse Salpeter who thinks that her novel The Hunt for Xanadu fits into the category of Buddhist fiction. While I am currently overwhelmed with all sorts of writing and cannot review Elyse’s novel, I wanted to tell you about it here. Her web site summarizes the book with the tag phrase: “A girl, the Buddhist devil and a mystical world, tying them all together in ways unimaginable . . . ” The Amazon.com blurb reads:

“Twenty-two year old Kelsey Porter has dedicated her life to avenging the death of her parents, murdered in their quest to find the mystical land of Xanadu. Before she can locate the murderers, she has to discover their motives for the brutal crime and finds herself at the epicenter of a Buddhist mystery as old as time. With the help of her companion, Detective Desmond Gisborne, she hunts the killers across the globe and discovers a darkness in her spiritual past that tests the very limits of her soul. Soon she realizes that it is not she who is doing the hunting, but the one being hunted. Kelsey must find a way to survive, while ancient demons attempt to destroy her.”

The novel sounds thrilling, to say the least. I am so grateful to Elyse for letting me know about her work, and especially thankful for one further piece of information. In our brief email chats, Elyse noted that her novel is currently # 1 on the goodreads Buddhist Fiction listopia. I had to look twice. Goodreads has a list of works of Buddhist fiction? Indeed it does! Why is this notable? Because goodreads is the largest social network for book worms on the internet with over 25 million members. Yes, that’s right, 25 million readers log on, review, and chat about what they are reading on goodreads, including reviews of works of Buddhist fiction.

Right about now the lovely Chris Beal is probably laughing as she reads this, because our contributing editor has been reviewing works on goodreads for a while. She reads and reviews so much that I can hardly keep up with her. Chris knows the value of goodreads, a value that is reviewed in this 12 Feb 14 article in The Atlantic.

So The Hunt for Xanadu author Elyse Salpeter led me to a new list of Buddhist fiction. Thank-you Elyse! I am always amazed at how Buddhism is imagined in fiction, and at the breadth and depth of the popular imagination.

Sumeru Press Looking for Contributors to “The Little Book of Buddhist Humor”

The call for contributions to The Little Book of Buddhist Humor went out on the Sumeru web site in November of 2013 and I am just now getting to post about it. The post by Yönten (John Negru) at the blog link reads:

“Dear Dharma friends and colleagues:

Sumeru Books is collecting a series of anecdotal stories for inclusion in a book we are editing with Charles Prebish, called “The Little Book of Buddhist Humor.” In difficult times, we feel that the Buddhist world has the opportunity to contribute to and inject some happy, Buddhist-inspired humor into our everyday lives.

As such, we’re inviting any of you who have clever, funny, silly, and laughable stories that you have experienced in your personal and/or professional work and practice in Buddhism to submit these short episodes to us for possible inclusion. We are looking for stories from Buddhist teachers, scholars and sangha members. Maybe something really funny happened to you at a Buddhist center, or something humorous occurred while attending a professional conference, or a personal communication involving Buddhism brought a silly smile to your face. We’ll collect the best of those stories submitted and publish them in our book.

Please make sure the stories are no more than three pages long, remain in good taste, and represent anecdotes that you are comfortable sharing. They may be submitted to Charles Prebish (charles.prebish@usu.edu) or to me (john@sumeru-books.com), and should be submitted by Wesak 2014 (May 14).

We truly hope to make this a FUN project that will bring smiles to people worldwide, and we’ll be so grateful for any stories you may provide that will help us achieve our goal.

P.S. If you don’t have a story to share, you can still help out by spreading the word (click the buttons below to share this on social media or email it to friends/sanghas/etc).”

There is still plenty of time to contribute to this worthwhile project! Yönten’s post started me thinking about humorous episodes in works of Buddhist fiction. There are many novels and short stories with scenes that have made me chortle or laugh out loud. How about you, dear reader? Have you any favourite, humorous passages from works of Buddhist fiction? I would like to hear about them, or perhaps you can go to the link above and suggest something be added to The Little Book of Buddhist Humor. At the very least, please smile and share the request for contribution :)

Interview with Roland Merullo by Chris Beal

Roland Merullo (Rolandmerullo.com) is the author of sixteen books, two of which are particularly of interest to readers of Buddhist Fiction. BREAKFAST WITH BUDDHA (Algonquin, 2008)), previously reviewed here (http://buddhistfictionblog.wordpress.com/tag/spiritual-travelogue/), is currently in its fifteenth printing and has been translated into Korean and Croatian. Merullo’s latest, LUNCH WITH BUDDHA (AJAR Contemporaries, 2012), is a sequel to BREAKFAST, and picks up on middle-aged, upper-middle-class food book editor Otto Ringling’s sometimes reluctant journey into spirituality and his relationship with the Buddhist teacher Volya Rinpoche, who has now become his brother-in-law. (Note that it is not necessary to read BREAKFAST in order to enjoy LUNCH although doing so may result in a richer experience.)

