The Season of Giving

Here in North America it is the holiday season, so I hope this short post finds everyone able to take some time away from work and refocus on spending time as you would like: with family, relaxing, at a retreat, etc.

Since this is also known as the season of giving, I thought I would share with you a very generous gift – Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey by Suwanda Sugunasiri is available for free at this link: https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/handle/1807/33773

The author originally offered this story as his 75th birthday gift to the world, so it is fitting that it be offered to our blog readers during this season of giving. Thank-you Dr. Sugunasiri!

And to you, dear reader, best wishes for a new year filled with 365 days of potential. The year 2015 promises to be very transitional for me, so there will be fewer posts. That said, I look forward to continuing to discover more works of Buddhist fiction and alert you to more great reading opportunities.

Five Things I Liked About UNTOUCHABLE WOMAN’S ODYSSEY

I have been having wonderful email discussions with Dr. Suwanda Sugunasiri about his novel Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey. The story is simultaneously simple and complex, and the characters are well interwoven into each other’s lives so as to be interdependent. Moreover, the novel is genre-blurring and could be classified as post-colonial fiction, Buddhist fiction, mythic fiction, hybrid fiction, the list goes on. And yet the novel is a true chronotope, to use a Bakhtinian term, and works as a world unto itself.

During the course of our conversations, it was playfully suggested that I develop a list of things I liked about Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey. So instead of the usual author interview (because these can be terse), or review (because I don’t want to give away too much of the novel), I’m following his suggestion! I will interweave bits of our conversation and snippets of story from the novel as I go.

Counting back from five, then:

5. Coconuts!

The novel is set in post-colonial Sri Lanka and the author helps set the scenes in the novel with descriptions of streets and sounds, local flora and fauna, the ocean, and with descriptions of food, especially tea, fish and food made with coconuts and a great variety of spices. It all sounds so delicious, but more importantly I am reminded of how food practices are cultural markers and a part of our identity construction.* So I enjoyed the initial character and narrator we meet–Swadesh–who had immigrated to Canada but returned to visit his homeland and his friend Milton. As an expatriate character, Swadesh seemed very happy about the meals he was eating during his visit back home, meals made with fresh local ingredients. Later in the novel, THE untouchable woman of the title, Tangamma, now known as the Buddhist nun Venerable Karuna, is described while eating the single daily meal of a renunciant. She is further described drinking tea out of a coconut bowl later that day. The descriptions of the Ven. Karuna eating and drinking are markedly different from other descriptions of practices surrounding food and drink in the novel; these descriptions are more meditative in tone, and show yet another aspect of food practice that is a cultural marker and part of identity construction, that of a Buddhist nun. This is but one example of the way in which Dr. Sugunasiri’s writing is simple yet complex.

4. Transnational literary influences

Right from the contents page of Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey, it was clear to me that the novelist had many literary influences from the West, from traditional Buddhist literature, and from his homeland. I asked him to comment on his literary influences and whether these were mostly Buddhist.

SS: “Undeniably. As you’ve already noted, some parts of the novel falls back on the Jataka story – present story, past story and linking the two. But as you correctly note, it is not entirely along the Jataka lines. The narrator is not the ‘omniscient one’ but Swadesh, the on the ground Canadian expat who visits his home country after a quarter century.

Another influence that can be seen in the novel is the Beast Fable. This has been taken to be a genre of Hindu/Sanskrit literature, the Pancatantra and Hitopadesa being examples. But my latest research finding is that it is, in fact, the Buddha that is the initiator of the Beast fable genre (see the Appendix in my work Dhamma Aboard Evolution). So there then is another form of Buddhist literature that has guided my hand.

But there may be the inspiration of Sinhala literature itself. I couldn’t help but be impressed by what has been said to be the world’s first blank verse (about 500 of them, 6th to 8th c.), written on the ‘mirror wall’ (a slab of rock with a sheen) of Sigiriya (castle of King Kasyapa). Here’s one of my favourites:

Budal [name] I am.

Came alone.

Everyone writing poetry,

I didn’t!

(see the UNESCO publication Sigiri Graffiti, by Prof. Senarat Paranavitana, and Sigiriya by Canadian Professor Siri Gunasinghe.) And there are, of course, other classical works of Sinhala literature, between the 11th and 15th centuries – both secular but some of religious orientation.”

