Ken Mitchell’s Stones of the Dalai Lama is the first novel by a Canadian author to be reviewed on this blog. I took creative writing classes with Mr. Mitchell ‘back in the day’ and I currently live in the same city on the Canadian prairie where he was born, raised, and still continues to write, produce, act, and positively impact the cultural vitality of the community and province. Having said all of this, I will try to remain as objective as humanly possible for this ‘review’ which is not so much a literary critique as an attempt to answer the question “what is Buddhist about this piece of fiction?”
The novel Stones of the Dalai Lama takes us on journeys both geographical and metaphorical as the protagonist, struggling literature Professor Bob Harlow, treks back through China and Tibet in order to return some mani stones that he lifted from a Tibetan Place of the Dead. The novel is mostly set in the China and Tibet of the late 1980s at a time when China still has a tight hold on tourism and foreign visits, most especially around Lhasa. None of this dissuades Bob, whose perseverance through this journey is fueled by his belief that he is cursed for having taken the mani stones, a belief nurtured by traumatic events that occurred when he took the mani stones home to the U.S. The journeys truly begin with Bob’s belief that the only way to lift the curse is to return the mani stones to their rightful place. Bob’s somewhat out-of-place side kick on this journey is a foul-mouthed Canadian mechanic named Vern Cugnet who provides some comic relief and is used almost as a plot device to further expand opportunities for teaching readers about Tibetan Buddhism. The stand-out characters, for me, are the Tibetan Buddhist characters, including a ‘cameo’ appearance by the Dalai Lama. Based on interviews with Mr. Mitchell that I have done for my dissertation project, I happen to know that the dialogue spoken by the Dalai Lama in this novel is real and taken from a hard-earned meeting with His Holiness that the author sought during the writing process for this work. So in this fiction novel we have a real person represented as his ‘real’ character, and according to Mr. Mitchell, the words spoken by the Dalai Lama in the novel were recorded from their meeting.
Knowing that Mr. Mitchell is also a playwright and actor, I can’t help but wonder if he took on the persona of Professor Harlow for his real life meeting with the Dalai Lama, especially after reading the representation of it in the novel. In Book 2, Chapter 5 we see the list of questions that Professor Harlow has written out for his meeting with the Dalai Lama, and the first one is: “Is it contrary to Buddhist Laws to remove mani stones from a mound at a Place of the Dead, and how is the perpetrator punished?” (p. 165). At this point in the novel, Bob is looking for some sort of Western religious-like absolution from the curse he feels he is under, and who better to ask than the spiritual guide of the Tibetan people? During their conversation, the Dalai Lama responds as follows: “You’ve broken no Buddhist law. So there is no punishment, in the legal sense. You are merely a victim of your own karma” (p.166). Bob presses the issue further and His Holiness states: “Professor Harlow, in themselves the stones are insignificant. That is your dilemma, of course. You took them because you saw them as significant things, relics – but these inanimate objects could not inflict the injury you feel. If is your own wounded karma you must treat . . . In each of our lives we know joy and pain – in degrees determined by our good and evil deeds in the life before. And we modify the degree of the actions of our present life. This is the Law of Karma. Beings move up or down in the worldly realms, for example, from animal to human life and back. If they reach the highest levels of virtue and enlightenment, they will achieve Nirvana, when they cease to travel the cycles of rebirth. The highest of all – the perfection of enlightenment—is, of course, Buddhahood. . . . I am explaining the principles of karma to show you the need for perpetual love. All living creatures, in the course of their innumerable lives, are our beloved parents, children, brothers, sisters, friends—and as such, claim respect. So if you abuse the memory of one of these ancestors with your silly thievery, you must feel the guilt at a very deep level of your being—that is your karma. You carry this burden of stones to lighten what you would call your soul. . . . There is no curse, Professor, except your own” (p. 166 – 167). Bob learns from the Dalai Lama that the mani stones are not cursed and decides to continue on with the journey to return the stones as a way to learn more about the Law of Karma and perhaps undo his own karmic jumble, if only a little.
