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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.

 

 

 

 

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Currently Reading . . . MEDITATIONS ON THE MOTHER TONGUE by An Tran

I am pleased to announce the publication of a volume of short stories by the young, talented author An Tran entitled Meditations on the Mother Tongue (C&R Press, 2016). I have read the first three stories and I don’t want to put the volume down in order to do my own work, but I must. So a full review will have to wait until the end of May or early June. You can read and review the stories yourself if you buy the book through Amazon HERE or Barnes & Noble HERE .

To pique your interest, here is the C&R Press press release:

A deaf child discovers to her delight that she can communicate with zoo gorillas in her native language. An old man grieving for his departed wife looks to the giant turtle in Hanoi’s sacred lake for solace, believing it to be a god. An American scientist searches the mountains and rivers of Sumatra for signs of an otter believed to be extinct. A young man finds a surprising connection to his Vietnamese heritage when he takes up the acrobatic sport of parkour, motivating him to re-learn his forgotten first language.

In rich and vivid prose across twelve stories, men and women are displaced from their loved ones, their cultures and their homes, and look to the natural and spiritual worlds in search of anything that can offer a sense of belonging and lasting satisfaction. These are careful meditations on the desire to know one’s self and be known by others, where parents and lovers alike appear as gods or as ghosts, dominating and unknowable, and where the bonds between fathers and sons and brothers, men and women, husbands and wives, are built, tested and found lacking.

Matthew Salesses says, “The stories in Meditations on the Mother Tongue build like storms. They gather on the horizon until they’re upon you without you realizing when exactly you moved inside them. An Tran has written a collection of tense skies and complex humans longing for the light beyond. Put this book on your radar.”

Justin Lawrece Daughtery says, “There are ghosts inhabiting An Tran’s Meditations on the Mother Tongue. They are not haunting, though: they are reminders and etchings. They are not echoes, but the original voices sounding their guttural howls into deep caverns and awaiting return. Each of these stories lives with a presence lingering, a remembrance attached to what we might try to leave behind us. We pick up each one, each of An Tran’s stories, and there we are, holding what the ghosts have returned, and each one trembles with history, and each one unburies a treasure we do not know hides in the earth.”

Amber Sparks says, “Early in this fine collection, one of Tran’s narrators remarks on the final tonal distinctions that are the only difference between one word and another in Vietnamese. I mention this because it’s also such a perfect description of Tran’s unique gift as a writer: he has an ear attuned to the subtlest of differences in tone that open to reveal a world of nuance and meaning in the in-between places. The people living there in his collection – second generation immigrants, a Deaf girl, the parents of a chronically ill child – are seekers and wanderers, wondering how to tell their own stories. And it is here where Tran shines: he writes fiercely into the gap for the misfits and outsiders of the world.”

Richard Peabody says, “An Tran is one of the most gifted writers to appear on the DC lit scene in recent memory. These surprisingly varied stories about communication (and lack thereof) are so adventurous, intelligent, and wise (about humans and non-humans) that when the book was over I felt like I’d been scuba diving on Mars. Damn he’s good.”

Review of MANCHU PALACES by Jeanne Larsen

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Manchu Palaces
Jeanne Larsen
iUniverse, 2009
368 pp., $19.95 (paperback)

Way back in May I promised to review Manchu Palaces, a novel by Sinologist Jeanne Larsen, first published in 1996 by Henry Holt and Company,Inc. I guess readers could consider this an anniversary review since the book is twenty years old this year. I suggested to Dr. Larsen that her novels be reprinted in a digital format so that readers could more easily access these wonderful works. That would be a nice way to commemorate the first publication anniversary.

This novel is Larsen’s third in her Avalokiteśvara triptych, each of which features Guan Yin who complicates or moves the plot. The previous novels are Silk Road (first published in 1989, set in the Tang dynasty) and The Bronze Mirror (first published in 1991, set in the Southern Song), but the reader does not have to read these in order to enjoy the story of a young girl growing up in China that is at the heart of each novel. Further, every novel of the triptych has a fantastic, cosmic framework reminiscent of Buddhist jātaka and sūtra structures. Lastly, every novel in the triptych features different types of narrative perspective and voice and a story built with various genre styles, some modeled on Chinese literary genres or scholarly works.

