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 or here:

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.

4 responses to “Fiction and History

  1. Hi Kim,
    Interesting post. I think Ruth Ozeki, whose book, A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING, we reviewed, would belong in the category of Canadian Buddhists who converted and became priest as well, but of course the time frame was much later than that the book you mention covers.

  2. Steve and Jeanne Lowry

    Hi Kim, Thanks for all the energy and skill you have put into this lovely blog. I lead a sangha called “Gathering Waters,” and we’ve been reading a Buddhist novel each summer for 6-7 years, all from your lists. This summer is Buddhaland Brooklyn.

    The relation of fiction to history is very vivid for me. So much of our american history is a fiction. I love good fiction, but what of seeing our common experience through ignorance? Interpreting events as we try to sell something like slavery and Jim Crow? Delusion certainly reveals it’s face. Perhaps we need a critique of historical writing? A new Yamantaka, revealing the roots of sorrow among us.

    Steve Lowry

    • Hi Steve, and thank-you for your comments. I am very happy to know that this blog is useful for groups as well as individuals! And contributing editor, Chris Beal, will be happy to know that the Gathering Waters sangha is reading Buddhaland Brooklyn this summer, as she is the person who read and reviewed that novel.

      I might suggest another work or two to peruse over the summer months, based on your comment about American history. Charles Johnson’s book Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories, and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice (2014) combines his wonderful fiction narratives with essays that contextualize his work in African American history, studies and his own Buddhist practice. As you may know, in his novels Oxherding Tale (1982) and Middle Passage (1990), Johnson envisions slavery and race relations through the lens of Zen Buddhism to create nothing short of a unique historiography on dukkha (suffering). Johnson’s essays and novels may be the Yamantaka you’re looking for.

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