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Nepali storyteller brings Buddhist tale of adventure to Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, 27 August

Wilfrid Laurier University’s Department of Religion and Culture, in collaboration with the University of Toronto’s Ho Centre for Buddhist Studies, presents a retelling of the Avadāna of the Merchant Simhala at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto on Sunday, Aug. 27.

The full announcement about this event from the Wilfrid Laurier University web site reads as follows:

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Nepali storyteller brings Buddhist tale of adventure to ROM in Laurier-organized event

 

It’s an epic tale of adventure involving merchant sailors shipwrecked on an island that’s home to shape-shifting ogresses. It’s also part of a storytelling tradition of major significance to Buddhist scholars as well as to the Nepali and Tibetan communities.

A prominent Buddhist scholar will conduct a retelling of the Avadāna of the Merchant Simhala at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto on Sunday, Aug. 27. It’s an event being organized by Associate Professor Jason Neelis of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Department of Religion and Culture, in collaboration with the University of Toronto’s Ho Centre for Buddhist Studies, to kick off a mini-conference on the past lives of the Buddha.

The storytelling will be performed in English by Professor Naresh Man Bajracharya, vice-chancellor of Lumbini Buddhist University in Nepal. Accompanying the story will be a reproduction of a nine-metre (30-foot) painted scroll from the Kathmandu Valley that illustrates the tale. Parts of the scroll will also be digitally projected onto screens.

The event will take place at the Eaton Theatre Auditorium of the ROM, from 10 a.m. to noon. It should be of interest to a wide audience ranging from children eager to hear an exciting tale of magic and heroism to Buddhist scholars, says Neelis. The version of the tale being told is from the Newar people of Nepal.

Doors open at 9:30 a.m. and the event is free but does not include ROM admission. Attendees wishing to visit the ROM after the event must buy tickets. No pre-registration is necessary and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.

Bajracharya will be introduced by Associate Professor Christoph Emmrich of the University of Toronto and Deepali Dewan, the ROM’s curator of South Asian art and culture. Honorary Consul General of Nepal Kunjar Sharma will also speak briefly. Professor Todd Lewis of College of the Holy Cross (Massachusetts) will speak after the storytelling to put it in context.

In the story, the hero, Simhala-Sarthavahu, is rescued from the island by a horse that is a bodhisattva, destined to be reborn as the Indian prince who came to be known as the Buddha.

Exploring narratives of “Where the Buddha was Previously Born, Seen, and Heard” is the topic of the mini-conference, which will be attended largely by members of the International Association of Buddhist Studies (IABS) following that organization’s XVIIIth Congress at the University of Toronto.

The conference will bring together leading international Buddhist studies scholars and graduate students who will contribute to interdisciplinary academic panels on the transmission and transformation of Buddhist rebirth narratives in texts and art across Asia.

It will also feature a roundtable discussion of the results of a two-year collaborative research project in which art historians and textual specialists have been working on collecting and cataloguing artistic representations and summaries of previous-birth narratives in early Buddhist manuscripts from ancient Gandhāra, situated in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The conference and storytelling event are supported by grants from the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation for Buddhist Studies and from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

For more information, see simhala-sarthavaha.org or contact Jason Neelis.

 

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The Season of Giving

Here in North America it is the holiday season, so I hope this short post finds everyone able to take some time away from work and refocus on spending time as you would like: with family, relaxing, at a retreat, etc.

Since this is also known as the season of giving, I thought I would share with you a very generous gift – Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey by Suwanda Sugunasiri is available for free at this link: https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/handle/1807/33773

The author originally offered this story as his 75th birthday gift to the world, so it is fitting that it be offered to our blog readers during this season of giving. Thank-you Dr. Sugunasiri!

And to you, dear reader, best wishes for a new year filled with 365 days of potential. The year 2015 promises to be very transitional for me, so there will be fewer posts. That said, I look forward to continuing to discover more works of Buddhist fiction and alert you to more great reading opportunities.

