What in samsara’s name is Buddhist fiction? Asked to write an article on this topic, I felt doubtful. There’s Buddhist poetry, of course; and Buddhist painting; and Buddhist texts contain a lot of stories that aren’t literally true (and are often, perhaps for that reason, more entertaining than strictly necessary). But what would it mean to call a novel or short story “Buddhist”? That it disproved the existence of its characters? Who’d care about them, then? (Anyway, it’s been done, and not by Buddhists.) Take a novel about an arhat, in whose mind, strictly speaking, nothing happens. Wouldn’t that be . . . boring?
Fiction’s gotta be fiction! It can’t sneak up from behind and clobber you with the Four Noble Truths. It can be compassionate, yes; portray suffering, yes—fiction should portray suffering with humane, ennobling clarity. It should construct a reality that readers are magically taken in by, subliminally amazed by how real it all seems, while remaining an illusion made of language; and fiction should also reveal and thus question the intimate illusions that guide or misguide us through life’s circumstances, otherwise known as karma. If you take all these as definitions, then all good fiction is Buddhist.
Doesn’t this passage, from the season’s hot novel The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, sound almost like an insight one might have while on a Buddhist meditation retreat?
Like an illogical woman in a dream who was both [his wife] and not [his wife], the chair he’d pictured had been at once completely an electric chair and completely Popsicle sticks. It came to him now, more forcefully than ever, that maybe every “real” thing in the world was as shabbily protean, underneath. . . . Maybe his mind was even now doing to the seemingly real hardwood floor on which he knelt exactly what it had done, hours earlier, to the unseen chair. Maybe a floor became truly a floor only in his mental reconstruction of it. The floor’s nature was to some extent inarguable, of course; the wood definitely existed and had measurable properties. But there was a second floor, the floor as mirrored in his head, and he worried that the beleaguered “reality” that he championed was not the reality of an actual floor in an actual bedroom but the reality of a floor in his head which was idealized and no more worthy, therefore, than one of [his wife’s] silly fantasies.
In fact, this passage, from midway through the novel, comes from the mind of an engineer who’s losing his mind to dementia. Considering the character’s (and author’s) intellectual background, this demented insight is less likely derived from Buddhism than from Western philosophy, or the ruminations of a physicist such as Schrödinger, but never mind.
Obviously the concept of Buddhist fiction is fertile ground for a debate that could lead . . . nowhere, or at least to some obnoxious problems.
Oy, such were some of the many doubts that arose when I was asked to write this article. My inner purist began to relax a little, though, when I remembered the old novels that had entranced me and drawn me toward Buddhism in the first place: Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, and James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. What would it be like to reread them? And, having accepted such a reading project, how dull to be stuck in the past. I had to include the contemporary world-class novelists who also happen to be Zen practitioners, like Peter Matthiessen, Jim Harrison, Charles Johnson, J. M. Coetzee and J. D. Salinger.
And then, what about writers from Asia? If Buddhist fiction felt like an impossible category, Buddhist-influenced fiction felt like a fairly roomy one. My reading list grew and grew, even as I shortened it by reading. It became a kind of game. Not that Buddhist-influenced fiction is an inherently superior project to, say, Irish fiction, but I took pleasure in chasing the scent of dharma across the literary landscape, discovering resonances and details, getting recommendations from friends.
The first book I read, and one of the most rewarding—and most Buddhist—was Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, published in 1901. To read it 100 years later was disturbingly educational, since in the book, the British are playing “The Great Game” for control of Central Asia. It was one of the favorite novels of a generation of British colonial spies and adventurers, many of whom reread it annually. Kim is also a ripping good yarn, suitable for older kids and parents to read together. In my own personal history, it was an eerie reliving. I’d read Kim several times starting at age twelve, managing to ignore that it recounted the adventures of a young male in India. As an adult, I recognized with some shock how much I’d admired and modeled myself on Kim, the hero—how he’d lost himself in meditation in a train station, identified with various classes of people, slipped the bonds of race and class in order to find freedom. Perhaps this book was responsible for many of my choices in life!
Reading it again was complicated, however, by my awareness of Kipling’s dated social perceptions (read: traces of Victorian racism and colonialism). Yet the book is also full of his genuine love of India and respect for its people. Inspired to do a little research, I learned that Kipling hated being sent back to England for school; writing about an Irish-Indian boy going wild in the Lahore bazaars may well have been a wish-fulfillment. Most characters, including the old lama who helps Kim grow up into a decent human being, are based on real people Kipling met, even if briefly. If he sometimes seems to patronize the lama, and obviously lacks intimacy with Buddhist philosophy, through his portrayal of the gentle lama, including liberation by falling into a common irrigation ditch, Kipling probably reveals what he most wanted for himself.
