Category Archives: Thinking Out Loud

Stranger than Fiction: Rereading THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT by Kim Stanley Robinson

Rice and SaltIt’s been a year since I’ve posted here. A long year. A year of journeys and joys, a year of surprises and sorrows. And now we are at the intersection of a time and place that seems stranger than fiction. Except I feel like I have read a similar story . . .

During this unprecedented global pandemic that has inaugurated our new decade of 2020, I have been drawn to reread Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, The Years of Rice and Salt (2002). Robinson’s novel presents his reader with an alternative history: what would our world look like if over 90% of Europeans had died during the 7th century onslaught of the Bubonic Plague? In this surreal science fiction novel, he posits that Chinese Buddhism and Islam would fill the power void which in our reality was held by Europe and Christianity.

The novel is organized in ten “Books” that span more than twelve hundred years, from the 7th century to the turn of the 21st century. The storyline is linked together by rebirths of characters, and reborn characters are identified by the same first letter of their name in each successive book. The iconic character Monkey from the vernacular Chinese novel Journey to the West (16th century, Ming Dynasty) is the progenitor of this rebirth pedigree chart. This first chapter, especially, reads as if it is a post-modern continuation of author Wu Cheng’en’s fictional (quasi-historical?) retelling of the pilgrimage of the real monk Xuanzang’s journey from China to India in search of Buddhist texts. In the novel Journey to the West, the protagonist Tripitika goes on a journey with his disciples – including the character Sun Wu-kong the Monkey – from China to India in search of Buddhist teachings (sūtras) to propagate in the East upon their return. Sun Wu-kong (Monkey) translates to “awake to emptiness.” Robinson begins his novel with “Book 1: Awake to Emptiness” thusly:

“Monkey never dies. He keeps coming back to help us in times of trouble, just as he helped Tripitika through the dangers of the first journey to the west, to bring Buddhism back from India to China.     Now he had taken on the form of a small Mongol named Bold Bardash, horseman in the army of Temur the Lame.”

The character Bold (Monkey) in The Years of Rice and Salt is a true rebirth of the character Monkey from Journey to the West. The name choice Bold Bardash is significant in this iteration of Monkey’s story, but I will leave it to your reading of the novel to come up with your own interpretation. For now, I wish to point out the meta-nature of Robinson’s science fiction. The real monk Xuanzang, whose pilgrimage from China to India and back inspired Journey to the West, brought back many texts from India and translated them from Sanskrit into Chinese over decades of work. The most famous of these texts is the Heart Sūtra (short for The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra). And in the fictional pilgrimage of Journey to the West, the Heart Sūtra is given to Tripitika and Monkey as a companion and guide for their journey. So it is not surprising when the character Bold (Monkey), in Book 1 of The Years of Rice and Salt, invokes the Heart Sūtra to help him through the shock and trauma of a dark discovery. While out on a reconnaissance mission to the west, Bold and his troop come across “a black silent city. No lights, no voices; only the wind.”

“It was different to come on a town where there had been no battle, and find everyone there already dead. Long dead; bodies dried; in the dusk and moonlight they could see the gleam of exposed bones, scattered by wolves and crows. Bold repeated the Heart Sūtra to himself. “Form is emptiness, emptiness form. Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond. O, what an Awakening! All hail!”

Bold (Monkey) has known the sūtra for many lifetimes, and in this scene uses it to try and comprehend the sheer void of life created by the plague he encountered. This is another reason why the chapter is entitled “Awakening to Emptiness.” Bold awakens to the emptiness caused by a plague that killed over 90% of the population of people in Europe. His journey to “the West” in this rebirth is potentially lethal. During the ride back to the military camp from the plagued towns and cities, Bold conjectures whether he will die of the plague.

“Plague had struck in India a few years before. Mongols rarely caught it, only a baby now and then. Turks and Indians were more susceptible, and of course Temur had all kinds in his army, Persians, Turks, Mongols, Tibetans, Indians, Tajiks, Arabs, Georgians. Plague could kill them, any of them, or all of them.”

It was at this point in my rereading that this fictional story seemed all too real. How many times in the early days of the current pandemic did I think, nonchalantly, the novel corona virus would be like SARS or MERS and never make a journey to the west. But we are such a small world now. And how many people have we heard comment that, even as the virus traveled the globe and reached pandemic proportions, they may be somehow immune? Bold was not immune to the effects of the plague in his story. While he did not catch it and die from it, he suffered the aftermath of decimated populations. Right now, if we are lucky, we are Bold (Monkey). And yet he suffered greatly.

While returning eastward to Temur’s camp, the plague followed Bold and his fellows. Robinson describes it in the form of an enormous wall of cloud that “reared up the western half of the sky. Like Kali’s black blanket pulling over them, The Goddess of Death chasing them out of her land.”

Robinson deftly characterizes the plague as Kāli, a Mahavidya (Tantric goddess of great wisdom), a Vajrayogini (literally, diamond female yogi, a female Buddhist deity), and always the fearsome Kālikā, a Shakti goddess of chaos and creation. I can think of no better personification. COVID-19 has certainly caused death and chaos across the world. And I wonder how our world will look in the aftermath. Will we learn anything? Will we take the opportunity to resume life in a more thoughtful way? Will we be better humans? Will we change negative patterns, not just individually but as whole societies?

Now, as the days become fluid, imperceptibly rolling into and out of each other, everything seems like a science fiction novel. Watching the pandemic proliferate from a shelter-in-place, socially distanced perch seems too surreal. But it’s all too real. So many are suffering from the pandemic’s path of destruction that this seems like the perfect time for a story that invokes the Heart Sūtra as a balm to the chaos of Kāli. As I pause to marvel at how Robinson’s ingenious, interdiscursive transmission of Buddhism across global social imaginaries is an all too appropriate science fiction novel for our times, I too invoke the phrase: “Gate Gate Pāragate Pārasamgate Bodhi Svāhā!” and pray:

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May all beings rejoice in the well-being of others.
May all beings live in peace, free from greed and hatred. (Metta Sutta)

And to this I would add, for our unprecedented times, may all beings be safe.

 

* All novel excerpts are from Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Years of Rice and Salt: A Novel. Reprint edition. Spectra, 2003.

 

Can Loving Kindness Make for a Dramatic Plot?

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. 

Thinking About Buddhist Fiction in Light of Cultural Appropriation

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.

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

screen-shot-2016-12-16-at-6-13-51-pm

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.