While there are many cultural and literary influences that can be discerned in the novel, it is writtenl in such as way as to be readable by anyone, from anywhere. When I asked him who he wrote for, who was his audience, Dr. Sugunasiri wrote this:

SS: “Frankly, I wrote the novel for myself. . . The story just came to me. Just as in poetry, when whole lines, or whole verses, even nuances appear on my mind’s screen. Not in all its refined form, for sure, but bits and pieces. Mind you, I enjoy writing. Perhaps I’m not market-savvy, or income-conscious, which is why I thought of the audience only after finishing writing.

It is perhaps when in this frame of mind that it occurred to me that, as it appears on the cover, it was going to be “My 75th year gift to humanity”. So in a literal sense, my audience is all of humanity.

However, it is possible that this wider audience was in my mind in writing the novel. Despite the fact that critics have located my novel, correctly of course, in Sri Lanka, there’s not a name that sounds Sinhala, or Tamil for that matter. I use them in translated form or have adapted them to bring out the flavour of the character. This was to specifically keep the novel from being attached to one or the other ethnically, which would immediately shut out a wide spectrum of readership. So for that reason I made the novel ‘generic’, or rather ‘non-ethnocentric’. The story is one that can take place in any society, at any historical time. In other words, it is generalized, even though, of course, it has to happen in some human society or the other. So the story being located in Sri Lanka should not take away from the generality.

But ‘humanity’ is a vast concept. So there has to be, for pragmatic reasons, a narrowing. So, while it is generally for the English-speaking literary world, including, of course, Sri Lanka, since I have been living in Canada for nearly five decades now, the Canadian reader can be said to be the primary audience. After all, the narrator of the story, Swadesh, is a true blue Canadian!

Of late, I’ve come to think of the younger generation readers as a possible and fruitful target audience. Thanks to colonialism, and other factors, the present generation of students of Sri Lanka seem to know pathetically little of the country, just as in the case of Tangamma. And there’s now a large number of Sri Lanka students going to private English schools in the country, and of course, there are the ones in the diaspora. So I thought they might well benefit from the novel.

Ambassadors may be another interested group of readers. Given that the novel covers a period of over 2500 years, could there be a more enjoyable way of learning about the country without going to history books written by academics?”

As indicated, Dr. Sugunasiri’s novel is not only transnational but is also trans-temporal, bridging 2500 years of history through re-imagined and retold myths and traditional stories. This is, perhaps, why he hopes that in the long term, the novel will be readable “for all people at all times, turning it into a universal classic.”

3. Quotations

Have you ever picked up a book about Buddhism in the “Eastern Religions” section of a bookstore, opened it, read a portion and thought “which sutta (sutra) is this from, because I know it is from a Buddhist sacred text but the author doesn’t provide the reference?!” Such lack of references really rankles me. So imagine my delight when, in a fiction novel, I find well referenced quotations! Each section of the novel begins with a quotation from the Dhammapada, and he even provides the verse number. For example, “Book the First: Growing” bears the quotation:

“Ah, so pleasantly we live/ Without affliction among the afflicted./ Among humans with affliction/ Do we dwell without affliction. – Dhammapada, 198.”

There are many more types of quotations or nods to literary works throughout the novel, and each one is referenced in some way, either directly, through dialogue or narration. And every quotation or reference to a real piece of writing is woven into the storyline so well that the reader experiences the intricate embedding of real events and texts into the fictional story in a seamless way.

2. Language Exploration

In keeping with his goal of writing a novel that has universal themes and appeal, Dr. Sugunasiri explores language in a universal way as well. Not only are names made familiar to English-language readers, but names of individual characters are changed with the character’s transformation. So, for example, Tangamma is the original name of the untouchable woman at the heart of the odyssey, and she is referred to lovingly as Tangi by her husband. Then, when she becomes a Buddhist nun, she takes the name Venerable Karuna. Likewise, Tangamma’s husband and the central character of the story, Milton, changes his name to Milinda with his developing nationalism.

