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.

Dear Buddhist Fiction Blogger . . .

Since starting this blog in 2011, I have received many emails from authors and their agents who would like a book reviewed. This is to be expected for this kind of blog. What I did not expect was the number of authors who ask me for advice. Invariably, the advice requested is of two kinds: to review work to determine if it is Buddhist fiction, or to ask about suitable publishers for their work. At the heart of both of these types of questions is the challenge of categorizing and framing “Buddhist fiction”; there is no category for it in the publishing industry. Most library classification systems work on genre, and there is (as yet) no genre label for Buddhist fiction. I discussed this type of genre labeling in a previous blog post here: Bookstore Signs of the Times

In this post, my aim is to respond to these requests, however, I am very sure I cannot provide decisive advice. You see, for my academic purposes, the category name “Buddhist fiction” is a convenience that allows for the grouping together of a wide variety of popular fiction works across a breadth of sub-genres (mystery, adventure, romance, etc.) that narrate experiences of Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana) in a multiplicity of ways, times and places. For authors of Buddhist fiction, the category label is a challenge on two fronts: 1. Is the novel or short story truly Buddhist and not just a conflation of ideas about karma and/or rebirth and mysticism that is better suited to new religious movements?; and, 2. If it is Buddhist fiction, how does the author pitch the work to publishers who seem to want nothing to do with fiction about Buddhism?

Tackling # 1. Author Liz contacted me recently to let me know that she has already submitted to publishers a present day Buddhist romantic fiction based on a Lotus Sutra quotation.

Joseph McKinley’s soon to be published ebook The Bearer of Grievances will be available on Amazon on 4 April, 2016. He said that while the novel is not exclusively about Buddhism, he uses several Buddhist concepts and characters, including the concepts of dukkha and upadana and characters such as pretas.

Both of these authors have used what I call Buddhist narrative strands and/or tropes in their novels. When a 20th/21st century novel or short story incorporates aspects of Buddhist suttas/sutras, vinayas, abhidhamma/abhidharma, cosmologies, commentaries, philosophies, basic teachings, classic narratives (jatakas or the Journey to the West) or the writing of great Buddhist monks, nuns, or teachers (i.e. Dōgen), it is perpetuating Buddhist narrative strands and/or tropes. This, to me, indicates the inscription of Buddhist ideas and concepts into popular culture and literature. This, to me, is Buddhist fiction. If a novel or short story is not using clear Buddhist narrative strands and/or tropes but uses ideas of karma, reincarnation, or mysticism in a generalized way, I consider the work more in the realm of new religious movements because of the eclecticism of concepts.

Tackling # 2. Whereas I get very excited about Buddhist narrative strands and/or tropes in popular fiction, publishers may not. Author Liz, mentioned above, has not yet had responses to her novel submissions and was wondering if I knew of any publishers amenable to Buddhist fiction. I wish I did, Liz. The Buddhist publishing house Wisdom Publications has tried publishing an assortment of Buddhist fiction works, and rarely do these works do well in sales. They seem to try to publish new Buddhist fiction every decade or so, and the most recent offerings were in 2015 (see posts on Maya and Sid). In fact, it was Wisdom who first published works under the category name of “Buddhist fiction” with short story anthologies Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction (2004) and You Are Not Here and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction (2006). The Buddhist publishing house is pushing the boundaries of the industry.

Author Ellis Nelson recently emailed me after the January 2016 post to plug her own YA Buddhist fiction: Into the Land of Snows (2012). 13542033As you may have guessed from the title, the novel is set in Tibet. According to the blurb, the protagonist goes to the base camp of Mount Everest and then finds himself on a magical adventure. Leaving aside the issue of Orientalism that accompanies many, many stories set in Tibet and that is extended into the marketing of said stories, the blurb for Nelson’s novel on Amazon says nothing about Buddhism. Amazon classifies this novel under “Books > Politics & Social Sciences > Philosophy > Eastern > Buddhism” and “Books > Religion & Spirituality.” Goodreads reviews, however, describe the work as a coming of age story that teaches basic Buddhist principals. Most publishers who think that they are tapped into what readers want will market books set in Tibet based on politics and spirituality, not Buddhism. I can only guess that publishers base projected sales on historical sales data and vague demographics. I wish someone would alert them to the growing demographic of Buddhists in North America, and indeed, in the Anglophile world.

