Category Archives: Buddhist Fiction

Autumn Reading List Catch-Up, Including Story-Driven Music

One of the perks of blogging about Buddhist fiction is that authors and readers of fiction that intersects with Buddhism regularly send emails to let us know of new or newly discovered works. Unfortunately, there is not enough time to review everything that comes our way, or even read every story. But we can certainly list it here for you to discover, read, and enjoy. With that said, here is a brief catch-up listing of books (and music!), alphabetically by author, that have been brought to our attention over the past few months. Thank-you to everyone who alerts us to the ever-growing assortment of Buddhist fiction.

darshan Pulse. Olive Moksha. 2018   https://darshanpulse.com/

darshan Pulse is a group of musicians who create and produce “Revolutionary Buddhist Rock from the Heart of the Rocky Mountains.” Based out of Missoula, Montana, the group recently produced an instrumental concept album to express “the essence of samsara, the Buddhist doctrine of cyclical existence” entitled Olive Moksha. For this their second album, darshan Pulse “focused on how duality can be transcended. . . The narrative of this second project focuses on the story of three tulkus and their willful reincarnation into the belly of the beast – the same matrix described by the first album – to bring about a new era of peace [sic] the world” (from https://darshanpulse.com/theory).

The music is driven by Buddhist narrative. The full story of these tulkus can be found here on the darshan Pulse website and their track Avalokiteshvara can be enjoyed there as well. Below the track they have written a narrative snippet, which begins thusly:

“Three monks, Daleth, Mem and Teth, practice their meditation every morning beneath the olive trees. One day, each of them separately experience the exact same phenomena during meditation. The vision nearly brings each of them to tears, and they separately spend many hours contemplating the surrounding landscape as if for the very first time; as if reborn.” (from https://darshanpulse.com/avalokiteshvara/ )

Gaber, Mark. Rijicho. Wheatmark Inc, 2011.

From Amazon: “The Sho Hondo Convention is over. Three thousand Buddhist Americans have returned from Japan, exhausted but triumphant. Relentlessly the next campaign begins: six months from now, a “Festival on Ice” will be held at the San Diego Sports Arena. Unknown to all, deadly cancer has invaded the body of George M. Williams, supernova nucleus of NSA. Urgent surgery is required, but this would delay the San Diego Convention. Will he save himself, or defy death to pursue the dream of a destitute priest who vowed seven hundred years ago to save humankind?”

Gaber, Mark. Sho Hondo. Wheatmark Inc, 2011.

From Amazon: “October marks the completion of the multimillion-dollar Sho Hondo Grand Main Temple in Taisekiji, Japan. Three thousand Buddhist Americans prepare to embark on a pilgrimage to meet their mentor and pray to the Dai-Gohonzon, the great mandala inscribed by the Buddha Nichiren in 1279 for the salvation of humankind. What will they find? Travel with them on their adventure, seen through the eyes of a 22-year old clarinet player in the NSA Brass Band.”

Merullo, Roland. The Delight of Being Ordinary: a Road Trip with the Pope and the Dalai Lama. Vintage Contemporaries, 2018.

From Amazon: “Roland Merullo’s playful, eloquent, and life-affirming novel finds the world’s two holiest men teaming up for an unsanctioned road trip through the Italian countryside–where they rediscover the everyday joys and challenges of ordinary life.

During the Dalai Lama’s highly publicized official visit to the Vatican, the Pope suggests an adventure so unexpected and appealing that neither man can resist: they will shed their robes for several days and live as ordinary men. Before dawn, the two beloved religious leaders make a daring escape from Vatican City, slip into a waiting car, and are soon traveling the Italian roads in disguise. Along for the ride is the Pope’s neurotic cousin and personal assistant, Paolo, who–to his terror– has been put in charge of arranging the details of their disappearance. Rounding out the group is Paolo’s estranged wife, Rosa, an eccentric entrepreneur with a lust for life, who orchestrates the sublime disguises of each man. Rosa is a woman who cannot resist the call to adventure–or the fun.

