A Conversation with Jason Siff about IF ONLY I HAD LISTENED WITH DIFFERENT EARS

            In late February I had the opportunity to chat with Jason Siff about his recently published book, If Only I Had Listened with Different Ears (Sumeru Press, Inc.: November 2021). The book is a collection of three novellas: “King Bimbisara’s Chronicler,” “After the Parinibbana,” and, “Myth of Maitreya.” The stories are set in Northern India and the timeframes range over a millennia, from the fifth century BCE during the life of the Buddha to around the fifth century CE when Mahayana Buddhism was burgeoning. Since the Buddha himself is characterized in “King Bimbisara’s Chronicler,” and Buddhist monks/scholars such as Vasubandhu and Asanga are characterized in “Myth of Maitreya,” the novellas clearly fall under the umbrella of Buddhist fiction. They are also presented chronologically in this collection, which firmly situates the whole work in the category of historical fiction. Regardless of genre labels, all three novellas are in the category of good reads.

Siff’s characterization is a highlight of his story telling, and the source of narrative mastery behind the themes that recur in each of the novellas. As works of Buddhist fiction, the theme of the path to enlightenment is uppermost. But it’s the supporting themes, the ones that cause friction to the quest for enlightenment, that are most compelling. For example, Siff explores the cultural and personal tensions of the life of a renunciant within a culture that emphasized the importance of fulfilling family roles. He highlights developments in Buddhism as a spiritual movement such as the codifying of the Buddha’s teachings. He explores shifts in ideas about Buddhism as the religion expands both demographically and philosophically. And he does this all through superb characterization – by creating characters who are sometimes begrudgingly, painstakingly, and even mistakenly, living out this new religion. These characters are practicing Buddhism in all walks of life, inscribing the Buddha’s words into text, and spreading the Buddha’s message by imagining the world around them as bigger and broader than what is in front of their own eyes. 

            My discussion with Jason was very engaging, and I will recount some of it below with the intent to whet your curiosity about the novellas without providing any spoilers.

Beek

My first question is very broad. Who is your intended audience? 

Siff

Well, that goes to the history of these stories. I wrote them between 1995 and 2002, and what I did was I basically read them at retreats. They became a kind of staple at my retreats. Every night, before bed, I would read a couple of chapters. So, I initially called them, “Buddhist Bedtime Stories.” Reading them out loud helped me also revise and get a sense of what people were drawn to, how the characters worked in their minds and their meditation settings, and the kind of Dharma teachings that came out. So I initially thought that these stories would work best as audio books, but the printed version came out very well.

Beek

Maybe that’s why some of the prose seems to sing. I especially love some of the lines from “The Myth of Maitreya.” For example: “Truth does not live in the biographical, but in what is true, regardless of who professes it.” You have a compelling way of restating the Buddhist teachings, the buddhavacana, in these stories.

I also appreciate the way that you’ve put these three novellas together chronologically. So when we get to the story of Vasubandhu and Asanga [“Myth of Maitreya”], I actually had to refresh my memory. And yes, of course, Vasubandhu was a Sautrantika. I really get the sense of that progression of the teachings [Theravada into Mahayana].

Siff

Oh, thank you. To me, this is a Dharma book as much as it is a work of fiction. I’ve tried to write more standard Dharma books, with no success, unless you include the Dharma teachings found in my books on meditation through Shambhala. But this one to me was strict Dharma in a sense, and I wanted to show both the historical transformation of the Buddha’s Teachings and how each generation remakes those teachings. And I wanted to have people use these stories to explore the Dharma in different ways…. And I think there’s a way of also understanding the humanity of the Dharma, that the human relationships people have between each other is what the teaching is. It’s not just this abstraction out there.