The lama inclined his solemn head. . . . “Perhaps in a former life it was permitted that I should have rendered thee some service. Maybe”—he smiled—“I freed thee from a trap; or having caught thee on a hook in the days when I was not enlightened, cast thee back into the river.”
“Maybe,” said Kim quietly. He had heard this sort of speculation again and again, from the mouths of many whom the English would not consider imaginative.
From Kim one can roam off into a bazaar of other books—memoirs and histories set in Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk, Colin Thubron, Fitzroy Maclean and Wilfred Thesiger, or the great novels of Joseph Conrad, timely now, about spies and terrorism.
Reining myself back onto the Buddhist track, I reread Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. Set in the time of the historical Buddha, it’s written as a bit of a fable about a young man’s spiritual search. At first, it felt ponderously preachy, what with every character exemplifying something or other. But its poetry eventually won me over; I even found myself less frustrated with Siddhartha’s ending than when I’d first read it as an undergraduate. Back then, I’d wanted more of an enlightenment for the hero (and myself, of course) than just sitting there watching the river flow. In my later 40s, watching the river looks better and better. Again, research taught me some incongruous facts: Hesse hated India and was anti-Buddhist. These tendencies aren’t far from the surface of Siddhartha, given that it’s the hero’s inferior friend who becomes a follower of the historical Buddha, while our hero Siddhartha learns to take life on life’s terms. Still, Hesse’s respect for spiritual quests is obvious, and his quibbles with Buddhism don’t make much difference. Dr. John Makransky, a religion professor at Boston College, tells me that a majority of students who sign up for classes on Buddhism were lured there by this book.
Last on the golden oldies list, I reread James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, which was made into a movie by Frank Capra that’s worth checking out, especially for its fabulous sets. Lost Horizon too can be accused of a repulsive list of “isms.” Its setting, Shangri-La, is the proverbial expression of Tibet’s mystique and allure for Westerners, and yet, in the novel, the hidden valley’s secret of longevity is discovered by a white man and is only possible for Europeans. That’s why a Tibetan pilot hijacks a small planeload of Westerners and takes them to Shangri-La in the first place. It’s a good story, though, if you’re willing to remind yourself that Hilton, had he been educated today, would undoubtedly have learned better.
The portrayal of Lost Horizon’s American hero is a glowing testament to Western yogis. Similar characters exist in Somerset Maugham’s Razor’s Edge and in the work of Christopher Isherwood, a Vedantist. These seekers’ internal quests lead them away from conventional achievements into what looks like eccentricity. But, as the novels take pains to interpret for us, these are superior minds, searching in Asia for genuine, personal solutions to problems Western thought supposedly cannot resolve.
I’ll go out on a limb and say that for some reason books written since the 1950s can’t quite bring themselves to lionize an overtly spiritual life. I mined a subgenre of recent comic novels, mostly written by children of 60s-generation hippies, that include seekers as characters. Deluded, they sometimes reach a degree of transcendence or transformation. Among these are Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season and Allegra Goodman’s Paradise Park.
For whatever reason, in fiction these days—even if it’s written by practitioners—most illuminations are left for ordinary folk, not seekers. Maybe it’s safer that way. In Jim Harrison’s latest set of novellas, The Beast God Forgot to Invent, we hear from aging machos who muse on life with irony and a directness issuing from the torn-down remains of their arrogance.
There is the vague notion that you can’t escape the shit of life because you are also shit. I had spent a marvelous week simply being ill, at times uncomfortable but utterly diverted from problematical thinking. I ignored my large stack of brain books. A little knowledge is not so much dangerous as useless. . . .
Harrison does his Zen along with drinking a lot of red wine and living in wild and remote places. His novellas work with quirky problems of identity and perception, and so I felt (since I wanted to) that I might have found some creeping influence of meditation on his fiction writing.