Chris Beal:  For those who haven’t read it, could you describe LUNCH WITH BUDDHA in a nutshell?

Roland Merullo: It is, like BREAKFAST, another road-trip book, a look at America, at spirituality, at food and landscape and the interior life.  It begins with the whole family together in Seattle, and then, after an event I don’t want to describe here, Otto and Rinpoche head east in an old pickup truck and make their way across Washington State, Idaho, Montana and a bit of Wyoming, having various adventures along the way, talking, eating, meeting characters.

For those who haven’t read BREAKFAST, that book is a New Jersey-to-North Dakota road trip taken by the same characters. LUNCH is the next stage on that evolution, with Rinpoche bringing Otto deeper into the interior life, and Otto showing Rinpoche more and more of the American landscape and culture.

CB:  I find Rinpoche, with his eccentric mix of human foibles and profundity, to be an extremely engaging character.  He’s also the source of most of the humor in this tale as well as in its predecessor.  How did you come up with the idea for him?  Did you know someone like this or is he purely a work of imagination?

RM:  He’s a mixture of spiritual teachers I have seen, taken retreats with, and imagined.  There’s a little of the Dalai Lama in him, a little of the Tibetan master, Sogyal Rinpoche, a bit of the late Zen master Soehn Sahn.  I went on brief retreats with the latter two, and found them to be very funny, engaging, impressive men.  But in Rinpoche I take that to another level, and have him do things that those teachers might not do.  In part, the book grew out of a magazine piece I read probably thirty years ago, the account of the Dalai Lama’s first trip to America.  One of his hosts was aghast that people had arranged for him to go to Disneyland, but the Dalai Lama enjoyed himself, went with the flow, with good humor, kindness, without judgment.  I wasn’t even interested in Buddhism then, but it impressed me so much to have a great spiritual leader with that kind of sense of humor about things.

CB:  How did you learn about the obscure branch of Siberian Tibetan Buddhism to which the Rinpoche belongs?  Did you choose it because it attracted you in some way or just because its obscurity gave you some freedom to play with the doctrine a bit?

RM:  It’s made up.  I know a bit about Tibetan Buddhism, Dzogchen especially, but I’m the last thing from a scholar.  I used my intuitive understanding of those teachings, but I chose this made up lineage because I did not want to be limited to the factual teachings of any one group.  One thing I love about Buddhist teachers is how they incorporate and respect the teachings of other faiths.  They will mention Christ, for example, though very few Christian teachers mention Buddha with the same respect.

CB:  But I researched whether there was a branch of Tibetan Buddhism in Siberia, and it turned out to exist. This is an amazing coincidence.  But if you didn’t know about it, of course it was made up for purposes of the novel.

RM:  I should have been more clear about that.  I did work in the USSR for almost three years between 1977 and 1990, and did once take the Trans-Siberian railroad, which passes through a place called Skovorodino.  And I did know that there were some Buddhist enclaves.  So that was in my thoughts when I was writing and having Rinpoche come from Russia.  But [the lineage] Ortyk is made up….unless by some weird coincidence it is also real.  

CB:  One purpose of the book seems to be to encourage people ask themselves questions about what is really important in their lives. Could you say something about the role of humor in accomplishing this purpose?

RM:  Religion is a tricky subject.  It’s especially tricky for someone like me, who has zero credentials.  I’m not a preachy type, in real life, and do not want to go anywhere near preaching to or trying to convert my readers. Humor helps with that.  The big questions are so big, and they can be so serious, literally matters of life and death and afterlife, that, I think, if you don’t approach them with humor the results can be awful.  I am trying to “provoke” people to consider things, but I’m not pushing anyone anywhere beyond that, and if the characters and story don’t work, then the ideas will fall flat.

CB:  The book suggests that communicating with the dead is possible. Have you yourself had any experiences in contacting the dead?  Can you talk a little about how you see this kind of communication?

RM:  No, I haven’t, but I do have friends who feel they have had some communication with lost loved ones.  And it is just very hard for me to believe that we form these deep attachments to certain people in this life, and then they end forever when one or both die.  Part of what I am trying to do in Breakfast and LUNCH (and now DINNER, which I am writing), is to counter what I see as the excessively materialistic views held by most of us in American/Western society.  I don’t mean materialistic in the usual sense–wanting things–but in the sense of believing only in the material, the measurable, the tangible.  It seems obvious to me that there is more going on, and while that other dimension of things can be the territory of the flaky and false, I think there is truth to it.  I think there is some connection that death doesn’t sever, and I wanted Otto to feel that in this book.

