Just yesterday I was thinking about fiction and how, no matter the fictional sub-genre, each narrative requires drama to build the plot. Even romance novels, I reasoned, have a good deal of emotional drama, and suddenly I wondered, is there a Buddhist fiction novel about loving kindness? The Buddhist concept of loving kindness is not necessarily emotionally dramatic.
That’s when I remembered Thích Nhất Hạnh’s first novel, The Novice: A Story of True Love (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011). It is a retelling of the Thị Kính (or Quan Âm Thị Kính) legend in Vietnam. In China, Thị Kính is known as Guan Yin, the embodiment of compassionate lovingkindness and mercy. The Vietnamese legend of Thị Kính is beautifully tragic. Broadly outlined, the story goes that as a beautiful young woman newly married against her will, Thị Kính is falsely accused of murdering her husband. To survive the accusations, she poses as a male and joins a Buddhist monastic community, only to be falsely accused of impregnating a young local girl. Upon being forced to flee the temple, she finds the abandoned baby and decides to care for it. Thị Kính becomes a beggar to support herself and the child but dies of hardship. After her death, her true identity as a bodhisattva is revealed.
The Vietnamese legend of Thị Kính is so dramatic that is has been made into a Western-style opera. (If opera isn’t dramatic, I don’t know what is!) So the emotional sensation is built-in for Thích Nhất Hạnh’s first attempt at fiction. I’ve read the novel and various reviews on Amazon and Good Reads. Like many other people, I found the story compelling but Thích Nhất Hạnh’s prose somewhat preachy, as if he couldn’t quite shed the voice of his non-fiction work. Some parts of this story are originally found in sacred Buddhist texts, other parts in traditional miracle tales, and of course wherever Guan Yin has traveled, there are localized legends, so there are actually many genres and centuries of tales that could inform this version. It must be challenging to shift voices for genres and times. Thích Nhất Hạnh retells this story with the purpose of passing on Buddhist wisdom, which is clear from the first pages. If you have read this novel (or are now interested in reading it), let me know your thoughts on the narrative.
I recently returned from the 2018 American Academy of Religion Conference, held this year in Denver, Colorado, where I indulged in the reverie of scholarly friendships and meet and greets and conference paper panels and receptions in the mile high city. My agenda revolved around attending the Buddhism in the West Unit sessions, which made a big impact on me this year. In particular, the co-sponsored Buddhism in the West Unit and Buddhist Critical-Constructive Reflection Unit sessional theme “From Rape Texts to Bro Buddhism: Critical Canonical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Sexual Abuse Scandals in Western Buddhism” made me aware of the role and strength of identity politics in the formation of Buddhist identities in the West.
I took many notes from the AAR sessions I attended and when I got home, I began to research. As I went down the internet rabbit-hole in an attempt to understand the contemporary concept of meaningful consent, I came across an article by staff writer Barbara who wrote the article “Meaningful Consent and the Meaning of Consent in Game of Thrones” (21 April 2016) for the Fandomentals website (https://www.thefandomentals.com/meaningful-consent-and-the-meaning-of-consent-in-game-of-thrones/). While discussing meaningful consent, cultural contexts and fiction, Barbara writes:
Just as I believe reading good fiction makes us better at empathy (and not just me, a bunch of scientists think so too), I also believe it can make it easier for us to understand a different cultural setting, a different set of values. It doesn’t mean we have to agree or accept those values, but learning to understand where another person comes from is, I think, the necessary basis for any kind of intercultural or interreligious dialogue.
I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. But then I began to think about cultural appropriation. There is another side to this sentiment about intercultural or interreligious dialogue in fiction, a side that critiques.
Recently many authors whose intent it was to understand and/or give voice to minority groups have been accused of cultural appropriation. According to Katherine Cowdrey in her 2017 article “Authors fear accusations of cultural appropriation, forum hears“, authors of English language fiction everywhere are being cautious, or not publishing works at all, for fear of being accused of cultural appropriation, especially after novels like Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (2009), which spent 100 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, was knocked off its pedestal with accusations of cultural appropriation by very respected minority groups. So what do we make of non-Asian writers, and/or non-Buddhist writers, who write at the intersection of Buddhism and fiction, many of whom write Asian protagonists or minority secondary characters? Even though I am sure their intentions are only good, how do authors voice experiences of the other without offending? Should they even try? How do we as readers know when fiction has crossed the line into cultural appropriation? Is Buddhist fiction inherently misrepresentation if it is written by a Caucasian non-Buddhist? Or does it create a space for and present an opportunity for dialogue about cultural appropriation and cultural sharing?
