Sitting, with a good Buddhist novel
Telling stories could be one of the most 'present' things we could do.
For a long time that’s as far as my exposure to Buddhism went, certainly in literature.
Then, a few years back, I came across the story “Ringworm” by Kate Wheeler, in the collection Not Where I Started From (Houghton Mifflin, 1993). She had originally published it as a nonfiction account of her five months cloistered behind the walls of a Theravadan monastery in a Rangoon suburb, while the military government brutally quashed the 1988 uprising by Burmese students and ordinary citizens outside.
In her revised fictional story, a young American whom the abbot has named Sumana shaves her head weekly, wears four layers of pink robes, lives in a hot and mildewed dorm with five other “foreign women,” eats two morning meals then drinks only glucose tea, and sits seven hours and walks seven more in meditation each day. She’d heard that young girls would attain what the Burmese call cessation—liberation, or the end of suffering—during their summer holidays and thought surely she could, too. She admits the banal, guilty distractions that block her and that she knows would annoy the monks: feeding a stray cat, jotting down observations in a notebook, getting crushes, pretending to meditate. Her path was both grindingly ordinary and momentarily exhilarating, almost unimaginable to my Western mind.
“I tried to remember what time I sat down,” Sumana describes her moments of bliss. “I think it was eleven. I felt as if I had been sitting for two minutes, but actually an hour had passed. . . . It was absolutely different. My mind was on rails, a locomotive. The body swung free, unconstrained by perpetual attention.”
I’ve kept an eye out for more of Wheeler’s writing. She’s now at work on her second novel, about a group of American Buddhists who travel to Asia to meet a teacher. A few years ago an anthology she edited, Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree (Wisdom Publications, 2004) billed itself as the first collection of Buddhist fiction. In 2006 Wisdom published a second volume, You Are Not Here, edited by Keith Kachtick, in which “Ringworm” also appears.
The stories in these two anthologies range from short-short impressionistic musings (Jeff Wilson’s “Buddherotica,” Marie Henry’s “At the Change of Seasons”); to modern parables (Dinty Moore’s “No Kingdom of the Eyes,” Mark Salzman’s “The Laughing Sutra”); to glimpses into the lives of Asian and Asian-American Buddhists (Mary Yukari Waters’s “Circling the Hondo,” Robert Olen Butler’s “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain”); to instruction on how to meditate, in the guise of a story (Geshe Michael Roach’s “Meditation”).
But the ones that attracted me most were simply well-written stories that happened to be about “convert” Buddhists, Westerners who have crossed cultural boundaries to walk the Buddhist path. With compassion and a good dose of humor, these stories depict people as they struggle with their meditation practices and with the relationships in their lives. I identified with a houseguest in Samantha Schoech’s “The Good People of Lake George,” in You Are Not Here, who stays in a family friend’s “shrine room”:
Apparently everyone in Vermont is now a Buddhist. . . . She knows just enough to know she doesn’t know very much. But, still, her father calls her a natural, tells her she’s a Buddhist at heart. She’s not so sure, but she enjoys the feeling of belonging to these people . . .
In “Buddha Da”—written in a Scottish brogue that takes a bit of getting used to—Anne Donovan explores what happens to a Glasgow house painter and his family after he’s drawn into the neighborhood Buddhist center for meditation and tea. When a talk addresses reincarnation at his first retreat, he reacts: “As far as ah’m concerned, wanst yer deid, yer deid. Aw the stuff ah wis brought up wi, heaven and hell and limbo and the next life—that wis daft enough, but compared tae reincarnation it sounded dead sensible.”
In “For You” by Jess Row, a young man—whose marriage and freelance photography career take a dive after his wife, a high-powered financial analyst, is transferred to Hong Kong—turns to a two-month meditation retreat to help him find “a path through the darkness,” and finds himself in a role reversal with his teacher.
Since those anthologies were published, I started noticing more short stories by Buddhist authors or featuring Buddhist characters or themes in magazines and journals. While I enjoyed the short stories, my true love is novels, and I kept looking for a juicy Buddhist novel to sink my teeth into.
What qualifies as “Buddhist fiction”? Certainly American literature has been graced with a number of masterful authors who happen to be Buddhists—J.D. Salinger, Charles Johnson, Peter Matthiessen. At the same time, American writers have been fascinated by Buddhism ever since it was introduced in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1844, The Dial, a Transcendentalist literary journal edited by Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, published the first English version of part of the Saddharmapundarika (Lotus) Sutra, which Elizabeth Palmer Peabody translated from French.
In the 1950s, Beat writers such as Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Kenneth Rexroth became interested in Zen Buddhism at the same time they rejected mainstream American culture. The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac’s book about the Beat generation, boosted the religion’s popularity, especially among young Americans.
Then in the 1970s, Peace Corps workers Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield became students of the Theravada tradition of southeast Asia, with its modern focus on making meditation practice accessible to laypeople. On returning to the States, with Sharon Salzberg they popularized for American-born students what is known as Insight Meditation.
In the past several decades, Buddhism has grown dramatically—because of the growth both in Asian immigrants and in American-born converts—making it the fourth most common religious identity (after Christianity, Judaism, and nonreligious) in this country, which has a larger Buddhist population than any other Western country.
All around me, in my church, among friends, even in my own house, are meditators. I admire their discipline, their calm, their waking early—I do nothing important early—and their sitting. At one circle dinner I facilitated at my church, the meditators pleaded for longer quiet and meditation time in our worship service, and whenever I serve as worship leader, I am mindful of that, stretching our “moment of meditation” out into seven long breaths.