CB:  Certain plot elements are never developed in LUNCH:  the possibility of harm coming to Shelsa, the possibility that she is an incarnate Buddha, the menace posed by the hate groups.  Did you intend to set up these plot elements for further development in DINNER?

RM:  I don’t plan much, don’t outline, just write by the seat of my pants, by intuition, trying to have fun as I go.  But in DINNER, I am wrestling with some of those elements, how much to pursue or abandon them. It’s tricky business because the heart of these books is the spiritual evolution of Otto, and I don’t want to turn them into thrillers.  At the same time, I like to introduce something new in each book so I am not just playing the same song over and over again.

CB:  To what extent are Rinpoche’s views on spirituality your own?  Are there any ways in which they are not your own? If the answer is yes to the latter question, why did you decide to give him views that differ from yours?

RM:  They are mostly my own.  He is wiser and deeper than I am, and he lacks some of my flaws and troubles.  I have tried to put some of me into Otto for that reason, though Otto is very different than I am in many respects.  When Rinpoche says something in his teachings, those are things I have thought and wondered about myself, or read or heard from great masters. I try to be careful with that material, try not to simply mimic what I’ve heard, but also try not to have him say something that will be misleading to true spiritual seekers.  It’s a fine line sometimes.  I feel a responsibility to the truth, as I perceive it, especially in spiritual matters.  And while I joke about it in the book, at the same time, I take seriously what I have him say.  If it doesn’t work in my own life, or if it feels “off” somehow, then I won’t have him say it.

CB:  I believe I read that you meditate.  Is it a particular type of practice?  Are you affiliated with any particular spiritual group?

RM:  No.  No specific group.  It’s a hybrid meditation that grew out of a Catholic upbringing, some Buddhist reading and retreats.  It’s been an almost daily practice for 30 some years.  I start with a Hail Mary and an Our Father, sometimes do a little tonglen, the Tibetan giving-and-taking meditation, then try just to rest as quietly as I can.  I like Dzogchen because it seems simple, without a lot of visualizations and tricks.  I just watch the thoughts and try to return to some word, idea, or image, and occasionally have moments of calm.  In general, it has helped me tremendously.  Not that I have any great visions–I don’t–but it has helped me with anger and depression and other tough parts of life that I experienced more when I was younger.  Still a long long ways to go to get free of all the negative emotions, but it has helped me so much.

I’ve had a lot of physical challenges in my life–broken back, back surgery, back spasms, psoriatic arthritis, shingles, etc. etc. etc.  And meditation is so helpful with those kinds of things.  My wife and I were married 18 years without having children and I made retreats then.  Since the children have come into our lives, I try to stay home, but when they are grown I will certainly do more retreats. I’ve done Catholic, Christian, Buddhist (Tibetan, Zen), Protestant, non-denominational. It all feels about the same to me–an unplugging from the usual run of worries and thoughts.

CB:  Do you feel you have developed spiritually in the years since you wrote BREAKFAST?  If so, how was that development reflected in LUNCH?

RM:  I think we always develop.  Bringing up children, being married for a long time, suffering, traveling, meditating, writing, dealing with the ups and downs of life–all those things have contributed to my own spiritual evolution.  I think that happens for every single soul on this planet.  But I think if you pay attention to that, if you meditate, for example, or have some other practice, then the effect, the benefit of those experiences, spiritually, is heightened.  In LUNCH I wanted to touch upon what happens to a person who loses a loved one.  I have friends in that situation.  What happens spiritually?  What are the challenges?  How does one experience and deal with grief?   The trick was to have all that in a book with humor in it.  But I do see, even in friends who have lost spouses, that humor eventually resurfaces.  One never forgets, the pain is not erased, but I do think humor and hope resurface after a time.

CB:  Is there anything else that you’d like readers or potential readers to know about LUNCH WITH BUDDHA or about the way you work as a writer?

RM:  I think it is an upbeat and hopeful book, despite a strain of real sadness. The way I work is to write about what I care about, what I’m thinking about.  I try to put something good into the world, to entertain, yes, but also to provoke–not in the sense of upsetting people, but in the sense of encouraging readers to think about something they might not have thought about, or to pursue something they have thought about from a different angle.  In a sense, my writing is extremely personal. I don’t write at arm’s length, in a scholarly or particularly cerebral way.  I want my books to be engaging, entertaining, thought-provoking, fun, carefully written, the kind of book you might read a second or third time.  I feel like I just tap into some source–I don’t mean this in any mystical or special way–and take that and put it on the page.

CB:  Well, you have certainly succeeded in doing this. Thank you so much for writing such thought-provoking and at the same time entertaining books.