Tag Archives: Fiction

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.

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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.

“Where Do We Go From Here?” by Doris Dörrie

Book cover - Where Do We Go From Here? Doris Dörrie’s novel, Where Do We Go From Here?, published in English in 2002 by Bloomsbury U.S.A., first caught my attention because a chapter from this novel appears as a stand alone short story in Wisdom Publication’s first Buddhist fiction short story anthology, Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction. In this anthology, the chapter does not provide a name for the narrator and main character, so I was extremely curious to find out more about the larger story. Since purchasing the whole novel and seeing the cover, I think I would have picked up the book based on the picture of a Buddha sitting atop a burger. Now every time I look at the book I think of the blog the worst horse, home of the dharma burger. But I digress.

Bloomsbury U.S.A. gives the following overview of this novel: “Meet Fred Kaufmann, disillusioned husband of thoroughly competent Claudia and father of surly teenager Franka. His dreams of being a film director have long ago been shelved for marriage and a child. While Claudia sells her successful vegetarian take-away out to a fast-food chain and buys into Buddhism, her spouse is trapped in the throes of a classic midlife crisis, made worse when a young guru and Franka find each other irresistible. In this hilarious and touching social comedy Fred chaperones his daughter to the meditation centre in the South of France with the hope that brown rice and hardcore meditation will cure Franka’s obsession. But as a bizarre set of events unfolds Fred embarks on a journey of self discovery that only a special kind of hero can survive . . . ”

I have to give credit to Dörrie for writing an entire novel with such an unlikeable protagonist yet managing to keep me engaged. Usually I can find some form of empathy with a protagonist but I had difficulty in this area with Fred. I think I kept reading because I wanted to see what happened next in Fred’s adventure, and because I like the way that Dörrie rendered all of the other characters, who seemed to have sense enough to leave Fred to work his way through his own mid-life crisis.

One of my favorite parts of the book is a moment of clarity Fred experiences at the meditation retreat. After complaining about meditating, about the conditions of his surroundings, and about life in general, Fred finally starts to settle and has what Oprah would call an “aha” moment. During meditation he sees a blackbird hopping around outside of the meditation tent, and he suddenly hears the dawn chorus. . .

“I hear it as if I’d only just been equipped with ears. I don’t know anything about birds, so I can’t identify them, but I hear them not in the usual way, as an incidental twittering sound, but as a unique occurrence unrepeatable in this particular form. This dawn chorus will only occur once—now, this very moment—and if I don’t hear it now I’ll never hear it again. I’ll have missed it once and for all.

Euphoric as this realization makes me feel, I’m simultaneously shattered because it means I’m forever missing my own, unique life—because I’m blind and deaf” (p. 138).

After reading the description of this small mindful moment, I was hopeful that perhaps Fred’s metaphorical blindness and deafness would disappear and he would remember to keep his eyes and ears open, to try to be present in the moment not only for himself but for the people who still, miraculously, care for him. Then I finished reading the novel and was left wondering if Fred learned anything at all. I won’t spoil the ending for those who want to read the book, suffice to say that it is modern and open (no closure here by a long shot).

So did Fred learn anything from his moment of mindfulness? Clearly Dörrie’s novel is fiction, but can it be labeled “Buddhist” and if so, in what sense? Why? If there are other readers of this novel out there who would care to share their thoughts on this novel and more specifically these questions, I would really appreciate your comments!

Can There Be Such a Thing As Buddhist Fiction?

When I start explaining to friends, family and acquaintances the locus of my dissertation project, Buddhist Fiction, I get a lot of interesting responses: blank stares; gracious smiles and nods followed by a quick change of topic; and a reaction range from polite curiosity to not-so-polite dismissal at the very thought that precious time could be wasted on fiction when Buddhist practice is so squarely focused on reality. To be fair, most people have never heard of this emerging sub-genre of popular literature, so I have come to expect such responses. Still, I continually question, and get the question, can there be such as thing as “Buddhist fiction”?

After learning of the genre label Buddhist fiction I began to search everywhere for it. When I found the first short story anthology of Buddhist fiction, Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction (Wisdom Publications, 2004), I hoped for some sort of guidance or illumination from the opening portions of the book. The collection was edited by former Buddhist nun and fiction author Kate Wheeler who says early in the intro, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheeky way, that “You can’t just lump Buddhism and fiction together, and start talking about “Buddhist fiction.” I want to take my royal seat as the editor of the world’s first anthology of “Buddhist fiction” and say there is no such thing, or at least that “Buddhist fiction” is a rather strange and impossible category.” I was off to a bumpy start.

In this introduction Wheeler also discusses the danger of words and the juxtaposition of fiction with the real that inevitably comes up when faced with the phrase “Buddhist fiction.” She leads her reader through a history of her thinking about this sub-genre and how it could and could not be delineated. She talks of Buddhist fiction as a form of writing that “dramatizes the dharma.” Eventually Wheeler turns to her job as editor and relates that she agreed to take on the editing project “with the stipulation that we would not define what the nature of the Buddhist connection [in the short stories] had to be. Rather, we’d leave that to the writers, and they didn’t have to identify themselves as Buddhists” (my parentheses). So if someone is a Buddhist practitioner who writes fiction it does not necessarily follow that their short stories or novels would fall into the category of Buddhist fiction. For a bit more on this, see Daniel Burke’s November 23rd, 2007 article in the Salt Lake Tribune entitled “A Bevy of Buddhist Fiction Writers” (recounted here on the Buddhist Channel) Herein, Burke interviews celebrated author and Buddhist George Saunders, who recounts to Burke that while he “believes his religion and his work are inseparable, he’s not inclined to pen any Karma-lized junk food. ‘I wouldn’t write a story where a guy has an identifiable Buddhist thought.'” And here is the heart of the matter – identity.

If author identification as a Buddhist and a fiction writer does not help delineate the genre-category Buddhist fiction then how did Wheeler choose which stories to include in the first short story anthology of Buddhist Fiction? She states that the main criterion she rigorously applied was that every story be satisfying. I like her use of this word, as it seems to me a solid translation of sukkha, the opposite of dukkha or unsatisfactoriness, dis-ease, or suffering (which in my humble opinion is not the best translation of the term dukkha).

In similar fashion, Buddhist practitioner, fiction author and editor Keith Kachtick takes up the task of choosing Buddhist fiction stories that “dramatize the Dharma” in You Are Not Here and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction. In his introduction to this 2006 follow-up volume by Wisdom Publications, Kachtick notes that from a Buddhist perspective (or his understanding and practice of it), anyone can be identified as Buddhist: “As long as you’re paying attention to now–this moment and no other; and treat the neighbors the way you like to be treated; and understand that material things–your body, your house, this book you hold–are sandcastles, destined, by design, to eventually wash away with the tide to become something else, you are Buddhist.” Kachtick applied the same ideas to his selection process for choosing stories that would be included in the second anthology. He states that “Without exception, all of these stories say with verve: Pay attention–this life, right here, right now.”

So can there be such a thing as “Buddhist fiction”? I think so, particularly because literati and interested readers are paying attention and applying the label to many different works of popular fiction (see the “Reviews and Lists” page of this blog). The more pointed and complex question about Buddhist Fiction I have been sidestepping is “how do you identify it?” Any answer to this question is somewhat subjective, based on the novel or short story being read, the reader, and the familiarity with or experience of Buddhism they bring to the reading. For now I will make use of United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous phrase: “I know it when I see it.”