Beek

That comes through when reading, particularly in your characterizations. Here, I will share with you some of my notes. So, for “King Bimbisara’s Chronicler,” I wrote: “You have created a character that by his very nature in this life, is either memorizing the past or trying to fulfill a future set for him by his culture such that he cannot live in the present moment. And that story, it just struck me that one of the reasons the Buddha had such a hard time teaching the Dharma was not just because it was ineffable, but also because of the temporal knowledge he gained through his enlightenment. How do you convince a group of people to imagine a different future when you were teaching them to live in the present moment?”

Siff

Right. Okay, good. But the character is also a character where I’m trying to explore what I would say is the modern condition of someone who doubts the teaching he is receiving as well as the teacher delivering it. But he has to go back and forth and he has to work with certain forces within him around his contact with the teaching. And that’s one thing I wanted to communicate to students of mine and to other Buddhist practitioners is that this is not a teaching to just take on and become a disciple. It’s something that has to throw you about. It has to create some kind of inner turmoil. And so even though the chronicler is focusing on memorizing, which takes him out of what he’s hearing and puts it into a different frame and gives him a certain status and position, he keeps looking around for something else. But he’s confronted with the fact that the teaching is getting inside of him and making him confused. He’s engaging his doubt, but he’s doing it, I think, in a constructive way.

Beek

Yes. And that all became very clear at the end of the story when he actually started practicing what he had been hearing. All of those years. And that’s him listening with those different ears.

Siff

Exactly. Right.

It’s important for me, for him to have his father die or to basically end that tie, for him to kind of really hear differently because he couldn’t hear as long as he was still embedded in that kind of patriarchal culture, he couldn’t take this in. I mean, he still was embedded in the patriarchy, but it wasn’t like he was trying to live his father’s life.

Beek

Well, he was trying to live the life expected of him. He was fulfilling his karma.

Siff

His karma. Exactly. Which is another idea of what the Dharma means. 

Beek

Exactly. So, yeah, it was the culture of his time, and I guess his father was his last tie. But it just struck me, as you were saying, that really we haven’t moved on very far in many ways. I mean, many of us are still fulfilling what society and our family expects of us.

Siff

Right. But Buddhism is always going to counter that.

Beek

Very much so.

Siff

Yeah. That’s the thing. And anyone encountering it is going to have to engage some of these initial tensions even within a culture that accepts it.

Beek

Right. Yes. In many places still. And that idea was carried on thematically in “After the Parinibbana.” I could see the same things happening for the character Sujata. I love that character, by the way. I guess maybe it’s my age and stage, but I could really identify with him feeling like the younger generation didn’t really listen. If he were in our time I could imagine him saying, “Those darn kids!” How did your retreatants react to the novella, “After the Parinibbana”?

Siff

That’s a hard one for me to say. Many of them, I think, just took it as a story of the Parinibbāṇa Sutta, which I go through to a degree. And they kind of felt, at least some feedback I would get at times, they felt touched, like it was more sensitive, like it hit an emotional chord in a way. But when people read it . . . it’s different, actually, the reports I’ve gotten from people who’ve read the story. I never really published the printed form or sent it out. They noticed things in the beginning of the story like the whole beginning of the Samaññaphala Sutta, the different points of view, the whole thing around the shift in ideas about bodhisattvas (in “Myth of Maitreya”). Anyhow, they notice various things that are going on that are in laying out the story and about the Bhikkhunī sangha and things like that. Whereas before it was mostly about the ending.

Beek

Oh, wow! Okay. Well, it is nice when you have the words to review.

Siff

Yeah, it is. Because new ideas and perspectives on Buddha Dharma can just wash over you when you only hear it. In print, you can go back and study it.  

—————————–
This is as much as I can give you, dear reader, without spoiling a good read of three excellent novellas. You can find If Only I Had Listened With Different Ears at the link under the cover photo. You can read an excerpt from “King Bimbisara’s Chronicler” here: https://jasonsiff.com/excerpt-from-king-bimbisaras-chronicler/ You can find If Only I Had Listened With Different Ears at the link under the cover photo. I hope you enjoy the novellas as much as I did.

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