CLASSIC BUDDHIST FICTION He’s Leaving Home: My Young Son Becomes a Zen Monk by Kiyohiro Miura (Charles E. Tuttle, 1988; English translation, 1996) Reviewed by Chris Beal

How do the parents feel when a child decides to become a Zen monk? This is the territory explored in this exquisite little volume, translated from the Japanese by Jeff Shore. Told in first person from the father’s point of view, the story explores the emotional journey a family takes as the son disengages from his birth family and is adopted by the priest at a temple.

One of the many strengths of this novel is the realistic way the father’s ambivalence is explored. He is the one who first takes his son to the temple to do Zen, when he is still in primary school. The boy expresses a childish desire to become a monk, but it is the father who clings to this notion, as well as the woman priest. She is quite a character in her own right, and the father likes her but also becomes suspicious of her motives in wanting to take his son away from him. All of this is complicated by the attitude of the mother. We only know the mother, of course, through the father’s eyes, but as time goes on, she blames her husband more and more for the fact that they are losing their son.

The awkward title reads more simply in Japanese. The original title was Chonan no Shukke, but expressing in English the culturally dependent, complex ideas embodied in this phrase isn’t easy.Shukke” means “to become a Buddhist monk,” but the characters, translated literally, would mean “home-leaving.” Thus, both the title and subtitle express aspects of the meaning of this word. “Chonan,” too, carries cultural meaning. Literally it means, not “young son,” but “eldest son.” In Japan, of course, the eldest son is the one who carries the family line. In Miura’s story, while there is a younger daughter, there are no other sons, and therefore, no other heirs to the family name. This issue isn’t explicitly explored in the text, but a Japanese reader would, of course, understand the gravity of the situation.

In the West, Zen is not even considered a religion by some of its practitioners, and certainly it isn’t part of our cultural tradition. So probably the most analogous situation for readers in English-speaking countries would be when a Catholic child decides to become a monk or nun. Parents’ attachment to their children is, after all, universal. But the Buddhist emphasis on detachment makes the story all the more poignant. The priest, in fact, tells the father that the loss of his son is his koan (a riddle Zen practitioners are given to advance their spiritual understanding).

It would be an unforgivable omission not to mention one of the facets of the book that makes it so charming: the fanciful illustrations by J.C. Brown. The drawings in themselves tell the story of the boy’s maturation and coming to terms with a monk’s life.

Miura spent time in the United States when he was young, receiving a degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa. Perhaps the insight he gained from living in the West explains, at least in part, why this book has such appeal to English language readers.

In Japan, Chonan no Shukke received the Akutagawa Prize, an esteemed award for fiction. This book deserves to be a classic of Buddhist fiction in its English translation as well.

Review of MANCHU PALACES by Jeanne Larsen

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Manchu Palaces
Jeanne Larsen
iUniverse, 2009
368 pp., $19.95 (paperback)

Way back in May I promised to review Manchu Palaces, a novel by Sinologist Jeanne Larsen, first published in 1996 by Henry Holt and Company,Inc. I guess readers could consider this an anniversary review since the book is twenty years old this year. I suggested to Dr. Larsen that her novels be reprinted in a digital format so that readers could more easily access these wonderful works. That would be a nice way to commemorate the first publication anniversary.

This novel is Larsen’s third in her Avalokiteśvara triptych, each of which features Guan Yin who complicates or moves the plot. The previous novels are Silk Road (first published in 1989, set in the Tang dynasty) and The Bronze Mirror (first published in 1991, set in the Southern Song), but the reader does not have to read these in order to enjoy the story of a young girl growing up in China that is at the heart of each novel. Further, every novel of the triptych has a fantastic, cosmic framework reminiscent of Buddhist jātaka and sūtra structures. Lastly, every novel in the triptych features different types of narrative perspective and voice and a story built with various genre styles, some modeled on Chinese literary genres or scholarly works.

