Tag Archives: Tibetan Buddhism

Finally, Fully Fall – Reading “The Search for Jewel Island” by R.N. Jackson

It was a cruel summer. I had every intention of writing blog posts about summer reading that could uplift in these times of anarchy and chaos. And then I learned of the passing of C.W. “Sandy” Huntington, Jr. on 19 July 2020 through a favourite Buddhist news website – Buddhistdoor: https://www.buddhistdoor.net/news/buddhist-scholar-cw-sandy-huntington-dies-aged-71 Sandy was a Buddhist Studies scholar and novelist, and I met him through this blog. He wrote Maya: A Novel in 2015 (Wisdom Publications) which I reviewed on the Buddhist Fiction Blog here: https://buddhistfictionblog.wordpress.com/tag/maya/ . Even though my acquaintance with Sandy was short, he was so collegial, warm hearted and intellectually generous, I felt heard, and he left me with a lasting impression of caring and hope. My heart goes out to his family, friends, colleagues, and students.

July seems so long ago now and I am very glad that the cool air of fall is blowing away some of my summer brain fog. In an effort to live in the present, I will not look back at my summer intentions. Instead, I will announce a new work of Buddhist Fiction that I am reading for fall. It is The Search for Jewel Island by R.N. Jackson. It’s just been published in August and you can find it on Amazon (link under cover photo).

R.N. Jackson is an adventurer, writer, and teacher. He manages the Religion and Philosophy department at one of the UK’s leading independent schools in Cheshire. He is offering a free digital novella, a prequel to The Search for Jewel Island, on his website. It is titled The Eyes of Mara: https://www.rnjackson.com/freebook

I hope to have a review of the novel posted before Canadian Remembrance Day (11 November). In the mean time, I’m sure the early reviews highlighted below will entice you to join me in reading this first novel in what promises to be a long saga of Buddhist fiction novels.

Early reviews from the Amazon.co.uk site:

“A really wonderful engaging book, full of rich Tibetan Buddhist mythology, and impossible to put down, I look forward to reading the sequel!” – Thomas Straughan, Manchester Buddhist Society

“For a debut novel RN Jackson’s The Search for Jewel Island is an assured and convincing read, effortlessly transporting us back to a time, not so long ago, in 1986, when facts about the natural world could only be sourced from experts or from books made of paper and ink – and tweeting was for the birds. This book, the first of an intended series, is certainly not for the birds. It is for readers who have an inkling there is more to the world than might at first be apparent.

Esta Brown, the sullen schoolgirl tearaway at the heart of the story, has read in her science textbook that the tweeting of birds may seem beautiful to us but can be threatening and fearful for the birds themselves: ‘things that seem one way… can really be the opposite.’ It is this idea that slowly unfolds in her mind, like the petals of a delicate and alluring flower, through a series of unforeseeable, uncanny and frightening events, each ushering in the next threat or reason to be fearful.

These events are set in motion by the unexplained disappearance of her father and the raw emotions this event provokes. Her mother and Gran are too bound by grief to be of any real help. One thing leads to another and like falling dominos ‘an unbroken clattering sequence of cause and effect’ unexpectedly transforms Esta from wayward loser into a stubborn seeker for truth and unwitting eco-warrior. The world she knows, bounded by her irritating school, her Gran’s care-home and the road development that threatens it, begins inexplicably to intermingle with a land of demons and gurus, lofty mountains and misty valleys. Rusty items of junk – a hinge, a bolt, a letter-opener – become objects of unexpected power.

The Search for Jewel Island is both a novel of ideas and a fantasy that is firmly, insistently, grounded in the world of ordinary experience: the failures (and saving graces) of adults, the helpfulness (and betrayals) of friends, the jealousy, pride and greed that make life more complicated than it might otherwise be. Simon – he of the permanent tan and the piercing blue eyes – is the boy girls fall for and the other boys wish they were. Yet somehow Esta and Simon team up to make bizarre discoveries in an old house that is scheduled for demolition. It is the place her father was drawn to before his disappearance. Esta’s new friends, Graham and Lily, initially doubt her explanation for Simon’s sudden disappearance, but they soon discover that things can be humdrum and mysterious, common-place and life-threatening, conventional and peculiar – sometimes simultaneously.