Further exploration into language is plain in the story, since the main theme of the novel is “personal transformation in the context of a changing post-colonial society.” Many of the characters use English, the colonial language, as their means of communication because they have not learned the traditional de-Leonese or de-Andhrese. But the best example of language exploration in the novel is through the character Milton, who made his living as a writer in English and as a literary critic of European works. As Milton transformed into Milinda, he found himself wondering why he never learned Sanskrit or Pali. At one point in the novel, Milton says:

“I can’t live with my conscience any more, Tangi. In my blindness to monkey English, I forgot what my father stood for. Equality of the languages. I pushed back from my memory that he earned unequal pay for equal work only because he did not speak the colonial language. I thought that was the price to pay for progress” (page 219).

Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey is a fine example of how the languages we use to communicate with the world around us are powerful pieces of our identity construction and serve as points of orientation in the many cultural contexts through which we all navigate.

1. Men writing the feminine

I am always impressed when men write in the voice of women, and Dr. Sugunasiri has done just that. He has created a very likeable female character, Tangamma, who goes through many transformations in her life, from an untouchable to a wife and mother, to a student, to a Buddhist nun (Venerable Karuna). In part of our discussion he spoke about the development of this character as a form of Buddhist practice.

SS: “Writing Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey could be said to be, in hindsight, a form of Buddhist practice on my part. It’s a novel, again as noted by critics, that offers Buddhism as a paradigm for peace in society (see Review by Prof Emeritus of English, C. K. Seshadri of Baroda University). Critics have also noted how the heroine Tangamma is a model of peace, and calm (meaning level-headed), though bubbling in life. As sharply observed by a Sinhala woman critic, Tangamma is not the classical unhappy wife seeking freedom from it all. She dons the robes not because she is unhappy with life or with her husband, but because she can see the qualitatively deeper happiness and calm of the higher religious life. In that sense, she’s the model Buddhist woman. And she’s also the wife that has earned the respect of a husband in a Buddhist society. She is as well the caricature case study that speaks to the Buddha’s words, “Not by birth is one an untouchable”. She’s the untouchable pragmatist (using ‘untouchable’ here to mean ‘unstoppable’), untouchable smarty pants, untouchable culture buff, untouchable language learner, untouchable husband-transformer, untouchable self-emancipator. So in many ways, she speaks again to the next line “ … by action alone does one come to be of nobility” (Brahmin).

So I suppose such a character coming to be created by my hands could be called Buddhist practice. For it upholds womanhood, as in the Buddha’s model: ‘mother and father’, and not the other way around. Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey also speaks to the respectable way women are treated – by husbands, family and society, in Buddhist-Sri Lanka . It was no accident, for example, that the world’s first woman Prime Minister was Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike from Sri Lanka.”

—————-

So there you have it – my top five things I enjoyed about Dr. Suwanda Sugunasiri’s novel Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey, a truly “extraordinary first novel” in the words of Professor of English Chelva Kanaganayaka of the University of Toronto [review is here]. If you have a chance to read the story yourself, I would love for you to add to the list! And if you want to read more about the novel, you can read other reviews of Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey posted on my last blog post.

* My friend and colleague Rachel Brown, Ph.D. Candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University, is currently working on a dissertation focused on Maghrebine Muslim transnational food practices. Because of recent discussions with Rachel, I am becoming more aware of the interconnections between food practices and religious experience.

Currently Reading . . . UNTOUCHABLE WOMAN’S ODYSSEY by Suwanda Sugunasiri

Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey (2011) is a first novel by Dr. Suwanda Sugunasiri. I have been meaning to post about this novel since it was first published, and am only now able to give it the attention it deserves. Why do I think it deserves attention? Well, it could be the author: Dr. Sugunasiri is a pillar of Canadian Buddhism, a cultivator of Buddhist ecumenism in Canada and founder of the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies, Toronto, and Member,  Faculty of Divinity, Trinity College at the University of Toronto. It could be the fact that Dr. Sugunasiri waited until he was at a ‘mature age’ to tackle his first novel, having already written and published poetry, short stories and academic works. Or it could be that in email discussions with Dr. Sugunasiri about his novel, he has suggested that it be read in one sitting vice over a longer period of time, so as to keep intact the myth-like feeling of the narrative. I like the idea of an author’s ‘prescription for reading’! But the primary reason I am so interested in the novel is because it is both a work of Buddhist fiction and a work of post-Colonial fiction (or, Asian-Canadian fiction). This novel bridges too many genre categories to list.