Given such variety of narratives contained within each novel of the triptych, this brief review of Manchu Palaces comes with a caveat. The novel is so elaborate that I cannot convey all of the intricate, marvellous aspects of it in this blog post. Reading this novel is like taking a long trip to a foreign country and having such a profound experience that the souvenirs and photographs cannot possibly accommodate or express the lasting impression. What I can do is provide my favourite elements of the novel and hopefully leave Buddhist Fiction Blog readers wanting more.

But first, preliminaries. Manchu Palaces, set during China’s Qing dynasty, tells the story of Lotus, a young girl and sole heir of a well-to-do Manchu family of bondservants to the emperor. When the reader meets Lotus, her mother has died and yet through her grief she must figure how to navigate family tensions and filial obligations on her journey to womanhood. Her best option for a secure future is to marry well, but along the way she wins a commission as a maid-servant to the Empress Dowager in the Forbidden City, a place that will become her own personal mandala, of sorts. For Lotus’ journey to womanhood also takes a spiritual route affected by her deceased mother Cassia, bodhisattvas such as Guan Yin, and Confucian and Taoist spirits. Both Lotus and Cassia will transcend their current states if Lotus can only find a misplaced white Tara statue and its thirty-six lost companion statues that form their own mandala.

Whenever I am presented with such an engaging opportunity for imaginary travel in Asian time and place, I am almost always on the lookout for one thing: what is “distinctly Buddhist” in this narrative? The jacket cover of Manchu Palaces actually uses the phrase “distinctly Buddhist perspective” to describe the way Larsen examines human loss and human folly. And I think this perspective is achieved, remarkably so, within the context of the Qing dynasty Chinese setting.

Let me explain why I think it is remarkable that anything is highlighted as “distinctly Buddhist” during the Qing dynasty era. The Manchu-led Qing dynasty was notable for its multicultural population, in part due to its military and political sweep across the Asian continent from Mongolia to Tibet that brought other Asian ethnic groups into the Chinese fold. Europeans and Arabs were also trickling into the Chinese societal landscape through missionization and trade. So during the Qing dynasty, the Chinese religious milieu was made up of Confucianism, Taoism, Mahayana Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, various forms of Shamanism, popular folk traditions, Christianity through missionaries, and even Islam. I’ve probably overlooked the presence of other religions in this list (such as Hinduism in small pockets of China), but you get the idea. Yet Larsen achieved a “distinctly Buddhist perspective” by using the Buddhist concept of rebirth to help drive the plot and steer Lotus and her mother Cassia on their respective journeys. In a scene that describes Cassia’s journey through the popular folk tradition/Taoist underworld of Mount Tai, Larsen intertwines the fate of Wu Ming, the creator of the lost Buddhist statues, with Cassia’s fate. The scene takes place in an underworld courtroom presided over by The Lord of Mount Tai, and as a bailiff presents the next case, we read:

“Yessir. Sorry, sir. It’s certain, ah, ecumenical aspects that have truly complicated the case, sir, as much as all these questions of motive and effects. That’s why I’ve held off, pending clarifications. Certain Buddhist . . . personages have been inquiring into the situation. Seems they’re chiefly concerned about the mandala statues for some reason, sir. Want them reunited, sir, and delivered to their intended home in the Five Crest Mountains. Word came from Avalokiteshvara—”

Guan-yin’s in on this?” Great bulging eyes roll as exasperation washes over that green face. “Well now. We’re all in this together, aren’t we? Mustn’t forget that.” Lord Mount Tai chortles, though Cassia’s not sure she sees the joke.

[Lord Mount Tai considers sending Wu Ming to clean up the mess he made and reunite the statues.]

“And I believe,” he adds, “I can leave it to my Buddhist colleagues to decide whether the collected statues are to be consecrated in that temple at Five Crests anyway, or what. Given the desecration. Imagine!” . . . . He raises his oblong gavel. “You are condemned to return to earth and see that all those statues of yours are gathered up and taken—”

“Oh let me, let me!” With those words, Cassia dashes forward from her nebulous location . . . . “I believe, your Majesty, that I know already where one of the statues is . . . ”

[Cassia and Wu Ming are sent back to earth as ghosts to achieve their mission]. Manchu Palaces, pp. 91 – 93.