Against a landscape of good humor, intrigue, and spiritual fulfillment, The Delight of Being Ordinary showcases the uniquely charming sensibilities of author Roland Merullo. Part whimsical expedition, part love story, part spiritual search, this uplifting novel brings warmth and laughter to the universal concerns of family life, religious inspiration, and personal identity—all of which combine to transcend cultural and political barriers in the name of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.”

Okita, Dwight. The Hope Store. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017.

From Amazon: “Two Asian American men, Luke and Kazu, discover a bold new procedure to import hope into the hopeless. They vow to open the world’s first Hope Store. Their slogan: “We don’t just instill hope. We install it.” The media descend. Customer Jada Upshaw arrives at the store with a hidden agenda, but what happens next no one could have predicted. Meanwhile an activist group called The Natural Hopers emerges warning that hope installations are a risky, Frankenstein-like procedure and vow to shut down the store. Luke comes to care about Jada, and marvels at her Super-Responder status. But in dreams begin responsibilities, and unimaginable nightmares follow. If science can’t save Jada, can she save herself — or will she wind up as collateral damage?”

Padwa, David. Incident at Lukla: A Novel of the Himalayas. Hapax Press, 2013.

From Amazon: “Little Nepal, poor and beautiful, lies sandwiched between China and India and is ravaged by an armed revolution. Brutal Maoist guerrillas are attempting to overthrow a corrupt and half-deranged monarchy. Two middle-aged love-starved American intelligence agents, Elsie and Ripp, are running operations in the Himalayas. They uncover a bizarre weapons trade across the Tibetan frontier which is under the control of a ranking Chinese military officer. As intelligence operatives attempt to outflank each other two young lovers, Annie and Pemba, experienced and adventurous mountaineers, are unwittingly drawn into a gyre of conflicting espionage operations. A dramatic incident at a Sherpa village creates a chain of unforeseen consequences and comes, literally, to a breath-taking climax amidst the world’s highest mountains. A nearby Lama sees a wheel of time turning, fueled by erotic attraction leading to birth and consciousness.”

**All of these novels can be purchased on Amazon.com. **

 

 

 

 

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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.

Announcing New Buddhist Fiction – YASODHARA: A NOVEL ABOUT THE BUDDHA’S WIFE by VANESSA R. SASSON

Vanessa R.  Sasson. Yasodhara: A Novel About the Buddha’s Wife. New Delhi, India: Speaking Tiger Books, June 10, 2018.

Last month I was thrilled to hear from my friend and recently retired colleague, Mavis, about a new novel by Buddhist Studies scholar Vanessa R. Sasson. Yasodhara: A Novel About the Buddha’s Wife is Sasson’s first work of fiction, and it is sublimely captivating.

The novel cuts across various genres. In the book’s Introductory Note, Sasson calls her retelling a work of hagiographical fiction vice historical fiction, drawing attention to the (somewhat sparse) information about Yasodhara in Buddhist narratives and texts given her role in the Buddha’s enlightenment narrative. In this respect, the novel is clearly Buddhist fiction, but also, and perhaps more poignantly, it is a feminist narrative because of Sasson’s skilful retelling. Her scholarly background combined with her talent for storytelling allows Sasson to give a unique voice to Yasodhara and portray her as having some agency while still functioning within the limitations of her cultural and societal contexts.

As I expected, Sasson writes context very well. The timeframe for the Buddha’s narrative is roughly fifth century BCE. The novel is set in Brahmanic northern India at a time when the tales of Rama and Sita from the Ramayana provided social archetypes, especially the archetypes of husband and wife. Sasson recreates the context of the novel by relying on Buddhist and Indian stories to revisit and tell Yasodhara’s story afresh. Readers may recognize Buddhist jatakas, suttas, vinayas, the Therigatha, and the Indian epic Ramayana used in the plot and – more importantly – character development. The Buddhist stories, in particular, were used carefully, thoughtfully, keeping in mind they would not have been circulating at the time Yasodhara’s story transpired (since Siddhattha Gautama had not yet become the Buddha and there was not yet a tradition of Buddhist narratives circulating in India). For example, the Vessantara Jataka is used as both a past life memory and a portentous dream. And while we expect Mahapajapati to show up as a character, (crafted as a very regal lady, I might add), Kisa Gotami is an unexpected but excellent addition to the character roster as well.