Given such variety of narratives contained within each novel of the triptych, this brief review of Manchu Palaces comes with a caveat. The novel is so elaborate that I cannot convey all of the intricate, marvellous aspects of it in this blog post. Reading this novel is like taking a long trip to a foreign country and having such a profound experience that the souvenirs and photographs cannot possibly accommodate or express the lasting impression. What I can do is provide my favourite elements of the novel and hopefully leave Buddhist Fiction Blog readers wanting more.

But first, preliminaries. Manchu Palaces, set during China’s Qing dynasty, tells the story of Lotus, a young girl and sole heir of a well-to-do Manchu family of bondservants to the emperor. When the reader meets Lotus, her mother has died and yet through her grief she must figure how to navigate family tensions and filial obligations on her journey to womanhood. Her best option for a secure future is to marry well, but along the way she wins a commission as a maid-servant to the Empress Dowager in the Forbidden City, a place that will become her own personal mandala, of sorts. For Lotus’ journey to womanhood also takes a spiritual route affected by her deceased mother Cassia, bodhisattvas such as Guan Yin, and Confucian and Taoist spirits. Both Lotus and Cassia will transcend their current states if Lotus can only find a misplaced white Tara statue and its thirty-six lost companion statues that form their own mandala.

Whenever I am presented with such an engaging opportunity for imaginary travel in Asian time and place, I am almost always on the lookout for one thing: what is “distinctly Buddhist” in this narrative? The jacket cover of Manchu Palaces actually uses the phrase “distinctly Buddhist perspective” to describe the way Larsen examines human loss and human folly. And I think this perspective is achieved, remarkably so, within the context of the Qing dynasty Chinese setting.

Let me explain why I think it is remarkable that anything is highlighted as “distinctly Buddhist” during the Qing dynasty era. The Manchu-led Qing dynasty was notable for its multicultural population, in part due to its military and political sweep across the Asian continent from Mongolia to Tibet that brought other Asian ethnic groups into the Chinese fold. Europeans and Arabs were also trickling into the Chinese societal landscape through missionization and trade. So during the Qing dynasty, the Chinese religious milieu was made up of Confucianism, Taoism, Mahayana Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, various forms of Shamanism, popular folk traditions, Christianity through missionaries, and even Islam. I’ve probably overlooked the presence of other religions in this list (such as Hinduism in small pockets of China), but you get the idea. Yet Larsen achieved a “distinctly Buddhist perspective” by using the Buddhist concept of rebirth to help drive the plot and steer Lotus and her mother Cassia on their respective journeys. In a scene that describes Cassia’s journey through the popular folk tradition/Taoist underworld of Mount Tai, Larsen intertwines the fate of Wu Ming, the creator of the lost Buddhist statues, with Cassia’s fate. The scene takes place in an underworld courtroom presided over by The Lord of Mount Tai, and as a bailiff presents the next case, we read:

“Yessir. Sorry, sir. It’s certain, ah, ecumenical aspects that have truly complicated the case, sir, as much as all these questions of motive and effects. That’s why I’ve held off, pending clarifications. Certain Buddhist . . . personages have been inquiring into the situation. Seems they’re chiefly concerned about the mandala statues for some reason, sir. Want them reunited, sir, and delivered to their intended home in the Five Crest Mountains. Word came from Avalokiteshvara—”

Guan-yin’s in on this?” Great bulging eyes roll as exasperation washes over that green face. “Well now. We’re all in this together, aren’t we? Mustn’t forget that.” Lord Mount Tai chortles, though Cassia’s not sure she sees the joke.

[Lord Mount Tai considers sending Wu Ming to clean up the mess he made and reunite the statues.]

“And I believe,” he adds, “I can leave it to my Buddhist colleagues to decide whether the collected statues are to be consecrated in that temple at Five Crests anyway, or what. Given the desecration. Imagine!” . . . . He raises his oblong gavel. “You are condemned to return to earth and see that all those statues of yours are gathered up and taken—”

“Oh let me, let me!” With those words, Cassia dashes forward from her nebulous location . . . . “I believe, your Majesty, that I know already where one of the statues is . . . ”

[Cassia and Wu Ming are sent back to earth as ghosts to achieve their mission]. Manchu Palaces, pp. 91 – 93.