Five Things I Liked About UNTOUCHABLE WOMAN’S ODYSSEY

I have been having wonderful email discussions with Dr. Suwanda Sugunasiri about his novel Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey. The story is simultaneously simple and complex, and the characters are well interwoven into each other’s lives so as to be interdependent. Moreover, the novel is genre-blurring and could be classified as post-colonial fiction, Buddhist fiction, mythic fiction, hybrid fiction, the list goes on. And yet the novel is a true chronotope, to use a Bakhtinian term, and works as a world unto itself.

During the course of our conversations, it was playfully suggested that I develop a list of things I liked about Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey. So instead of the usual author interview (because these can be terse), or review (because I don’t want to give away too much of the novel), I’m following his suggestion! I will interweave bits of our conversation and snippets of story from the novel as I go.

Counting back from five, then:

5. Coconuts!

The novel is set in post-colonial Sri Lanka and the author helps set the scenes in the novel with descriptions of streets and sounds, local flora and fauna, the ocean, and with descriptions of food, especially tea, fish and food made with coconuts and a great variety of spices. It all sounds so delicious, but more importantly I am reminded of how food practices are cultural markers and a part of our identity construction.* So I enjoyed the initial character and narrator we meet–Swadesh–who had immigrated to Canada but returned to visit his homeland and his friend Milton. As an expatriate character, Swadesh seemed very happy about the meals he was eating during his visit back home, meals made with fresh local ingredients. Later in the novel, THE untouchable woman of the title, Tangamma, now known as the Buddhist nun Venerable Karuna, is described while eating the single daily meal of a renunciant. She is further described drinking tea out of a coconut bowl later that day. The descriptions of the Ven. Karuna eating and drinking are markedly different from other descriptions of practices surrounding food and drink in the novel; these descriptions are more meditative in tone, and show yet another aspect of food practice that is a cultural marker and part of identity construction, that of a Buddhist nun. This is but one example of the way in which Dr. Sugunasiri’s writing is simple yet complex.

4. Transnational literary influences

Right from the contents page of Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey, it was clear to me that the novelist had many literary influences from the West, from traditional Buddhist literature, and from his homeland. I asked him to comment on his literary influences and whether these were mostly Buddhist.

SS: “Undeniably. As you’ve already noted, some parts of the novel falls back on the Jataka story – present story, past story and linking the two. But as you correctly note, it is not entirely along the Jataka lines. The narrator is not the ‘omniscient one’ but Swadesh, the on the ground Canadian expat who visits his home country after a quarter century.

Another influence that can be seen in the novel is the Beast Fable. This has been taken to be a genre of Hindu/Sanskrit literature, the Pancatantra and Hitopadesa being examples. But my latest research finding is that it is, in fact, the Buddha that is the initiator of the Beast fable genre (see the Appendix in my work Dhamma Aboard Evolution). So there then is another form of Buddhist literature that has guided my hand.

But there may be the inspiration of Sinhala literature itself. I couldn’t help but be impressed by what has been said to be the world’s first blank verse (about 500 of them, 6th to 8th c.), written on the ‘mirror wall’ (a slab of rock with a sheen) of Sigiriya (castle of King Kasyapa). Here’s one of my favourites:

Budal [name] I am.

Came alone.

Everyone writing poetry,

I didn’t!

(see the UNESCO publication Sigiri Graffiti, by Prof. Senarat Paranavitana, and Sigiriya by Canadian Professor Siri Gunasinghe.) And there are, of course, other classical works of Sinhala literature, between the 11th and 15th centuries – both secular but some of religious orientation.”

While there are many cultural and literary influences that can be discerned in the novel, it is writtenl in such as way as to be readable by anyone, from anywhere. When I asked him who he wrote for, who was his audience, Dr. Sugunasiri wrote this:

SS: “Frankly, I wrote the novel for myself. . . The story just came to me. Just as in poetry, when whole lines, or whole verses, even nuances appear on my mind’s screen. Not in all its refined form, for sure, but bits and pieces. Mind you, I enjoy writing. Perhaps I’m not market-savvy, or income-conscious, which is why I thought of the audience only after finishing writing.

