An Autumnal Harvest of Buddhist Fiction

One of the things I enjoy most about this blogging experience is interacting with other readers of Buddhist fiction. Recently I learned of some previously published novels I didn’t know about, and just last week I read about two very new works brought to my attention in Tricycle. So September has been a good month for harvesting information about good reads.

Buddhist fiction blog reader Richard Gordon emailed me to recommend three novels as works of Buddhist fiction. I get a lot of these kinds of emails and I usually know the book(s) that are being recommended. But I had not heard of any of these novels, and I did not have a lot of time to peruse the books myself, so I asked Richard why they thought these novels were “Buddhist” fiction. The answer I received was brief, yet detailed and knowledgeable. I was so grateful and thrilled!

I will be featuring these books in future reviews. They are as follows:

Tea with the Black Dragon by R.A. MacAvoy. Open Road Media, 2014.

Nothing Sacred by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. Gypsy Shadow Publishing, 2011. There is also a sequel entitled Last Refuge.

The Old Man and the Monkey King, by Robert Durand, which as the title suggests is an extension of Journey to the West, and in particular, the portion popularized as Monkey. Illustrations by Leslie Morrison. California: Capricorn Press, 1972.

More recently, Tricycle Magazine‘s fall 2021 issue offered an excerpt of Rafi Zabor’s new novel, Street Legal: A Novel (debuting in December, 2021 from Terra Nova Press). You can read it here: https://tricycle.org/magazine/rafi-zabor-street-legal/

Lastly, Tricycle.com published an interview with Ruth Ozeki who talks about her latest novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness. Penguin, 2021.

The story is about a boy named Benny who begins to hear voices of mundane objects after his father dies. Ozeki relates that “The book takes its title from a key teaching of the Heart Sutra: “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.” It’s referring to the notion of dependent co-arising, or what Thich Nhat Hanh calls interbeing.” https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/ruth-ozeki-book-form-emptiness/

I’m very excited that our contributing editor Chris Beal will be reviewing this novel in the near future.

The List to Top All Lists!

Thank you to Buddhist Fiction Blog reader David Jackson for providing this month’s post topic. David emailed me earlier in August to bring my attention to an annotated bibliography he wrote and made available on Academia.edu

Fictional Tibet: A Checklist of Novels, Stories and Other Works of Imagination Set in the Himalayas and Beyond by David Jackson has a preface by Ramon N. Prats.

Jackson’s introduction is well worth the read as he deftly contextualizes the Anglosphere in which these novels have been produced and consumed. He also lists his favourite novels in different categories, after presenting his three favourite novels of all time as storytelling benchmarks (these are not associated with Tibet or the Himalayas). Then Jackson lists his favourite Tibet-inspired novels and explains why he chose each one. But the pièce de résistance is the plethora of over 600 – yes you read that right – over 600 bibliographic references provided on works of fiction set in Tibet, the Himalayas and beyond.

You can read the tome here: https://www.academia.edu/50927321/Fictional_Tibet_with_Prats_16_Revised_Version

David has been asked to turn this bibliography into a book. I will happily announce its publication when the time comes. For now, I am amazed and so very grateful!

Kate Brandt Reviews LITTLE SIDDHARTHA by William Irwin

Published by Shanti Arts publishing, 2018 

My favorite story about Rahula, the Buddha’s son, is the one in which the Buddha returns to his former home, only to be confronted by the son he abandoned.  Rahula asks his father for his inheritance.  The Buddha hands him his own begging bowl.  I’ve always loved this wordless reply.  The empty bowl is a perfect image of sunyata, the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is,” as poet Wallace Stevens put it.  

The story I’ve just recounted is not to be found in William Irwin’s Little Siddhartha, which brands itself a sequel to Hesse’s classic 1922 novel Siddhartha.  In Little Siddhartha, Rahula plays a different role entirely.  Rahula wishes to become a monk, and join the other monks who follow Gotama Buddha, but his father, Siddhartha, wishes him to become a merchant instead. 

The conflict between Rahula and his father mirrors the conflict between Siddhartha and his own father, also named Siddhartha (yes, it is extremely confusing).  Siddhartha the elder, having previously lived a life of some debauchery, has retired to a hut by the river, living a simple, spiritual life with the ferryman, Vasuda.  