What Larsen has managed to do in this scene is imagine the syncretism of Chinese religions in a way I could never have envisioned until reading her novel. For years I have struggled with getting my head around just how Chinese ancestor veneration worked in conjunction with Buddhist concepts of rebirth into other realms. This imagined account highlighted Buddhism’s role in Qing dynasty culture while maintaining the integrity of syncretism among Chinese religions.

Moreover, Buddhist interdependence must be at the heart of the structure of Manchu Palaces, because the plot is highly intricate. Sometimes I had to backtrack in my reading to make connections or ensure I didn’t miss an important piece of information because of the many narrative threads that are well interwoven. Still, Larsen knows how to situate a reader. Many times in the novel she switches narrative perspective, from third person to first person, and back again. Sometimes in a third person narrative voice the reader is addressed as “Reader” or “kindly reader”, thus forming a coy meta-narrative hinting at the creative relationship between author and reader. And her prose is so silky and such a pleasure to read that the need for review was a minor trial. I was always quickly soothed with paragraphs like this:

“A warm breeze comes up like a blessing from the Southern Sea. Surely this much is true—call it delusion, call it karma, call it free will and human perversity, call it the zigs and zags of narrative complications or tangled chains of psychological cause and effect: Neither storyteller nor incarnate being travels an easy straight-line road” (Manchu Palaces, p. 223).

The various narrative perspectives and different narrative voices give the novel a breadth and depth that reflect Larsen’s own dynamic acuity for Chinese culture, history and literature. Manchu Palaces is categorized as a fantasy due to the cosmic elements of the plot, but perhaps due to its narrative perspectives and voices, I read the novel as a work of historical fiction that brought past eras and unfamiliar locations to life. Manchu Palaces will be well received by any reader looking for an engaging story that could fall into the genres of Women’s Writing, Historical Fiction, Fantasy, and of course Buddhist Fiction. Better yet, if you want to go on a trip to China and don’t have the resources to leave your current situation, just pick up this book here.

Oxford Bibliographies in Buddhism: “Buddhism and Modern Literature”

buddhismI am very proud to announce the publication of my Oxford Bibliographies in Buddhism article “Buddhism and Modern Literature.” It came online yesterday and I am excited to see how it develops over the next few years, since I am sure I will have to add to it as Buddhism continues to intersect with modern literature in a multitude of forms and ways. The citations cover Buddhism in modern fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, autobiography and biography from around the globe. Have a look here: Buddhism and Modern Literature.

And I am particularly fond of a reference under the heading “Literary Fiction” that our readers might remember from the Buddhist Fiction Blog:

Beal, Chris. “An Interview with Ruth Ozeki about Her New Novel: A Tale for the Time Being.” Buddhist Fiction Blog (10 April 2013).        This engaging interview reveals the Zen aspects, influences, and nuances of Ozeki’s award-winning novel A Tale for the Time Being (2013). Beal’s well-honed questions solicit deep and provocative answers about Zen Buddhism, fiction, and philosophy.

Another reference that might interest Buddhist Fiction Blog readers can be found under the heading “Cross-Genre Fiction”:

Beek, Kimberly. “Telling Tales Out of School: The Fiction of Buddhism.” In Buddhism beyond Borders: New Perspectives on Buddhism in the United States. Edited by Mitchell Scott and Quli Natalie, 125–142. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015.     Beek examines the reception of Buddhist stories narrated inside and outside of Asian contexts by comparing the different reflections of Buddhism in Amy Tan’s Asian American novel The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991) and Keith Kachtick’s Buddhist-infused novel Hungry Ghost (2004), suggesting the emergence of Buddhist fiction.

The whole bibliographic article contains over 80 citations to general overviews, anthologies, primary works, articles, dissertations, web sites, etc. that outline the depth and breadth of Buddhism and Modern Literature. If you cannot access the entire article directly from the Oxford Bibliographies web site, you can probably access it through an institutional library. Happy perusing!!