It is perhaps when in this frame of mind that it occurred to me that, as it appears on the cover, it was going to be “My 75th year gift to humanity”. So in a literal sense, my audience is all of humanity.

However, it is possible that this wider audience was in my mind in writing the novel. Despite the fact that critics have located my novel, correctly of course, in Sri Lanka, there’s not a name that sounds Sinhala, or Tamil for that matter. I use them in translated form or have adapted them to bring out the flavour of the character. This was to specifically keep the novel from being attached to one or the other ethnically, which would immediately shut out a wide spectrum of readership. So for that reason I made the novel ‘generic’, or rather ‘non-ethnocentric’. The story is one that can take place in any society, at any historical time. In other words, it is generalized, even though, of course, it has to happen in some human society or the other. So the story being located in Sri Lanka should not take away from the generality.

But ‘humanity’ is a vast concept. So there has to be, for pragmatic reasons, a narrowing. So, while it is generally for the English-speaking literary world, including, of course, Sri Lanka, since I have been living in Canada for nearly five decades now, the Canadian reader can be said to be the primary audience. After all, the narrator of the story, Swadesh, is a true blue Canadian!

Of late, I’ve come to think of the younger generation readers as a possible and fruitful target audience. Thanks to colonialism, and other factors, the present generation of students of Sri Lanka seem to know pathetically little of the country, just as in the case of Tangamma. And there’s now a large number of Sri Lanka students going to private English schools in the country, and of course, there are the ones in the diaspora. So I thought they might well benefit from the novel.

Ambassadors may be another interested group of readers. Given that the novel covers a period of over 2500 years, could there be a more enjoyable way of learning about the country without going to history books written by academics?”

As indicated, Dr. Sugunasiri’s novel is not only transnational but is also trans-temporal, bridging 2500 years of history through re-imagined and retold myths and traditional stories. This is, perhaps, why he hopes that in the long term, the novel will be readable “for all people at all times, turning it into a universal classic.”

3. Quotations

Have you ever picked up a book about Buddhism in the “Eastern Religions” section of a bookstore, opened it, read a portion and thought “which sutta (sutra) is this from, because I know it is from a Buddhist sacred text but the author doesn’t provide the reference?!” Such lack of references really rankles me. So imagine my delight when, in a fiction novel, I find well referenced quotations! Each section of the novel begins with a quotation from the Dhammapada, and he even provides the verse number. For example, “Book the First: Growing” bears the quotation:

“Ah, so pleasantly we live/ Without affliction among the afflicted./ Among humans with affliction/ Do we dwell without affliction. – Dhammapada, 198.”

There are many more types of quotations or nods to literary works throughout the novel, and each one is referenced in some way, either directly, through dialogue or narration. And every quotation or reference to a real piece of writing is woven into the storyline so well that the reader experiences the intricate embedding of real events and texts into the fictional story in a seamless way.

2. Language Exploration

In keeping with his goal of writing a novel that has universal themes and appeal, Dr. Sugunasiri explores language in a universal way as well. Not only are names made familiar to English-language readers, but names of individual characters are changed with the character’s transformation. So, for example, Tangamma is the original name of the untouchable woman at the heart of the odyssey, and she is referred to lovingly as Tangi by her husband. Then, when she becomes a Buddhist nun, she takes the name Venerable Karuna. Likewise, Tangamma’s husband and the central character of the story, Milton, changes his name to Milinda with his developing nationalism.

Further exploration into language is plain in the story, since the main theme of the novel is “personal transformation in the context of a changing post-colonial society.” Many of the characters use English, the colonial language, as their means of communication because they have not learned the traditional de-Leonese or de-Andhrese. But the best example of language exploration in the novel is through the character Milton, who made his living as a writer in English and as a literary critic of European works. As Milton transformed into Milinda, he found himself wondering why he never learned Sanskrit or Pali. At one point in the novel, Milton says:

“I can’t live with my conscience any more, Tangi. In my blindness to monkey English, I forgot what my father stood for. Equality of the languages. I pushed back from my memory that he earned unequal pay for equal work only because he did not speak the colonial language. I thought that was the price to pay for progress” (page 219).

Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey is a fine example of how the languages we use to communicate with the world around us are powerful pieces of our identity construction and serve as points of orientation in the many cultural contexts through which we all navigate.

1. Men writing the feminine

I am always impressed when men write in the voice of women, and Dr. Sugunasiri has done just that. He has created a very likeable female character, Tangamma, who goes through many transformations in her life, from an untouchable to a wife and mother, to a student, to a Buddhist nun (Venerable Karuna). In part of our discussion he spoke about the development of this character as a form of Buddhist practice.

SS: “Writing Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey could be said to be, in hindsight, a form of Buddhist practice on my part. It’s a novel, again as noted by critics, that offers Buddhism as a paradigm for peace in society (see Review by Prof Emeritus of English, C. K. Seshadri of Baroda University). Critics have also noted how the heroine Tangamma is a model of peace, and calm (meaning level-headed), though bubbling in life. As sharply observed by a Sinhala woman critic, Tangamma is not the classical unhappy wife seeking freedom from it all. She dons the robes not because she is unhappy with life or with her husband, but because she can see the qualitatively deeper happiness and calm of the higher religious life. In that sense, she’s the model Buddhist woman. And she’s also the wife that has earned the respect of a husband in a Buddhist society. She is as well the caricature case study that speaks to the Buddha’s words, “Not by birth is one an untouchable”. She’s the untouchable pragmatist (using ‘untouchable’ here to mean ‘unstoppable’), untouchable smarty pants, untouchable culture buff, untouchable language learner, untouchable husband-transformer, untouchable self-emancipator. So in many ways, she speaks again to the next line “ … by action alone does one come to be of nobility” (Brahmin).

So I suppose such a character coming to be created by my hands could be called Buddhist practice. For it upholds womanhood, as in the Buddha’s model: ‘mother and father’, and not the other way around. Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey also speaks to the respectable way women are treated – by husbands, family and society, in Buddhist-Sri Lanka . It was no accident, for example, that the world’s first woman Prime Minister was Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike from Sri Lanka.”

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So there you have it – my top five things I enjoyed about Dr. Suwanda Sugunasiri’s novel Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey, a truly “extraordinary first novel” in the words of Professor of English Chelva Kanaganayaka of the University of Toronto [review is here]. If you have a chance to read the story yourself, I would love for you to add to the list! And if you want to read more about the novel, you can read other reviews of Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey posted on my last blog post.

* My friend and colleague Rachel Brown, Ph.D. Candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University, is currently working on a dissertation focused on Maghrebine Muslim transnational food practices. Because of recent discussions with Rachel, I am becoming more aware of the interconnections between food practices and religious experience.

Announcing New Buddhist Fiction – “Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire” by Gabriel Constans

I recently received the email below from Gabriel Constans, author of Buddha’s Wife: A Novel. His most recent work was published in August and it looks to be a welcome, uplifting addition to the growing body of Buddhist fiction short story literature.

“Dear Ms. Beek,

I hope you will let your readers and friends know about this satirical short-story collection Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire. Praise (and remorse) for the stories, from some famous, infamous, real and surreal, individuals follows (below the cover). Thank you for your infinite time and unwavering attention. Look forward to hearing from your most wondrous being.

Peace, love and tie-dye,
Gabriel

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Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba by Gabriel Constans
Fountain Blue Publishing
Published: August 1, 2014

This fictional short-story collection challenges our perceptions and illusions about religious masters, spiritual teachers, gurus, charlatans and holy men and women of all persuasions, while simultaneously tickling our funny bone and exercising the muscles our faces rely on for laughter. Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba takes liberty with questionable material from the living sea, near Egypt; tofu paper, in Okinawa; a tomb, in Italy; a shaman, in Ethiopia; and a half-sister, in India. The words, quotes, koans and stories, of this soon to be classical work, include the timeless insights of Let the Worm’s Go, Dead Food, Reality Bites, Stealing the Buddha, Drip After Drip, Sound of One Eye, Catching Wind, Looking Good, My Cat’s Enlightened, Chocolate Box, and Sex, Drugs and Sushi Rolls.