Before settling into life with the ferryman, the elder Siddhartha had left the younger Siddhartha’s mother.  When she died, elder Siddhartha found his son and brought him to live with him in his hut.  But younger Siddhartha hated this life with his father and eventually left to pursue life as a merchant.  He became rich, important, and dead set against Gotama’s brand of Buddhism.  When Rahula (younger Siddhartha’s son) tells his father that he wants to join Gotama’s monks, his father cuts him with a knife.  

Sons rebel against fathers, leave, and after a lifetime of seeking, are reunited again.  This cycle is somewhat like the river that is the central metaphor of the book—constantly changing, and at the same time eternal.  The cycle of rebellion and reconciliation also serves to make the point that each person’s path to realization is unique—no one can really follow another’s path.  

A few favorite moments:

Time.  The understanding that time is not really separate from us has been one of the most freeing for me as I’ve studied Buddhism.  This is captured in a conversation between Govinda and Siddhartha (elder):

“I listened to the river.

“And what did it say?”

“At first nothing, or I should say, many things.  There were many voices.  My past, my present, my future.  All were voices speaking to me from the river.  After several years, though I finally understood the lesson that all those voices together were teaching me.”

“What was the lesson, Siddhartha?”

“That there is no such thing as time.” 

Thinking.  Practically every character in Little Siddhartha is a seeker.  The story shifts frequently from one character’s search to another.  One of my favorite moments occurs when Rahula has left the monks, Gotama’s followers, having found that they do not offer him everything that he seeks.  As he walks along, the workings of his mind mirror his physical wanderings: 

With these thoughts flooding his head, Rahula continued down the road…..Rahula saw now that joining the monks was a paradoxical solution to his problem and theirs: separation.  For a time, it worked.  Rahula was part of a group whose values he shared.  When his father refused to let him go the first time, Rahula attempted to become part of his father’s world as a merchant.  But it was if he were a man wearing a wig and pretending to be a woman.  The second time he asked his father’s permission to leave, Rahula received a scar not a blessing, but he was free.

The men in yellow robes offered unity by separation.  Rahula reflected that his debt to them was great.  He had learned many things among the monks, but the most important was how to feel part of a group. 

By now, anyone who has practiced Buddhism in any form has heard the term “monkey mind.”  “Monkey mind” gives thinking a bad rap.  This passage reminds us all of an important truth:  we would all like to be as calm, cool, and collected as the Buddha, but the fact is, there is a great deal of thinking and self-questioning involved in walking the “path.” 

Warm detachment.  In a story that revolves around the rifts between fathers and sons, it makes sense that the climax should come in various moments of forgiveness.  In Little Siddhartha, forgiveness takes on a distinctly Buddhist flavor: it is tied to the understanding of sunyata.  So, towards the end of the story, when Rahula comes seeking forgiveness from his father, and Siddhartha comes seeking forgiveness from his own father (the elder Siddhartha), Govinda says to Rahula: “To understand all is to forgive all.”  In other words, once we see that all things are interconnected, we let go of casting blame.

My one quibble with Little Siddhartha is the author’s decision to name both father and son Siddhartha.  Perhaps the point was to highlight the cyclical nature of the story, but I found it unnecessarily confusing.  That said, the writing was skillful enough that with a bit of effort, I was able to follow the story. 

Like its predecessor, Little Siddhartha is a parable.  I looked up the word parable online, and learned that it comes from the Greek and means “to cast alongside.”  The word seems to have come from the time of the New Testament.  The parables of Jesus, for instance, were meant to tell a simple story that was “cast alongside” a more complicated or elusive truth that was harder to convey.  With that meaning in mind, I will end by saying that Little Siddhartha, the sequel to Siddhartha, is proof that the parable is still relevant in the 21st century.  

Kelly Watt Reviews THE GREEN EYED LAMA by Oyungerele Tsedevdamba and Jeffrey L. Falt

This review is written by Kelly Watt for the Buddhist Fiction Blog. Kelly is an award-winning Canadian writer. She was first introduced to Buddhism while at high school in India and often writes on Buddhist themes. She is the author of two books, a novel, Mad Dog (2001/2019) and the inspirational book, Camino Meditations (2014). 

Review of The Green-Eyed Lama, by Oyungerele Tsedevdamba and Jeffrey L. Falt for The Buddhist Fiction Blog by Kelly Watt

A copy of the The Green-Eyed Lama, by Oyungerel Tsedevdamba and Jeffrey L. Falt, ended up in my TBR (to be read) pile recently, through a series of happy coincidences. Although I was initially daunted by the book’s length, once I started reading, I fell in love with its characters and could not put it down. This sprawling 400-page saga takes place from 1937 – 1946, and charts Mongolia’s transformation from a Buddhist monarchy to the Mongolian People’s Republic, which functions initially as a satellite Soviet state.