What I enjoyed most about the novel was Sasson’s use of traditional stories to help tell Yasodhara’s story. For example, when a troupe of actors and entertainers perform a portion of the Ramayana that contained the story of Suparnakha, Sasson’s imagined ancient minstrel version gave the palace audience a lot to consider. Yasodhara’s reaction to a more compassionate portrayal of Suparnakha, the female demon and sister of Ravana, was echoed by all:

“I thought people would raise their fists against this version of the story, but no one did. Night after night, the troupe transported us elsewhere, telling us the story from her point of view.” (Location 1322 of 5298 of my Kindle edition)

Just as this imagined troupe gave a compassionate voice to a demoness, Sasson gives a courageous voice to Yasodhara and opens up a view to her many challenges in her life-roles of daughter, wife to an awakening being, and mother. Further, this characterization of “the Buddha’s wife” suggests how, like the unfolding of the epic Ramayana instigated by Suparnakha, Siddhattha’s journey to Buddhahood may have been different without his marriage to Yasodhara. 

In Sasson’s careful, elevated retelling, Yasodhara’s hagiography is presented to readers as a gorgeous set of matryoshka dolls: a profound story within stories set in richly decorated, near-mythical domains, skillfully layered in cultural and historical contexts. 

You can buy Yasodhara from the publisher’s site: Speaking Tiger Books or on Amazon. I would love to hear from readers to know if you enjoy it as much as I did.

 

 

Big Year for Buddhist Author George Saunders

As many of you may know, in October George Saunders’ first novel Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel (New York, NY: Random House, 2017) won the Man Booker Prize for fiction. Saunders is generally considered one of America’s best short story writers. His 2014 story collection “Tenth of December” won the inaugural Folio Prize and his first novel, long anticipated, has spent months at the top of the New York Times Best Seller list.

Saunders is also a practising Buddhist, and his religious orientation is put to use right from the title of the novel – Lincoln in the Bardo – concerning the Tibetan term for a liminal state of being experienced between death and rebirth. This state is discussed in Theravada suttas (Pali, antarabhava) and Mahayana sutras (Chinese, zhongyou), but it is best known in the west as bardo due to Evans-Wentz’s early 20th-century translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Tibetan, bar do thos grol chen mo).

Use of the term bardo in Saunder’s novel refers to the experience of Willie Lincoln, beloved son of 19th century President Lincoln, who passed away from typhoid. The story is based on this real historical event. Saunders imagines Willie’s experience after death, his confusion about the event, and his clinging to his former life, in part due to the grief of his father who visits his corpse.

While Lincoln in the Bardo is based on many historical facts, it is not really a work of historical fiction so much as an historical imaging that produces a metanarrative which complicates and explores the western concept of time. Saunders does this through the narration of the story and also through intertextuality.

Willie’s story unfolds in two main streams: historically and dialogically. Historically, some chapters are clips and quotations of various contemporaneous sources of Lincoln, such as personal papers, books written by historians, newspaper articles, etc. Not all of these sources are real; Saunders adroitly combines authentic pieces of history with fictional creations to convey the flow of events to his reader.

The other form of narrative employed by Saunders is dialogue, pulled together from a whole chorus of spirits who are also in the bardo with Willie. Even the syntax that Saunders uses to portray Willie-in-dialogue denotes a liminal state and lacks important punctuation, notably periods that mark sentence endings.