Now, some may say that “Buddhism and fiction don’t go together, because the dharma is so much about grounding one’s attention in the present moment,” Ethan Nichtern recently posted to Beliefnet’s “One City” Buddhist blog. “However, life does have a beautiful narrative structure, and I think that telling stories could be one of the most ‘present’ things we could do.”
Kate Wheeler admits she was uncomfortable putting “Buddhist” and “fiction” together, even as she was assembling the first anthology. In the introduction she writes:
It exists like the horn of the rabbit—only because we have thought of it . . . [F]rom the Buddhist point of view, to invent more stories, full of more characters who love and fight and die without ever having truly been, is a redoubled version of the existential mistake that lies at the heart of all suffering. Everything that seems to be happening to ‘you’ and ‘me’ is already like a fiction, from a Buddhist’s standpoint, and the thing to do is to unravel your involvement in the story, not become entranced and follow it to the end.
As Buddhism has grown here, it is only natural that Buddhist characters and themes will show up more in contemporary American literature.
One Buddhist publisher told me that a novel is a rare thing in his world, but they do exist. I asked a sampling of “convert Buddhists”—friends, UU ministers, writers, bloggers. Each, somewhat apologetically, came up with a few titles. Then I discovered that Shambhala Sun had declared “an explosion of Buddhist fiction in the West” a few years ago; more recently the Religion News Service announced “a bevy of Buddhist fiction writers . . . who say Dharma-tinged themes—the constancy of change, the limits of human reason, the self-denial of true compassion—often lie just below the surface of their stories.” At the end of 2009, Beliefnet’s Ethan Nichtern named Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell as his pick for the best Buddhist novel of the decade, and invited other nominees. Rod Meade Sperry, who blogs about Buddhist pop culture at theworsthorse.com, told me he considers Keith Kachtick’s novel Hungry Ghost (Harper Perennial, 2004) “a minor masterpiece.” Soon I had a list of a couple dozen. (It’s online at uuworld.org.)
Still, you won’t find a “Buddhist fiction” shelf at your local bookstore. Rather, novels with Buddhist authors, characters, and themes are showing up across the spectrum of fiction genres:
Mystery: John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep series—Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts (Random House)—and Eliot Pattison’s Tibetan Inspector Shan Tao Yun series—The Skull Mantra, Beautiful Ghosts (Soho Crime);
Science fiction: the classic, Hugo-winning Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny (rereleased by Eos, 2004);
Children’s literature: Jon Muth’s Caldecott Honor book Zen Shorts (Scholastic Books, 2005);
The books started to arrive, and I began to read. One grabbed me in the first pages with its sure, witty voice: Jake Fades: A Novel of Impermanence by David Guy (Trumpeter, 2007). Or maybe it was because its cover featured a black-rimmed diner cup full of black coffee—hitting me squarely in my own object of attachment.
Come to think of it, the coffee cup on the cover is one of several things it shares with another recent, highly enjoyable novel, Roland Merullo’s Breakfast with Buddha (Algonquin Books, 2007). Both are buddy books about a spiritual teacher and a middle-aged male student with an obstructive obsession; both deal with what we pass down to our children, our students; both take the reader straight into the tedium, terror, and transcendence of sitting and meditating, struggling alone to quiet the writhing beast of one’s own mind; and both had me giggling in the first few pages.
Two monks walk into a bar. That’s how Jake Fades starts. In an unpretentious dive in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an oversexed barkeep takes a shine to the older monk, kissing his bald head, as her usual customers trade profane catcalls. Jake, an aging Zen teacher, has come to Cambridge with his longtime student Hank to lead a retreat organized by a wealthy patroness who has never succeeded on the zabuton. A former cab driver, Jake has lived out his life as a bicycle mechanic in Bar Harbor, Maine, where a small but enthusiastically devoted following of students have sought him out.
Twenty years earlier, newly divorced, on a disastrous vacation with a resentful adolescent son, Hank had found through Jake and meditation a way out of his pain and self-loathing. Now Jake, suffering spells of memory loss, knows it is time to choose his dharma heir. But no one else, including Hank, thinks he’s ready to step into the role.
The central characters felt like people I know (the Unitarian Universalist church even gets mentioned a couple times): They’re smart, likable, and delightfully human. Jake indulges in chocolate doughnuts and cheap eats at out-of-the-way dives, but he’s also “hard-assed and tough-minded,” Hank tells us, when it comes to his students and his practice. Hank stays just barely in control of what has to be called a sexual addiction.
In the hands of a capable storyteller like Guy, I went happily into their inner lives, the secrets the characters kept from one another, and right into the zendo for seven days of sitting and meditating.
It’s a pleasure to read good fiction, with characters dealing with the usual stuff, the longing for love and the fear of death, but grounded in a religious practice that feels at once intriguing, even exotic, and yet compatible and not heavy-handed. Good fiction transports us to worlds we’ll never know firsthand, even within our own borders, both outer and inner.
For Westerners who, like UUs, are often accused of living too much in our heads, Buddhism invites us to sit, letting go of the mind’s own tricks and fictions. But reading, too, can be a form of meditation. Buddhist fiction also entices us to sit—while savoring the pleasure of a good read.
See sidebar for links to related resources, including a bibliography of classic and contemporary Buddhist fiction.