Reading for the Times: Black Lives Matter Meets Buddhist Fiction

If the year 2020 were organizing a monthly book club based on events, this month I would be reading works of fiction at the intersection of Buddhism and race in acknowledgement and support of Black Lives Matter. Two authors come immediately to mind for speaking to this junction of Buddhism and BLM: Charles Johnson and M. Lavora Perry.

In a previous blog post for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I have recommended the work of Charles Johnson, particularly his short story Dr. King’s Refrigerator. In that post I wrote that “Charles Johnson is an acclaimed scholar and author of Black American Literature. His novels and short stories often take up the theme of black life in America, but what many readers may not know is that Johnson is also a Zen Buddhist and he infuses his Buddhist perspective into his writing. Much has been written on his novel Oxherding Tale (1982) and the follow-on, award-winning novel Middle Passage (1990), both of which are at once Black American Literature and Buddhist fiction.”

I could also add that Johnson is a Buddhist and philosopher, and this combination of complexities comes through in his essays and fiction. If I had to characterize Johnson’s writing as a whole, his non-fiction and his fiction, I would say that his writing across genres is an exploration of the meanings of freedom, the freedom of Black Americans to construct personal identity outside of the horrific bondages of slavery, and the freedom from suffering sought by Buddhists for millennia.

In both non-fiction and fiction, Johnson writes candidly about race and being Black in America. His non-fiction anthology Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (1988) was a promulgation of his thinking on Black writing and philosophy. Decades later, the influence of Buddhism on Johnson’s philosophy of writing and thinking about race became evident in his non-fiction works Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (2007) and Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice (2014).

Although sometimes not always overt, Buddhism is also evident in Johnson’s novels. What Johnson does in both Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage is to use the style of the slave narrative — usually an autobiographical account of enslaved Africans — to write intertextual works of fiction structured on Buddhist philosophical principles. So for example, Oxherding Tale is, on the surface, a fictional slave narrative about a biracial slave in the Southern US in the mid-17th century. The bi-racial characterization of Johnson’s protagonist, Andrew Hawkins, positions him between worlds that are white and black, worlds of freedom and slavery. The novel is structured in alignment with (and derives its title from) Ten Ox Herding Pictures. This series of ten pictures accompanied by short poems is a pictorial narrative that emerged in China as early as the 12th century and is attributed to the Buddhist monk Kuo-an Shih-yuan, a Chinese Ch’an (Zen) master. As Martine Batchelor relates in the Spring 2000 edition of Tricycle Magazine, the series “depicts a young ox herder whose quest leads him to tame, train, and transform his heart and mind, a process that is represented by subduing the ox” [see pictures here]. The ox herder’s journey leads him toward enlightenment, and Johnson describes this novel as a kind of dramatization of the pictures. Just as the ox herder in the first picture has lost his ox (Buddha-nature) and is separated from his true self, so Johnson’s Zen inscribed slave narrative tells the story of Andrew Hawkins’ search for his true identity between a Black World and a White World. Oxherding Tale is full of complex characters, plot twists and turns, and tangled humour. But more to the point of this blog post, the novel is an overt commentary on race and Johnson’s ideas about African American Literature.

Likewise, the first person perspective novel Middle Passage is written in the style of the slave narrative and tells the story of freed slave Rutherford Calhoun. This protagonist is selfish by nature, a petty thief whose flight from his fear of marriage lands him back into captivity aboard a slave ship out of the American south, bound for Africa to collect slaves and return them via the Middle Passage, the slave sea route across the Atlantic from Africa to America. This novel is adventurous and daring, and it is permeated with and structured on the Buddhist concept of interdependent co-arising – the truth of our reality that everything arises from multiple causes and conditions, or everything is interconnected. As Rutherford learns, freedom does not mean disconnection from others but requires compassion for our own suffering as well as the suffering of others. Once again, the title Johnson has chosen — Middle Passage — has Buddhist undertones of the concept of the Middle Way, the path to enlightenment taught by the Buddha.