In this scene is a teaching directly from the Dalai Lama on the Law of Karma, which is somewhat unusual but fortuitous in a fiction novel. The teachings continue at the end of this particular chapter where, typed out in the manner of a textbook and appearing quite abruptly and separate from the plot line, there is a listing of the Eightfold Path described as Ways of Seeing, Ways of Acting and Ways of Thinking (pp. 172 – 173). The voice used in this listing, the choice of diction and the manner in which each of the ‘ways’ is described leads me to think that this is Bob Harlow starting to apply what he has just learned from the Dalai Lama. In fact, later toward the end of the novel, the Westerners’ journey to the Place of the Dead is referred to as the eightfold path. Whatever the case may be, the teachings of Buddhism depicted in Stones of the Dalai Lama are clearly not those of a practiced Buddhist but those of someone who sympathizes with Tibetan Buddhism, which aptly describes Mr. Mitchell’s experiences of and with Tibetan Buddhism.
I think it is safe to say that there are intended and unintended ‘dharma teachings’ in this novel. The above mentioned information is intended. Another example of intended dharma comes at the end of chapter six and into chapter seven when the two Westerners, Professor Bob and Vern, are looking for a place to hunker down for the evening and one of their Tibetan guides, Dyugrab, suggests the cave of Mila-Repa. On the way to the cave, hiking in the dark and through the Tibetan terrain, Dyugrab tells the story of Mila-Repa or Mila the Cotton-clad. Dyugrab’s story and the chapter finish with a rendition of “the death song, which every Tibetan knows by heart” (p. 200). I appreciate the fact that Mitchell has written a novel that weaves in teachings of Tibetan Buddhism through plot opportunities, but what I appreciate even more are the unintended teachings in the novel which I think of as lessons from landscape.
When I first read this novel many years ago I was struck by the descriptions of landscape and the use of it to drive the plot. Of course the premise of the whole novel is based on the displacement of pieces of landscape or stones, as if to suggest that Tibetan Buddhism is both transported and displaced from East to West. The symbolism of caves in the novel as starting points to journeys both geographical and spiritual begins with the use of the cave of Mila-Repa. In a further chapter, while being chased by a demon across the Tibetan countryside on the way to the Place of the Dead to replace the stones, the characters take refuge in a cave that is the home of a hermit who tries to teach the Westerners something about non-duality. When the group reaches the Place of the Dead, Bob, assisted by his lovely female translator Jong, tries to replace the mani stones just outside the mouth of yet another cave, while Vern helps the guide Losang fight off a demon who guards the sacred spot. The whole event turns rather tantric but even with this bizarre plot twist, it is the landscape that stands out. When searching for the spot to drop the stones, Bob’s character relates: “I crawl in circles, disoriented, directionless, seeking by touch and blind instinct the place where we touched death like innocent children and brought it into our lives. Will I know it by the pattern in the piles of stone? I feel the cave’s shadow floating by as I turn in circles, squinting at the sun’s neutrinos piercing my skin like X-rays. The unfettered mind perceives all that is. Don’t think, don’t remember. It will be there—a small depression at the edge of the shadow of a skull. There is nothing the One Mind does not embrace. . . A slight disturbance in the patina of dust. That is it” (p. 318). The mani stones are part of the sacred landscape of Tibet, marking liminal spaces between the living and the dead just as a cave becomes a liminal portal between the external and the internal.
Mitchell draws comparisons of the sacralized Tibetan landscape depicted in his novel to the landscape of the West, and in particular the U.S.A., by describing America as “the Black Expanse, all Pizza Huts and K Mart parking lots.” The mani stones, the caves and the protective demons of the landscapes in this novel remind me of the protective entities surrounding stupas and other sacred places in India written about in Robert DeCaroli’s text entitled Haunting the Buddha: Indian Popular Religions and the Formation of Buddhism (2004). DeCaroli describes how early Buddhist monks and nuns kept their beliefs in spirits and protective deities of the locales and regions in which they lived, even after converting to Buddhism. In time, Buddhism was used to appease these spiritual entities of the Indian landscape, who then became protectors of the places and this is one of the ways in which the Indian landscape became a Buddhist landscape. Tibetan Buddhism, indeed all of Buddhism, has not yet had a chance to have this impact on the West. Buddhism is making inroads on our cultural landscape, but our geographical landscape, our protective spirits, deities and demons, has shown very little transition. Indeed, there are a few stupas in North America and more and more temples and monasteries, but Mitchell’s novel has me pondering the importance of geographical landscape and its transformation in the spread of Buddhism.
I won’t list questions for this post, but leave it open for your comments. I would really like to hear your thoughts on this novel, whether it reflects Buddhism in a way that is appealing or not, and what you think of the importance of Buddhist landscapes for the spread of Buddhism.