Tag Archives: Buddhism

CLASSIC BUDDHIST FICTION He’s Leaving Home: My Young Son Becomes a Zen Monk by Kiyohiro Miura (Charles E. Tuttle, 1988; English translation, 1996) Reviewed by Chris Beal

How do the parents feel when a child decides to become a Zen monk? This is the territory explored in this exquisite little volume, translated from the Japanese by Jeff Shore. Told in first person from the father’s point of view, the story explores the emotional journey a family takes as the son disengages from his birth family and is adopted by the priest at a temple.

One of the many strengths of this novel is the realistic way the father’s ambivalence is explored. He is the one who first takes his son to the temple to do Zen, when he is still in primary school. The boy expresses a childish desire to become a monk, but it is the father who clings to this notion, as well as the woman priest. She is quite a character in her own right, and the father likes her but also becomes suspicious of her motives in wanting to take his son away from him. All of this is complicated by the attitude of the mother. We only know the mother, of course, through the father’s eyes, but as time goes on, she blames her husband more and more for the fact that they are losing their son.

The awkward title reads more simply in Japanese. The original title was Chonan no Shukke, but expressing in English the culturally dependent, complex ideas embodied in this phrase isn’t easy.Shukke” means “to become a Buddhist monk,” but the characters, translated literally, would mean “home-leaving.” Thus, both the title and subtitle express aspects of the meaning of this word. “Chonan,” too, carries cultural meaning. Literally it means, not “young son,” but “eldest son.” In Japan, of course, the eldest son is the one who carries the family line. In Miura’s story, while there is a younger daughter, there are no other sons, and therefore, no other heirs to the family name. This issue isn’t explicitly explored in the text, but a Japanese reader would, of course, understand the gravity of the situation.

In the West, Zen is not even considered a religion by some of its practitioners, and certainly it isn’t part of our cultural tradition. So probably the most analogous situation for readers in English-speaking countries would be when a Catholic child decides to become a monk or nun. Parents’ attachment to their children is, after all, universal. But the Buddhist emphasis on detachment makes the story all the more poignant. The priest, in fact, tells the father that the loss of his son is his koan (a riddle Zen practitioners are given to advance their spiritual understanding).

It would be an unforgivable omission not to mention one of the facets of the book that makes it so charming: the fanciful illustrations by J.C. Brown. The drawings in themselves tell the story of the boy’s maturation and coming to terms with a monk’s life.

Miura spent time in the United States when he was young, receiving a degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa. Perhaps the insight he gained from living in the West explains, at least in part, why this book has such appeal to English language readers.

In Japan, Chonan no Shukke received the Akutagawa Prize, an esteemed award for fiction. This book deserves to be a classic of Buddhist fiction in its English translation as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BUDDHALAND BROOKLYN, by Richard C. Morais, Reviewed by Chris Beal

The still-developing genre of Buddhist fiction remains loosely defined. But when a novel’s main characters are all Buddhists, most of them grappling with some aspect of their faith and practice, such a book obviously meets the definition.  Such is the case with Buddhaland Brooklyn (Scribner, 2012).

Aside from the criteria specific to the “Buddhist Fiction” categorization, I want a novel generally to give me well-developed characters, richly defined settings that reflect what the author is trying to convey, and a story that keeps me engaged. At the same time, I’m hoping that the work will move me or make me ponder rather than try to convince me of some idea. (We have nonfiction forms for the latter.)

In all of these respects, Buddhaland Brooklyn succeeds. And while the story is, in a narrow sense, about the intersection of Buddhist belief and practice with lived reality, it has much broader implications: a Catholic priest thrown into another culture, for example, may face challenges similar to those faced by the Japanese Buddhist priest in Morais’ tale. Indeed, anyone coming into an unfamiliar setting with an agenda will find himself or herself so challenged.

The narrator of the novel is Seido Oda, a priest of the fictitious Japanese Headwater Sect of Buddhism. He begins the story with his childhood in a small mountain town, where his family owns an inn that primarily caters to pilgrims to the Headwater Sect temple nearby. Although his brother longs to become a monk while Seido himself feels no calling, he, in fact, is the sibling inexplicably given over to the temple while still a young boy. But not long after he leaves home, a tragedy befalls the family and Seido silently carries the guilt about what happened in his absence into adulthood.

Seido Oda becomes a quiet but stubborn priest who specializes in teaching art and has found his niche at the temple while going out of his way to avoid any surprises in life. But when his superior tells him he must go to Brooklyn to help the believers there build a temple, he is incredulous. Surely there is someone better for this task! No, his superior insists, there is no one else.