The book is both a romance and an engaging political history that explores the destruction of a peaceful Buddhist theocracy, and pays tribute to the persecuted Guardian Families of Genghis Khan or Chinggis Khaan (Mongolian spelling) who upheld that theocracy. The novel opens with the story of a beautiful young herdswoman, Sendmaa who falls in love with a handsome, artistic lama named Baasan. They spend a romantic evening together and pledge to marry. Baasan asks to be relieved of his robes to pursue marriage but is refused and sent off on a spiritual task. Meanwhile, a jealous and manipulative neighbour conspires to have Sendmaa married off to Baasan’s brother Bold, before Baasan can return. The love story forms a backdrop for tragic political events.

A little history is required here. In 1921, Mongolia declared her independence from China only to be co-opted by her allies, the communist government of Russia. A nation-wide purge followed, to rid the country of “yellow feudals,” Buddhist teachings, lamas and monasteries. Mongols were pitted against Mongols. Our hero, Lama Baasan is arrested and narrowly escapes execution and is finally sentenced to hard labour in a barbaric prison for nothing more heinous than singing a religious song. The story charts these individual characters as they struggle for political, emotional and spiritual freedom.

I found the history and culture of Mongolia absolutely fascinating. According to Wikipedia, it is primarily a nomadic horse culture, 30% of Mongolian’s inhabitants are still herdsmen today. Sandwiched between Russia to the north and China to the south, Mongolia has a population of only 3.3 million and is known as the world’s most sparsely populated nation. Although originally shamanic, it became a Buddhist country after the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism in the 16th century, and the clergy remained intertwined with the feudal government for hundreds of years. By the beginning of the 20th century, approximately one third of all adult males were Buddhist monks and there were around 750 Buddhist monasteries. In 1928, Khorloogiin Choibalsan one of the early leaders of the Mongolian People’s Republic (1921–1952) rose to power after independence from China, but immediately fell under pressure by Stalin to resist Mongolian unification. A series of purges began, resulting in the collectivization of livestock, the subsequent starvation of Mongol herdsmen, and the burning, looting of monasteries and murder of lamas. This Red Terror decimated a once peaceful Buddhist culture.

The novel is essentially a tribute to the many who perished during that violent time. And in a chilling reminder of the real-life consequences, their names are listed in the back of the book. The Stalinist purges in Mongolia murdered 30,000 people, including 18,000 monks. The population of Buddhist monks dropped from 100,000 in 1924, to 110 by 1990. Not only was the Buddhist clergy all but eradicated, but original artifacts and buildings were destroyed. By the end of the book, to appease visiting dignitaries from the U.S. a puppet monastery was erected as a front, where once imprisoned lamas were forced to act as clergy while secretly spying on their countrymen and reporting back to their Russian overlords. After the fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1990, Mongolia achieved a peaceful democratic revolution in 1991, switched to a market economy and returned to its former Buddhist leanings. The Green-Eyed Lama is said to be based on a real story. A story silenced for decades. To date, Tibetan Buddhism is once again the predominant religion of Mongolia. The Green-Eyed Lama is an informative exploration of Mongolia’s fascinating history, but also a well-written and moving page turner, that kept me rivetted and rooting for its characters throughout. It is also the first Mongolian novel to be published in the west. Written originally in English, once translated into Mongolian it was a run-away best seller in that country, and also a hit in France in 2018. Anyone interested in the country’s history, or in Buddhism should give it a read. The authors are both human rights activists and lawyers. The book is a cautionary tale about the human tragedy that ensues when a large nation seeks to enforce its rigid ideology onto another. Sadly, such things are still happening in our world.

Oyungerele Tsedevdamba and Jeffrey L. Falt. The Green Eyed Lama. Independently published, 2008. https://www.amazon.com/Green-Eyed-Lama-Oyungerel-Tsedevdamba/dp/1790364108

Review of WINTER INTO SPRING by Liz Unser

As most of the world has just entered the warmest seasons of summer or monsoon, depending on where you live, it feels like it’s time to offer Buddhist Fiction Blog readers ideas for summer reading. Following the theme of seasons, Winter Into Spring by Liz Unser (2020) fits this bill.

