Category Archives: Buddhist Fiction Review

Reflections on the Liminal – Elyse Salpeter’s Kelsey Porter Series

This time of year seems to be a liminal period around the globe, due to the earth’s trajectory around the sun. Even our landscapes cross thresholds as they become colder and wetter or hotter and dryer. Time seems to act differently. Clocks are changed due to global daylight savings time. We feel more intensely the rhythms of our universe; our connections to everything seem more tangible. This liminal period complicates boundaries so that, ironically, we might perceive portals previously unnoticed.

Elyse Salpeter’s Kelsey Porter novel series is befitting reading for this season. Beginning with The Hunt for Xanadu published on Amazon Digital Services in 2013, Salpeter has created the protagonist Kelsey Porter such that her character’s development depends on her growing knowledge of Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism in particular. The protagonist’s surname “Porter” is apt. Kelsey must find and open the door to Xanadu, which in Salpeter’s first novel is depicted as a Shangri-La-type place of Tibetan Buddhist legend. Salpeter has developed her protagonist character over an entire series, now into a fifth instalment, titled The Search for Starlight. With the recent release of this fifth novel in the series, Salpeter hopes to answer many of the questions brought up by Porter’s adventures and development, and this includes questions about her character’s intersection with Buddhism.

The Kelsey Porter novel series is liminal in various ways. As described, the protagonist is liminal in the way that her character parallels a threshold (no spoilers – you’ll have to read the novels yourself to find out how). And as advertised on Amazon, the whole novel series itself functions as a threshold between “the real and the fantastic.” In an email exchange, Salpeter wrote to me that her Kelsey Porter series of novels, in particular, is “steeped in Buddhist spiritual lore” and she did a “tremendous amount of research to make them believable.” So there is a good deal of “reality” or Buddhist concepts and ideologies grounding the story. And where Salpeter stretches Buddhist myth she creates the “fantastic” elements of the novels.

It’s this stretching of Buddhist myth, particularly Tibetan Buddhist cosmological worldviews, that allows for the generation of liminal space between cultures in Salpeter’s work. She uses Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” and his concept of Xanadu to conflate and duplicate the Tibetan concept of Shangri-La first presented to Western readers as a utopian earthly paradise in the Himalayas by British author James Hilton in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon (Mass Market Paperback, 1945). The plot line of The Hunt for Xanadu is dependent on the stretching of Buddhist myth. Due to the relationship between Xanadu and Shangri-La that Salpeter sets up, I was reminded of Prisoners of Shangri-La (University of Chicago Press, 1999) by Donald S. Lopez Jr., a text that takes to task the romanticization of Tibet and Tibetan exile while holding up to the light the ways that the West, including scholars, have co-opted and misrepresented Tibetan Buddhism and culture. Because of the plot premise/protagonist in The Hunt for Xanadu, Salpeter’s Kelsey Porter series of novels dances near a threshold, a fine line between misrepresentation, cultural appropriation, and creative license. She works hard to never intentionally cross that line, but readers will have to decide for themselves if thresholds are forded. The fine line encourages reading the Kelsey Porter series of novels as an imaginative space of negotiation in which the representation of Tibetan Buddhism to contemporary Western readers is offered through “mystery”. By this, I mean that the genre of the novel series – mystery – becomes a space to unpack a complex religious tradition in the context of modernity, thus making it seem a little less mysterious. Further, mystery in the novel is often narrated as esoteric rites, even though imaginary, to which only initiates are usually admitted, thus exemplifying the idea of mystery religions. In all, Salpeter’s work is entertaining while providing a space to re-examine the discourse surrounding Shangri-La, with all of the cultural complications and intertextuality that entails.

The Devoted by Blair Hurley, sheds light on psychological bondage

Hurley, Blair. The Devoted: A Novel. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.

Reviewed by Chris Beal.

In Japan, Buddhism is an established religion, of course, and believers tend to be the more conservative members of society. So, as someone who was introduced to the religion there, I had a bit of trouble wrapping my mind around the idea of conversion to Buddhism as an act of teenage rebellion. But Nicole, the protagonist in The Devoted, arrived at her devotion to Buddhism the Western way: she read Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums.

As the novel opens, Nicole is 32, but her youth is presented in extended flashback. She was raised in Boston, a Catholic at the time the sex abuse scandals were rocking the Church there. Her family’s local church was one of many closed and sold, as the archdiocese sought to raise money to pay the numerous judgments against it. In the midst of all this, Nicole finds a religion she believes to be purer and truer. Her parents neither understand nor approve.

Buddhism is only part of Nicole’s rebellion. She finds a boy as rebellious as she and runs away with him and his friend, without telling her parents. She has read about a Buddhist community in Colorado and sets her sights on it. When things don’t work out, she returns home chastened but still determined to find a Buddhist practice and teacher.

The teacher she finds makes her feel special and valuable – something she missed in her upbringing – and when he begins to teach her privately, she is delighted. Soon she allows him to seduce her. He tells her that in order to get enlightened, she must do everything he says. This is where I, as a reader, began to squirm. How will this dangerous liaison play out? And there is certainly irony in leaving a religion in which sexual misbehavior was rampant only to find such misbehavior in the new, adopted faith.