I don’t have any clear answers at this time. If you do, I’d really like to hear from you.
It is that time of year in the West when many thoughts turn to holidays and gift giving. In the spirit of giving, I have something very special to share with you.
Last month I received an email from Aranya Devi. She is an incredibly talented artist and itinerant Buddhist nun. Her approach to her practice is unique in the way she experiments with presence alongside having a voice. You can learn more at her blog, Boundless: aranyadevi.wordpress.com
Ayya Aranya contacted me to let me know about an art book she created and wanted to share. Her creation, entitled Mortal Frames, is an imaginative pictorial and poetic narrative that voices her ontological experience to amplify aspects of the human condition. Granted, art books may not fall into the category of Buddhist fiction, but I can think of no better time or place to share her compelling work than right here and right now. Please click on this link to experience Mortal Frames:
May freedom and peace be boundless for you during this season and throughout the coming year.
I have noticed in my tracking of Buddhism and fiction that mysteries and Buddhism go well together; mystery novels with Buddhist themes and worldviews abound. Recently I was reading an interview of fiction author Susan Dunlap. The interview is entitled “Fiction is a lie that illuminates the path to compassion” (by Andrea Miller, Lion’s Roar [formerly Shambhala Sun] June 27, 2012) and in it Dunlap explains how all of her works are infused with Buddhism, how her work is Buddhist fiction. Dunlap is a mystery writer and while her Darcy Lott Mystery series reveals Buddhism most overtly, she maintains that Buddhism is behind all her writing because it is part of her worldview and she is “constantly weaving dharma into [her] stories.” Perhaps this is why Dunlap suggests that mysteries are a “succinct reflection of the Buddhist concept of karma,” because for a mystery to work, the victim of the mystery has “done something to set in motion the wheel of karma in their lives.” Further, Dunlap says that the detective who is trying to solve the mystery is looking for what is real. Isn’t this what the Buddha was doing under the bodhi tree?
Given this relationship between karma and mystery, readers of Buddhist fiction may not be surprised at the suggestion that the ultimate detective, Sherlock Holmes, acquired his best training during “the missing years.” In Arthur Conan Doyle’s work The Adventure of the Empty House, Holmes explains to Watson that after his plunge over the Reichenbach Fall with Moriarty: “I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa and spending some days with the head Llama. You may have read of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend” (Arthur Conan Doyle. The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Knickerbocker Classics). New York, NY: Race Point Publishing, 2013, p. 610).
Author Jamyang Norbu attempts to fill in the two year gap with Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years (2001, earlier published as The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, 1999). Norbu is a Tibetan political activist and writer. He lived in India as a Tibetan-in-exile for over 40 years before moving to the United States. His Sherlock Holmes pastiche begins on the front flap of the book duster, where the publisher informs the reader that Jamyang Norbu merely discovered the story, carefully wrapped in a rusting box. When he opened the box he was greeted with an account of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures from India to Tibet as described by none other than Huree Chunder Mookerjee, the fictional spy who worked for t he English in Kim by Rudyard Kipling. Mookerjee travels with Holmes as he is subsumed into the “Great Game” and then onward to further Tibetan adventures. Apparently the novel suggests that Holmes’ already exceptional powers of observation were heightened and improved by what he learned about Buddhism from his time in Tibet and with the Lama.
There is also a current series of pastiches based on Holmes’ “great hiatus”. Bangalore author Vasudev Murthy has thus far written two books as part of his Sherlock Holmes, The Missing Years series: Japan (2015) and Timbuktu (2016). According to the Amazon blurb, Japan includes monks as characters, but I am unsure if Murthy’s narratives intersect with Buddhism to any extent.
I haven’t read any of these Sherlock Holmes pastiches but would like to hear from anyone who has. I would like to know if the world’s most iconic fiction detective honed his skills through knowledge of Buddhism or any form of Buddhist practice. If so, how do the “missing years” align Buddhist practices of awareness and mindfulness with Holmes’ powers of scientific observation? Drop me a line and let me know.
Often when I’m reading Buddhist fiction, or any fiction, really, I find I take note of the history woven into the narrative. Fiction always bears historical markers. Lately I’ve been working on a paper about Buddhism in popular fiction and how certain works could be used to help fill in historical gaps. For example, while there are many ethnographic and historical texts that narrate portions of the history of Buddhism in Canada, a comprehensive history has yet to be written. There is for Buddhism in Canada, as far as I know, nothing like Rick Field’s How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. I contend that fictional narratives can help toward compiling a history of Buddhism in Canada. Fiction relates history in a rich way, capturing the “emotional traces”* of lived experiences in a narrative form that is engaging but is sometimes sidelined by the political and colonial concerns of historians.
