Retellings

In August this Buddhist Fiction Blog was mentioned in the Tricycle Magazine blog post by Sam Mowe entitled “Buddha Buzz: stories, stories, and more stories” (5 August, 2011). http://www.tricycle.com/blog/buddha-buzz-stories-stories-and-more-stories
Mowe wrote about Buddhism in narratives, both personal and literary, and wondered if I would consider Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh’s new novel, The Novice, a work of fiction. I wonder too.

I have been thinking about fiction a lot recently. My main focus in my fieldwork is to ask what is “Buddhist” about particular short works of fiction, but inevitably, questions about the nature of fiction come up. Buddhist sacred texts are filled with many wonderful stories such that, in some Buddhist schools, even jātakas (stories of the Buddha’s former lives) and avadānas (tales of exploits) are considered semi-canonical or even canonical. Jātakas, of course, began as an oral tradition in India, and are related to pan-Indian stories such as those found in the Pañcatantra and the Hitopadeśa, both collections of Indian folktales. Some of my fieldwork participants have expressed the opinion that jātakas are Buddhist fiction. Clearly they are Buddhist, but are they fiction?

The Oxford Dictionary defines fiction as: “n. 1. Prose literature, especially novels, describing imaginary events and people. 2. Invention as opposed to fact. > a false belief or statement, accepted as true because such acceptance is considered expedient.” I think where we start to challenge whether something is a work of fiction or not is at this point of fact and what we believe to be true. For many reasons, we in the west equate facts with truth, and so we are challenged with understanding that fiction is not the opposite of fact or truth, and can contain both in it. Yet, I have had people decline participation in my reader response fieldwork because it focuses on fiction and not sūtras, which contain facts and truth for them.

I think this conundrum can be muddled through if we remember that fiction is not created in a vacuum, but from human contexts, and these contexts often inform readers’ perceptions of authenticity or legitimacy, which act as a vehicle for conveying fact and truth in some way. Perhaps jātakas and avadānas could fall into both categories of Buddhist canonical literature that is also, in form if not in function, fictional. Most folktales and legends are stories that are retold, and the retelling is part of the tradition and authentication of the story. In the tradition of retelling, the kernel of the story remains the same and the shell of it changes to suit the cultural and temporal contexts wherein the story is being retold.

In their text Retelling Stories, Framing Cultures, McCallum and Stephens relate that culture, politics and religions provide traditions and world-views that take the form of metanarrative, “a global or totalizing cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience” (6). Such totalizing narrative schemas are detectable in most traditional stories, such as the story of Moses or Robin Hood, which, when retold, come with: “predetermined horizons of expectation and with their values and ideas about the world already legitimized. In other words, they are always already shaped by some kind of metanarrative, and their status makes them a good site on which to impose metanarratives expressing social values and attitudes prevailing in the time and place of the retelling” (p. 6). So the retelling of a story makes it no less fictional than the first telling of it, and it is the traditional totalizing narrative schema that is sometimes read as non-fiction.

Given all of this information, perhaps Mowe’s suggestion that The Novice could be a work of fiction is reflective of the metanarrative described above, so I will include it in the ever-growing list of Buddhist fiction (to the right of this post, and soon to have a page of its own on this blog). This fits in with my conviction that I do not personally label anything Buddhist fiction – the label must come from someone else, from literati. Having said this, I am grateful for the suggestion and happy to add The Novice to the list, since it is a novel written by such a clearly identifiable Buddhist teacher.

Speaking of retellings, here is a very short list of recent works that are retellings and/or reimaginings based on canonical and semi-canonical texts. I’m sure there are more works that could fall into this “retelling” category, but these are just off the top of my head.

“Buddherotica” by Jeff Wilson.
http://killingthebuddha.com/mag/kamasutra/buddherotica/

This is a very contemporary short story retelling of the Queen Maya’s dream of conceiving the Buddha. A later version of the story was published in the short story anthology Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction, Ed. By Kate Wheeler. Wisdom Publications: Boston, MA, 2004.

The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing: The Second Ancestor of Zen in the West by Ted Biringer.
American Book Publishing: USA, 2009.
http://www.amazon.com/Flatbed-Sutra-Louie-Wing-Ancestor/dp/1589825179/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1316997106&sr=8-1

Amazon.com product description reads: Near death, Louie Wing gathered together his students and friends to impart his final Zen teachings. Hearing that the great master would soon pass on, people came from all walks of faith to hear his final words. The crowd that gathered was too large to fit in any nearby building, so Louie Wing spoke from the flatbed of a truck in a wide field. These teachings came to be called The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing. Through this allegorical character of Louie Wing, author Ted Biringer brings a life and a force to even the most abstract of Zen teachings. Inspired by the Zen classic The Platform Sutra of Hui-Neng, The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing brings an open, modern look at the classic philosophy of Zen. Driven by the belief that anyone can reach enlightenment, this book is made to be accessible for novices and experts alike and includes a glossary, short quotes and stories of Louie Wing, and an additional commentary on the Genjokoan.

The Banyan Deer: A Parable of Courage and Compassion by Rafe Martin (author) and Richard Wehrman (illustrator).
Wisdom Publications: Boston, MA, 2010.
http://www.amazon.com/Banyan-Deer-Parable-Courage-Compassion/dp/0861716256/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1316997431&sr=8-1

This is a retelling of the Banyan deer jataka that has been retold with the agenda of encouraging vegetarianism in the 21st century.

Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment by Deepak Chopra
HarperOne: USA, 2008.
http://www.amazon.com/Buddha-Story-Enlightenment-Deepak-Chopra/dp/0060878819/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1316997719&sr=8-1

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5 responses to “Retellings

  1. I love how you find a “find”–looking for the source of something interesting, tracking down a story you saw or read or heard about before….and tell us about your path of discovery. There is so much being written out there, that some of the more interesting stories these days are the paths that lead to retelling. Thanks! Ellen from Jerusalem

  2. Buddhistfictionblogger — enjoying your ongoing process.
    This essay (on the NY Times blog) seems somewhat (or generally) germane to some aspects of your above ruminations:
    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/25/quixote-colbert-and-the-reality-of-fiction/?hp

    cheers,
    d.i.

  3. Yes, these days people seem to have trouble making the distinction between fact and truth. This has larger implications for society, but in terms of literature, it means that people don’t get that deeper psychological and spiritual truths can sometimes be revealed through fictional devices. One of the reasons for the decline in novel reading.

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