Dr. Sugunasiri has graciously provided me with press release information about the novel (see below) so that Buddhist Fiction Blog readers can decide if they wish to read alongside me. I will be posting an email discussion with Dr. Sugunasiri about Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey before the end of November.

Press Release Oct 25 2014
REVIEWS & PERSONAL COMMENTS ON
Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey
by Suwanda Sugunasiri

Untouchwoman_Cover-195x300

Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey offers both a deeply moving love story of a couple divided by caste and ethnicity, and a brilliant evocation of  the country’s ancient, mythic and religious past over two and a half millennia.  The story comes alive  within a wholly convincing fictional landscape that serves as the stage for a witty and informative dramatization of the modern,  post-colonial struggle for freedom and independence in a country in South Asia.   - Frank Birbalsingh, ProfessorEmeritus of  English, York University   (from back cover)

 (ISBN 978-0-9867198-0-6).

(Available on KINDLE or Amazon: https://read.amazon.com/?asin=B005RFUSBY. Distributed in Sri Lanka by Vijitha Yapa Books.)

An extraordinary first novel by an accomplished poet, Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey offers a deeply insightful narrative of postcolonial Sri Lanka. Beneath the placid surface lies a tale of the challenges of modernity, the deep divisions of class and caste, and the traces of the past in shaping the present. With remarkable skill, the author moves back and forth in time, linking the present to the past, demonstrating the multiple ways in which Buddhism has shaped the contours of Sri Lankan culture. An inclusive text in the best sense of the term, the novel draws together multiple traditions to explore the pathos, paradoxes and richness of modern Sri Lanka.  Suwanda Sugunasiri’s Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey is a major contribution to both Canadian and Sri Lankan literature (bold added).”  - Chelva Kanaganayakam,  Prof. of English, University of Toronto.

Here are a few quotations from Reviews:

“An extraordinary first novel” (Prof. Chelva Kanaganayakam, Canada). 

An Unusual View of Life in a Universal and Timeless Narrative” (Prof. C K Seshadri, India) <http://island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article- details&page=article-details&code_title=111468>.

“…portrayal of the rustic, bucolic life in the South is authentic as it could be.” ( Shelton Gunaratne, USA).      <http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2011/05/05/novelist-unfolds-link-of- …>.

Pulsating vibrantly underneath…”; “What is genius? It can be defined in variegated ways, but the utmost genius in the field of writing could surface when an author manages to packet into 366 pages a 2500 saga of his country’s history via a story, melodramatic yet extremely touching”  (Padma Edirisinghe, Sunday Observer , Sri Lanka). <http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2011/06/26/mon30.asp>.

 “Tangamma is the heroine, the true woman of Asia with a practical mind, adaptable to any situation, to face any hardship, deprivation and also with the strength and the willpower..”   (Daya Dissanayake, Ceylon Daily News, Sri Lanka). <http://archives.dailynews.lk/2011/06/29/art06.asp>. 

“…incredibly cinematic, camera panning from one image to another, then zooming in..”  (Anura Bellana, Media Instructor, Canada).

I’ve just finished reading Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey, and what a fine novel it is. Elegantly written, with fine characterisation, and an engrossing story deftly told.(Anthony Frewin, Novelist, UK).

…a natural writing voice, [with] the characters’ voices flowing over one another as effortless as water…. The language is lush and yet not self-conscious, evocative and      … clear.” (Award-winning novelist, on an early draft).

 “…the characters [are] compelling and realistic. The story, too, is very engrossing. Definitely intriguing and moving…a well-woven and well-told story….” (Senior Editor of a Publishing House, on an early draft).