Saunders’ depiction of an intermediate afterlife state is intertextual and combines aspects of the Tibetan bardo with aspects of Catholic purgatory and a healthy Protestant fear of hell. Many of the spirit characters in this bardo take on the “physical” characteristics of their clinging to life, reminiscent of beings depicted in the Buddhist Wheel of Life or in Dante’s Divine Comedy. So while the bardo in this novel is not the traditional Tibetan bardo that Buddhist Studies scholars would recognize, it can be read as reflective of the transmission of Buddhism to the west.

This is a novel I will have to read more than once in order to fully appreciate the Buddhist elements, but it is written in such an engaging way that I will happily read it again, and again. For now, I appreciate that Saunders’ work is highlighting Buddhism as it intersects with fiction.

Review of MEDITATIONS ON THE MOTHER TONQUE by An Tran

Apologies, dear reader, for the delay of this review post. I have been travelling. And I have discovered that short stories are the perfect genre choice for journeys with many stops. On my recent travels, I have been reading and re-reading An Tran’s short story collection, Meditations on the Mother Tongue (C&R Press, 2016). These twelve stories span the world, from Alaska to Vietnam, from caves to zoos. The collection is a symphony of imagery that will give you goose bumps. They are told through the voices of men, women, and children, young and old, Asian and Caucasian. More than once my breath caught while reading one of Tran’s stories; his prose can be simultaneously incisive and surreal as it lays bare what it means to be human. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect from these stories, perhaps because they can be categorised into so many intersecting genres. The short works of fiction would fit just as well into a collection of Asian American Literature as they would in a collection of Buddhist Fiction. You might think that the intersection of Asian American Literature and Buddhist Fiction is ubiquitous across these kinds of literature, but it is not a given that any work of fiction by an Asian American author includes major Buddhist themes or characters. Many of Tran’s short stories include both, and others of his stories have neither, but still, resonate with vibrations of the Buddha dharma. Some of the short stories could be further sub-categorized as realistic fiction, suspense, mystery and even mythopoeia. But none of these categories fully encapsulates the insightful, engaging experience of reading Tran’s first collective offering.

The stories in Meditations on The Mother Tongue comprise a discourse on language and its centrality to human identity. Tran accomplishes this through brilliant characterization that positions his reader for deep listening. It’s as if he ushers you to the best seat in the concert hall based on the particular piece of music on the program. And of course, Tran has composed the music to be performed. Which is perhaps why his prose is so musical. For example, in the story “A Clear Sky Above” the young protagonist Teuku ventures into a cave and experiences this:

“Teuku is hypnotised by the music of the cave, the way it accompanies human speech. A voice emerges small and then bounces off cavern walls, splits into a chorus that comes from all around, its vibration like warm electricity on the skin. It is a reverent hymn, and he follows every word like a scripture” (p. 17).

Since this story is written from the third person point-of-view, the reader is able to venture into the cave with Teuku and is then immersed in this natural yet unique world through sound imagery. Tran interweaves the natural world with the human experiences of language and sound to remind his reader that language is universal.

In the short story “Conversations with the Rest of the World” a deaf girl named Lily learns to communicate with the world around her through sign language. As she is learning, she realises certain things about language, such as: “Reading and writing were conventions made for the hearing” (p. 63) and “silence was a punishment” (p. 66). And in an insightful moment in which Lily compares her mode of communication to those around her, she wonders how being human feels (p. 69).

The connection between language and humanness is further blurred when, some weeks later, Lily goes to the zoo with her teacher. There she sees gorillas signing to each other, and she leans over the rail to get a closer look.

Lily signed down, Hello, friends!

Frantically, the gorillas signed their responses, simple words and ideas that described their moods and desires.

Lily watched the fragmented conversations of the animals. She imagined a future life: Lily, the adult; Lily, the scientist; Lily, the bridge between humanity and the rest of the world . . .  She imagined ripping away all the invisible railings in the world, all the barriers to speaking up. She saw herself filling up that moat with dirt, mud, soil, and all the richness of the earth.

