Category Archives: Retellings

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.

 

 

Advertisements

SID, by Anita N. Feng (Wisdom, 2015) Reviewed by Chris Beal

Do we live again? Is there reincarnation? Anita D. Feng answers these questions and more in Sid, a lyrical novel that is two tales in one. Or, rather, it is three tales if you count – and you should – the marvelous drawings by illustrator Linda Davidson. Life is just life, whenever and however it is lived, the novel lets us see. The forms change but the essence is the same. And we are that essence.

The structure of the book works to convey this truth. Inhabiting two different eras, that of the historical Buddha and the modern one, the dual cast of characters sport similar names: Siddhartha and Sid; their respective mothers – Mahamaya and Maya; their fathers – King Suddhodana and Professor Sudovsky; their nanny/midwives – Avalokitesvara, bodhisattva of compassion, and her counterpart Ava; and their wives – Yasodhara and Yasmen. Rahula, the son, bears the same name in both stories. There are, in addition, symbolic characters, such as Homeless Woman, identified as “Old Age, Sickness, and Death.” The plots of the two tales are likewise parallel, making it clear that the story of Siddhartha is still happening today.

This is a folktale-like world of archetypes: everything is perfect and then . . . The initial paragraph gives the flavor: “Ask anyone and they will tell you that Kapilavastu is built out of a fragment of sky mixed with a bit of Tusita heaven. The city walls spread thick like clouds of buttery light, and every house within exudes a splendor that even its residents can’t quite believe. Precious stones litter the paths. Precious blossoms embroider the trees. Within the city’s magnificent gates, darkness is as alien as a hungry ghost.” (p. 3)

Or, later, after Siddhartha marries his beloved, we learn that, “their joy creates days, months, and years of perfect weather and bountiful pleasure for all that are blessed to live nearby. . . . Prince Siddhartha never says anything that is not beautiful to Yasodhara’s ears, nor does he see any aspect of his beloved that is not sweet and pleasant to his eyes.” (p. 57) We are, indeed, in the realm of fairy tales.

The book is organized into sections labeled, “Birth,” “Youth,” “Love and Family Life,” “Leaving Home,” Meditation,” “Return,” and “Death.” Each of the sections has a chapter on Siddhartha and one on Sid, and within each section, the story is told from the point of view of a number of characters in turn. And then there is a third section of each chapter: Zen-like drawings by Linda Davidson of animals or other natural scenes, with a short explanation on the opposite page, which together tell the story in still a third, more metaphorical, way. For example, early on we have “Hare,” and his imputed words: “Please do not distract yourselves with the irrelevant argument about what you see. Is it a hare or a man in the moon? Who cares! As for me, I am only grinding the elixir of life into golden dust between my jaws, letting the dust scatter at your feet.” (p.33)

Sid is whimsical, poetic, transcendent, and unique. Its author, Feng, is a Zen master teaching at the Blue Heron Zen Community as well as a poet and sculptor. In Sid, she displays not only her spiritual wisdom but her ability to use her creative skills to reveal that wisdom. I recommend a digital version of Sid if you have that possibility, as the typeface is quite small. But whichever version you read, this book is a gem that may move you to see more clearly how life and enlightenment are inextricably bound together in an eternal web of Truth.

Retellings

In August this Buddhist Fiction Blog was mentioned in the Tricycle Magazine blog post by Sam Mowe entitled “Buddha Buzz: stories, stories, and more stories” (5 August, 2011). http://www.tricycle.com/blog/buddha-buzz-stories-stories-and-more-stories
Mowe wrote about Buddhism in narratives, both personal and literary, and wondered if I would consider Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh’s new novel, The Novice, a work of fiction. I wonder too.

I have been thinking about fiction a lot recently. My main focus in my fieldwork is to ask what is “Buddhist” about particular short works of fiction, but inevitably, questions about the nature of fiction come up. Buddhist sacred texts are filled with many wonderful stories such that, in some Buddhist schools, even jātakas (stories of the Buddha’s former lives) and avadānas (tales of exploits) are considered semi-canonical or even canonical. Jātakas, of course, began as an oral tradition in India, and are related to pan-Indian stories such as those found in the Pañcatantra and the Hitopadeśa, both collections of Indian folktales. Some of my fieldwork participants have expressed the opinion that jātakas are Buddhist fiction. Clearly they are Buddhist, but are they fiction?

