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Guide to Buddhist fiction

A guide to contemporary and classic Buddhist fiction.
By Kimberly French
Spring 2010 2.15.10

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In my search for “Buddhist fiction,” I asked a wide sampling of American Buddhists—friends, teachers, UU ministers, writers, bloggers, even publishers—what they’d recommend, what they’d been reading. Each, somewhat apologetically, came up with only a few titles.

Nowhere did I find a bibliography, or a bookshelf labeled “Buddhist fiction” at a library or bookstore. That may well be because fiction with Buddhist authors, characters, and themes crosses so many already established genres. Clearly, such a list was needed. Here is my start.

Contemporary novels

Breakfast with Buddha. By Roland Merullo. (Algonquin Books, 2007) This enormously enjoyable road and spiritual trip, whose conceit has a liberal New York food editor tricked by his flaky sister into driving cross-country with her eclectic Siberian guru, will squarely hit the middle-aged UU demographic and funny bone. With a light touch, Merullo draws on thirty years of spiritual reading and meditation retreats to develop the Rinpoche’s lessons.

Buddha Da. By Anne Donovan. (Carroll & Graf, 2002) Writing in a Scottish brogue that takes a bit of getting used to, 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.

The Buddha, Geoff and Me. By Edward Canfor-Dumas. (Rider and Co., 2005) Billed as a modern, urban novel, this tale by a longtime practicing Buddhist in Britain outlines the surprises for Ed—who is struggling in his work and love life—after he meets a beer-drinking, smoking, middle-aged, compassionate, and funny Nichiren Buddhist named Geoff.

The Buddha of Suburbia. By Hanif Kureishi. (Penguin, 1991) UU World reader Leonard Butters of Spokane, Wash., recommended this novel, which won the 1990 Whitbread Prize for first novel and was made into a BBC miniseries, finding it “a fun read . . . quite funny, poignant, and sexy (pre-AIDS).” In this satire on sexual manners and race relations, a 17-year-old bisexual man, whose parents immigrated from India to a London suburb, comes of age as his father becomes a meditation guru and marries a follower with a punk rocker son.

Cloud Atlas. By David Mitchell. (Random House, 2004) Six loosely connected stories move this narrative from the nineteenth-century Pacific to present-day England, to futuristic neocapitalist Korea, to post-apocalyptic Hawaii—setting up a puzzle whose solution might just have to do with reincarnation. Ethan Nichtern, founder of Beliefnet’s “One City,” nominated this postmodern title as the best Buddhist novel of the decade.

A Dirty Job. By Christopher Moore. (HarperCollins, 2006) In this surreal novel, the author of Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (about Jesus’s “missing years”) takes on Death. Charlie is doing well until the day his daughter is born, and he sees a mysterious stranger wearing mint green in the room. People start dying wherever he goes, and he soon realizes he’s been enlisted in a new job, helping souls let go and guiding them across the threshold of death.

In the Land of No Right Angles. By Daphne Beal. (Anchor Books, 2008) In this engaging, well-crafted first novel, Alex, a young Midwestern student trekking and taking photographs in Nepal, befriends a young woman who wants to leave her traditional village and work in the city. But the educational and career options for girls and women in Kathmandu are so limited, and the consequences force Alex to struggle with her responsibilities as savior, adventurer, and intruder in a land she cannot fully understand.

Jake Fades: A Novel of Impermanence. By David Guy. (Trumpeter, 2007.) An aging, beloved American Zen monk suffering memory loss knows it’s time to choose his dharma heir. In a weeklong trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a meditation retreat, Jake and his middle-aged student Hank, both very likable and very human, confront aging and letting go, at the same time taking willing readers on an intriguing tour of Zen Buddhism. Tom Tanguay, a meditation teacher and therapist at the Tranquil Mind and Wellness Center in Middleborough, Massachusetts, and an avid reader of Buddhist fiction, says this novel is one of his favorites for the unflinchingly Buddhist way it approaches aging and death; at the same time it’s simply a good read.