Since narrative history is akin to good storytelling, it is by far my favourite type of history to read. So you can imagine how happy I am to report that the Canadian Museum of History, in partnership with the University of Ottawa Press, just published a new text in their Mercury Series entitled Choosing Buddhism: The Life Stories of Eight Canadians. This work by Mauro Peressini helps fill in some of the many gaps in the history of Buddhism in Canada. Here’s the blurb:
“This book presents the life stories of eight Canadians who chose to convert to Buddhism. They were amongst the first Canadians to have chosen Buddhism, encountering this spirituality between the late 1960s and the 1980s. All became ordained or lay Buddhist teachers, having embraced Buddhist teachings and practices in their daily lives. The eight Canadians featured in the book are Ajahn Viradhammo, Jim Bedard, Albert Low, Taigen Henderson, Zengetsu Myokyo, Louise Cormier, Kelsang Drenpa and Tsultrim Palmo. The book is heavily illustrated and addresses the Buddhist traditions of Theravada, Zen and Tibetan Vajrayana. The book also includes significant contextual material regarding the history of Buddhism in Canada and various Buddhist notions and practices.”
You can order the book on Amazon.ca or here: https://www.historymuseum.ca/boutique/product/choosing-buddhism-the-life-stories-of-eight-canadians/
If you have any thoughts about the connections between fiction, history, and Buddhism, please feel free to comment. Or maybe just see what you notice the next time you’re reading a work of Buddhist fiction. Even works of science fiction and fantasy have historical markers, because nothing is written in a vacuum.
* The concept of emotional traces in fiction is taken from Laurie J. Sears’ book Situated Testimonies: Dread and Enchantment in an Indonesian Literary Archive. University of Hawaii Press, 2013.
Every once in a while, just for fun, I go to Amazon.com and search under the term “Buddhist fiction.” I am always pleasantly surprised to see novels and short story anthologies that I already know of amidst works that I have not seen before. Last year I walked into a large bookstore and saw an entire table piled high with copies of Ruth Ozeki’s Booker Prize short-listed novel A Tale for the Time Being. I actually jumped up and down, smiling and clapping (really, I did – I have a witness to prove it and thankfully she understood my scholarly glee and was not at all embarrassed by my outburst). That experience made me wonder how I might react if I walked into a national chain bookstore and saw a row or section of books under a “Buddhist Fiction” sign. For I now see Christian Fiction sections in bookstores on a regular basis.
These two photos were taken this past summer in two different bookstores. The photo on the left was taken at a Chapters store in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, and the photo below was taken at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Minnesota. As you can see, they are both photos of bookstore sections categorized as Christian fiction.
I haven’t gone loopy – I know this blog is about Buddhist fiction, but there are no library or bookstore categories for Buddhist fiction. Yet. As far as I can find, there were no library or bookstore categories for Christian fiction until roughly a decade ago (or maybe fifteen years ago for libraries), even though Christian fiction broke into the publishing market in a big way in the 1980s with romance novels in the same formula fiction format as Harlequin Romance novels. This sub-genre would be followed up in the mid-1990s with the immense popularity of Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye’s dispensationalist Left Behind series.
In an article on Christian fiction entitled “No Longer Left Behind: Amazon.com, Reader-Response, and the Changing Fortunes of the Christian Novel in America”, Paul Gutjahr talks about the size and vibrancy of twentieth-century American Protestant publishing. He describes Christian novels as works “explicitly populated with Christian characters who partake in edifying narratives bent on espousing orthodox Christian doctrine and encouraging a Christ-like ethic of behaviour” and infers that the popularity of these novels grew with the sale of Christian books in general. Gutjahr asserts these sales reached a whopping 14 percent share of the country’s publishing industry in 1996. Perhaps this share is still growing in the twenty-first century. At the very least, there is evidence that the sub-genre of Christian fiction is growing and developing as well. Just search Amazon.com for Amish fiction as proof.
So I wonder, as Buddhism becomes more and more mainstream in North America, when might we see a section labeled Buddhist Fiction in national chain bookstores? Time will tell. It always does.
* Paul C. Gutjahr. “No Longer Left Behind: Amazon.com, Reader-Response, and the Changing Fortunes of the Christian Novel in America” in Book History, Vol. 5 (2002), pp. 209-236.