Karma and Mystery

I have noticed in my tracking of Buddhism and fiction that mysteries and Buddhism go well together; mystery novels with Buddhist themes and worldviews abound. Recently I was reading an interview of fiction author Susan Dunlap. The interview is entitled “Fiction is a lie that illuminates the path to compassion” (by Andrea Miller, Lion’s Roar [formerly Shambhala Sun] June 27, 2012) and in it Dunlap explains how all of her works are infused with Buddhism, how her work is Buddhist fiction. Dunlap is a mystery writer and while her Darcy Lott Mystery series reveals Buddhism most overtly, she maintains that Darcy LottBuddhism is behind all her writing because it is part of her worldview and she is “constantly weaving dharma into [her] stories.” Perhaps this is why Dunlap suggests that mysteries are a “succinct reflection of the Buddhist concept of karma,” because for a mystery to work, the victim of the mystery has “done something to set in motion the wheel of karma in their lives.” Further, Dunlap says that the detective who is trying to solve the mystery is looking for what is real. Isn’t this what the Buddha was doing under the bodhi tree?

Given this relationship between karma and mystery, readers of Buddhist fiction may not be surprised at the suggestion that the ultimate detective, Sherlock Holmes, acquired his best training during “the missing years.” In Arthur Conan Doyle’s work The Adventure of the Empty House, Holmes explains to Watson that after his plunge over the Reichenbach Fall with Moriarty: “I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa and spending some days with the head Llama. You may have read of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend” (Arthur Conan Doyle. The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Knickerbocker Classics). New York, NY: Race Point Publishing, 2013, p. 610).

Author Jamyang Norbu attempts to fill in the two year gap with Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years (2001, earlier published as The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, 1999). Norbu is a Tibetan political activist and writer. He lived in India as a Tibetan-in-exile for over 40 years before moving to the United States. Missing YrsHis Sherlock Holmes pastiche begins on the front flap of the book duster, where the publisher informs the reader that Jamyang Norbu merely discovered the story, carefully wrapped in a rusting box. When he opened the box he was greeted with an account of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures from India to Tibet as described by none other than Huree Chunder Mookerjee, the fictional spy who worked for t he English in Kim by Rudyard Kipling. Mookerjee travels with Holmes as he is subsumed into the “Great Game” and then onward to further Tibetan adventures. Apparently the novel suggests that Holmes’ already exceptional powers of observation were heightened and improved by what he learned about Buddhism from his time in Tibet and with the Lama.

JapanThere is also a current series of pastiches based on Holmes’ “great hiatus”. Bangalore author Vasudev Murthy has thus far written two books as part of his Sherlock Holmes, The Missing Years series: Japan (2015) and Timbuktu (2016). According to the Amazon blurb, Japan includes monks as characters, but I am unsure if Murthy’s narratives intersect with Buddhism to any extent.

I haven’t read any of these Sherlock Holmes pastiches but would like to hear from anyone who has. I would like to know if the world’s most iconic fiction detective honed his skills through knowledge of Buddhism or any form of Buddhist practice. If so, how do the “missing years” align Buddhist practices of awareness and mindfulness with Holmes’ powers of scientific observation? Drop me a line and let me know.

 

 

 

Summer Reading 2016

Every time I go down the internet rabbit hole looking for new Buddhist fiction I am surprised about the novels I have somehow missed or overlooked. But I guess if I’m going to discover new-to-me titles, summer is the best time to find them so that I can share this information with you. Here’s what I’ve found recently, listed in no particular order (and feel free to add to the list in the comments section):

1 Cushman1. Enlightenment for Idiots  by Anne Cushman (Crown, 2008)

“A hilarious take on the quest for truth that manages to respect the journey while skewering many of the travelers… Cushman brings devastating wit and a thorough knowledge of her subject to her first novel, evoking an India that fills the senses and stirs the spirit even as it occasionally turns the stomach.” ~ Publishers Weekly

 