In this story of a deaf girl who talks with a nonverbal gorilla, silence speaks volumes. Tran’s adept development and placement of characters in the natural world positions the reader to consider how – or why – language makes us human.

At this point, you may be wondering what, if anything, is Buddhist about any of the examples I have provided thus far? Based on the title of the short story collection, I posit that Tran uses his experience of Buddhism to interrogate the idea that language makes us human. Even if there is no mention of Buddhist concepts or teachings in the story, Tran’s narratives create a space for his reader to imagine human experience without words. This type of experience-without-language is like a samadhi meditation that opens up a “broad field of awareness” of being and knowing in non-discursive ways. (Keren Arbel, Early Buddhist Meditation: The Four Jhanas as Actualization and Insight. Routledge: New York, NY, 2017, p. 94). It’s a sweet irony, to be sure, that words can point to non-discursivity, like a finger pointing to the moon. But this is just one of the ways that Tran’s stories are meditations.

There is another, more overtly Buddhist way that Tran’s stories are meditations, and this relates directly to his mother tongue. He is a Vietnamese American, the son of refugees who fled to the U.S. at the end of the Vietnam War. Buddhism is his birthright. His experience of growing up in a country foreign to his parents’ culture, and his experience of growing up with two languages, deeply influences his work (Anjali Enjeti, “Getting Lost in Language: An Tran On His Debut Collection, Meditations on the Mother TongueBrooklyn Magazine, 24 May 2017 http://www.bkmag.com/2017/05/24/an-tran-debut-collection-meditations-on-the-mother-tongue/ ). Tran’s stories are not the alienated, traumatic, situated testimonies of immigrants that are often associated with early Asian American Literature. Rather, his stories represent the experiences of later generations who are alienated from both their family’s cultural heritage and their birth country’s promises of freedom and prosperity. And for Tran, this cultural heritage includes Buddhism.

In my view, Tran’s best meditations on his mother tongue are comprised of stories in which the protagonist is Asian, for these protagonists position the reader to see cultures and worlds in tension. Take for example the first person point-of-view protagonist in “Once I Wed a White Woman.” In this story, an unnamed Asian (-American?) protagonist meets, courts, proposes to, and marries a white woman. As the reader is shown this developing relationship, we are privy to the protagonist’s feelings and thoughts. For example, after just meeting her in a bar, the protagonist and his future wife discuss jazz and he reflects: “She’d only named singers and I believed real jazz had no room for singers. Words were obstructions; music was to be heard, not listened to” (p. 119). This distinction between hearing and listening speaks directly to the way in which each of these culturally representative characters make meaning from their backgrounds, their contexts. The distinction made between hearing and listening is a theme throughout the story. Hearing is a non-discursive activity – the act of perceiving sound – but listening somehow requires transference of meaning, an act that implies and emphasizes a gap between self and other.

On the concept of self, the protagonist thinks thusly: “It is a delusion. We only exist through our relationships” (p.122). When his relationship with his white significant other progresses to cohabitation, he states “We took down my altar to Gautama Buddha . . . We put up framed pictures of ourselves” (p. 122). The process of “blending” his culture with his partner’s culture requires more compromise on his part, and he describes how he comes home to his “culture in a corner” quite insightfully when he states: “Westerners couldn’t look at a swastika without a sense of shame, and so I was supposed to feel this shame too. Shame for my own faith” (p. 123). The lingering colonialism that informed his relationship experience takes centre stage as the couple decides the wedding location; she wants the wedding to take place in a church. He says:

“Neither of us are Christian.” She said, “I just want a normal wedding” (p 123).

The protagonist tries to maintain a Buddhist viewpoint of his relationship: “I thanked her for releasing me from my own dogmas, but I didn’t know if I believed myself” (p. 123). If he only existed through his relationship to others, then his existence in relation to his partner is challenged even in their marriage ceremony.