What Larsen has managed to do in this scene is imagine the syncretism of Chinese religions in a way I could never have envisioned until reading her novel. For years I have struggled with getting my head around just how Chinese ancestor veneration worked in conjunction with Buddhist concepts of rebirth into other realms. This imagined account highlighted Buddhism’s role in Qing dynasty culture while maintaining the integrity of syncretism among Chinese religions.

Moreover, Buddhist interdependence must be at the heart of the structure of Manchu Palaces, because the plot is highly intricate. Sometimes I had to backtrack in my reading to make connections or ensure I didn’t miss an important piece of information because of the many narrative threads that are well interwoven. Still, Larsen knows how to situate a reader. Many times in the novel she switches narrative perspective, from third person to first person, and back again. Sometimes in a third person narrative voice the reader is addressed as “Reader” or “kindly reader”, thus forming a coy meta-narrative hinting at the creative relationship between author and reader. And her prose is so silky and such a pleasure to read that the need for review was a minor trial. I was always quickly soothed with paragraphs like this:

“A warm breeze comes up like a blessing from the Southern Sea. Surely this much is true—call it delusion, call it karma, call it free will and human perversity, call it the zigs and zags of narrative complications or tangled chains of psychological cause and effect: Neither storyteller nor incarnate being travels an easy straight-line road” (Manchu Palaces, p. 223).

The various narrative perspectives and different narrative voices give the novel a breadth and depth that reflect Larsen’s own dynamic acuity for Chinese culture, history and literature. Manchu Palaces is categorized as a fantasy due to the cosmic elements of the plot, but perhaps due to its narrative perspectives and voices, I read the novel as a work of historical fiction that brought past eras and unfamiliar locations to life. Manchu Palaces will be well received by any reader looking for an engaging story that could fall into the genres of Women’s Writing, Historical Fiction, Fantasy, and of course Buddhist Fiction. Better yet, if you want to go on a trip to China and don’t have the resources to leave your current situation, just pick up this book here.

Currently Reading . . . MANCHU PALACES by Jeanne Larsen

Kimberly Beek is currently reading:

Jeanne Larsen. Manchu Palaces. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, Inc, 1996.

Summer is coming and this summer I only have time for one “extra-curricular” warm-weather read. I may not get to writing up the review for a few months due to other writing projects, but that will not dissuade me from enjoying Jeanne Larsen’s novel Manchu Palaces (1996). In fact I’ve already started because I looked at the blurb and read the preface and before I knew it I was finished the first chapter. This novel opens the door, bids you sit down and be comfortable, hands you a cup of green tea and then unveils a world that is instantly alive with sights, sounds, smells and tastes. So far it is an evocative blend of “thus have I heard” with “once upon a time.”

Manchu Palaces is the third novel in Larsen’s Avalokiteśvara trilogy, preceded by Silk Road (1989) and Bronze Mirror (1991). The trilogy is unique because it does not follow the same character, but rather presents stories of how the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara engages in the lives of humans, in various ways, in different forms, and particularly in the Middle Kingdom. Each novel is set during a different dynastic period, so if read chronologically, the novels convey a sense of how Buddhism was lived throughout different eras in China. Here is the IMG_1581Amazon.com blurb for Manchu Palaces: “The Empress Dowager’s bond-servant, Lotus decides to follow a spiritual path through the Forbidden City and down paths of erotic fancy in search of [a] place called Mandala, where life’s troubles are left behind.”

Let me tell you a little about Jeanne Larsen. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in Comparative Literature. She translates Chinese poetry and is a Professor of English at Hollins University where she teaches creative writing as well as an interesting sounding course entitled Literary Journeys. I secretly hope the course reflects the fact that she has traveled a good deal to nurture and support her creativity. She writes across many genres including creative non-fiction, essays, fiction, poetry, and translations. No matter the genre, her work reveals the growing influence of Buddhism on anglophile literature.

I will report back at summer’s end on this engaging tale that includes a girl named Lotus, a Tara statue, and courtly intrigue.

Review of MAYA: A NOVEL by C.W. (Sandy) Huntington, Jr.

Reviewed by Kimberly Beek

My apologies, dear reader, for the overly long wait on this review. It is no reflection on Maya: A Novel by C. W. Maya(Sandy) Huntington, Jr.  In fact, his first novel about journeys is what accompanied me on my most recent journey: the huge transition of moving with my family from North America to the Middle East. This transition has taken months, and over those months, I have read Maya in the same way one would eat a full five course meal, savouring it and trying to eat slowly so as to appreciate every biteI went back to the story continually to reread portions that spoke to me, that spurred me to read other works and that encouraged me to view life situations with a new perspective.

