Can There Be Such a Thing As Buddhist Fiction?

When I start explaining to friends, family and acquaintances the locus of my dissertation project, Buddhist Fiction, I get a lot of interesting responses: blank stares; gracious smiles and nods followed by a quick change of topic; and a reaction range from polite curiosity to not-so-polite dismissal at the very thought that precious time could be wasted on fiction when Buddhist practice is so squarely focused on reality. To be fair, most people have never heard of this emerging sub-genre of popular literature, so I have come to expect such responses. Still, I continually question, and get the question, can there be such as thing as “Buddhist fiction”?

After learning of the genre label Buddhist fiction I began to search everywhere for it. When I found the first short story anthology of Buddhist fiction, Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction (Wisdom Publications, 2004), I hoped for some sort of guidance or illumination from the opening portions of the book. The collection was edited by former Buddhist nun and fiction author Kate Wheeler who says early in the intro, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheeky way, that “You can’t just lump Buddhism and fiction together, and start talking about “Buddhist fiction.” I want to take my royal seat as the editor of the world’s first anthology of “Buddhist fiction” and say there is no such thing, or at least that “Buddhist fiction” is a rather strange and impossible category.” I was off to a bumpy start.

In this introduction Wheeler also discusses the danger of words and the juxtaposition of fiction with the real that inevitably comes up when faced with the phrase “Buddhist fiction.” She leads her reader through a history of her thinking about this sub-genre and how it could and could not be delineated. She talks of Buddhist fiction as a form of writing that “dramatizes the dharma.” Eventually Wheeler turns to her job as editor and relates that she agreed to take on the editing project “with the stipulation that we would not define what the nature of the Buddhist connection [in the short stories] had to be. Rather, we’d leave that to the writers, and they didn’t have to identify themselves as Buddhists” (my parentheses). So if someone is a Buddhist practitioner who writes fiction it does not necessarily follow that their short stories or novels would fall into the category of Buddhist fiction. For a bit more on this, see Daniel Burke’s November 23rd, 2007 article in the Salt Lake Tribune entitled “A Bevy of Buddhist Fiction Writers” (recounted here on the Buddhist Channel) Herein, Burke interviews celebrated author and Buddhist George Saunders, who recounts to Burke that while he “believes his religion and his work are inseparable, he’s not inclined to pen any Karma-lized junk food. ‘I wouldn’t write a story where a guy has an identifiable Buddhist thought.’” And here is the heart of the matter – identity.

If author identification as a Buddhist and a fiction writer does not help delineate the genre-category Buddhist fiction then how did Wheeler choose which stories to include in the first short story anthology of Buddhist Fiction? She states that the main criterion she rigorously applied was that every story be satisfying. I like her use of this word, as it seems to me a solid translation of sukkha, the opposite of dukkha or unsatisfactoriness, dis-ease, or suffering (which in my humble opinion is not the best translation of the term dukkha).

In similar fashion, Buddhist practitioner, fiction author and editor Keith Kachtick takes up the task of choosing Buddhist fiction stories that “dramatize the Dharma” in You Are Not Here and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction. In his introduction to this 2006 follow-up volume by Wisdom Publications, Kachtick notes that from a Buddhist perspective (or his understanding and practice of it), anyone can be identified as Buddhist: “As long as you’re paying attention to now–this moment and no other; and treat the neighbors the way you like to be treated; and understand that material things–your body, your house, this book you hold–are sandcastles, destined, by design, to eventually wash away with the tide to become something else, you are Buddhist.” Kachtick applied the same ideas to his selection process for choosing stories that would be included in the second anthology. He states that “Without exception, all of these stories say with verve: Pay attention–this life, right here, right now.”

So can there be such a thing as “Buddhist fiction”? I think so, particularly because literati and interested readers are paying attention and applying the label to many different works of popular fiction (see the “Reviews and Lists” page of this blog). The more pointed and complex question about Buddhist Fiction I have been sidestepping is “how do you identify it?” Any answer to this question is somewhat subjective, based on the novel or short story being read, the reader, and the familiarity with or experience of Buddhism they bring to the reading. For now I will make use of United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous phrase: “I know it when I see it.”

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