The church was a small building with white walls. From the gutters at the edge of the roof hung ribbons of rust that settled into the paint, staining it in oranges and browns and ambers. The paint had cracked and formed fissures at the corners of all the door and window frames. I thought about the space between the cracks, how a house of God wore rivers of absence. . . A man in a black robe talked to us about togetherness and God and eternity. I stopped listening (p. 125).

Throughout the rest of the story, the protagonist makes attempts to be heard, to rescue his relationship by various means, including exposing his partner to Buddhist meditation, as if he is trying to teach his partner to hear as well as listen. Tran’s descriptions of altar Buddhas and meditation spaces are transportive, like the beginnings of a guided meditation that sets the mental stage for practice.

As a meditation on the mother tongue, this story, “Once I Wed a White Woman,” juxtaposes two cultures, east and west, Buddhist and Christian, through an exploration of the distinctions between hearing and listening. I cannot help but read the title of this short story and wonder if it is an allusion to the traditional opening to western folk tales beginning with “Once upon a time,” a phrase that serves as a verbal cue to begin listening. For the protagonist, this western folk tale phrase has displaced the traditional opening to Buddhist stories from sutras: “Thus have I heard.” In the tension between hearing and listening, this story provides a subtle and nuanced meditation on language, culture, contexts, and colonialism.

Regardless of what languages are represented in his stories, taken together, Tran’s meditations on the mother tongue form a discourse about how language shapes our experience of the world around us, and how non-discursive experience – being without words – can relieve suffering and open us to reality. Once again I am left appreciating the irony of how Tran’s stories can be read as a meditation on the benefits of not constantly creating stories, of experiencing life without reversion to mental narrating.

 

 

 

 

CANADIAN PUBLICATION Incognito: The Astounding Life of Alexandra David-Neel by Dianne Harke (Toronto: The Sumeru Press, Inc., 2016) Reviewed by Kimberly Beek

incognitoDianne Harke’s first novel, Incognito: The Astounding Life of Alexandra David-Neel is a fictional biography that might not have been completed but for the curiosity and encouragement of John Negru, Publisher at The Sumeru Press, Inc. As Harke explained in a recent interview, Negru read the first few chapters on Wattpad and offered to publish the finished manuscript. The Sumeru Press, Inc. is one part of Sumeru Books, a Canadian publishing company that focuses on Buddhist books, art and news. It is an important hub on the Canadian Buddhism landscape: “In addition to [their] publishing activities, [they] also maintain Canada’s leading Buddhist news blog (accessible at the bottom of [the] home page), and a directory of more than 580 Canadian Buddhist organizations (www.canadianbuddhism.info).” sumeru-small-horizontalSumeru also promotes a space for Canadian Buddhism on the international cultural landscape, as evidenced in this recent letter to the editor of Tricycle Magazine, Spring 2017 entitled “Northern Neighbor Neglect.” So when John Negru contacted me about Incognito, I knew I was in for a treat.

Alexandra David-Neel was an early 20th-century French explorer, spiritual seeker and feminist who travelled throughout Asia, including Bhutan, China, India, Japan, Sikkim, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. Her journeys into sometimes dangerous areas were attempted during times of insular rule (Tibet was closed to the outside world) and times of great turmoil (such as the onset of WWI or the Second Sino-Japanese War). To move forward, Alexandra often had to travel incognito. Her adventures would have made for a good spy novel but she travelled in earnest search of various forms of enlightenment. Through her journeys and the application of her keen intellect, she became a scholar of Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Tibetan Buddhism. She was revered by lamas and tulkus and the European academy as well.