On the surface, the novel tells the story of University of Chicago doctoral candidate Stanley Harrington who travels to India on a Fulbright scholarship in order to study Sanskrit. The story begins in the India of 1975, when visas to stay and travel the subcontinent were easier to procure and seekers of all sorts were looking East-ward. Stanley is all too happy to escape his life in Chicago, the location of his failing marriage and his long suffering dissertation advisor. As he travels through India meeting teachers, gurus, locals, other academics, expats and spiritual seekers, his journey through a richly described cultural landscape and some of its most famous sacred texts begins to parallel an inner journey that opens a door to an awakening.

I will not give away more of the storyline than what I have written above, except to say that Maya is a novel I will read again, and again. And when I read it again it will be alongside copies (in translation) of the Sanskrit texts referenced in the novel that Stanley uses to navigate his personal journey. Reading Maya made me want to broaden my reading experience. For example, this novel could be used as the locus of a sophomore level university course on Sanskrit literature read in the West, in translation. At the very least, a reading guide from the publisher, Wisdom Publications, would be a nice addition for readers who want to take their reading experience further. This is not to say that the novel is at all stuffy or overly academic – quite the opposite. The Sanskrit literature referred to or even translated and used in the story is always a jumping off point for philosophical ideas that are so well integrated into the plot line that readers do not notice them overtly. Rather, the narrative is first person so as Stanley lives out the philosophical hypotheses he’s learning about and translating, he takes the reader along for the ride. And it’s a roller coaster of a ride through libraries, jungles and holy cities, on elephants, trains and buses, and through the full range of emotions from desire to self-loathing, to a moment or two of equanimity.

While I have not met Dr. Sandy Huntington in person, we have exchanged emails and he is a very kind correspondent. I took the opportunity to ask him if he would consider using his first work of fiction for a university course in the way I suggested. He replied:

“I’m actually planning on using Maya in a course I’ll teach for the first time in spring 2016, titled “The Spiritual Quest”. Along with Maya, we’ll be reading some other fiction and memoir. I haven’t yet put together a list, but I’m considering things like Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, Merton’s Seven Story Mountain, Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, Carlos Castenada’s The Teachings of Don Juan, Hesse’sNarcissus and Goldman… I know this isn’t exactly what you’ve suggested, but I agree with you that Maya could be used in a number of various academic settings, as a way of inspiring students to go deeper into Buddhism, Hinduism, or Sanskrit literature in general.”

Following on my initial urge to use the novel as a jumping off point for a broader reading experience, Stanley’s story and Huntington’s beautiful writing style have led me to contemplate further the very act of reading. At its simplest, reading is an act of creative communicative engagement out of which meaning is made. In creating a fictional story such as Maya, Huntington performs maya itself – he creates an illusion. Thus one way to read the novel is to view it as an experiment that uses fiction to examine the idea of life as an illusion. Taken further, though, the title of the novel poses the question of whether fiction can have true meaning, to which I answer a loud YES! If there is one thing I took from the act of reading this novel it is that fiction holds a good deal of truth, which should not be confused with fact. Fiction should never be dismissed for lack of meaning or truth.

The passage in the novel that underscores my path of pondering can be found in Chapter 35 (of 40). At this point in the story, Stanley is living in Banaras (also known as Varanasi). He is living in a small room, meditating daily and translating passages of a Buddhist Prajnaparamita text. He has been working on translating for about an hour one day when his friend Mickey knocks on his door. Mick is an expat and spiritual seeker from South Boston. He had been raised Catholic but after taking robes in Thailand and living as a Buddhist monk for a time, he had drifted to India and had been there for about two years studying Indian art and music before meeting Stanley.  What Stanley likes most about  Mick, aside from his monkish tendancies, is his seemingly innate ability to fit in to Indian culture. In this scene, Mick brings Stanley a ticket to go to Delhi where Stanley wished to meet with a Tibetan monk in order to continue his translation work. Mick spies a bit of the translation and reads it. Having learned some Pali and experienced Buddhism in Thailand, Mick loves to argue about philosophy, and his first response to the translated passage is: “This Mahayana stuff is crazy shit, Stan.” (Kindle Edition, Loc 4881 of 5794).