Bookstore Signs of the Times

Every once in a while, just for fun, I go to Amazon.com and search under the term “Buddhist fiction.” I am always pleasantly surprised to see novels and short story anthologies that I already know of amidst works that I have not seen before. Last year I walked into a large bookstore and saw an entire table piled high with copies of Ruth Ozeki’s Booker Prize short-listed novel A Tale for the Time Being. I actually jumped up and down, smiling and clapping (really, I did – I have a witness to prove it and thankfully she understood my scholarly glee and was not at all embarrassed by my outburst). That experience made me wonder how I might react if I walked into a national chain bookstore and saw a row or section of books under a “Buddhist Fiction” sign. For I now see Christian Fiction sections in bookstores on a regular basis.

photo 1photo 2

These two photos  were taken this past summer in two different bookstores. The photo on the left was taken at a Chapters store in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, and the photo below was taken at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Minnesota. As you can see, they are both photos of bookstore sections categorized as Christian fiction.
I haven’t gone loopy – I know this blog is about Buddhist fiction, but there are no library or bookstore categories for Buddhist fiction. Yet. As far as I can find, there were no library or bookstore categories for Christian fiction until roughly a decade ago (or maybe fifteen years ago for libraries), even though Christian fiction broke into the publishing market in a big way in the 1980s with romance novels in the same formula fiction format as Harlequin Romance novels. This sub-genre would be followed up in the mid-1990s with the immense popularity of Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye’s dispensationalist Left Behind series.

In an article on Christian fiction entitled “No Longer Left Behind: Amazon.com, Reader-Response, and the Changing Fortunes of the Christian Novel in America”, Paul Gutjahr talks about the size and vibrancy of twentieth-century American Protestant publishing. He describes Christian novels as works “explicitly populated with Christian characters who partake in edifying narratives bent on espousing orthodox Christian doctrine and encouraging a Christ-like ethic of behaviour” and infers that the popularity of these novels grew with the sale of Christian books in general. Gutjahr asserts these sales reached a whopping 14 percent share of the country’s publishing industry in 1996. Perhaps this share is still growing in the twenty-first century. At the very least, there is evidence that the sub-genre of Christian fiction is growing and developing as well.  Just search Amazon.com for Amish fiction as proof.

So I wonder, as Buddhism becomes more and more mainstream in North America, when might we  see a section labeled Buddhist Fiction in national chain bookstores? Time will tell. It always does.

* Paul C. Gutjahr. “No Longer Left Behind: Amazon.com, Reader-Response, and the Changing Fortunes of the Christian Novel in America” in Book History, Vol. 5 (2002), pp. 209-236.

Announcing New Buddhist Fiction – “Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire” by Gabriel Constans

I recently received the email below from Gabriel Constans, author of Buddha’s Wife: A Novel. His most recent work was published in August and it looks to be a welcome, uplifting addition to the growing body of Buddhist fiction short story literature.

“Dear Ms. Beek,

I hope you will let your readers and friends know about this satirical short-story collection Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire. Praise (and remorse) for the stories, from some famous, infamous, real and surreal, individuals follows (below the cover). Thank you for your infinite time and unwavering attention. Look forward to hearing from your most wondrous being.

Peace, love and tie-dye,
Gabriel

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Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba by Gabriel Constans
Fountain Blue Publishing
Published: August 1, 2014

This fictional short-story collection challenges our perceptions and illusions about religious masters, spiritual teachers, gurus, charlatans and holy men and women of all persuasions, while simultaneously tickling our funny bone and exercising the muscles our faces rely on for laughter. Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba takes liberty with questionable material from the living sea, near Egypt; tofu paper, in Okinawa; a tomb, in Italy; a shaman, in Ethiopia; and a half-sister, in India. The words, quotes, koans and stories, of this soon to be classical work, include the timeless insights of Let the Worm’s Go, Dead Food, Reality Bites, Stealing the Buddha, Drip After Drip, Sound of One Eye, Catching Wind, Looking Good, My Cat’s Enlightened, Chocolate Box, and Sex, Drugs and Sushi Rolls.

Praise and Remorse for Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire.