What is more bizarre, as Esta discovers, is that modes of being and beliefs about the world ‘can be true in different ways at the same time’. The one mode is commonplace. The other is ineffable – or in other words, for most of us and for most of the time, beyond any possibility of description. Courageously, Jackson attempts not only to describe this interpenetration, but to draw us into its unsettling oddness.

In making this inter-folded world the location of his story, which shifts precariously beneath our everyday understanding, Jackson, though he may not know it, is following in the footsteps of a once popular but now largely forgotten novelist, who was one of a triumvirate of fantasy writers active in the 1930s to the 1950s. Two of them remain well known: CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. The third was Charles Williams, whose novels TS Eliot described as ‘supernatural thrillers’ and of which Lewis said ‘he is writing that sort of book in which we begin by saying, let us suppose that this everyday world were at some one point invaded by the marvellous’.

Lewis, Tolkien and Williams believed there was more to the world than might at first be apparent. The Oxford University literary discussion group they were part of was called, tellingly, the ‘Inklings’.

Jackson’s novel is not easy to categorise. It is not Sword and Sorcery, nor Super-hero adventure, nor High-School Horror – though it has elements of each. If The Search for Jewel Island indeed becomes part of a forthcoming novel sequence, Jackson may be creating an entirely new genre – or resurrecting one we have not seen for some time. Not quite Sense and Sensibility. More like Weirdness and Wisdom.

Halfway through the novel we discover what Jewel Island is. At least, we think we do. It takes the next half of the story to unravel, with mounting tension and headlong pace, the deeper secret that Jewel Island holds: a weapon that can defeat the forces of chaos and darkness and help Esta rediscover her father.

This is nail-biting, exhilarating, supernatural writing at its best. It’s far from being a novel in verse yet it succeeds in making a case for the place of poetry in our lives. It helps us understand that what is precious is what is meaningful.

I did not intend to read the last third of the book in one sitting. I had planned what I thought were more pressing tasks. Yet the intended tasks had to wait. I was too gripped to tear myself away.

Maybe it was for fear of Gran’s warning to Esta that I kept on reading. To find the meaning of the island. ‘You have to grab it. Make use of it. Do something with it. Or, one day, the winds come, your ship blows away and you never find it again.’ ” – David Banks

The Tenth Instalment of Eliot Pattison’s Inspector Shan Series – Bones of the Earth

Later this month, award-winning author Eliot Pattison’s tenth and perhaps last instalment of the Inspector Shan Series will hit book stores everywhere. Titled Bones of the Earth (Minotaur Books, March 2019), this story once again thrusts the complicated Inspector Shan into a multi-level power struggle from which he must wrestle justice out of the hands of angry gods of both China and Tibet.
Pattison’s first novel of this series, The Skull Mantra (St. Martin’s Press, 1999), won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel in 2000. If you have not read any of Pattison’s other historical fiction novels, and you are interested in Tibetan life under Chinese occupation, The Skull Mantra is the best place to start. Pattison’s narratives are complex, deep, and subtle, investigating not only the mysteries set before the protagonist but also the geopolitical context out of which his story ideas evolve. His discourse is clear and explained in this note from Eliot Pattison‘s web site on why he writes about Tibet:

 

Whenever I have the pleasure of participating in group discussions about my novels, I am nearly always asked a question that can be distilled to Why Tibet? or Why set your books in such a distant, unknown land? Some assume it is simply because I sought an exotic locale to add color to my mysteries. The answer is far more complex. Conveying the realities of modern Tibet and the drama of Tibetan resistance in all its many aspects is as important to me as creating a spellbinding mystery. Of all the labels that are applied to me, I wear none more proudly than that of being part of the Tibetan resistance. My sentiments run deep:

-I write about Tibet not because I am a Buddhist but because I am not a Buddhist, because the ultimate treasures of Tibet are ones that transcend religion or philosophy, lessons that the rest of the world needs desperately to learn. Converting to the cause of Tibet does not mean a conversion to Buddhism, it means a conversion to compassion, self-awareness, human rights and political equality.