The Master (he is never given a name) tells Nicole that she needs to overcome her Catholic repression and insists there is nothing wrong with their liaison. Yet his advice is belied by the fact that he sees her only in private meetings, never venturing into public with her, and even in private, he barely acknowledges the sexual nature of their relationship. Why does she continue? Here I think it might help to understand what the student/teacher relationship is like for many dedicated students of Zen and most other types of Eastern spirituality. The teacher – at least in the beginning – is seen as the complete source of wisdom. So when the Master tells Nicole that she must do everything he says, he is only voicing what she already believes. That he uses her belief in him for his own selfish purposes is, of course, unconscionable. And that the reader is meant to see this, while Nicole does not, sets up the primary conflict: when will she see the truth and what will she do about it when she does?

The first hint of her suspicion of his motives comes when she learns that a younger and newer female student is now also the Master’s lover. How many more does he have? We never learn that, but even knowing that he has more than one disciple/lover tells us plenty about this man.

The Master is never physically described, which was the cause of some confusion for this reader. At first, I assumed he was Japanese, so when it was mentioned that he had studied Zen in Japan as a foreigner, I was surprised. A description, even in broad strokes, would have allowed readers to picture this man from the beginning and thus to understand that he shares Nicole’s cultural background.

Portions of the book seem designed mainly or solely to educate the reader about Zen and Buddhism in general. They don’t go on too long, so the already-informed reader doesn’t get bored, but they do slow the action down a bit. The most extended example of this occurs later in the book, when Nicole begins a relationship with a man named Sean, a relationship she hopes will allow her to overcome the hold the Master has on her (although, significantly, she doesn’t tell Sean about the Master). Nicole writes Sean long letters about the dharma, the purpose of which seems unclear. Although it is later revealed that Nicole never sent the letters, this doesn’t really answer the question, in terms of narrative coherence, of why she wrote them.

Another question I had concerned the Master’s teaching the Shin Buddhist mantra, Nembutsu, to Nicole. Having practiced both Zen and Shin Buddhism in Japan, I couldn’t help wondering why he would do this. In Japan, at least, Zen and Shin are completely separate sects with entirely different approaches to attaining enlightenment. I never heard Nembutsu recited in a Zen temple.

Still, these quibbles aside, The Devoted is one of the most successful and well written Buddhist-themed novels I have read. The characters are well drawn – including a number I haven’t mentioned. I especially appreciated the author’s knack for choosing perfectly apt and unique words and phrases to describe both people and places. But mostly, the novel is a success because the point of view works. We know about the Master because of what he does and says not because of any authorial pronouncements. We want Nicole to get a clue, but we know how trapped she is because, most likely, we too have been trapped at some point in our lives by a love that is unfulfilling and yet impossible to jettison.

For all of the above reasons, readers of all persuasions, whether Buddhist or not, will find Blair Hurley’s novel an enjoyable and psychologically penetrating look at devotion. The novel can be purchased at Amazon.com here or at theW. W. Norton & Company web site here.

CLASSIC BUDDHIST FICTION He’s Leaving Home: My Young Son Becomes a Zen Monk by Kiyohiro Miura (Charles E. Tuttle, 1988; English translation, 1996) Reviewed by Chris Beal

How do the parents feel when a child decides to become a Zen monk? This is the territory explored in this exquisite little volume, translated from the Japanese by Jeff Shore. Told in first person from the father’s point of view, the story explores the emotional journey a family takes as the son disengages from his birth family and is adopted by the priest at a temple.

One of the many strengths of this novel is the realistic way the father’s ambivalence is explored. He is the one who first takes his son to the temple to do Zen, when he is still in primary school. The boy expresses a childish desire to become a monk, but it is the father who clings to this notion, as well as the woman priest. She is quite a character in her own right, and the father likes her but also becomes suspicious of her motives in wanting to take his son away from him. All of this is complicated by the attitude of the mother. We only know the mother, of course, through the father’s eyes, but as time goes on, she blames her husband more and more for the fact that they are losing their son.

The awkward title reads more simply in Japanese. The original title was Chonan no Shukke, but expressing in English the culturally dependent, complex ideas embodied in this phrase isn’t easy.Shukke” means “to become a Buddhist monk,” but the characters, translated literally, would mean “home-leaving.” Thus, both the title and subtitle express aspects of the meaning of this word. “Chonan,” too, carries cultural meaning. Literally it means, not “young son,” but “eldest son.” In Japan, of course, the eldest son is the one who carries the family line. In Miura’s story, while there is a younger daughter, there are no other sons, and therefore, no other heirs to the family name. This issue isn’t explicitly explored in the text, but a Japanese reader would, of course, understand the gravity of the situation.

In the West, Zen is not even considered a religion by some of its practitioners, and certainly it isn’t part of our cultural tradition. So probably the most analogous situation for readers in English-speaking countries would be when a Catholic child decides to become a monk or nun. Parents’ attachment to their children is, after all, universal. But the Buddhist emphasis on detachment makes the story all the more poignant. The priest, in fact, tells the father that the loss of his son is his koan (a riddle Zen practitioners are given to advance their spiritual understanding).

It would be an unforgivable omission not to mention one of the facets of the book that makes it so charming: the fanciful illustrations by J.C. Brown. The drawings in themselves tell the story of the boy’s maturation and coming to terms with a monk’s life.

Miura spent time in the United States when he was young, receiving a degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa. Perhaps the insight he gained from living in the West explains, at least in part, why this book has such appeal to English language readers.

In Japan, Chonan no Shukke received the Akutagawa Prize, an esteemed award for fiction. This book deserves to be a classic of Buddhist fiction in its English translation as well.