Either one of these novels would be a great book to read and discuss surrounding Juneteenth, the oldest known observation marking the end of slavery in the United States. This day, always on 19 June every year, is at once joyous and somber, a celebration of Black freedom and a reminder that freedom for Black Americans is still not fully realized. Moving forward toward that freedom will require every human being on the planet to tap into their compassion. I can think of no better work of fiction that exemplifies the hard work of employing and deploying compassion than M. Lavora Perry’s middle grade fiction novel Taneesha Never Disparaging (2008).

Perry’s novel is the first work of fiction published by Wisdom Publications, a Buddhist publishing house in Somerville, MA, that publishes works by great Buddhist teachers like His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In fact, Taneesha Never Disparaging is the first novel to feature a Black Buddhist girl. Taneesha is a fifth grader with lots of problems. Her best friend, Carli, wears a leg brace and lives with her father. Taneesha feels like she has to protect Carli from the local bully on the block. That’s if Taneesha isn’t arguing with her own inner voice, Evella, that tells her to deal with the bully in the opposite way that her family upbringing in Soka Gakkai (a form of Nichiren Buddhism) would have her do. On top of all of this, one of the boys in her class knows she is Buddhist and makes fun of her for it. The humour and amenity in Perry’s writing are like a balm for these trying times. Perry depicts Taneesha’s struggle to face her problems using the Buddhist principle of compassion just like it was taught in Chapter 20 of the Lotus Sutra. This chapter tells the story of the Buddhist monk who came to be known as Bodhisattva Never Disparaging. He was ridiculed, abused and shunned for never disparaging, never giving up on seeing the Buddha-nature in every single person he met, even those who were persecuting him. Eventually he gained a measure of enlightenment and became a bodhisattva, a being who is able to realize nirvana but refuses to do so until everyone is free of suffering, until everyone can realize nirvana. How can a bodhisattva realize nirvana only for themselves when Buddhism and their sense of compassion teaches that everything is interconnected? Such is the greatness of the compassion of Bodhisattva Never Disparaging. Bodhisattvas are by their very nature agents for social change, and compassion is the key. Such compassion will be required moving forward from here to dismantle structures of social injustice in America and beyond. Who better to learn from than M. Lavora Perry’s  Taneesha, the first Black Buddhist bodhisattva in training? 

Chris Beal on BUDDHA at the GAS PUMP (BatGap) Podcast

Chris Beal has been a contributing editor here on the Buddhist Fiction Blog since 2012. She has written insightful novel and short story anthology reviews and interviewed both Roland Merullo and Ruth Ozeki for our edification and enjoyment. Chris is a spiritual seeker with a background in Zen Buddhism. She has taught at a number of colleges and universities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Currently, she is seeking publication of her novel Enlightenment of the Flesh. 

Chris was interviewed by Rick Archer of BUDDHA at the GAS PUMP on 19 May, 2020. You can link to her BatGap interview here: https://batgap.com/chris-beal/

This is a long but lively discussion and just to listen to Chris’ melodic voice is a wonderful experience. She talks a bit about fiction and the spiritual journey at about 1:37 in the interview.

If you want to read more of Chris’ writing, she has two blogs that she posts to frequently: Miracle of Awakening and Literary Journeys to Truth. She also reviews books on Good Reads.

Congratulations Chris!

Stranger than Fiction: Rereading THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT by Kim Stanley Robinson

Rice and SaltIt’s been a year since I’ve posted here. A long year. A year of journeys and joys, a year of surprises and sorrows. And now we are at the intersection of a time and place that seems stranger than fiction. Except I feel like I have read a similar story . . .

During this unprecedented global pandemic that has inaugurated our new decade of 2020, I have been drawn to reread Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, The Years of Rice and Salt (2002). Robinson’s novel presents his reader with an alternative history: what would our world look like if over 90% of Europeans had died during the 7th century onslaught of the Bubonic Plague? In this surreal science fiction novel, he posits that Chinese Buddhism and Islam would fill the power void which in our reality was held by Europe and Christianity.