That said, author José Vincent Alfaro emailed to let me know of his Spanish novel that was recently translated into English: The Hope of Tibet. He noted that it had done very well in 51U2jcS8yWL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_the Spanish edition, and I noted that he is an “independent author,” which means that he publishes independently. There is a growing number of independent authors of Buddhist fiction, and some of them seem very comfortable with both digital and print independent publications. I would guess,however, that independent publication takes away a lot of time from writing due to the need for self-marketing. Furthermore, many readers feel that novels and short stories put into print by a publishing company or house are somehow “better” because they have been edited and vetted by professionals in the field of publishing. It’s a catch 22 (see what I did there?).

Author Marsha emailed to ask: “A lot of fantasy publishers are scared off by Buddhist themes because they feel there’s not a huge market for them. Do you have any advice for me?” She realizes that publishers shy away from marketing fiction as Buddhist. Unfortunately, I don’t have any advice about finding a publisher or an agent. I honestly don’t. I’m an academic writer, not a creative writer (as you can probably tell from this blog). The closest I have ever come to publishing creatively was a very encouraging rejection letter from Vallum about a few poems I submitted for one of their themed volumes. When the particular volume was printed, I bought it and noted that one of my favourite contemporary Buddhist poets, Jane Hirshfield, was published therein. I was thrilled to have had my poems read by the same editors that published her poems in that volume. That is my first slight brush with greatness in the world of creative writing.

I mention this brush with greatness not out of any self-aggrandizement, but to bring me to my next, and last, point of this post. I knew who Jane Hirshfield was. Had I wanted to pursue my poetry writing, I would have kept writing and I would have reached out to poets like Hirshfield whom I admire and read. It seems to me what might be helpful is to use this blog, Amazon.com, Good Reads, and other easily accessible resources, to build a community of practice for authors of Buddhist fiction. Reach out to each other – published, not-yet-published, whomever. Read each others’ work and review it. Share information about agents and publishers. Put together panels and seminars at writing conferences and events. Talk to established authors like Ruth Ozeki and Charles Johnson (who, by the way, were established as authors before publishing novels that could fall into the category of Buddhist fiction). Talk about your writing. Talk about your Buddhist practice, or no-practice, since not all authors of Buddhist fiction practice Buddhism. Talk about whether your writing is a form of practice of any sort. Just connect. Good things come from connecting. And that’s the best advice I can give to authors of Buddhist fiction.

  • Thanks go out to my friend Rebecca for listening to my ramblings and reminding me of the importance of a community of practice, which will hopefully benefit the author readers of this blog.

Young Adult Buddhist Fiction

Since the year is young I’ve decided to highlight some young adult Buddhist fiction in this post. I was recently contacted by author Yudron Wangma about her new novel, Excavating Pema Ozer (Cycle of the Sky)(Volume 1) published in the fall of 2015 by Mayum Mountain Resources. As the press release states, “Oakland author Yudron Wangmo is determined to carve out a niche in the burgeoning world of young adult fiction for books that address the stresses and conflicts of teen life with Buddhist remedies.”

PemaOzer
Here is the blurb for the novel: “Weslyn Redinger wants one thing: to be normal again. Racked by panic attacks that have ruined her life and driven off her friends in the months since she saw the body of a young boy she loved rolled out to a waiting ambulance, she is now drawn into a circle of seekers who surround a mysterious stranger living in her grandmother’s backyard shed. After reluctantly attending his teachings, a series of dreams is unleashed—as vivid as her waking life. At night she is an attendant to the female teacher Uza Khandro from the Tibetan countryside, during the day she is a flawed sixteen-year-old struggling to get control over her body and her life.

Why does she care so much about this man’s story of a long-lost set of Tibetan books hoarded by a greedy collector?”