-I write about Tibet to give those who do not have the opportunity to travel there to understand what it feels like to witness an armed policeman assault a praying monk.

-I write about Tibet because after traveling a million miles around the planet I know of no more perfect lens for examining ourselves and the world we have created.

-I write about Tibet because in a war between an army of monks bearing prayer beads and an army of soldiers bearing machine guns I will side with the monks every time.

-I write about Tibet because of the despair and shame I feel over what prior generations did to the American Indians and many other original peoples. I know that though the same thing is happening in Tibet, this is our generation, it is happening on our watch, and I don’t want my descendants shamed by what you and I allowed to happen there.

-I write about Tibet because there is no purer symbol on earth of the struggle of soulless bureaucracy and sterile global economic forces versus tradition, spirituality, and ethnic identity.

-I write about Tibet because the world below is starved for heroes and saints and there are so many unsung ones living on the roof of the world.

-I write about Tibet because I can hear more in one hour beside a silent monk than in a hundred hours listening to Western media.

-I write about Tibet because in it lies the seeds of the antidote for the troubled world we have created.

-I write about Tibet because Tibet is a monk sitting in front of a steamroller, and if enough people around the world sit with him we can stop the steamroller.

The ultimate credo of the ideologue who commanded the invasion of Tibet was that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. In this as in so many other aspects Tibet has shown us a new truth — for Tibetan resistance has proven the opposite.

Clearly, Pattison’s historical fiction intersects with Buddhism on many levels not limited to his story settings in occupied Tibet. Since Pattison is a human rights advocate and his novels depict Tibetan Buddhism lived out under Chinese occupation, his narratives are, of course, political. While the author himself is not a Buddhist, his protagonist is, as are many other characters in the novel series, and through these characters, readers learn more about Tibetan Buddhism. I think that the fictional character, Inspector Shan, is ingenious because he provides Pattison with the opportunity to combine imagined lived religion with human rights advocacy. And Pattison imagines this lived religion in minute detail. For example, I read the Skull Mantra over a decade ago, and I still remember a description of silent mantras performed as mudras by Tibetan monks in a dark jail cell that was so well written I can, to this day, see it all as if in front of me. 
As with any beloved book series, I hope this is not the last instalment of the Inspector Shan Series from Eliot Pattison. If you are just learning about this series now, you have much to look forward to so happy reading!

Reflections on the Liminal – Elyse Salpeter’s Kelsey Porter Series

This time of year seems to be a liminal period around the globe, due to the earth’s trajectory around the sun. Even our landscapes cross thresholds as they become colder and wetter or hotter and dryer. Time seems to act differently. Clocks are changed due to global daylight savings time. We feel more intensely the rhythms of our universe; our connections to everything seem more tangible. This liminal period complicates boundaries so that, ironically, we might perceive portals previously unnoticed.

Elyse Salpeter’s Kelsey Porter novel series is befitting reading for this season. Beginning with The Hunt for Xanadu published on Amazon Digital Services in 2013, Salpeter has created the protagonist Kelsey Porter such that her character’s development depends on her growing knowledge of Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism in particular. The protagonist’s surname “Porter” is apt. Kelsey must find and open the door to Xanadu, which in Salpeter’s first novel is depicted as a Shangri-La-type place of Tibetan Buddhist legend. Salpeter has developed her protagonist character over an entire series, now into a fifth instalment, titled The Search for Starlight. With the recent release of this fifth novel in the series, Salpeter hopes to answer many of the questions brought up by Porter’s adventures and development, and this includes questions about her character’s intersection with Buddhism.

The Kelsey Porter novel series is liminal in various ways. As described, the protagonist is liminal in the way that her character parallels a threshold (no spoilers – you’ll have to read the novels yourself to find out how). And as advertised on Amazon, the whole novel series itself functions as a threshold between “the real and the fantastic.” In an email exchange, Salpeter wrote to me that her Kelsey Porter series of novels, in particular, is “steeped in Buddhist spiritual lore” and she did a “tremendous amount of research to make them believable.” So there is a good deal of “reality” or Buddhist concepts and ideologies grounding the story. And where Salpeter stretches Buddhist myth she creates the “fantastic” elements of the novels.

