Tag Archives: Fiction

Chris Beal on BUDDHA at the GAS PUMP (BatGap) Podcast

Chris Beal has been a contributing editor here on the Buddhist Fiction Blog since 2012. She has written insightful novel and short story anthology reviews and interviewed both Roland Merullo and Ruth Ozeki for our edification and enjoyment. Chris is a spiritual seeker with a background in Zen Buddhism. She has taught at a number of colleges and universities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Currently, she is seeking publication of her novel Enlightenment of the Flesh. 

Chris was interviewed by Rick Archer of BUDDHA at the GAS PUMP on 19 May, 2020. You can link to her BatGap interview here: https://batgap.com/chris-beal/

This is a long but lively discussion and just to listen to Chris’ melodic voice is a wonderful experience. She talks a bit about fiction and the spiritual journey at about 1:37 in the interview.

If you want to read more of Chris’ writing, she has two blogs that she posts to frequently: Miracle of Awakening and Literary Journeys to Truth. She also reviews books on Good Reads.

Congratulations Chris!

Autumn Reading List Catch-Up, Including Story-Driven Music

One of the perks of blogging about Buddhist fiction is that authors and readers of fiction that intersects with Buddhism regularly send emails to let us know of new or newly discovered works. Unfortunately, there is not enough time to review everything that comes our way, or even read every story. But we can certainly list it here for you to discover, read, and enjoy. With that said, here is a brief catch-up listing of books (and music!), alphabetically by author, that have been brought to our attention over the past few months. Thank-you to everyone who alerts us to the ever-growing assortment of Buddhist fiction.

darshan Pulse. Olive Moksha. 2018   https://darshanpulse.com/

darshan Pulse is a group of musicians who create and produce “Revolutionary Buddhist Rock from the Heart of the Rocky Mountains.” Based out of Missoula, Montana, the group recently produced an instrumental concept album to express “the essence of samsara, the Buddhist doctrine of cyclical existence” entitled Olive Moksha. For this their second album, darshan Pulse “focused on how duality can be transcended. . . The narrative of this second project focuses on the story of three tulkus and their willful reincarnation into the belly of the beast – the same matrix described by the first album – to bring about a new era of peace [sic] the world” (from https://darshanpulse.com/theory).

The music is driven by Buddhist narrative. The full story of these tulkus can be found here on the darshan Pulse website and their track Avalokiteshvara can be enjoyed there as well. Below the track they have written a narrative snippet, which begins thusly:

“Three monks, Daleth, Mem and Teth, practice their meditation every morning beneath the olive trees. One day, each of them separately experience the exact same phenomena during meditation. The vision nearly brings each of them to tears, and they separately spend many hours contemplating the surrounding landscape as if for the very first time; as if reborn.” (from https://darshanpulse.com/avalokiteshvara/ )

Gaber, Mark. Rijicho. Wheatmark Inc, 2011.

From Amazon: “The Sho Hondo Convention is over. Three thousand Buddhist Americans have returned from Japan, exhausted but triumphant. Relentlessly the next campaign begins: six months from now, a “Festival on Ice” will be held at the San Diego Sports Arena. Unknown to all, deadly cancer has invaded the body of George M. Williams, supernova nucleus of NSA. Urgent surgery is required, but this would delay the San Diego Convention. Will he save himself, or defy death to pursue the dream of a destitute priest who vowed seven hundred years ago to save humankind?”

Gaber, Mark. Sho Hondo. Wheatmark Inc, 2011.

From Amazon: “October marks the completion of the multimillion-dollar Sho Hondo Grand Main Temple in Taisekiji, Japan. Three thousand Buddhist Americans prepare to embark on a pilgrimage to meet their mentor and pray to the Dai-Gohonzon, the great mandala inscribed by the Buddha Nichiren in 1279 for the salvation of humankind. What will they find? Travel with them on their adventure, seen through the eyes of a 22-year old clarinet player in the NSA Brass Band.”

Merullo, Roland. The Delight of Being Ordinary: a Road Trip with the Pope and the Dalai Lama. Vintage Contemporaries, 2018.

From Amazon: “Roland Merullo’s playful, eloquent, and life-affirming novel finds the world’s two holiest men teaming up for an unsanctioned road trip through the Italian countryside–where they rediscover the everyday joys and challenges of ordinary life.