Part of the translation describes the preparedness of a bodhisattva. Mick questions Stanley about it and in the ensuing conversation, an analogy is incorrectly drawn between the bodhisattva‘s preparedness and the Bhagavadgita‘s character Arjuna preparing to go into battle. Mick takes the analogy to an unexpected conclusion and states “So the bodhisattva is well prepared to go out and kill his relatives” to which Stanley replies “I don’t think so, Mick.” (Kindle Edition, Loc 4890 0f 5794). In an attempt to set Mick straight, Stanley says (I imagine) irritably “You can’t just go and read a Buddhist Prajnaparamita text as if it were a chapter from the Bhagavadgita.” Mick asks why not, and Stanley’s explanation is nothing short of the best philosophical summary of the difference between Hindu dharma and Buddhist dharma that I have ever read. When he finishes, Stanley proclaims “It’s all shunya — empty of any kind of absolute or ultimate reality.” But it is Mick who gets in the last word: “Sounds to me like some kind of bullshit philosophical hair-splitting.” (Kindle Edition, Loc 4912 of 5794).

There are at least three readers involved in the above scene: the real reader, the fictional Stanley and the fictional Mick.

Through Stanley, we are given an example of a careful academic reader. The scene clarifies philosophies and reaffirms my conviction of the importance of context. Every reader brings her own context to the text, and the author has no way of knowing what that context will be. And every author brings a context to her work that is influenced by culture and era. Both of these contexts influence and shape the reading experience, which will form another context all together. This is why reading is creative communication because meaning and context, as well as meaning in contexts, are being created through the act of reading.

Through Mick, we have an example of a reader imposing (or juxtaposing?) a particular context onto a text. Even though Mick had been a Theravadin Buddhist monk in Thailand, he reverts to his knowledge of Indian texts such as the Gita when reading Stanley’s translation. Mick doesn’t really appreciate the philosophical nuances that separate Hindu Samkhya philosophy from Buddhist Prajnaparamita. For me, Mick’s character as a practitioner and person of action poses a type of foil to Stanley’s character as a scholar and philosopher, and I am still thinking about what this can teach me about reading as passive or active or both.

Through my own reading (playing the part here of the real reader), by the end of the scene – if not the end of the novel – I was questioning my ontology. This is the power of Maya the novel and maya the illusion.

My question for Dr. Huntington at this junction was to ask who was his intended audience. He responded thoughtfully, as follows:

“After years of writing and publishing for a handful of Buddhologists, I really, really wanted to break out of that closed circle and write for a wider audience. I’m a voracious reader of literary fiction, so like-minded readers were, I suppose, my first target: readers who especially enjoy the play of language on the page and the power of metaphor, how punctuation can be used to create a certain cadence, and all the rest of things that literary fiction is about. I like the kind of books that are set amidst quotidian dramas: the difficulties of love, the struggle to deal with a cranky boss, the joys and sorrows of everyday life. I’m not a genre reader; heavily plotted novels of romance, detective, sci-fi and so forth are not my thing. I’m all about mundane realism – which is, of course, oddly ironic, given the philosophical underpinnings of Maya. But it’s in conventional truth where we find the ultimate – that’s basic madhyamaka. In any case, I also wanted very much to take the philosophical ideas I’d been dealing with in my academic writing and bring them into the context of fiction.”

While Huntington’s first novel can be read as a philosophical treatise on maya in fictional form, it is also a quotidian drama that contains as much romance and adventure as philosophy. Some of my favourite quotations from the novel will give you a better idea of the beautiful prose narrative that awaits you in your role as reader.

“Love is not about getting what we want. Love is about how we live with what we are given.” (Kindle Edition 748-5794)

“All the yogic traditions of India begin and end here, before creation, where the breath turns back on itself, where the breath of God moves like wind over the waters of the deep.” (Kindle Edition 2202-5794)

“She got up from the stool, her hands slipped around back again, and off came the bra. Once free, her breasts seemed to swell in the fluttering light of the candle. Bending low she stepped out of her petticoat one leg at a time. Stark naked now, she leaned over to blow out the candle. Her body appeared to me flawless, perfect–a divine vision sprung from my own desire.” (Kindle Edition 2397-5794)