2 Portier2. This Flawless Place Between by Bruno Portier (OneWorld Publications, 2012)

“Evocative of The Alchemist, This Flawless Place Between is a spellbinding reimagining of one of the world’s most influential and treasured spiritual texts.” ~ OneWorld Publicasions website

 

3. The Angry Buddhist by Seth Greenland (Europa Editions, 2012)3 Greenland

“Seth Greenland’s timely new novel is set in the high California desert between the trailer parks and amphetamine labs of Desert Hot Springs and the classic mid-century architecture of Palm Springs. In this sun-blasted territory, with its equally arid social culture, a fiercely contested congressional election is in progress. The wily incumbent, Randall Duke, is unburdened by ethical considerations. His opponent, Mary Swain, a sexy, well-financed newcomer, does not have a firm grip on American history or elemental economics.” ~ Europe Editions website

 

4. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (Vintage Contemporaries – Penguin Random House, 2014)

“In the beginning, it was easy to imagine their future. They were young 4 Offilland giddy, sure of themselves and of their love for each other. “Dept. of Speculation” was their code name for all the thrilling uncertainties that lay ahead. Then they got married, had a child and navigated the familiar calamities of family life—a colicky baby, a faltering relationship, stalled ambitions.

When their marriage reaches a sudden breaking point, the wife tries to retrace the steps that have led them to this place, invoking everything from Kafka to the Stoics to doomed Russian cosmonauts as she analyzes what is lost and what remains. In language that shimmers with rage and longing and wit, Offill has created a brilliantly suspenseful love story—a novel to read in one sitting, even as its piercing meditations linger long after the last page.”~ Penguin RandomHouse website

 

5 Groner5. Exiles: A Novel by Cary Groner (Spiegel & Grau, 2011)

“Suspenseful and thought-provoking, Exiles is an extraordinary debut in which East meets West at the point where lives hang in the balance.” ~ RandomHouse Books website

 

 

6 Dunlap6. Darcy Lott Mystery Series by Susan Dunlap (Counterpoint; Severn House, 2008 – 2016)

Darcy Lott is a Zen Buddhist, stunt-double and amateur detective. Susan Dunlap is an award winning mystery and crime author who infuses the dharma into her novels.

 

7. Your Emoticons Won’t Save You by Ethan Nichtern (Nieto Books, 2012)

“About the Book (a short novel with poetry):Your-Emoticons-Wont-Save-You-Ethan-Nichtern-209x300

Alex Bardo is witty, heartbroken, and lost. Going on 21, he is more interested in being the CEO of the Wannabe Poet’s Brigade than in his expensive education. Trying to find his way in the world after a debaucherous and painful summer of 1998 with his hyper-intellectual, trés annoying best friend Gabe, he sets out on a road trip to their childhood summer camp. Grabbing shotgun for the trip are his old camp friends, now all grown-up (sort of): Gideon the Player, Anthony the Traveling Man, and Lucas the Patron of Playtime. Alex is a true seeker and only a partial f-ck up: seeking spiritual aspirin to treat his perpetual hangover, seeking love, and seeking a mystical place called the “real world.””

8. The Stain: A Book of Reincarnation, Karma and the Release from Suffering by Charlene Jones (Stone’s Throw Publications, 2014)66076510-368-k130131

“We live more than once. When three women, Tahni, Mary, and Diana are separated by centuries and vast cultural difference, experience eerily similar events, only one of them knows. How will she find the courage to undo The Stain?” – blurb from Wattpad, where you can read the entire novel.

Currently Reading . . . MANCHU PALACES by Jeanne Larsen

Kimberly Beek is currently reading:

Jeanne Larsen. Manchu Palaces. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, Inc, 1996.

Summer is coming and this summer I only have time for one “extra-curricular” warm-weather read. I may not get to writing up the review for a few months due to other writing projects, but that will not dissuade me from enjoying Jeanne Larsen’s novel Manchu Palaces (1996). In fact I’ve already started because I looked at the blurb and read the preface and before I knew it I was finished the first chapter. This novel opens the door, bids you sit down and be comfortable, hands you a cup of green tea and then unveils a world that is instantly alive with sights, sounds, smells and tastes. So far it is an evocative blend of “thus have I heard” with “once upon a time.”