“Enlightenment or laughs? With Gabriel Constans’ book you don’t have to choose. Zen masters usually have a sense of humor, or need one. Gabriel’s got it, and he gives us a world of illusions to laugh about.”
– Bob Fenster, author of Duh: The Stupid History of the Human Race

“This is a blessed book that can be read during the rapture or while burning in hell.”
– Rev. Paat Robertson

“World leaders and politicians could learn a thing or two from the teachings of Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba. She understood and transformed the inspiring, Yes. No. Maybe, into Yes, we can, long before its use in politics.”
– President Ohlama

“Zen Master Tova Tarantiono Toshiba is a splendid collection of wit, women and wine. It reminds me of a night on the town with Mohammad Ali in drag.”
– Lady GaGaGa

“There are no teachings that are outside of you, except the ones inside this book. Unless, of course, you’ve eaten this book.”
– Bob Tzu, guru, avatar, wisdumb teacher at duhism.com

“An incredible onslaught of insight and universal truth – like Yoda on estrogen.”
– George Lucus

“An endearing and soul searching work that reveals hidden treasures of this infamous master and hysterically questionable abbess. My brother loves it.”
– Llama KanChew, Sister of the Dalai Lama

“Gabriel Constans’ divine book about the humble Abbess can be used as a book of prayer, inspiration or before communing with the poor or the filthy rich.”
– Pope Fransis, Bishop of Romen

“For those who are old enough to remember, the original Golden Girls sitcom was based on the real life teachings of that zany grand lady of Zen, Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba.”
– Bettie Whyte, Actress and Comedienne”

Summer Reading

Ah, summer. When the heat turns up, life seems to slow down a little, allowing time for more reading (hopefully!). And there is still enough time this summer to read at least one of the fantastic fiction novels I will mention in this post. These are titles that have popped up over the past year that, for whatever reason, I have not had time to mention on this blog. So please, do not let my posting tardiness keep you from an enlightening summer read. Here is a quick listing of two novels and two series complete with publisher’s blurbs and a link to a review, just to help you choose. Happy reading!

31SYtsNBLFL._SL500_ Tim Parks, Sex is Forbidden: A Novel
New York, NY: Arcade Publishing, 2013

This novel deals with the age old challenges of celibacy and teacher-pupil relationships in Buddhism.

From the Publisher’s website:

“Sex is forbidden at the Dasgupta Institute, the Buddhist retreat where Beth Marriot has taken refuge, and that’s a big advantage. Beth has been working as a server, assisting in the kitchen and helping out—discreetly, so the meditators aren’t disturbed. The meditators are making big sacrifices to come here and change their lives. So the servers must observe the rules, and silence and separation of the sexes are chief among them.

But Beth is fighting demons. She came here at a crossroads in her life, caught between an older lover who wouldn’t choose her and a young one who wants to marry her, and she may have caused another man’s death when she risked her own life swimming out to sea in a gale. A singer in a band, vital and impulsive, fleshy and sexy, she has been a rebel and a provocateur. And now, conflicted and wandering, she stumbles on a diary in the men’s dorm and cannot keep away from it, or the man who wrote it. At the same time, desiring—all too hard—to achieve the inner peace that Buddhist practice promises, she yearns for the example set by the slim, silent, white-clad teacher Mi Nu, and maybe yearns for something more.

Comic and poignant at the same time, swiftly paced and completely engaging, Sex Is Forbidden
is an entertaining novel about two profoundly different attitudes to life, and Beth—our narrator—is a character to be savored.”

Dan Zigmond review “Romance Rehab” in Tricycle Magazine: http://www.tricycle.com/reviews/romance-rehab

088ReviewsOnlyFiction Peter Matthiessen, In Paradise: A Novel
New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2014.

Mattheissen’s last novel is based on his experience of real annual Bearing Witness Retreats held at Auschwitz, coordinated by Zen Peacemakers organization and led by Zen teacher Bernie Glassman.

From the Publisher’s website:

“In the winter of 1996, more than a hundred women and men of diverse nationality, background, and belief gather at the site of a former concentration camp for an unprecedented purpose: a weeklong retreat during which they will offer prayer and witness at the crematoria and meditate in all weathers on the selection platform, while eating and sleeping in the quarters of the Nazi officers who, half a century before, sent more than a million Jews to their deaths. Clements Olin, an American academic of Polish descent, has come along, ostensibly to complete research on the death of a survivor, even as he questions what a non-Jew can contribute to the understanding of so monstrous a catastrophe. As the days pass, tensions, both political and personal, surface among the participants, stripping away any easy pretense to healing or closure. Finding himself in the grip of emotions and impulses of bewildering intensity, Olin is forced to abandon his observer’s role and to embrace a history his family has long suppressed—and with it the yearnings and contradictions of being fully alive.