“Just outside my window, a large crowd had gathered under a floursecent streetlight that cast a pallid glow over their faces. I could see the shadow of something lying crumpled in the dirt. A man stooped over and picked it up, and I watched as he cradled a small, limp body. . . . The man was staring down at the boy, his jaw slack, mouth hanging open. All around him women wailed and clutched at their saris. The sounds they made were appalling; I have never heard anything, before or since, so rawly human, so saturated in despair. Their cries rose up from a dark world buried deep beneath the earth.” (Kindle Edition 3326-5794)

“The image of his face floated there on the dark surface of the glass like a spirit trapped in the bardo realm between death and rebirth.” (Kindle Edition 3558-5794)

“First judge, then choose: Want or not want. Desire or fear. Self always must judge and choose. So everything very simple: No judge—no self. No self—no suffer! You see? Need only to stop judge and choose. Sit quiet, welcome pain and pleasure equal, like two stranger come for visit. No need for invite—guest come and guest go. Guest come, you be nice. Guest go, you be nice. Very simple.” (Kindle Edition 5603-5794)

And I will leave you with this, dear reader: 

“Our life and our death are inseparably bound together with words and ideas. All of this,” he swung his arm in a wide arc, “is made of words: shabda-mayi. Words, and only words: shabda-matra. This is Kalidasa’s meaning. This world of words–this life and death–it is nothing but bara tamasha.” He examined my face, as if unsure whether I was familiar with the Hindi expression. “Big drama. You know? Theater.” (Kindle Edition 2849-5794)

Enjoy!!! 

Currently Reading . . . MAYA: A NOVEL by C. W. Huntington, Jr.

MayaI’m so excited to be reading Maya: A Novel by C. W. Huntington, Jr. It was published in hard copy a few weeks ago and today – 23 June 2015 – it comes out on Kindle as an e-book. I have been reading a galley copy thus far, but as I am in the middle of a move across continents, e-books have recently become an important personal library component.

The e-book is far from the main reason I am excited about reading Maya. The novel begins with an epigraph that summarizes the definition of the Sanskrit word māyā from the Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary. It reads: “Māyā, (f.) art, wisdom, extraordinary or supernatural power, illusion, unreality, deception, fraud, trick, sorcery, witchcraft, magic.” You see, C. W. Huntington knows his stuff. He is a Sanskrit scholar with a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies. He is currently Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at Hartwick College. His main academic focus is on early Mahayana Buddhism, specifically Candrakīrti and early Indian Mādhyamika.

You might think that, given his academic background, Huntington’s fiction writing style could be stilted and pedantic. Amazon has even categorized the novel under “Fiction: Religion and Spirituality.” But Huntington’s fiction writing style is so accessible that the reader is powerfully pulled into the adventures of the main character, Stanley Harrington. Through Harrington’s perspective, this academic-turned-fiction author recreates an expat Indian experience for his readers in surreal, colourful, earthy detail. Here is the blurb from the publisher, Wisdom Publications:

“It is 1975 and India is in turmoil. American Stanley Harrington arrives to study Sanskrit philosophy and escape his failing marriage. When he finds himself witness to a violent accident, he begins to question his grip on reality.

Maya introduces us to an entertaining cast of hippies, expats, and Indians of all walks of life. From a hermit hiding in the Himalayan jungle since the days of the British Raj, to an accountant at the Bank of India with a passion for Sanskrit poetry, to the last in a line of brahman scholars, Stanley’s path ultimately leads him to a Tibetan yogi, who enlists the American’s help in translating a mysterious ancient text.

Maya, literally “illusion,” is an extended meditation on the unraveling of identity. Filled with rich observations and arresting reflections, it mines the porous border between memory and imagination.”

I hope to post a write up of my reading experience of Maya, along with some email discussions with Dr. Huntington about the novel, all before the end of September. In the mean time, please read the novel along with me and if you have any questions about Maya you would like me to pass along to Dr. Huntington, feel free to post them in the comments or contact me through this blog.