The Oxford Dictionary defines fiction as: “n. 1. Prose literature, especially novels, describing imaginary events and people. 2. Invention as opposed to fact. > a false belief or statement, accepted as true because such acceptance is considered expedient.” I think where we start to challenge whether something is a work of fiction or not is at this point of fact and what we believe to be true. For many reasons, we in the west equate facts with truth, and so we are challenged with understanding that fiction is not the opposite of fact or truth, and can contain both in it. Yet, I have had people decline participation in my reader response fieldwork because it focuses on fiction and not sūtras, which contain facts and truth for them.

I think this conundrum can be muddled through if we remember that fiction is not created in a vacuum, but from human contexts, and these contexts often inform readers’ perceptions of authenticity or legitimacy, which act as a vehicle for conveying fact and truth in some way. Perhaps jātakas and avadānas could fall into both categories of Buddhist canonical literature that is also, in form if not in function, fictional. Most folktales and legends are stories that are retold, and the retelling is part of the tradition and authentication of the story. In the tradition of retelling, the kernel of the story remains the same and the shell of it changes to suit the cultural and temporal contexts wherein the story is being retold.

In their text Retelling Stories, Framing Cultures, McCallum and Stephens relate that culture, politics and religions provide traditions and world-views that take the form of metanarrative, “a global or totalizing cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience” (6). Such totalizing narrative schemas are detectable in most traditional stories, such as the story of Moses or Robin Hood, which, when retold, come with: “predetermined horizons of expectation and with their values and ideas about the world already legitimized. In other words, they are always already shaped by some kind of metanarrative, and their status makes them a good site on which to impose metanarratives expressing social values and attitudes prevailing in the time and place of the retelling” (p. 6). So the retelling of a story makes it no less fictional than the first telling of it, and it is the traditional totalizing narrative schema that is sometimes read as non-fiction.

Given all of this information, perhaps Mowe’s suggestion that The Novice could be a work of fiction is reflective of the metanarrative described above, so I will include it in the ever-growing list of Buddhist fiction (to the right of this post, and soon to have a page of its own on this blog). This fits in with my conviction that I do not personally label anything Buddhist fiction – the label must come from someone else, from literati. Having said this, I am grateful for the suggestion and happy to add The Novice to the list, since it is a novel written by such a clearly identifiable Buddhist teacher.

Speaking of retellings, here is a very short list of recent works that are retellings and/or reimaginings based on canonical and semi-canonical texts. I’m sure there are more works that could fall into this “retelling” category, but these are just off the top of my head.

“Buddherotica” by Jeff Wilson.
http://killingthebuddha.com/mag/kamasutra/buddherotica/

This is a very contemporary short story retelling of the Queen Maya’s dream of conceiving the Buddha. A later version of the story was published in the short story anthology Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction, Ed. By Kate Wheeler. Wisdom Publications: Boston, MA, 2004.

The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing: The Second Ancestor of Zen in the West by Ted Biringer.
American Book Publishing: USA, 2009.
http://www.amazon.com/Flatbed-Sutra-Louie-Wing-Ancestor/dp/1589825179/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1316997106&sr=8-1

Amazon.com product description reads: Near death, Louie Wing gathered together his students and friends to impart his final Zen teachings. Hearing that the great master would soon pass on, people came from all walks of faith to hear his final words. The crowd that gathered was too large to fit in any nearby building, so Louie Wing spoke from the flatbed of a truck in a wide field. These teachings came to be called The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing. Through this allegorical character of Louie Wing, author Ted Biringer brings a life and a force to even the most abstract of Zen teachings. Inspired by the Zen classic The Platform Sutra of Hui-Neng, The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing brings an open, modern look at the classic philosophy of Zen. Driven by the belief that anyone can reach enlightenment, this book is made to be accessible for novices and experts alike and includes a glossary, short quotes and stories of Louie Wing, and an additional commentary on the Genjokoan.

The Banyan Deer: A Parable of Courage and Compassion by Rafe Martin (author) and Richard Wehrman (illustrator).
Wisdom Publications: Boston, MA, 2010.
http://www.amazon.com/Banyan-Deer-Parable-Courage-Compassion/dp/0861716256/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1316997431&sr=8-1

This is a retelling of the Banyan deer jataka that has been retold with the agenda of encouraging vegetarianism in the 21st century.

Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment by Deepak Chopra
HarperOne: USA, 2008.
http://www.amazon.com/Buddha-Story-Enlightenment-Deepak-Chopra/dp/0060878819/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1316997719&sr=8-1