It’s this stretching of Buddhist myth, particularly Tibetan Buddhist cosmological worldviews, that allows for the generation of liminal space between cultures in Salpeter’s work. She uses Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” and his concept of Xanadu to conflate and duplicate the Tibetan concept of Shangri-La first presented to Western readers as a utopian earthly paradise in the Himalayas by British author James Hilton in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon (Mass Market Paperback, 1945). The plot line of The Hunt for Xanadu is dependent on the stretching of Buddhist myth. Due to the relationship between Xanadu and Shangri-La that Salpeter sets up, I was reminded of Prisoners of Shangri-La (University of Chicago Press, 1999) by Donald S. Lopez Jr., a text that takes to task the romanticization of Tibet and Tibetan exile while holding up to the light the ways that the West, including scholars, have co-opted and misrepresented Tibetan Buddhism and culture. Because of the plot premise/protagonist in The Hunt for Xanadu, Salpeter’s Kelsey Porter series of novels dances near a threshold, a fine line between misrepresentation, cultural appropriation, and creative license. She works hard to never intentionally cross that line, but readers will have to decide for themselves if thresholds are forded. The fine line encourages reading the Kelsey Porter series of novels as an imaginative space of negotiation in which the representation of Tibetan Buddhism to contemporary Western readers is offered through “mystery”. By this, I mean that the genre of the novel series – mystery – becomes a space to unpack a complex religious tradition in the context of modernity, thus making it seem a little less mysterious. Further, mystery in the novel is often narrated as esoteric rites, even though imaginary, to which only initiates are usually admitted, thus exemplifying the idea of mystery religions. In all, Salpeter’s work is entertaining while providing a space to re-examine the discourse surrounding Shangri-La, with all of the cultural complications and intertextuality that entails.

Announcing New Buddhist Fiction – October 2017 Edition

With the autumnal equinox behind us, and the western world thinking about all things harvest and Hallowe’en, the introduction of two new works of spooky Buddhist fiction is apropos of the season.

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The Haunting of Cragg Hill House by Elyse Salpeter, 2017  Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform/Amazon Digital Services LLC.

Here’s what goodreads has to say about Elyse and the Kelsey Porter, Buddhist Thriller series:

“Elyse Salpeter is an author who loves mixing “the real with the fantastic” in her books. She likes nothing better than taking different scenarios and creating worlds where things just aren’t what they appear to be.

Her suspense thriller series, THE HUNT FOR XANADU, THE QUEST OF THE EMPTY TOMB and THE CALL OF MOUNT SUMERU are [sic] about a brilliant and fearless young woman named Kelsey Porter, whose life is steeped in Buddhist spiritual mysteries and she is constantly discovering the world around her is not what she believed it to be.”

Elyse Salpeter’s most recent book is #4 in her Kelsey Porter, Buddhist Thriller series: THE HAUNTING OF CRAGG HILL HOUSE. She says: “I truly believe folks should read the books in order, as I take them through the series and reveal in book #1 startling things about the main character’s spiritual path. That said, I did write Book #4 as a standalone.”

Promotional Blurb for The Haunting of Cragg Hill House:

All she wanted was a weekend away…

“Kelsey and Desmond escape to a Gothic Victorian mountain resort for the weekend, but when they arrive, their idyllic plans begin to unravel fast. Kelsey feels a sinister, dark presence pervading the hotel, and with a snowstorm raging, they are stranded with an evil she cannot name. A fleeting figure screaming down the hallway, staff with missing body parts, and then Desmond disappears, leaving behind a trail of blood. Kelsey soon discovers she’s fighting a deep magic she hasn’t seen in eons and she must figure out what is happening at Cragg Hill House… before it is too late.”