I admire Yudron Wangmo’s goal in carving out a niche for Buddhism in the growing genre of Young Adult Fiction. She is not alone. Another Tibetan Buddhist practitioner and author, Tahlia Newland, has written whole series of Young Adult Fiction that intersects with Buddhist fiction.

In a previous blog post I mentioned Tahlia’s book Worlds Within Worlds: A Prunella Smith Novel. In this post I want to alert readers to more of her work, specifically (and most Buddhist oriented), The Diamond Peak Series and You Can’t Shatter Me. These and more of her Young Adult Fiction can be found here: http://tahlianewland.com/product-category/young-adult-fiction/

 

Between Yudron Wangmo’s work in the U.S. and Tahliah Newland’s work in Australia you could say that Young Adult Buddhist Fiction is growing to span the globe. If you know of other Young Adult novels that could fall into the Buddhist Fiction category, let me know! Happy reading.

 

SID, by Anita N. Feng (Wisdom, 2015) Reviewed by Chris Beal

Do we live again? Is there reincarnation? Anita D. Feng answers these questions and more in Sid, a lyrical novel that is two tales in one. Or, rather, it is three tales if you count – and you should – the marvelous drawings by illustrator Linda Davidson. Life is just life, whenever and however it is lived, the novel lets us see. The forms change but the essence is the same. And we are that essence.

The structure of the book works to convey this truth. Inhabiting two different eras, that of the historical Buddha and the modern one, the dual cast of characters sport similar names: Siddhartha and Sid; their respective mothers – Mahamaya and Maya; their fathers – King Suddhodana and Professor Sudovsky; their nanny/midwives – Avalokitesvara, bodhisattva of compassion, and her counterpart Ava; and their wives – Yasodhara and Yasmen. Rahula, the son, bears the same name in both stories. There are, in addition, symbolic characters, such as Homeless Woman, identified as “Old Age, Sickness, and Death.” The plots of the two tales are likewise parallel, making it clear that the story of Siddhartha is still happening today.

This is a folktale-like world of archetypes: everything is perfect and then . . . The initial paragraph gives the flavor: “Ask anyone and they will tell you that Kapilavastu is built out of a fragment of sky mixed with a bit of Tusita heaven. The city walls spread thick like clouds of buttery light, and every house within exudes a splendor that even its residents can’t quite believe. Precious stones litter the paths. Precious blossoms embroider the trees. Within the city’s magnificent gates, darkness is as alien as a hungry ghost.” (p. 3)

Or, later, after Siddhartha marries his beloved, we learn that, “their joy creates days, months, and years of perfect weather and bountiful pleasure for all that are blessed to live nearby. . . . Prince Siddhartha never says anything that is not beautiful to Yasodhara’s ears, nor does he see any aspect of his beloved that is not sweet and pleasant to his eyes.” (p. 57) We are, indeed, in the realm of fairy tales.

The book is organized into sections labeled, “Birth,” “Youth,” “Love and Family Life,” “Leaving Home,” Meditation,” “Return,” and “Death.” Each of the sections has a chapter on Siddhartha and one on Sid, and within each section, the story is told from the point of view of a number of characters in turn. And then there is a third section of each chapter: Zen-like drawings by Linda Davidson of animals or other natural scenes, with a short explanation on the opposite page, which together tell the story in still a third, more metaphorical, way. For example, early on we have “Hare,” and his imputed words: “Please do not distract yourselves with the irrelevant argument about what you see. Is it a hare or a man in the moon? Who cares! As for me, I am only grinding the elixir of life into golden dust between my jaws, letting the dust scatter at your feet.” (p.33)

Sid is whimsical, poetic, transcendent, and unique. Its author, Feng, is a Zen master teaching at the Blue Heron Zen Community as well as a poet and sculptor. In Sid, she displays not only her spiritual wisdom but her ability to use her creative skills to reveal that wisdom. I recommend a digital version of Sid if you have that possibility, as the typeface is quite small. But whichever version you read, this book is a gem that may move you to see more clearly how life and enlightenment are inextricably bound together in an eternal web of Truth.