The novel is organized in ten “Books” that span more than twelve hundred years, from the 7th century to the turn of the 21st century. The storyline is linked together by rebirths of characters, and reborn characters are identified by the same first letter of their name in each successive book. The iconic character Monkey from the vernacular Chinese novel Journey to the West (16th century, Ming Dynasty) is the progenitor of this rebirth pedigree chart. This first chapter, especially, reads as if it is a post-modern continuation of author Wu Cheng’en’s fictional (quasi-historical?) retelling of the pilgrimage of the real monk Xuanzang’s journey from China to India in search of Buddhist texts. In the novel Journey to the West, the protagonist Tripitika goes on a journey with his disciples – including the character Sun Wu-kong the Monkey – from China to India in search of Buddhist teachings (sūtras) to propagate in the East upon their return. Sun Wu-kong (Monkey) translates to “awake to emptiness.” Robinson begins his novel with “Book 1: Awake to Emptiness” thusly:

“Monkey never dies. He keeps coming back to help us in times of trouble, just as he helped Tripitika through the dangers of the first journey to the west, to bring Buddhism back from India to China.     Now he had taken on the form of a small Mongol named Bold Bardash, horseman in the army of Temur the Lame.”

The character Bold (Monkey) in The Years of Rice and Salt is a true rebirth of the character Monkey from Journey to the West. The name choice Bold Bardash is significant in this iteration of Monkey’s story, but I will leave it to your reading of the novel to come up with your own interpretation. For now, I wish to point out the meta-nature of Robinson’s science fiction. The real monk Xuanzang, whose pilgrimage from China to India and back inspired Journey to the West, brought back many texts from India and translated them from Sanskrit into Chinese over decades of work. The most famous of these texts is the Heart Sūtra (short for The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra). And in the fictional pilgrimage of Journey to the West, the Heart Sūtra is given to Tripitika and Monkey as a companion and guide for their journey. So it is not surprising when the character Bold (Monkey), in Book 1 of The Years of Rice and Salt, invokes the Heart Sūtra to help him through the shock and trauma of a dark discovery. While out on a reconnaissance mission to the west, Bold and his troop come across “a black silent city. No lights, no voices; only the wind.”

“It was different to come on a town where there had been no battle, and find everyone there already dead. Long dead; bodies dried; in the dusk and moonlight they could see the gleam of exposed bones, scattered by wolves and crows. Bold repeated the Heart Sūtra to himself. “Form is emptiness, emptiness form. Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond. O, what an Awakening! All hail!”

Bold (Monkey) has known the sūtra for many lifetimes, and in this scene uses it to try and comprehend the sheer void of life created by the plague he encountered. This is another reason why the chapter is entitled “Awakening to Emptiness.” Bold awakens to the emptiness caused by a plague that killed over 90% of the population of people in Europe. His journey to “the West” in this rebirth is potentially lethal. During the ride back to the military camp from the plagued towns and cities, Bold conjectures whether he will die of the plague.

“Plague had struck in India a few years before. Mongols rarely caught it, only a baby now and then. Turks and Indians were more susceptible, and of course Temur had all kinds in his army, Persians, Turks, Mongols, Tibetans, Indians, Tajiks, Arabs, Georgians. Plague could kill them, any of them, or all of them.”

It was at this point in my rereading that this fictional story seemed all too real. How many times in the early days of the current pandemic did I think, nonchalantly, the novel corona virus would be like SARS or MERS and never make a journey to the west. But we are such a small world now. And how many people have we heard comment that, even as the virus traveled the globe and reached pandemic proportions, they may be somehow immune? Bold was not immune to the effects of the plague in his story. While he did not catch it and die from it, he suffered the aftermath of decimated populations. Right now, if we are lucky, we are Bold (Monkey). And yet he suffered greatly.