I corresponded with Joan Silver, a fellow novelist-practitioner. Her book Lucky Us has a quotation from Buddhist psychiatrist Mark Epstein on the title page. Silver said she hoped the book lived up to it, but other than that she didn’t talk about how her work was Buddhist. (She did say that it sometimes irked her to hear meditation instructions to abandon one’s storyline.) Her novel is a true-love story of a young woman, Elisa, who seduces a middle-aged man. The man Gabe’s spirit is a bit banged up by his early mistakes; his attitude is a familiar kind of resigned nihilism, one of those visions of worldly futility defended by its holders as quasi-Buddhist. After Elisa discovers she’s HIV-positive, Gabe’s low expectations become a kind of bottom line on which she finds rest. The way their love overcomes the odds against it felt both genuine and possible, so I decided for myself that the book had a Buddhist quality—compassion. And that as such, it could point a way for fiction to be Buddhist, rather than by technical innovation like lack of an ending.
A more traditional, culturally Indian spiritual heroism is found in Gita Mehta’s lovely 1993 novel, A River Sutra. This book seems an answer to Siddhartha by a writer who knows her India, and knows and loves her Hinduism far better than any old German ever could. It’s also a fable—a sutra, it calls itself—but one that is written with so supple and fine a texture that real life and myth seem to intertwine. It’s not Buddhist; rather, it’s broadly and proudly Indian, with Hindu, Muslim and Jain characters.
Listening to the purity of each note, Master Mohan felt himself being lifted into . . . the mystic raptures of the Sufis who were . . . moved to dance by such music. For the first time he understood why the Sufis believed that once a man began to dance in the transport of his ecstasy, the singers must continue until the man stopped dancing lest the sudden breaking of the dancer’s trance should kill him.
Japanese writers in general seem a bit more overtly Buddhist, surely because of the close association of classical Japanese culture with Zen. As exemplified in Yasunari Kawabata’s very short Palm of the Hand Stories, possibly modeled on haiku, the Zen aesthetic, emphasizing the ordinary, seems to allow pain and beauty to coexist without too much philosophical baggage. Harumi Setouchi wrote a pair of powerful, bleak novellas, The End of Summer, and then became a nun. Haruki Murakami’s miraculously laconic tone also seems to owe some of its latitude to the traditionless tradition. This is from his novel Norwegian Wood:
In the darkness, I returned to that small world of hers. I smelled the meadow grass, heard the rain at night, . . . and pictured her cleaning the birdhouse and caring for the vegetables with that soft, beautiful body of hers wrapped in the yellow rain cape.
Published this year, Samraat Upadhyay’s book of short stories, Arresting God in Kathmandu, led the San Francisco Chronicle to call him “a Buddhist Chekhov”—whatever that means. Upadhyay is not an avowed Buddhist any more than growing up in Nepal would require. His epigraph for Arresting God illustrates: “Upon waking in the morning, think to yourself, ‘I am awake in a dream.’ When you enter the kitchen, recognize it as a dream kitchen.” This is from the Bön Lama Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, so it isn’t precisely Buddhist, though it might as well be. It’s interesting to contemplate what happens to the quotation in juxtaposition with the stories—it stops being philosophy in order to shed a tender, almost comic light on the very human tragedies in the fiction, making them seem more real rather than more dreamlike, i.e., less real. These stories are unsentimental, full of details that seem to combust completely, like an object well-seen by the eye of meditation. Yet the effect is not to offer some “higher” truth; it is simply to make us say, “This is life!” or “This is human!” This delicate realism is surely why Chekhov was invoked. It helps us recognize, with compassion and awareness, the stories and feelings of which our own lives are composed.
[Ganesh] had recently told a friend at work that he did not understand his wife. He had said it casually, as if it were a joke. His friend blew into his cupped palms, as he always did when considering a serious matter. “Do you think your wife has a secret life?” he asked.
“There’s something about her,” Ganesh said, shaking his head. Lately he had been studying her; he watched her while she slept, tried to imagine her thoughts when she stirred eggplant or beans in the kitchen. He also wanted to know what she thought about when he wasn’t around, what areas her mind lingered on. He suspected that her thoughts excluded him, and this possibility filled him with dismay, with pain.
Fiction doesn’t get much better than this, for me anyway.
This week I’m reading The Skull Mantra, a detective novel set in a Tibetan prison camp. Maybe I’ll visit the local science fiction bookstore and ask about Buddhist-influenced titles. I’ve also ordered Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years, set in Tibet and written by a Tibetan; and a novel by Catherine Gammon, who gave up fiction for Zen work at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center.
Let’s just say months have passed, and I’m happy to report I still haven’t discovered anything that makes fiction Buddhist. But the quest is not finished. I invite anyone who’s interested to join in. Beware, though, of starting a never-ending project.
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