Manchu Palaces is the third novel in Larsen’s Avalokiteśvara trilogy, preceded by Silk Road (1989) and Bronze Mirror (1991). The trilogy is unique because it does not follow the same character, but rather presents stories of how the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara engages in the lives of humans, in various ways, in different forms, and particularly in the Middle Kingdom. Each novel is set during a different dynastic period, so if read chronologically, the novels convey a sense of how Buddhism was lived throughout different eras in China. Here is the IMG_1581Amazon.com blurb for Manchu Palaces: “The Empress Dowager’s bond-servant, Lotus decides to follow a spiritual path through the Forbidden City and down paths of erotic fancy in search of [a] place called Mandala, where life’s troubles are left behind.”

Let me tell you a little about Jeanne Larsen. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in Comparative Literature. She translates Chinese poetry and is a Professor of English at Hollins University where she teaches creative writing as well as an interesting sounding course entitled Literary Journeys. I secretly hope the course reflects the fact that she has traveled a good deal to nurture and support her creativity. She writes across many genres including creative non-fiction, essays, fiction, poetry, and translations. No matter the genre, her work reveals the growing influence of Buddhism on anglophile literature.

I will report back at summer’s end on this engaging tale that includes a girl named Lotus, a Tara statue, and courtly intrigue.

Fiction and History

Often when I’m reading Buddhist fiction, or any fiction, really, I find I take note of the history woven into the narrative. Fiction always bears historical markers. Lately I’ve been working on a paper about Buddhism in popular fiction and how certain works could be used to help fill in historical gaps. For example, while there are many ethnographic and historical texts that narrate portions of the history of Buddhism in Canada, a comprehensive history has yet to be written. There is for Buddhism in Canada, as far as I know, nothing like Rick Field’s How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. I contend that fictional narratives can help toward compiling a history of Buddhism in Canada. Fiction relates history in a rich way, capturing the “emotional traces”* of lived experiences in a narrative form that is engaging but is sometimes sidelined by the political and colonial concerns of historians.51edF6FZirL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Since narrative history is akin to good storytelling, it is by far my favourite type of history to read. So you can imagine how happy I am to report that the Canadian Museum of History, in partnership with the University of Ottawa Press, just published a new text in their Mercury Series entitled Choosing Buddhism: The Life Stories of Eight Canadians. This work by Mauro Peressini helps fill in some of the many gaps in the history of Buddhism in Canada. Here’s the blurb:

“This book presents the life stories of eight Canadians who chose to convert to Buddhism. They were amongst the first Canadians to have chosen Buddhism, encountering this spirituality between the late 1960s and the 1980s. All became ordained or lay Buddhist teachers, having embraced Buddhist teachings and practices in their daily lives. The eight Canadians featured in the book are Ajahn Viradhammo, Jim Bedard, Albert Low, Taigen Henderson, Zengetsu Myokyo, Louise Cormier, Kelsang Drenpa and Tsultrim Palmo. The book is heavily illustrated and addresses the Buddhist traditions of Theravada, Zen and Tibetan Vajrayana. The book also includes significant contextual material regarding the history of Buddhism in Canada and various Buddhist notions and practices.”

You can order the book on Amazon.ca or here: https://www.historymuseum.ca/boutique/product/choosing-buddhism-the-life-stories-of-eight-canadians/

If you have any thoughts about the connections between fiction, history, and Buddhism, please feel free to comment. Or maybe just see what you notice the next time you’re reading a work of Buddhist fiction. Even works of science fiction and fantasy have historical markers, because nothing is written in a vacuum.

* The concept of emotional traces in fiction is taken from Laurie J. Sears’ book Situated Testimonies: Dread and Enchantment in an Indonesian Literary Archive. University of Hawaii Press, 2013.