Category Archives: Thinking Out Loud

In the Spirit of Giving – MORTAL FRAMES by Aranya Devi

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

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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:

https://aranyadevi.files.wordpress.com/2016/12/mortal-frames-sp.pdf

May freedom and peace be boundless for you during this season and throughout the coming year.

 

Karma and Mystery

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 Darcy LottBuddhism 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. Missing YrsHis 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.

JapanThere 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.

 

 

 

Fiction and History

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.51edF6FZirL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

Dear Buddhist Fiction Blogger . . .

Since starting this blog in 2011, I have received many emails from authors and their agents who would like a book reviewed. This is to be expected for this kind of blog. What I did not expect was the number of authors who ask me for advice. Invariably, the advice requested is of two kinds: to review work to determine if it is Buddhist fiction, or to ask about suitable publishers for their work. At the heart of both of these types of questions is the challenge of categorizing and framing “Buddhist fiction”; there is no category for it in the publishing industry. Most library classification systems work on genre, and there is (as yet) no genre label for Buddhist fiction. I discussed this type of genre labeling in a previous blog post here: Bookstore Signs of the Times

In this post, my aim is to respond to these requests, however, I am very sure I cannot provide decisive advice. You see, for my academic purposes, the category name “Buddhist fiction” is a convenience that allows for the grouping together of a wide variety of popular fiction works across a breadth of sub-genres (mystery, adventure, romance, etc.) that narrate experiences of Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana) in a multiplicity of ways, times and places. For authors of Buddhist fiction, the category label is a challenge on two fronts: 1. Is the novel or short story truly Buddhist and not just a conflation of ideas about karma and/or rebirth and mysticism that is better suited to new religious movements?; and, 2. If it is Buddhist fiction, how does the author pitch the work to publishers who seem to want nothing to do with fiction about Buddhism?

Tackling # 1. Author Liz contacted me recently to let me know that she has already submitted to publishers a present day Buddhist romantic fiction based on a Lotus Sutra quotation.

Joseph McKinley’s soon to be published ebook The Bearer of Grievances will be available on Amazon on 4 April, 2016. He said that while the novel is not exclusively about Buddhism, he uses several Buddhist concepts and characters, including the concepts of dukkha and upadana and characters such as pretas.

Both of these authors have used what I call Buddhist narrative strands and/or tropes in their novels. When a 20th/21st century novel or short story incorporates aspects of Buddhist suttas/sutras, vinayas, abhidhamma/abhidharma, cosmologies, commentaries, philosophies, basic teachings, classic narratives (jatakas or the Journey to the West) or the writing of great Buddhist monks, nuns, or teachers (i.e. Dōgen), it is perpetuating Buddhist narrative strands and/or tropes. This, to me, indicates the inscription of Buddhist ideas and concepts into popular culture and literature. This, to me, is Buddhist fiction. If a novel or short story is not using clear Buddhist narrative strands and/or tropes but uses ideas of karma, reincarnation, or mysticism in a generalized way, I consider the work more in the realm of new religious movements because of the eclecticism of concepts.

Tackling # 2. Whereas I get very excited about Buddhist narrative strands and/or tropes in popular fiction, publishers may not. Author Liz, mentioned above, has not yet had responses to her novel submissions and was wondering if I knew of any publishers amenable to Buddhist fiction. I wish I did, Liz. The Buddhist publishing house Wisdom Publications has tried publishing an assortment of Buddhist fiction works, and rarely do these works do well in sales. They seem to try to publish new Buddhist fiction every decade or so, and the most recent offerings were in 2015 (see posts on Maya and Sid). In fact, it was Wisdom who first published works under the category name of “Buddhist fiction” with short story anthologies Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction (2004) and You Are Not Here and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction (2006). The Buddhist publishing house is pushing the boundaries of the industry.

Author Ellis Nelson recently emailed me after the January 2016 post to plug her own YA Buddhist fiction: Into the Land of Snows (2012). 13542033As you may have guessed from the title, the novel is set in Tibet. According to the blurb, the protagonist goes to the base camp of Mount Everest and then finds himself on a magical adventure. Leaving aside the issue of Orientalism that accompanies many, many stories set in Tibet and that is extended into the marketing of said stories, the blurb for Nelson’s novel on Amazon says nothing about Buddhism. Amazon classifies this novel under “Books > Politics & Social Sciences > Philosophy > Eastern > Buddhism” and “Books > Religion & Spirituality.” Goodreads reviews, however, describe the work as a coming of age story that teaches basic Buddhist principals. Most publishers who think that they are tapped into what readers want will market books set in Tibet based on politics and spirituality, not Buddhism. I can only guess that publishers base projected sales on historical sales data and vague demographics. I wish someone would alert them to the growing demographic of Buddhists in North America, and indeed, in the Anglophile world.

That said, author José Vincent Alfaro emailed to let me know of his Spanish novel that was recently translated into English: The Hope of Tibet. He noted that it had done very well in 51U2jcS8yWL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_the Spanish edition, and I noted that he is an “independent author,” which means that he publishes independently. There is a growing number of independent authors of Buddhist fiction, and some of them seem very comfortable with both digital and print independent publications. I would guess,however, that independent publication takes away a lot of time from writing due to the need for self-marketing. Furthermore, many readers feel that novels and short stories put into print by a publishing company or house are somehow “better” because they have been edited and vetted by professionals in the field of publishing. It’s a catch 22 (see what I did there?).

Author Marsha emailed to ask: “A lot of fantasy publishers are scared off by Buddhist themes because they feel there’s not a huge market for them. Do you have any advice for me?” She realizes that publishers shy away from marketing fiction as Buddhist. Unfortunately, I don’t have any advice about finding a publisher or an agent. I honestly don’t. I’m an academic writer, not a creative writer (as you can probably tell from this blog). The closest I have ever come to publishing creatively was a very encouraging rejection letter from Vallum about a few poems I submitted for one of their themed volumes. When the particular volume was printed, I bought it and noted that one of my favourite contemporary Buddhist poets, Jane Hirshfield, was published therein. I was thrilled to have had my poems read by the same editors that published her poems in that volume. That is my first slight brush with greatness in the world of creative writing.

I mention this brush with greatness not out of any self-aggrandizement, but to bring me to my next, and last, point of this post. I knew who Jane Hirshfield was. Had I wanted to pursue my poetry writing, I would have kept writing and I would have reached out to poets like Hirshfield whom I admire and read. It seems to me what might be helpful is to use this blog, Amazon.com, Good Reads, and other easily accessible resources, to build a community of practice for authors of Buddhist fiction. Reach out to each other – published, not-yet-published, whomever. Read each others’ work and review it. Share information about agents and publishers. Put together panels and seminars at writing conferences and events. Talk to established authors like Ruth Ozeki and Charles Johnson (who, by the way, were established as authors before publishing novels that could fall into the category of Buddhist fiction). Talk about your writing. Talk about your Buddhist practice, or no-practice, since not all authors of Buddhist fiction practice Buddhism. Talk about whether your writing is a form of practice of any sort. Just connect. Good things come from connecting. And that’s the best advice I can give to authors of Buddhist fiction.

  • Thanks go out to my friend Rebecca for listening to my ramblings and reminding me of the importance of a community of practice, which will hopefully benefit the author readers of this blog.

Bookstore Signs of the Times

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.

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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.