Book #1 THE HUNT FOR XANADU
AMAZON: http://amzn.to/1CEvEab
UK Amazon: http://amzn.to/1Cp2awz

Book #2 THE QUEST OF THE EMPTY TOMB
US AMAZON: http://amzn.to/1EvXExO
UK AMAZON: http://amzn.to/1JSRNqT

Book #3 THE CALL OF MOUNT SUMERU
US AMAZON: http://amzn.to/1SUskAv
UK AMAZON: http://amzn.to/1nPF6TO

Book #4 THE HAUNTING OF CRAGG HILL HOUSE:
US AMAZON: http://amzn.to/2pb1HyT
UK AMAZON: http://amzn.to/2pVJLGB

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Waking the Fake Snake: The Mystery of the Blue Robe Manuscripts by Mat Skybrook, 2017  Publisher: Vajra Books, Nepal.

Mat Skybrook is the pseudonym of an American author who, after many years of living in Asia and elsewhere, is now based on the West Coast of the USA. He has written what has been called “A remarkable debut novel on separation, delusive attachments and seeing through them.”

Blurb:

It is summer 1985 and the young American teacher Richard Tatem heads for the Himalayas, there discovering a rare manuscript of the secret Blue-Robes cult. Hoping to kick-start his career and regain the affection of Miki Tojinbara, an unforgettable Japanese junior colleague from Osaka who has recently ditched him, Tatem returns to India. His search goes dangerously awry when he finds himself hunted by ruthless later-day guardians of the supposedly dead Blue Robe cult. Meanwhile, Tatem and Miki try a second time to see whether Buddhist love is really a contradiction in terms.

Touching a fake snake for Tibetan Buddhists can symbolize overcoming false fears through insight. Filled with both lofty Buddhist philosophies and gritty Tibetan reality, this novel thus explores perceptively the limits of obsessive attachment and romantic love for Buddhists.

Reviews:

“Buddhism is not only a profound spiritual and philosophical tradition. As proven by Mat Skybrook’s wonderfully written Waking the Fake Snake, its world and ideas can also provide the setting for an enthralling narrative of adventurous discovery and revealing self-discovery.”—Florin Deleanu, PhD, Professor of Buddhist Studies, ICPBS/IIBS (Tokyo)

“A hopeful novel for the century that lies ahead, with plenty of inter-cultural romance, ample sex, and a stiff dose of danger–though less violence than expected. Even more than in great classic novels, it’s all about seeing under, around or through the delusions thus created, and Skybrook obviously knows his delusions.” –Dr. gDan Martin, author of Tibet.Logic blog

“Skybrook’s fascinating mystery is three books in one: an Asian adventure, a love story and an intellectual puzzle. It vividly evokes the place and people of the Tibetan exile scene in Dharamsala and Tibetan friends in India as we knew them decades ago.” –Prof. Ramon Prats, Barcelona

Like A. S. Byatt’s Possession did for English literary research, this compelling Himalayan mystery dramatizes Tibetan and Buddhist studies field-work, with nearly as many true historical wrinkles as The Da Vinci Code.

Kindle version:

https://www.amazon.com/Waking-Fake-Snake-Mystery-Manuscripts-ebook/dp/B01MZZM05X/

The novel is also available in book form from the website vajrabookshop.com:

http://www.vajrabookshop.com/categories/vajra-publications/products/waking-the-fake-snake-the-mystery-of-the-blue-robe-manuscripts

Eliot Pattison Adds to the Inspector Shan Series with SKELETON GOD

How many bibliophiles do you know who anxiously await the publication of a new book in a series? The reader’s longing for the next instalment exemplifies the efficacy of narrative to expand meaning for the human experience. For often a fictional world becomes so real for the reader that she grieves when the story has ended.

That’s why I’m pleased to announce that Eliot Pattison’s 9th book in the Inspector Shan Tao Yun series was published in March. It is entitled Skeleton God (2017). Pattison’s first novel of this series, The Skull Mantra (1999), won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel in 2000. The series has been translated and published in over twenty languages. His work can be read on so many levels, from the cultural to the political to the spiritual. I read the Inspector Shan mysteries as fictional imaginings of lived religion in Tibet under Chinese occupation.