During the Dalai Lama’s highly publicized official visit to the Vatican, the Pope suggests an adventure so unexpected and appealing that neither man can resist: they will shed their robes for several days and live as ordinary men. Before dawn, the two beloved religious leaders make a daring escape from Vatican City, slip into a waiting car, and are soon traveling the Italian roads in disguise. Along for the ride is the Pope’s neurotic cousin and personal assistant, Paolo, who–to his terror– has been put in charge of arranging the details of their disappearance. Rounding out the group is Paolo’s estranged wife, Rosa, an eccentric entrepreneur with a lust for life, who orchestrates the sublime disguises of each man. Rosa is a woman who cannot resist the call to adventure–or the fun.

Against a landscape of good humor, intrigue, and spiritual fulfillment, The Delight of Being Ordinary showcases the uniquely charming sensibilities of author Roland Merullo. Part whimsical expedition, part love story, part spiritual search, this uplifting novel brings warmth and laughter to the universal concerns of family life, religious inspiration, and personal identity—all of which combine to transcend cultural and political barriers in the name of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.”

Okita, Dwight. The Hope Store. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017.

From Amazon: “Two Asian American men, Luke and Kazu, discover a bold new procedure to import hope into the hopeless. They vow to open the world’s first Hope Store. Their slogan: “We don’t just instill hope. We install it.” The media descend. Customer Jada Upshaw arrives at the store with a hidden agenda, but what happens next no one could have predicted. Meanwhile an activist group called The Natural Hopers emerges warning that hope installations are a risky, Frankenstein-like procedure and vow to shut down the store. Luke comes to care about Jada, and marvels at her Super-Responder status. But in dreams begin responsibilities, and unimaginable nightmares follow. If science can’t save Jada, can she save herself — or will she wind up as collateral damage?”

Padwa, David. Incident at Lukla: A Novel of the Himalayas. Hapax Press, 2013.

From Amazon: “Little Nepal, poor and beautiful, lies sandwiched between China and India and is ravaged by an armed revolution. Brutal Maoist guerrillas are attempting to overthrow a corrupt and half-deranged monarchy. Two middle-aged love-starved American intelligence agents, Elsie and Ripp, are running operations in the Himalayas. They uncover a bizarre weapons trade across the Tibetan frontier which is under the control of a ranking Chinese military officer. As intelligence operatives attempt to outflank each other two young lovers, Annie and Pemba, experienced and adventurous mountaineers, are unwittingly drawn into a gyre of conflicting espionage operations. A dramatic incident at a Sherpa village creates a chain of unforeseen consequences and comes, literally, to a breath-taking climax amidst the world’s highest mountains. A nearby Lama sees a wheel of time turning, fueled by erotic attraction leading to birth and consciousness.”

**All of these novels can be purchased on Amazon.com. **

 

 

 

 

The Devoted, by Blair Hurley

First-time novelist Hurley, a Pushcart Prize winner, has written about a subject that is not new in the Zen community: sexual abuse by a Zen Master. But the way she approaches the subject and her description of the psychological hold the Master has on his student is original.

Here is what the publisher, W. W. Norton, says about THE DEVOTED:

“A spellbinding confession of what it means to abandon one life for another, The Devoted asks what it takes, and what you’ll sacrifice, to find enlightenment.

“Nicole Hennessy’s life revolves around her Zen practice at the Boston Zendo, seeking solace in the tenets of Buddhism to the chagrin of her Irish Catholic family. After a decade of grueling spiritual practice under her Master’s tutelage, living on a shoestring budget as a shop clerk, Nicole has become dangerously entangled with her mentor. As Nicole confronts her past—a drug-fueled year spent fleeing her family’s loaded silences and guilt-laden “Our Fathers”—and reinvents herself in New York City, her Master’s intoxicating voice pursues her, an electrifying whisper on the other end of the phone. Somehow, he knows everything.

“In deft, soaring prose that bristles with psychological and erotic tension, Blair Hurley crafts a thrilling exploration of Nicole’s ecstatic quest for spirituality.”

THE DEVOTED will be reviewed here following release, expected in August. It can be pre-ordered from many sources.

Announcing New Buddhist Fiction: THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER by Emily X. R. Pan

About six weeks ago I got a message from my colleague and friend, Daniel, alerting me to an interview in Tricycle Magazine with a young lady named Emily X.R. Pan. The interview focused on Pan’s debut novel, The Astonishing Color of After. Published in March 2018 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, the novel was an instant bestseller, and after reading it, I understand why. If you like Young Adult Literature, Pan’s new novel is a must read. It is marketed as magical realism, but it most definitely has Buddhist elements that drive the plot and infuse the characters.