Hungry Ghost. By Keith Kachtick. (HarperCollins, 2003) Approaching middle age, a substance-abusing, womanizing freelance photographer seeks out a Buddhist meditation retreat with the intention of mending his ways. Nonetheless, once there, he falls hard for a young, devout Catholic woman, and their romantic standoff tests his resolve. Rod Meade Sperry, who blogs about Buddhist pop culture at theworsthorse.com, calls this sexy novel “a minor masterpiece.”

The Laughing Sutra. By Mark Salzman. (Vintage Books, 1992) After his mother is murdered, Hsun-ching is cared for by a pious monk, whose ambition is to recover from America the Laughing Sutra, the only Buddhist text he does not possess. Part adventure story, part satire, part fable, part coming-of-age tale, this novel sends Hsun-ching on a journey from China to Hong Kong to San Francisco to recover the scriptures.

Once on a Moonless Night. By Dai Sijie. (Knopf, 2009) An unnamed Western student in 1970s China falls in love with a greengrocer near the Forbidden City, who tells her the story of a lost silk scroll with a Buddhist sutra written on it in an ancient language. When her lover disappears, she begins to unravel the stories within stories of China’s past and the truth of the Buddha’s lesson that began “Once on a moonless night . . .”

Sitting Practice. By Caroline Adderson. (Trumpeter, 2009) In this dark yet comic novel, a freak automobile accident leaves newlyweds Iliana paralyzed and Ross grief-stricken. Through love, they explore the life of the body as well as the spirit, and the importance of being in the moment.

Stones of the Dalai Lama. By Ken Mitchell. (Soho Press, 1993) An academic from North Dakota thoughtlessly lifts two sacred stones from an archaeological site while on a sabbatical in China, and ever since his life has fallen apart. Braving many difficulties, he makes a trek through Asia with an auto mechanic to return them.

The Traveler. By John Twelve Hawks. (Doubleday, 2005) Many American Buddhists have been intrigued by this cult novel by a native American writer who describes himself as living “off the grid,” because of its parallels to the six cycles of existence in Buddhist teaching.

Where Do We Go from Here? By Doris Dörrie. (Bloomsbury, 2000.) In this comic novel by the German filmmaker, a boorish but still sympathetic womanizer brings his daughter to a Buddhist meditation retreat in southern France and has to face himself.

Classics and parables

The Garden: A Parable. By Geshe Michael Roach. (Doubleday, 2000.) A longtime American Buddhist monk, ordained after years of study in Tibet, Roach weaves an enlightening tale of a young man lured by his lover into a garden, where he meets the great Tibetan teachers, starting with the first Dalai Lama.

Kim. By Rudyard Kipling. Perhaps the West’s first Buddhist novel, Kipling’s adventure classic tells the story of an orphaned boy who seizes opportunities, first by serving as a guide for a Buddhist priest on a quest in India and then as a secret agent for a British spy.

Monkey: A Journey to the West. By Wu Ch’eng-en, retold by David Kherdian. (Shambhala, 2005.) Written during the sixteenth-century Ming Dynasty, this classic allegory recounts the adventures of the trickster Monkey as he travels to India in search of a Buddhist sacred text with the pilgrim Tripitaka. This abridged translation of the 100-chapter folk novel makes good bedtime reading for older children.

Siddhartha. By Hermann Hesse. This novel about a young Indian man who rejects his Brahmin caste, meets the Buddha (who also happens to be named Siddhartha), and embarks on his own search for enlightenment, has been required reading in many a literature class and the introduction to the Buddha for many Westerners.