While returning eastward to Temur’s camp, the plague followed Bold and his fellows. Robinson describes it in the form of an enormous wall of cloud that “reared up the western half of the sky. Like Kali’s black blanket pulling over them, The Goddess of Death chasing them out of her land.”

Robinson deftly characterizes the plague as Kāli, a Mahavidya (Tantric goddess of great wisdom), a Vajrayogini (literally, diamond female yogi, a female Buddhist deity), and always the fearsome Kālikā, a Shakti goddess of chaos and creation. I can think of no better personification. COVID-19 has certainly caused death and chaos across the world. And I wonder how our world will look in the aftermath. Will we learn anything? Will we take the opportunity to resume life in a more thoughtful way? Will we be better humans? Will we change negative patterns, not just individually but as whole societies?

Now, as the days become fluid, imperceptibly rolling into and out of each other, everything seems like a science fiction novel. Watching the pandemic proliferate from a shelter-in-place, socially distanced perch seems too surreal. But it’s all too real. So many are suffering from the pandemic’s path of destruction that this seems like the perfect time for a story that invokes the Heart Sūtra as a balm to the chaos of Kāli. As I pause to marvel at how Robinson’s ingenious, interdiscursive transmission of Buddhism across global social imaginaries is an all too appropriate science fiction novel for our times, I too invoke the phrase: “Gate Gate Pāragate Pārasamgate Bodhi Svāhā!” and pray:

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May all beings rejoice in the well-being of others.
May all beings live in peace, free from greed and hatred. (Metta Sutta)

And to this I would add, for our unprecedented times, may all beings be safe.

 

* All novel excerpts are from Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Years of Rice and Salt: A Novel. Reprint edition. Spectra, 2003.

 

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The Tenth Instalment of Eliot Pattison’s Inspector Shan Series – Bones of the Earth

Later this month, award-winning author Eliot Pattison’s tenth and perhaps last instalment of the Inspector Shan Series will hit book stores everywhere. Titled Bones of the Earth (Minotaur Books, March 2019), this story once again thrusts the complicated Inspector Shan into a multi-level power struggle from which he must wrestle justice out of the hands of angry gods of both China and Tibet.
Pattison’s first novel of this series, The Skull Mantra (St. Martin’s Press, 1999), won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel in 2000. If you have not read any of Pattison’s other historical fiction novels, and you are interested in Tibetan life under Chinese occupation, The Skull Mantra is the best place to start. Pattison’s narratives are complex, deep, and subtle, investigating not only the mysteries set before the protagonist but also the geopolitical context out of which his story ideas evolve. His discourse is clear and explained in this note from Eliot Pattison‘s web site on why he writes about Tibet:

 

Whenever I have the pleasure of participating in group discussions about my novels, I am nearly always asked a question that can be distilled to Why Tibet? or Why set your books in such a distant, unknown land? Some assume it is simply because I sought an exotic locale to add color to my mysteries. The answer is far more complex. Conveying the realities of modern Tibet and the drama of Tibetan resistance in all its many aspects is as important to me as creating a spellbinding mystery. Of all the labels that are applied to me, I wear none more proudly than that of being part of the Tibetan resistance. My sentiments run deep:

-I write about Tibet not because I am a Buddhist but because I am not a Buddhist, because the ultimate treasures of Tibet are ones that transcend religion or philosophy, lessons that the rest of the world needs desperately to learn. Converting to the cause of Tibet does not mean a conversion to Buddhism, it means a conversion to compassion, self-awareness, human rights and political equality.

-I write about Tibet to give those who do not have the opportunity to travel there to understand what it feels like to witness an armed policeman assault a praying monk.

-I write about Tibet because after traveling a million miles around the planet I know of no more perfect lens for examining ourselves and the world we have created.

-I write about Tibet because in a war between an army of monks bearing prayer beads and an army of soldiers bearing machine guns I will side with the monks every time.