Oda’s first months in New York are chaotic and, for him, distressing. He can’t stand the Americans and thinks they practice their faith lazily and without understanding. He insists that he must teach them the proper forms in word and deed – “proper” being defined in terms of how things are done in Japan. In one scene, he converses with a New York Headwater believer who conducts a series of lectures on Buddhism:

“’And the lectures are based on what study material?’

‘Ton of books. The Reader’s Digest Encyclopedia of Religion, Tales of Siddhartha, Buddhism for Dummies. The list goes on and on.’

Buddhism for Dummies? I am not familiar. . . .’

‘Don’t let the title deceive you. Heavier than it sounds. Excellent text.’. . .

‘I see . . . . very interesting choice of doctrinal material.’. . .

‘The Believers here know all about karma. All about it. I spent three sessions explaining the concept.’

‘This is very efficient. In Japan we believe it takes a lifetime to understand karma. At deep level.’

‘Yeah, well, you’ll find things go a lot quicker in America.’” (pp. 86-87; ellipses added).

The Brooklyn setting, too, is keenly observed, with all of its abundant chaos. But as Oda changes, the way he sees Brooklyn changes as well, reflecting the key theme of the novel – that we make our own reality.

Here are some questions readers may wish to ponder:

How is Oda’s experience as a child and a young man in Japan a set-up for what happens later, in America?

Do you think Oda’s superiors sent him to Brooklyn because they knew what he needed?

Do you think a Buddhist priest coming to America for the first time would experience Americans the way Oda experiences them? How much is the way Oda experiences the United States a product of his unique personality and how much is common to the Japanese character?

Because the story is told in first person, the language the Oda character uses to describe his experiences is very important in conveying his inner world and how it changes. Do you think Morais succeeds in conveying these changes?

Although it is extremely unlikely that a Japanese who has never lived in any English-speaking country would understand the idiomatic slang with which Oda is confronted when he lands in New York, it would not be funny to have the character constantly saying, “Sorry, I don’t understand.” Is artistic license justified here for the sake of some good laughs?

If you are American – and especially if you are a New Yorker – were you insulted by the stereotypes in the book? Do you think they were accurate? Do you think Morais can get away with this because he himself is American?

Although Morais avers in his Acknowledgements that the Headwater Sect of Buddhism is fictitious and based on a variety of sources, some not even Buddhist, he also says in at least one interview that astute readers will notice similarities to Nichiren Buddhism (and points out that many already have). In what ways does Morais capture the essence of Nichiren’s teachings? Are there ways in which he doesn’t? Based on your experiences of Buddhism in general, does Morais get the doctrine right?

How does the language Morais uses to describe Oda’s inner experience convey the changes he goes through?

Do the numerous haiku in the story enhance it? If so, how?

We love to get comments! Let us hear your impressions of this book.

Announcing New(ish) Buddhist Fiction – BUDDHALAND BROOKLYN by Richard C. Morais

Buddhaland Brooklyn by Richard C. Morais was published by Scribner in December, 2013. The novel is modelled on nostalgic fictional memoirs that condense a lifetime into a symbolic year. And so is told the story of curmudgeonly, repressed Buddhist monk Reverend Seido Oda whose Japanese superiors send him to an Italian neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York, to build a temple. By all accounts, and reviews, Morais’ novel is a wonderful story that is worth reading and savouring.

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.

Chis Beal is reading HIDDEN BUDDHAS: A NOVEL OF KARMA AND CHAOS

HIDDEN BUDDHAS: A NOVEL OF KARMA AND CHAOS, by Liza Dalby, was published by Stone Bridge Press (2009).  Here is the publisher’s description:

According to Buddhist theology, the world is suffering through a final corrupt era called mappô. As mappô continues, chaos will increase until the center can no longer hold. Then the world will end.

From this ancient notion of doom and rebirth comes a startling new novel by the acclaimed author of Geisha and The Tale of Murasaki. Hundreds of temples in Japan are known to keep mysterious “hidden buddhas” secreted away except on rare designated viewing days. These statues are not hidden because they are powerful—their power lies in their being hidden. Are they being protected, or are they protecting the world?

In this novel, one Buddhist priest struggles with the dictates of his inherited orthodoxy, while another rebels. An American graduate student begins to suspect the mysterious purpose of the hidden buddhas, just as he falls in love with a beautiful Japanese artist who is haunted by an aborted child. The weaving of karma that brings these two together results in a tech-savvy half-Western, half-Japanese child who text-messages her way through the profane world to enlightenment.

Tracing the lives of its characters through the late twentieth century to the present, from Paris to Kyoto to California, Hidden Buddhas turns a cosmopolitan eye on discipline and decadence in religion, fashion, politics, and modern life.

Please check back in a couple of weeks for discussion and questions.

Retellings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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