At just over 325 pages, Unser’s story about Elin Peterson, an unassuming UK teacher with a seemingly idyllic life that comes crashing down around her makes for an easy, breezy read. The novel begins with a dedication: “For all members of the SGI worldwide especially those in SGI-UK and SGI-USA.” After reading this I was eager to read the rest of a novel that referenced Soka Gakkai Buddhism.* It is refreshing to read a Buddhist fiction novel that reflects the lived experience of SGI (Soka Gakkai International) members. I can think of only two others: The Buddha, Geoff and Me (Rider & Co, 2005) by Edward Canfor-Dumas and Taneesha Never Disparaging (Wisdom Publications, 2008) by M. Lavora Perry.

The back cover of the book says “Winter into Spring interweaves life struggles with musings on female friendship and practical Buddhist philosophy.” This is a sufficient summary of this self published novel, but it leaves out the loveliness of the female friendships, the developing sisterhood, that guides the protagonist Elin to her own practice of chanting the Daimoku, the main practice of Soka Gakkai Buddhists. Indeed, Amazon lists this book under the popular fiction sub-genre categories of “Contemporary Women Fiction” and “Religious Literature and Fiction.”

As a work of Buddhist fiction, the emphasis in this novel is on PRACTICAL Buddhist philosophy, which is a fitting reflection of Soka Gakkai. The character development is superficial for the most part, except for Elin’s forays into Soka Gakkai, where there are more nuanced connections nurtured between the protagonist Elin and many of her female friends-cum-teachers, like Chrissie. One of my favourite elements of the novel is this friendship between these two characters, and the way that Chrissie supports and encourages Elin to chant for the betterment of herself and the world. In a prolonged discussion about Elin searching for a new job, we read on pages 258-259:

“How about searching for the right job?” suggested Chrissie. Elin smiled but didn’t speak so Chrissie continued, “Be determined when you chant! You’re a wonderful human being just as you are. Believe in yourself, find your inner wisdom and courage. Gradually you’ll understand the wider effects too, like wanting other people’s happiness as well as your own” . . . . . . . . . . .

On the drive home Elin reviewed their conversation. They’d laughed about dance, drama, and the drama of Elin’s life, but Chrissie had also said things that seemed important and Elin didn’t want to forget them. . . . . . .

. . . . . “Any development on the job front? It’s only been a week but I wondered.”
Elin sighed. “No, nothing at all.”
Chrissie squeezed Elin’s arm. “Don’t get disheartened, it may sound crazy but your chanting will help.”
“It does sound crazy, but I can feel something changing. I’m more optimistic. When I chant I feel my troubles are temporary.”

These brief conversations between the characters Elin and Chrissie reflect a practical understanding of impermanence, the application of optimism, and an appreciation of interconnectedness found in Soka Gakkai teachings. This story does not offer deep Buddhist philosophy, but represents a unique form of contemporary Buddhism as it is lived and practiced – one could even say embodied. And herein is the best part of the story, that it is about female friendships, sisterhood, and a Buddhist practice meant to enrich everyone’s lives in our crazy, contemporary world.

Years ago, summer reading lists were filled with adventure and romance novels. In the twenty-first century, we have seen the rise of chick lit and “galentine” novels (women’s friendship fiction) that have become go to warmer weather reading material. Winter into Spring makes for cool summer reading.

*If you want more information on Soka Gakkai, a form of contemporary Japanese Buddhism, you can read more about this self-described “global, community based Buddhist organization that promotes peace, culture and education centered on respect for the dignity of life. Its members study and put into practice the humanistic philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism” here: https://www.sokaglobal.org/

Kate Brandt Reviews THE LIGHTNESS by Emily Temple

From Kimberly Beek: I am so excited and honoured to post this review by a new Buddhist Fiction Blog Contributing Editor, Kate Brandt. Kate works as a teacher trainer in adult literacy at the City University of New York, and has studied Buddhism for many years.  She is a graduate of the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College, and has published in Tricycle, the Buddhist Review, Literary Mama, Talking Writing, the Westchester Review, and Ginosko.  Welcome Kate!

Review of The Lightness by Emily Temple

Kate Brandt

What makes a work of fiction “Buddhist?”  For me, as a reader and long-time student of Buddhism, the answer would be that it engages with Buddhist concepts—the Four Noble Truths, the concept of No-Self, to name a few.  The Lightness certainly engages with Buddhism.  And it performs a difficult feat:  showing the impetus that leads to spiritual aspiration while staying rooted in the world of human attachments and concerns.