Harke’s book is not merely a straightforward biography of Alexandra’s life. An author’s note both begins and sets the tone for this special work. In the note, Harke relates that there is an invisible line between fiction and non-fiction. Even though she has done substantial research for the biography on the extraordinary life of Alexandra David-Neel, the book is a work of fiction. As support for her assertion, Harke cites Alexandra herself who advised that Tibetan authors use their imaginations to a measure that finds its equal in Western fairy tales, except that all of the “extravagant wonders that abound in their narratives” are taken as authentic events. While the subject matter of Harke’s biography may suggest that this is a book filled with imaginary adventures, it is actually the author’s writing style that pushes the work across the threshold of fiction. Harke’s rigorous research and choice of both first and third person points of view narratives simultaneously generate and situate the voice of Alexandra. The author fairly channels Alexandra to give the reader a backstage pass into the spiritual seeker’s internal and external worlds.

Were it not for Harke’s detailed research grounding this story, the life of Alexandra would be difficult to believe simply because it is so very astounding, as the title of the novel suggests. Over the course of her life and travels, Alexandra met with European and Asian dignitaries and ambassadors, befriended a Sikkim Prince, and discussed Buddhist concepts with both the Panchen Lama and the 13th Dalai Lama. These meetings helped to nurture her scholarly pursuits to learn and translate Sanskrit and Tibetan and to better understand Buddhist concepts. But her experiences travelling incognito allowed her a spiritual development which augmented her education in a way that traditional scholarship could never replicate. Harke’s first person narratives of Alexandra’s time in China, India and Nepal and subsequent journey to Lhasa, Tibet are peopled with a variety of savoury characters, from helpful shepherds and villagers to cave-dwelling hermits. In travelling incognito, Alexandra learned and lived her own version of Tibetan Buddhism. For example, she developed and used the fire of tumo, a meditative method of physiologically warming the body that was useful in the extreme conditions of the Himalayas (p. 101).  In one side adventure, Alexandra was witness to a powa recitation, the “mystic incantation” that is chanted at the deathbed of a Buddhist to assist with the transference of consciousness to the next life (p. 113). And she experienced dream yoga after an encounter with a mysterious lama who insisted that she stop travelling incognito so that she could once again wear the rosary and rings of an initiate of Tibetan Buddhism (pp. 135 – 136). The effect of the first person narratives reads like a first-hand description of lived Tibetan Buddhism during the mid-twentieth century.

There is one more success in Harke’s first novel that I wish to mention in case it is overlooked. Whether intentional or not, her renderings of the European cultural contexts behind Alexandra’s story are instructive. The glimpses into the modus operandi of the Theosophical Society gave me a sense of how Theosophy and Spiritualism dovetailed with Buddhism and Hinduism at the turn of the twentieth century. Further, the systemic Orientalism that pervaded (and still permeates) Western societies’ perspectives of the “other” are evident in the form of descriptions of Protestant Buddhism: an idea of  a “pure” Buddhism interpreted from the Pali canon that discredits and excludes any “folk ritual” and “superstition.” Orientalist representations are described in some of Alexandra’s surprised reactions to her early experiences of Buddhism outside of Europe. For example, in a scene rendered from 1891, Alexandra was in Colombo and for the first time attended a Buddhist temple only to be greeted with “a huge Buddha lacquered in a hideous canary yellow, like something in a lurid carnival. By its side supplicants had placed a package of toothpicks and a glass jar containing preserved carrots and peas. Do they really think that the Buddha nibbles pickled vegetables as he meditates? (p. 35).” Decades later, after living as a Buddhist in Tibet, her reactions to such forms of lived religion were conveyed as quite the opposite. Lastly, the juxtaposition of Alexandra’s feminism poised against European culture at the fin de siecle is played out beautifully in her patronly marriage to her husband “Mouchy” and her adoptive “parenting” of a Tibetan Buddhist lama, Yongden.

You can find Incognito: The Astounding Life of Alexandra David-Neel through Sumeru Books http://www.sumeru-books.com/dd-product/incognito-the-astounding-life-of-alexandra-david-neel/

or through Amazon.com https://www.amazon.com/Incognito-Astounding-Life-Alexandra-David-Neel/dp/1896559336

Happy reading!!!

 

 

 

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.