Here’s what readers can expect from Skeleton God:

Blurb: “In Eliot Pattison’s Skeleton God, Shan Tao Yun, now the reluctant constable of a remote Tibetan town, has learned to expect the impossible at the roof of the world, but nothing has prepared him for his discovery when he investigates a report that a nun has been savagely assaulted by ghosts. In an ancient tomb by the old nun lies a gilded saint buried centuries earlier, flanked by the remains of a Chinese soldier killed fifty years before and an American man murdered only hours earlier. Shan is thrust into a maelstrom of intrigue and contradiction.

The Tibetans are terrified, the notorious Public Security Bureau wants nothing to do with the murders, and the army seems determined to just bury the dead again and Shan with them. No one wants to pursue the truthÐexcept Shan, who finds himself in a violent collision between a heartbreaking, clandestine effort to reunite refugees from Tibet separated for decades and a covert corruption investigation that reaches to the top levels of the government in Beijing, China. The terrible secret Shan uncovers changes his town and his life forever.”

Praise for Skeleton God:

“Pattison‘s ninth installment provides an important history lesson little understood in the West with authority, nuance, and genuine suspense.” – Kirkus Reviews

“Edgar winner Pattison remains without peer at integrating a fairplay whodunit into a searing portrayal of life under an oppressive and capricious regime, as shown by his ninth Insp. Shan Tao Yun mystery. Even readers unfamiliar with the physical and cultural devastation China has wrought in Tibet will find themselves engrossed—and moved—by Pattison’s nuanced portrayal.” – Publishers Weekly *Starred Review*

 

About Eliot Pattison:

 

“An international lawyer by trade, Pattison spent many years in the backwaters of Asia, fascinated by how Buddhism shapes all aspects of people’s lives. He recently received the prestigious “Art of Freedom” award from the Tibet House, an international non-profit organization devoted to the preservation of Tibetan culture, founded by Columbia University professor Robert Thurman, actor Richard Gere and composer Philip Glass at the behest of the 14th Dalai Lama.

 

For more information on Eliot Pattison and his focus on Buddhism, visit http://eliotpattison.com/why_i_wrote_about_tibet.html

 

 

 

CANADIAN PUBLICATION Incognito: The Astounding Life of Alexandra David-Neel by Dianne Harke (Toronto: The Sumeru Press, Inc., 2016) Reviewed by Kimberly Beek

incognitoDianne Harke’s first novel, Incognito: The Astounding Life of Alexandra David-Neel is a fictional biography that might not have been completed but for the curiosity and encouragement of John Negru, Publisher at The Sumeru Press, Inc. As Harke explained in a recent interview, Negru read the first few chapters on Wattpad and offered to publish the finished manuscript. The Sumeru Press, Inc. is one part of Sumeru Books, a Canadian publishing company that focuses on Buddhist books, art and news. It is an important hub on the Canadian Buddhism landscape: “In addition to [their] publishing activities, [they] also maintain Canada’s leading Buddhist news blog (accessible at the bottom of [the] home page), and a directory of more than 580 Canadian Buddhist organizations (www.canadianbuddhism.info).” sumeru-small-horizontalSumeru also promotes a space for Canadian Buddhism on the international cultural landscape, as evidenced in this recent letter to the editor of Tricycle Magazine, Spring 2017 entitled “Northern Neighbor Neglect.” So when John Negru contacted me about Incognito, I knew I was in for a treat.

Alexandra David-Neel was an early 20th-century French explorer, spiritual seeker and feminist who travelled throughout Asia, including Bhutan, China, India, Japan, Sikkim, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. Her journeys into sometimes dangerous areas were attempted during times of insular rule (Tibet was closed to the outside world) and times of great turmoil (such as the onset of WWI or the Second Sino-Japanese War). To move forward, Alexandra often had to travel incognito. Her adventures would have made for a good spy novel but she travelled in earnest search of various forms of enlightenment. Through her journeys and the application of her keen intellect, she became a scholar of Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Tibetan Buddhism. She was revered by lamas and tulkus and the European academy as well.