Currently Reading . . . UNTOUCHABLE WOMAN’S ODYSSEY by Suwanda Sugunasiri

Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey (2011) is a first novel by Dr. Suwanda Sugunasiri. I have been meaning to post about this novel since it was first published, and am only now able to give it the attention it deserves. Why do I think it deserves attention? Well, it could be the author: Dr. Sugunasiri is a pillar of Canadian Buddhism, a cultivator of Buddhist ecumenism in Canada and founder of the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies, Toronto, and Member,  Faculty of Divinity, Trinity College at the University of Toronto. It could be the fact that Dr. Sugunasiri waited until he was at a ‘mature age’ to tackle his first novel, having already written and published poetry, short stories and academic works. Or it could be that in email discussions with Dr. Sugunasiri about his novel, he has suggested that it be read in one sitting vice over a longer period of time, so as to keep intact the myth-like feeling of the narrative. I like the idea of an author’s ‘prescription for reading’! But the primary reason I am so interested in the novel is because it is both a work of Buddhist fiction and a work of post-Colonial fiction (or, Asian-Canadian fiction). This novel bridges too many genre categories to list.

Dr. Sugunasiri has graciously provided me with press release information about the novel (see below) so that Buddhist Fiction Blog readers can decide if they wish to read alongside me. I will be posting an email discussion with Dr. Sugunasiri about Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey before the end of November.

Press Release Oct 25 2014
REVIEWS & PERSONAL COMMENTS ON
Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey
by Suwanda Sugunasiri

Untouchwoman_Cover-195x300

Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey offers both a deeply moving love story of a couple divided by caste and ethnicity, and a brilliant evocation of  the country’s ancient, mythic and religious past over two and a half millennia.  The story comes alive  within a wholly convincing fictional landscape that serves as the stage for a witty and informative dramatization of the modern,  post-colonial struggle for freedom and independence in a country in South Asia.   Frank Birbalsingh, ProfessorEmeritus of  English, York University   (from back cover)

 (ISBN 978-0-9867198-0-6).

(Available on KINDLE or Amazon: https://read.amazon.com/?asin=B005RFUSBY. Distributed in Sri Lanka by Vijitha Yapa Books.)

An extraordinary first novel by an accomplished poet, Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey offers a deeply insightful narrative of postcolonial Sri Lanka. Beneath the placid surface lies a tale of the challenges of modernity, the deep divisions of class and caste, and the traces of the past in shaping the present. With remarkable skill, the author moves back and forth in time, linking the present to the past, demonstrating the multiple ways in which Buddhism has shaped the contours of Sri Lankan culture. An inclusive text in the best sense of the term, the novel draws together multiple traditions to explore the pathos, paradoxes and richness of modern Sri Lanka.  Suwanda Sugunasiri’s Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey is a major contribution to both Canadian and Sri Lankan literature (bold added).”  Chelva Kanaganayakam,  Prof. of English, University of Toronto.

Here are a few quotations from Reviews:

“An extraordinary first novel” (Prof. Chelva Kanaganayakam, Canada). 

An Unusual View of Life in a Universal and Timeless Narrative” (Prof. C K Seshadri, India) <http://island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article- details&page=article-details&code_title=111468>.

“…portrayal of the rustic, bucolic life in the South is authentic as it could be.” ( Shelton Gunaratne, USA).      <http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2011/05/05/novelist-unfolds-link-of- …>.

Pulsating vibrantly underneath…”; “What is genius? It can be defined in variegated ways, but the utmost genius in the field of writing could surface when an author manages to packet into 366 pages a 2500 saga of his country’s history via a story, melodramatic yet extremely touching”  (Padma Edirisinghe, Sunday Observer , Sri Lanka). <http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2011/06/26/mon30.asp>.

 “Tangamma is the heroine, the true woman of Asia with a practical mind, adaptable to any situation, to face any hardship, deprivation and also with the strength and the willpower..”   (Daya Dissanayake, Ceylon Daily News, Sri Lanka). <http://archives.dailynews.lk/2011/06/29/art06.asp>. 

“…incredibly cinematic, camera panning from one image to another, then zooming in..”  (Anura Bellana, Media Instructor, Canada).

I’ve just finished reading Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey, and what a fine novel it is. Elegantly written, with fine characterisation, and an engrossing story deftly told.(Anthony Frewin, Novelist, UK).

…a natural writing voice, [with] the characters’ voices flowing over one another as effortless as water…. The language is lush and yet not self-conscious, evocative and      … clear.” (Award-winning novelist, on an early draft).

 “…the characters [are] compelling and realistic. The story, too, is very engrossing. Definitely intriguing and moving…a well-woven and well-told story….” (Senior Editor of a Publishing House, on an early draft).