-I write about Tibet because of the despair and shame I feel over what prior generations did to the American Indians and many other original peoples. I know that though the same thing is happening in Tibet, this is our generation, it is happening on our watch, and I don’t want my descendants shamed by what you and I allowed to happen there.

-I write about Tibet because there is no purer symbol on earth of the struggle of soulless bureaucracy and sterile global economic forces versus tradition, spirituality, and ethnic identity.

-I write about Tibet because the world below is starved for heroes and saints and there are so many unsung ones living on the roof of the world.

-I write about Tibet because I can hear more in one hour beside a silent monk than in a hundred hours listening to Western media.

-I write about Tibet because in it lies the seeds of the antidote for the troubled world we have created.

-I write about Tibet because Tibet is a monk sitting in front of a steamroller, and if enough people around the world sit with him we can stop the steamroller.

The ultimate credo of the ideologue who commanded the invasion of Tibet was that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. In this as in so many other aspects Tibet has shown us a new truth — for Tibetan resistance has proven the opposite.

Clearly, Pattison’s historical fiction intersects with Buddhism on many levels not limited to his story settings in occupied Tibet. Since Pattison is a human rights advocate and his novels depict Tibetan Buddhism lived out under Chinese occupation, his narratives are, of course, political. While the author himself is not a Buddhist, his protagonist is, as are many other characters in the novel series, and through these characters, readers learn more about Tibetan Buddhism. I think that the fictional character, Inspector Shan, is ingenious because he provides Pattison with the opportunity to combine imagined lived religion with human rights advocacy. And Pattison imagines this lived religion in minute detail. For example, I read the Skull Mantra over a decade ago, and I still remember a description of silent mantras performed as mudras by Tibetan monks in a dark jail cell that was so well written I can, to this day, see it all as if in front of me. 
As with any beloved book series, I hope this is not the last instalment of the Inspector Shan Series from Eliot Pattison. If you are just learning about this series now, you have much to look forward to so happy reading!

Can Loving Kindness Make for a Dramatic Plot?

Just yesterday I was thinking about fiction and how, no matter the fictional sub-genre, each narrative requires drama to build the plot. Even romance novels, I reasoned, have a good deal of emotional drama, and suddenly I wondered, is there a Buddhist fiction novel about loving kindness? The Buddhist concept of loving kindness is not necessarily emotionally dramatic.

That’s when I remembered Thích Nhất Hạnh’s first novel, The Novice: A Story of True Love (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011). It is a retelling of the Thị Kính (or Quan Âm Thị Kính) legend in Vietnam. In China, Thị Kính is known as Guan Yin, the embodiment of compassionate lovingkindness and mercy. The Vietnamese legend of Thị Kính is beautifully tragic. Broadly outlined, the story goes that as a beautiful young woman newly married against her will, Thị Kính is falsely accused of murdering her husband. To survive the accusations, she poses as a male and joins a Buddhist monastic community, only to be falsely accused of impregnating a young local girl. Upon being forced to flee the temple, she finds the abandoned baby and decides to care for it. Thị Kính becomes a beggar to support herself and the child but dies of hardship. After her death, her true identity as a bodhisattva is revealed.

The Vietnamese legend of Thị Kính is so dramatic that is has been made into a Western-style opera. (If opera isn’t dramatic, I don’t know what is!) So the emotional sensation is built-in for Thích Nhất Hạnh’s first attempt at fiction. I’ve read the novel and various reviews on Amazon and Good Reads. Like many other people, I found the story compelling but Thích Nhất Hạnh’s prose somewhat preachy, as if he couldn’t quite shed the voice of his non-fiction work. Some parts of this story are originally found in sacred Buddhist texts, other parts in traditional miracle tales, and of course wherever Guan Yin has traveled, there are localized legends, so there are actually many genres and centuries of tales that could inform this version. It must be challenging to shift voices for genres and times. Thích Nhất Hạnh retells this story with the purpose of passing on Buddhist wisdom, which is clear from the first pages. If you have read this novel (or are now interested in reading it), let me know your thoughts on the narrative.