In Paradise is a brave and deeply thought-provoking novel by one of our most stunningly accomplished writers.”

Hawa Allan review “Only Fiction” in Tricycle Magazine: http://www.tricycle.com/reviews/only-fiction

New In Series

9781401941673_1 Gay Hendricks and Tinker Lindsay, The Third Rule of Ten
Carlsbad, CA: Hay House Visions, 2013

This is the third book in a series written collaboratively by Gay Hendricks, Ph.D. and Professor of Counseling and Tinker Lindsay, accomplished screenwriter, author, and conceptual editor. The first two novels were The First Rule of Ten (2011) and The Second Rule of Ten (2012).

From the Publisher’s website:

“Keep current with the truth: we’re only as weak as our secrets- especially the ones we keep from ourselves. That’s the Third Rule of Ten.

As the go-to private detective for a bevy of high-profile clients, our beloved ex-Buddhist monk, ex-LAPD officer, Tenzing “Ten” Norbu, has finally found his stride. With his beautiful pathologist girlfriend, a healthy bank account, and a steady stream of clients, courtesy of middle-aged movie star Mac Gannon and rising political star Bets McMurtry, Ten’s life is bursting with activity. But it’s not all joy and happiness. The death of his father and a growing abundance of secrets-both personal and professional-leave Ten feeling an unexpected depth of sorrow and confusion. Even with the emotional turmoil, nothing can stop Ten from taking the case when McMurtry’s housekeeper goes missing.

The investigation leads him down a dangerous path littered with bodies, untraceable prescription drugs, and human organ trafficking. But nothing is as shocking as the realization that the mastermind behind it all is none other than-Chaco Morales, a criminal that slipped through Ten’s hands once already. The Third Rule of Ten will have readers on the edges of their seats, as they learn, along with Ten, that there is a fine line between healthy privacy and unhealthy secrecy. Knowing the difference may just determine whether Ten will stop Chaco or lose himself.”

Tom Armstrong review of The Third Rule of Ten on the Progressive Buddhism blog: Private Eye Tenzing Norbu, central character in Dharma Mystery series.” http://progressivebuddhism.blogspot.ca/2014/07/private-eye-tenzing-norbu-central.html

HowPatienceWorks-cvr-thumb Janet Kathleen Ettele How Patience Works: The Quiet Mind to Benefit Others
Wayne, NJ: Karuna Publications, 2014.

This is the third book in the How Life Works Series by author Janet Ettele, author of a series of contemporary fables based on Shantideva’s teaching on The Six Perfections. The first two fables are How Generosity Works: The Intention to Benefit Others (2011) and How the Root of Kindness Works: The Virtue to Benefit Others (2012).

Overview from Publisher’s website: In How Patience Works, Troy continues his journey in the fable that began with How Generosity Works and How the Root of Kindness Works. The teachings of Master Shantideva’s Perfection of Patience provide the guiding wisdom that leads Troy as he struggles to conquer the internal tyrant of his own anger. Building on the lessons learned from Grace in How Generosity Works and Abe in How the Root of Kindness Works, Troy and his girlfriend Maggie encounter another sage. Mrs. Sternau is an elderly widow who is a regular customer at the diner where they work. The mysterious way she shares her wisdom that crosses between dimensions of time unfolds into teaching Troy the next lesson he needs to learn: Patience. Verses from Master Shantideva’s chapter on Patience provide the backbone of wisdom to the message Mrs. Sternau delivers to Troy.

Jennifer Campaniolo at Giving Notice Now blog review http://givingnoticenow.blogspot.ca/2014/04/review-how-patience-works-by-janet.html

BUDDHALAND BROOKLYN, by Richard C. Morais, Reviewed by Chris Beal

The still-developing genre of Buddhist fiction remains loosely defined. But when a novel’s main characters are all Buddhists, most of them grappling with some aspect of their faith and practice, such a book obviously meets the definition.  Such is the case with Buddhaland Brooklyn (Scribner, 2012).