Praise and Remorse for Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire.

“Enlightenment or laughs? With Gabriel Constans’ book you don’t have to choose. Zen masters usually have a sense of humor, or need one. Gabriel’s got it, and he gives us a world of illusions to laugh about.”
– Bob Fenster, author of Duh: The Stupid History of the Human Race

“This is a blessed book that can be read during the rapture or while burning in hell.”
– Rev. Paat Robertson

“World leaders and politicians could learn a thing or two from the teachings of Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba. She understood and transformed the inspiring, Yes. No. Maybe, into Yes, we can, long before its use in politics.”
– President Ohlama

“Zen Master Tova Tarantiono Toshiba is a splendid collection of wit, women and wine. It reminds me of a night on the town with Mohammad Ali in drag.”
– Lady GaGaGa

“There are no teachings that are outside of you, except the ones inside this book. Unless, of course, you’ve eaten this book.”
– Bob Tzu, guru, avatar, wisdumb teacher at duhism.com

“An incredible onslaught of insight and universal truth – like Yoda on estrogen.”
– George Lucus

“An endearing and soul searching work that reveals hidden treasures of this infamous master and hysterically questionable abbess. My brother loves it.”
– Llama KanChew, Sister of the Dalai Lama

“Gabriel Constans’ divine book about the humble Abbess can be used as a book of prayer, inspiration or before communing with the poor or the filthy rich.”
– Pope Fransis, Bishop of Romen

“For those who are old enough to remember, the original Golden Girls sitcom was based on the real life teachings of that zany grand lady of Zen, Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba.”
– Bettie Whyte, Actress and Comedienne”

Chris Beal is reading BREAKFAST WITH BUDDHA, by Roland Merullo

This novel has been labeled Buddhist fiction by Kimberly French (uuworld.org “Guide to Buddhist Fiction” by Kimberly French, 15 Feb 2010) and Danny Fisher (Rev.DannyFisher “FROM THE MAILBAG: Buddhism in Popular Fiction” by Reverend Danny Fisher, 6 Sep 2008).

Here is the publisher’s description of this novel:

“When his sister tricks him into taking her guru on a trip to their childhood home, Otto Ringling, a confirmed skeptic, is not amused. Six days on the road with an enigmatic holy man who answers every question with a riddle is not what he’d planned. But in an effort to westernize his passenger—and amuse himself—he decides to show the monk some “American fun” along the way. From a chocolate factory in Hershey to a bowling alley in South Bend, from a Cubs game at Wrigley field to his family farm near Bismarck, Otto is given the remarkable opportunity to see his world—and more important, his life—through someone else’s eyes. Gradually, skepticism yields to amazement as he realizes that his companion might just be the real thing.

“In Roland Merullo’s masterful hands, Otto tells his story with all the wonder, bemusement, and wry humor of a man who unwittingly finds what he’s missing in the most unexpected place.”

Stop by here in a couple of weeks for commentary and questions.

HIDDEN BUDDHAS: A NOVEL OF KARMA AND CHAOS, by Liza Dalby. Reviewed by Chris Beal

It is next to impossible to classify HIDDEN BUDDHAS. A mystery but not primarily a mystery, a love story but not primarily a love story, the novel delves into one of the unique aspects of ancient Japanese Buddhism while keeping another foot in contemporary life both in Japan and abroad.

A group of characters, initially strangers, gradually become acquainted, until, by the end, everyone is involved with everyone else in some way. Although told from the point of view of each of the characters at various times – about ten different viewpoints, in all – the switch from viewpoint to viewpoint is seamless. In the summary below, I’ve omitted a few minor characters.

Philip Metcalfe is an American graduate student studying Buddhism at Columbia University when he meets a visiting professor from France who is interested in the “hidden buddhas” of Japan, icons of the esoteric Shingon sect. The icons are at temples scattered throughout Japan and are shown to the public at various times – some once a year, some less frequently. (These icons actually do exist.) Philip goes to Japan, ostensibly to study another subject he’s already signed up to do his dissertation on, but the more he becomes interested in the hidden buddhas, the more he is convinced he wants to study them instead.