The Lightness is Olivia’s story, told in first person, of the summer she spent at a place called The Levitation Center, a “Buddhist Boot Camp for Bad Girls.”  “Boot camp,” of course, is tongue-in-cheek—the “campers” take part in activities like meditation, ikebana, Zen archery, yoga, and of course, work assignments like kitchen duty or weeding in the garden.  In between, they do the things that teenaged girls do—talk about each other; sneak out at night and engage in clandestine rituals; yearn.

There are two especially magnetic characters at the Levitation Center.  Luke, the gardener, is introduced to us first through the eyes of Olivia’s first friends at camp:

“He’s kind of a legend…a prodigy…our own personal holy man…he does something to the plants…no one knows what it is.” 

All the girls imagine themselves in his arms; he himself has perfected the art of elusiveness.  And then there is Serena, a fellow camper, beautiful and even more mysterious:

What was known about Serena: that she was in part Tibetan…that no, obviously she was an heiress…that actually she was a gypsy princess…that she’d slept with a teacher…that she was a virgin. 

Serena is the leader of the group of girls Olivia eventually joins.  She is unpredictable, and therefore, like Luke, someone you can never quite hold on to.

But there is another, even more enigmatic figure that beckons Olivia: her father.  It is from her father that Olivia has learned what she knows about Buddhism, and he is the reason she has come to the Levitation Center.  He has left her, and the Levitation Center is the last place she knew him to be.  Throughout the novel, flashbacks to conversations Olivia has had with her father reveal the Buddhist ideals she has grown up with:

Let me ask you this,” my father said.  “Where is the self?  Can you point to it?  Can you tell me what color it is?  No, not your sternum.  Not your eye.  Your Olivia.”

He shaped her.  Now he is gone.

That is the salient feature of Olivia’s father: he is gone.  Like Siddhartha himself, for all of his elegant detachment, Olivia’s father is essentially a deadbeat dad.  His absence points to a tension at the heart of Buddhism that I have always struggled with:  Buddhism teaches detachment, but under the guise of being peaceful, can one be too detached—as in, uncaring? 

Olivia’s pain and bewilderment at this abandonment is what drives the novel.  Nor is Olivia the only one of her friends who harbors a secret wound.  Another in the group has panic attacks.  Yet another has been abandoned not by one parent, but by both.  In response to this disappointment in the world, this dukkha, they follow the path of Siddhartha:  they seek to transcend. 

In The Lightness, the desire to transcend takes the form of a quest.  Throughout their summer at the camp, the girls are determined to learn to levitate—to actually rise into the air.  They try a variety of methods to achieve this:  getting Luke, the gardener, to teach them; breathing and thought exercises; not eating; special teas.  It is Serena who is most determined to achieve this: as we learn towards the end of the novel, she has the most grief to rise above, the most pain to leave behind. 

This central metaphor of the novel—the desire to rise above it all—tells a truth about spiritual seeking that many of us, I believe, will recognize.  Siddhartha left his palace, discovered what life is truly about—short, painful, and then we die—and decided to throw away his easy life, go into the forest to meditate, and find an answer.  Like him, each of us at one point realizes that, as writer Mark Epstein put it, life is a catastrophe.  We are disappointed, and the impulse is to leave in some way.  Slip out of the house, and go into the forest to figure it all out.  Rise into the air and out of sight.  In this way, I found The Lightness told a satisfying truth about spiritual longing.

A disappointment I felt was Olivia’s repudiation of Buddhism—indeed of all religion.  Towards the end of the novel, Olivia declares “I have decided I hate religion.”  Perhaps this was inevitable.  Her father introduced her to Buddhism, and through his absence and fecklessness, he has rejected her.  So Buddhism—in fact, religion in general–is rejected as well.  Too bad that the belief system got thrown out with the character who introduced her to it.  Too many books about religion, I feel, take it up only to reject it. 

I will not spoil the book by revealing whether the girls achieve their quest.  Let’s just say that while transcendence is not achieved by all, it is not presented as impossible, either.  I loved this book and highly recommend it.  For anyone who has studied Buddhism—for anyone at all, really, who has experienced loss, and quested for answers, The Lightness is a compelling and worthy read.

Pub info:  The Lightness by Emily Temple, William Morrow, New York, NY, 2020