Aside from the criteria specific to the “Buddhist Fiction” categorization, I want a novel generally to give me well-developed characters, richly defined settings that reflect what the author is trying to convey, and a story that keeps me engaged. At the same time, I’m hoping that the work will move me or make me ponder rather than try to convince me of some idea. (We have nonfiction forms for the latter.)

In all of these respects, Buddhaland Brooklyn succeeds. And while the story is, in a narrow sense, about the intersection of Buddhist belief and practice with lived reality, it has much broader implications: a Catholic priest thrown into another culture, for example, may face challenges similar to those faced by the Japanese Buddhist priest in Morais’ tale. Indeed, anyone coming into an unfamiliar setting with an agenda will find himself or herself so challenged.

The narrator of the novel is Seido Oda, a priest of the fictitious Japanese Headwater Sect of Buddhism. He begins the story with his childhood in a small mountain town, where his family owns an inn that primarily caters to pilgrims to the Headwater Sect temple nearby. Although his brother longs to become a monk while Seido himself feels no calling, he, in fact, is the sibling inexplicably given over to the temple while still a young boy. But not long after he leaves home, a tragedy befalls the family and Seido silently carries the guilt about what happened in his absence into adulthood.

Seido Oda becomes a quiet but stubborn priest who specializes in teaching art and has found his niche at the temple while going out of his way to avoid any surprises in life. But when his superior tells him he must go to Brooklyn to help the believers there build a temple, he is incredulous. Surely there is someone better for this task! No, his superior insists, there is no one else.

Oda’s first months in New York are chaotic and, for him, distressing. He can’t stand the Americans and thinks they practice their faith lazily and without understanding. He insists that he must teach them the proper forms in word and deed – “proper” being defined in terms of how things are done in Japan. In one scene, he converses with a New York Headwater believer who conducts a series of lectures on Buddhism:

“’And the lectures are based on what study material?’

‘Ton of books. The Reader’s Digest Encyclopedia of Religion, Tales of Siddhartha, Buddhism for Dummies. The list goes on and on.’

Buddhism for Dummies? I am not familiar. . . .’

‘Don’t let the title deceive you. Heavier than it sounds. Excellent text.’. . .

‘I see . . . . very interesting choice of doctrinal material.’. . .

‘The Believers here know all about karma. All about it. I spent three sessions explaining the concept.’

‘This is very efficient. In Japan we believe it takes a lifetime to understand karma. At deep level.’

‘Yeah, well, you’ll find things go a lot quicker in America.’” (pp. 86-87; ellipses added).

The Brooklyn setting, too, is keenly observed, with all of its abundant chaos. But as Oda changes, the way he sees Brooklyn changes as well, reflecting the key theme of the novel – that we make our own reality.

Here are some questions readers may wish to ponder:

How is Oda’s experience as a child and a young man in Japan a set-up for what happens later, in America?

Do you think Oda’s superiors sent him to Brooklyn because they knew what he needed?

Do you think a Buddhist priest coming to America for the first time would experience Americans the way Oda experiences them? How much is the way Oda experiences the United States a product of his unique personality and how much is common to the Japanese character?

Because the story is told in first person, the language the Oda character uses to describe his experiences is very important in conveying his inner world and how it changes. Do you think Morais succeeds in conveying these changes?

Although it is extremely unlikely that a Japanese who has never lived in any English-speaking country would understand the idiomatic slang with which Oda is confronted when he lands in New York, it would not be funny to have the character constantly saying, “Sorry, I don’t understand.” Is artistic license justified here for the sake of some good laughs?

If you are American – and especially if you are a New Yorker – were you insulted by the stereotypes in the book? Do you think they were accurate? Do you think Morais can get away with this because he himself is American?

Although Morais avers in his Acknowledgements that the Headwater Sect of Buddhism is fictitious and based on a variety of sources, some not even Buddhist, he also says in at least one interview that astute readers will notice similarities to Nichiren Buddhism (and points out that many already have). In what ways does Morais capture the essence of Nichiren’s teachings? Are there ways in which he doesn’t? Based on your experiences of Buddhism in general, does Morais get the doctrine right?

How does the language Morais uses to describe Oda’s inner experience convey the changes he goes through?

Do the numerous haiku in the story enhance it? If so, how?

We love to get comments! Let us hear your impressions of this book.