Harke’s book is not merely a straightforward biography of Alexandra’s life. An author’s note both begins and sets the tone for this special work. In the note, Harke relates that there is an invisible line between fiction and non-fiction. Even though she has done substantial research for the biography on the extraordinary life of Alexandra David-Neel, the book is a work of fiction. As support for her assertion, Harke cites Alexandra herself who advised that Tibetan authors use their imaginations to a measure that finds its equal in Western fairy tales, except that all of the “extravagant wonders that abound in their narratives” are taken as authentic events. While the subject matter of Harke’s biography may suggest that this is a book filled with imaginary adventures, it is actually the author’s writing style that pushes the work across the threshold of fiction. Harke’s rigorous research and choice of both first and third person points of view narratives simultaneously generate and situate the voice of Alexandra. The author fairly channels Alexandra to give the reader a backstage pass into the spiritual seeker’s internal and external worlds.

Were it not for Harke’s detailed research grounding this story, the life of Alexandra would be difficult to believe simply because it is so very astounding, as the title of the novel suggests. Over the course of her life and travels, Alexandra met with European and Asian dignitaries and ambassadors, befriended a Sikkim Prince, and discussed Buddhist concepts with both the Panchen Lama and the 13th Dalai Lama. These meetings helped to nurture her scholarly pursuits to learn and translate Sanskrit and Tibetan and to better understand Buddhist concepts. But her experiences travelling incognito allowed her a spiritual development which augmented her education in a way that traditional scholarship could never replicate. Harke’s first person narratives of Alexandra’s time in China, India and Nepal and subsequent journey to Lhasa, Tibet are peopled with a variety of savoury characters, from helpful shepherds and villagers to cave-dwelling hermits. In travelling incognito, Alexandra learned and lived her own version of Tibetan Buddhism. For example, she developed and used the fire of tumo, a meditative method of physiologically warming the body that was useful in the extreme conditions of the Himalayas (p. 101).  In one side adventure, Alexandra was witness to a powa recitation, the “mystic incantation” that is chanted at the deathbed of a Buddhist to assist with the transference of consciousness to the next life (p. 113). And she experienced dream yoga after an encounter with a mysterious lama who insisted that she stop travelling incognito so that she could once again wear the rosary and rings of an initiate of Tibetan Buddhism (pp. 135 – 136). The effect of the first person narratives reads like a first-hand description of lived Tibetan Buddhism during the mid-twentieth century.

There is one more success in Harke’s first novel that I wish to mention in case it is overlooked. Whether intentional or not, her renderings of the European cultural contexts behind Alexandra’s story are instructive. The glimpses into the modus operandi of the Theosophical Society gave me a sense of how Theosophy and Spiritualism dovetailed with Buddhism and Hinduism at the turn of the twentieth century. Further, the systemic Orientalism that pervaded (and still permeates) Western societies’ perspectives of the “other” are evident in the form of descriptions of Protestant Buddhism: an idea of  a “pure” Buddhism interpreted from the Pali canon that discredits and excludes any “folk ritual” and “superstition.” Orientalist representations are described in some of Alexandra’s surprised reactions to her early experiences of Buddhism outside of Europe. For example, in a scene rendered from 1891, Alexandra was in Colombo and for the first time attended a Buddhist temple only to be greeted with “a huge Buddha lacquered in a hideous canary yellow, like something in a lurid carnival. By its side supplicants had placed a package of toothpicks and a glass jar containing preserved carrots and peas. Do they really think that the Buddha nibbles pickled vegetables as he meditates? (p. 35).” Decades later, after living as a Buddhist in Tibet, her reactions to such forms of lived religion were conveyed as quite the opposite. Lastly, the juxtaposition of Alexandra’s feminism poised against European culture at the fin de siecle is played out beautifully in her patronly marriage to her husband “Mouchy” and her adoptive “parenting” of a Tibetan Buddhist lama, Yongden.

You can find Incognito: The Astounding Life of Alexandra David-Neel through Sumeru Books http://www.sumeru-books.com/dd-product/incognito-the-astounding-life-of-alexandra-david-neel/

or through Amazon.com https://www.amazon.com/Incognito-Astounding-Life-Alexandra-David-Neel/dp/1896559336

Happy reading!!!