The Story of the Stone, or The Dream of the Red Chamber. Five volumes. By Cao Xueqin and Gao E, translated by David Hawkes. (Penguin Classics, 1986) This humorous story of the glory and decline of the Jia family in China was written in the eighteenth century. Even so, Theraveda teacher and novelist Kate Wheeler says, this novel feels “so contemporary it’s amazing” and is “a must” on any list of Buddhist fiction. It plays with, she says, “the Buddhist consciousness that life is somewhat or almost fictional” and shows “how the fictions create karma in the characters’ minds.”

Historical fiction

The Years of Rice and Salt. By Kim Stanley Robinson. (Bantam Books, 2002) What if the fourteenth-century plague had killed 99 percent of Europe’s population rather than just a third? In this epic novel, the Hugo-winning author imagines a world in which the first ship to reach the New World comes across the Pacific Ocean rather than the Atlantic.

Mystery/detective

The Godfather of Kathmandu. By John Burdett. (Knopf, 2010) Burdett’s devout yet irreverent detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep may be one of the most Buddhist characters in popular fiction, with his glimpses of past lives and spiritual insights. Other titles in the series include Bangkok 8 (2003), Bangkok Tattoo (2006), and Bangkok Haunts (2007).

The Lord of Death. By Eliot Pattison. (Soho Crime, 2009) This is the latest in a series of powerful, complex political thrillers, in which Inspector Shan Tao Yun is sustained physically and spiritually by the Tibetan lamas, themselves persecuted by the Chinese. Other titles that prominently feature Buddhist characters include Beautiful Ghosts (2004) and The Skull Mantra (1999), the first in the series, which won an Edgar Award.

Science fiction

Lord of Light. By Roger Zelazny. (Doubleday & Co., 1967) The science fiction classic and Hugo-winning Lord of Light, which was rereleased in paperback in 2004, spins a tale of a people who possess a reincarnation technology and set themselves up as immortal Hindu gods on another planet after Earth has died. But one, who was named Siddhartha and now goes by Sam, revolts against their tyranny. The Rev. James Ishmael Ford, Zen master and minister of the First Unitarian Church of Providence, Rhode Island, remembers this “fun exploration of Buddhist themes . . . was important to me when I was a teen.”

Short stories

Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction. Edited by Kate Wheeler. (Wisdom Publications, 2004.) This is the collection that claims to be the first anthology of American Buddhist fiction, ranging from short impressionistic pieces to longer narratives. Especially notable are “In the Sky There Is No Footstep” by Margo McLoughlin, “The War Against the Lawns” by Easton Waller, and “The Golden Mix” by Ira Sukrungruang.

Not Where I Started From. By Kate Wheeler. (Houghton Mifflin, 1993) Wheeler, a longtime American Theraveda Buddhist teacher and ordained nun, drew on her own experiences, growing up around the globe—stories are set in Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Paris, and Kansas—in this collection of ten short stories.

You Are Not Here and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction. Edited by Keith Kachtick. (Wisdom Publications, 2006.) Following up its first anthology, Wisdom published this second collection of short Buddhist fiction. Standouts include “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain” by Robert Olen Butler, “For You” by Jess Row, and “Circling the Hondo” by Mary Yukari Waters.

Children and young adult

Buddha Boy. By Kathe Koja. (Speak, 2004.) In a rich suburban high school, a new boy who has converted to Buddhism, dresses strangely, and begs at lunch attracts the attention of bullies. In this young adult novel, Justin, a classmate whose main goal is staying below their radar, finds himself drawn to the artistic and deeply religious boy and struggles with how to do the right thing.

Taneesha Never Disparaging. By M. LaVora Perry. (Wisdom Publications, 2008.) Classmates of Taneesha, a fifth grader running for class president, have discovered her family is Buddhist and are taunting her that she’s going to hell. This middle school story includes Buddhist characters in a timely tale about the issues every kid faces.

Zen Shorts. By Jon J. Muth. (Scholastic Press, 2005.) This story about a lovable panda who teaches three ancient yet very relevant koans to three children, won a Caldecott Honor medal for children’s literature.


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