The Astonishing Color of After is the beautiful, wistful yet heartwrenching story of Leigh, a teenaged girl grieving the loss of her beloved mother, Dory. The novel begins with these words: “My mother is a bird. This isn’t like some William Faulkner stream-of-consciousness metaphorical crap. My mother. Is literally. A bird.” The tone and voice articulated in these first few sentences instantly alert the reader to prepare themselves for time spent with an exceptional teenager. Leigh is the creative, insightful, quirky daughter of a Taiwanese mother and an American father. She describes her experiences in a synesthetic manner, assigning a color to a bicycle ride or a kiss. Her life filled with art classes, indie music and a teenaged crush was irrevocably changed by her mother’s suicide. The novel opens after Leigh has lost her mom, which immediately renders the story arc on a trajectory between grieving and healing. Shortly after the death, Leigh is visited by a large red bird who brings her gifts and a note. Leigh comes to believe that the bird is her mother and that the gifts are clues to family secrets that may explain why her mother suffered so much. Leigh and her father travel to Taiwan to visit with her maternal grandparents, and Leigh experiences her Taiwanese heritage, including its Buddhist and Taoist elements, while gaining some clarity about who her mother was, who her grandparents are, and – ultimately – who she is herself.

Pan’s debut novel is a liminal narrative. The storyline weaves between grieving and healing, between America and Asia, between then and now, between this life and the next. The discourse is liminal as well. Pan writes from her experience as an Asian-American, but her protagonist Leigh is bi-racial and feels isolated and out-of-place almost everywhere. She is ‘othered’ throughout the novel; a boy at her school refers to her as exotic, and the Taiwanese people she encounters call her “mixed blood” (hunxie).

The Buddhist aspects of the novel are liminal too. Leigh had been exposed to family altars and bodhisattva images but did not know about Taiwanese Buddhist death practices, such as the burning of joss paper crafts or the 49 days of liminality between the previous life and the next rebirth. This liminal period becomes a temporal framework for the story.

One of the strongest aspects of Pan’s novel is the way she tackles mental illness and contemporary discourse (and stigmatization) around mental illness. This aspect is made very poignant in Chapter 10, when Leigh thinks:

“I can’t stop myself from wondering about the physical pain of the experience. I try to imagine suffering so hard that death would be preferable. That’s how Dr O’Brien explained it. That Mom was suffering.

Suffering suffering suffering suffering suffering.

The word circles around in my head until the syllables lose their edges and the meaning warps. The word begins to sound like an herb, or a name, or maybe a semiprecious stone. I try to think of a color to match it, but all that comes to mind is the blackness of dried blood.

I can only hope that in becoming a bird my mother has shed her suffering.”  Chapter 10 Loc 516 of 5168, Kindle edition

As the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, suffering is the problem of the human condition, and also the description that a psychiatrist attached to Dory’s therapy-resistant depression. Pan does not shy away from writing about depression and suicide and how this disease affects individuals and families alike. She writes in her Author’s Note:

“I grew up witnessing firsthand the effects of depression, and watching how my family let the stigma surrounding it become one of the darkest, stickiest traps. That stigma is perpetuated by not talking.” Author’s Note, Loc 5093 of 5168, , Kindle edition

This stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide is an important contemporary issue that Pan tackles in her novel, and she is surprisingly vocal about her perceived greater intensity of this stigma for Asian families. In fact, in another debut novel interview on the website hellogiggles, Pan suggests that the cultural stigma surrounding mental illness is “5000 times worse in Asian families.” Her first YA fiction book should go some way to breaking down the stigma of silence surrounding mental illness and suicide, and Pan and her publishers make sure to provide real-life (not magical realism) resources for suicide prevention and for suicide loss survivors after her Author’s Note. In this way, Pan’s novel functions as a Buddhist act of compassion, as a gift of dana to her readers. 

This novel will stay with me for a long time, and I have already recommended it to adults and teens alike. I would even assign this novel in a university level syllabus, especially in a course on death and dying. Put this novel on your list of books to read sooner than later. Purchase the hardcover, ebook, or audiobook:
INDIEBOUND | AMAZON | BARNES & NOBLE | BOOKS-A-MILLION

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.