A second strand of the story involves Nagiko, a successful, young Japanese clothing designer. She was working in New York but returned to Tokyo when she became pregnant. Back in Japan, she had an abortion but the child she aborted seems to be haunting her. She cannot sleep, hears the child screaming, and feels she is going out of her mind. A friend takes her to a temple in Kamakura where they minister to “water babies” – fetuses that have miscarried or been aborted – by giving them a symbolic burial.

The priest who comforts Nagiko in her grief and guilt, Tokuda, earns most of his livelihood ministering to “water babies” and their mothers, but his real concern is the hidden buddhas. He happens to be the carrier of a secret transmission regarding them. He has the capacity – a kind of sixth sense – to tell whether they are “alive” or “dead.” If they are alive he can hear a kind of buzz coming from them, and he can also feel and see their power. But one by one, the various icons are being killed off by some unknown person or power. As they die, mappo – unenlightened chaos – is supposed to descend on the world, and, when the last one ceases to protect the world, the world will end. Tokuda visits each of the icons during its viewing period, and can tell if one has been killed off since the last viewing.

Meanwhile, at Mount Koya, the center of the Shingon faith, Phillip meets a young priest in training, Koji. Shortly after, on a pilgrimage, he meets Jun Muranaka, a layman living in Tokyo. Later, in Tokyo, he meets Nagiko on a chance encounter at a bookstore and it is love at first sight. The couple become involved and gradually, mostly through Philip, all of the characters’ lives start to intersect.

But Philip has a tragic accident. He doesn’t die right away but he leaves center stage and the other characters begin to play a more prominent role in the story. Meanwhile, Nagiko is pregnant with Philip’s child. As the child, Mayumi, grows up, she becomes very difficult, and Nagiko always wonders if Mayumi is the reincarnation of the “water baby.”

One by one, the hidden buddhas are still being killed off, and Tokuda comes to believe it is his responsibility to stop this from happening. He still goes to all of the viewings to see which remain alive and try to determine the culprit. At one point he views a live icon but when, a few minutes later, he goes back to view it again, it is dead. Who could have killed it in such a short time? The whodunit element of the story becomes more and more prominent, as Tokuda tries to figure it out. Will he discover the culprit before the last buddha is killed off and the world ends?

Readers might want to ponder these questions:

  1. Did your interest flag at all after Philip’s accident? Or were you able to turn your attention easily to the other characters who took center stage, such as Nagiko?
  2. Were you able to buy into the idea that icons can be alive? If not, did this affect your ability to enjoy the story?
  3. Does Tokuda’s fear about the world ending dovetail with what you know about Buddhist theology? How or how not?
  4. Did you find it credible that someone with Tokuda’s acute sensitivity, as shown by his ability to “sense” the aliveness of the hidden buddhas, would jump to the erroneous conclusions he did as to who was killing the buddhas?
  5. Did you figure out who the buddha-killer was before Tokuda? If so, how did you guess?
  6. Did you feel that Tokuda lacked remorse – at least until he realized his error – over his actions against the first person he believed was the buddha-killer? If you felt he lacked empathy with his victim, was his coldblooded attitude justified in light of the goal of protecting the hidden buddhas?

We would love to get readers’ comments about these questions or any other aspect of this novel you found intriguing.

Apologies for My Absence, Gratitude for Your Support

Hello out there in the Buddhist blogosphere. This is a quick post to apologize for the absence of posts for the past two months-ish. I have been conducting fieldwork and preparing a university course that I am currently teaching. Now that the fall semester has started and a new routine is in place, I shall get back to blogging.

More importantly, I wanted to thank those of you who have encouraged me in this blogging venture. Some of you have provided wonderful references and background on other works that can be considered Buddhist fiction as well as some scholarly considerations at the intersection of Buddhism and fiction, while others have even provided information to help me make contact with Buddhist communities for my fieldwork. Thank-you! Your efforts, thoughtfulness, and generosity of spirit are so much appreciated.

And with that, I will save my writing energy for my upcoming post on delineating “fiction.”