Tag Archives: novels

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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

Announcing New Buddhist Fiction: A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING, by Ruth Ozeki (Viking Penguin, 2013)

Three-time Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki is at it again. The plot of her new novel interweaves the stories of Ruth, a writer living on an island off the coast of British Columbia, and Nao, a Japanese teenage girl. Nao’s family is a mess – except for her great-grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun who has turned her own past tragedy into wisdom and helps Nao endure in a way no one else can.

When Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunch box washed up on the shore of her island and begins to read the journal she finds inside, she learns of Nao’s difficulties – how she was forced to return to Japan after her father lost his job in Silicon Valley, and,  having grown up in California, is now treated like a foreigner in her own country, mercilessly bullied and tormented in school. Seeing tragedy looming in Nao’s future, Ruth wants to change the expected outcome for both Nao and her family. But can she intervene to effect change when the story presumably took place long before she is reading it?

With quotations from Proust and Zen Master Dogen setting the tone, this meditation on time and so much else makes us ponder how we can live in the face of the transient nature of existence, how we can care for each other along the way, and how we can be transformed in the most unexpected ways.

NOTE:  WATCH FOR A DIALOGUE WITH MS OZEKI TO APPEAR HERE IN THE NEAR FUTURE.

Live!

After months of learning WordPress and gathering links and making lists, I am finally “going live” with this Buddhist Fiction Blog. I hope that this blog evolves into a space for conversation and thought about novels and short stories that have been labeled “Buddhist Fiction,” as well as discussion about the label “Buddhist Fiction” itself.

In the next two posts I will explore this label, “Buddhist Fiction,” what it could mean and/or represent. In future posts, I will write about works that have been labeled Buddhist Fiction and what they can possibly reveal about modern Buddhism as it is developing in an English speaking and reading context.

Until then, sapere aude (dare to know).