Saturday, March 1, 2014

In Search of Buddhist Fiction

Daydreaming as a college instructor with limited courses assigned over and over teaches me "what goes around comes around." Faced with a Lazy Susan rotation and a steam-table of mandated texts and modules, I yearn to explore ideas not only on my own as in my reading but within a circle of students, given my avocation.

Lately, two ideas while sitting in my bathtub. Given where I live, I'm not sure Irish or Irish American fiction's the easier L.A. sell. Kicking around an idea for an imaginary course in option two, much as I suspect airy dabblers or self-realized adepts in these haunts who might sign up for Buddhist Fiction, here's a partial reading list. I'd begin with a grounding, if via a suitably for me restless and sly selection: Glenn Wallis' deceptively titled "Basic Teachings of the Buddha". Its phenomenological gloss enhances its maturity and depth. Perhaps for comparison to our Western mentality, I'd next contemplate "Life of Milarepa" newly in Penguin classics, but did its Tibetan author intend it as fiction, or fact? Easier is the first, if stolid, novel written in English by a Bhutanese woman, Kunzang Choden's "The Circle of Karma" even though it reveals in the put-upon protagonist's exile in Sikkim and India its forced or willed encounters with greater impacts outside a Buddhist heartland, as she toils to build roads in.

After that, I fingered three novels as front runners. For historical context and mythic jumpstart, I'd start off with "The Dharma Bums" although I prefer the retrospectively cautionary tale within Jack Kerouac's massive messy notebooks as "Some of the Dharma". Not sure what to fill the shelf space between the Beats and those of us who've grown up after Beatlemania and the Maharishi. That generated earnest proclamations and aimless if inevitable babble-baby steps, but it may secure surely some "terton": a "terma" text tucked away as raw ore if not a "wish-fulfilling gem" for rediscovery.

As a pertinent detour, in college I found the opening chapter of John Nichols' 1981 (the novel slid downhill after) "The Nirvana Blues" a potent distillation of the Sixties' blooming bouquet and blowsy aftertaste for New Mexico's New Age. But, for those of us too young to remember much ("Sgt. Pepper" appeared the month that I finished first grade), how has Buddhism entered post-hippie or post-boomer, Gen-X fiction? Krishna-core via straight-edge punk inspired Eleanor Henderson's "Ten Thousand Saints", but my archival glances haven't led to a treasure-text Buddhist equivalent in fiction to Brad Warner's "hardcore Zen" or Noah Levine's "dharma punx". For those of us reared in less starry-eyed times, as a child during Aquarian dawn, I'd precede a pair of mainstream, millennial novels about folks entering middle age in what Wallis labels as "unease" compelling them to yearn for meaning-- Keith Kachtick's "Hungry Ghost" and Anne Donovan's "Buddha Da" --with titles where excerpts from these appeared, the short story collections "Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree", and "You Are Not Here and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction".

Speaking of this term, I then searched online to find a couple of helpful resources. I wanted to find a later 20th century work worth seeking out. First, via the suitably eclectic Unitarian Universalist website, Kimberly French's "Guide to Buddhist Fiction" (2010) provides all of the above--except Kerouac! So does the more scholarly project of a Canadian doctoral candidate.

Kimberly Beek's "Buddhist Fiction Blog"(2011-) goes deeper, reminding me of my own attempts via WorldCat to find such obscurities as Elsie Sze's "The Heart of the Buddha" in my own research on accounts of Bhutan. The outlier Xinran's PRC-friendly, Chinese bestselling view of liberated Tibet, "Sky Burial" shows the reach of Beek's investigation, beyond the expected Hesse. While I favor the late Joachim Neugroschel's skillful translation of "Siddhartha" as opposed to predecessors (check out his version of Sade's "Philosophy of the Bedroom" as an friskier adventure into palatial or carceral, half-mad erotica), I find Hesse's evocation too familiar via teens wanting a "short book" for a report. I have my hunches about why that German master titled it (obliquely, coyly, wisely?) the way he did.

For a book that will never be chosen for brevity unless by hapless teens who may then switch to the film for comparative if not cinematic concision, I note both Kimberlies feature David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas."" I had wanted to read this years before the movie, and having failed for better or worse to lure my family to see it in the theater (we did choose with my paternal lobbying "On the Road" rather than "Zero Dark Thirty" for the 2012 birthdate of the Prince of Peace), and while I still know nearly nothing about it, a densely esoteric po-mo subtext encourages me, I had to hunt it down. It was checked out everywhere post-flick even if that tanked at the box office: I did enjoy it. At least it found a wider audience. From the library, John Burdett's wobbly but whirlwind mystery thriller "The Godfather of Kathmandu"  reminded me of Victor Pelevin's Russian box-layered tales to unlock. The Warchovskys might be suited for optioning Pelevin, from the sample that concluded "Nixon"'s entries that I'd admired. Suited for a mash-up as "The Master and Margarita" meet Neo.

Promisingly or dangerously, another far-out pick for the literati, from New Directions, appears on Beek's sidebar. Severo Sarduy's Maitreya (1978) suggests RuPaul's after-party preference for dharma bums. Not sure when I'll up for a tranny take on multiple rebirths, but seeing I've name dropped the Marquis, alluded to the Wachowskis, and touched on Pelevin, a logical progression or transgression. I think Lana's own transition--and she and Andy being raised as their Wiki entry notes by an "ex-Catholic turned Shamanist" mother--directs their own engagement intellectually and spiritually with visions they've channeled into film. The Wiki also credits Hindu texts with a key formative role.

Leads me to wonder about film tie-ins: "The Matrix," "Enter the Void," as well as "Cloud Atlas"? Ruminations after my own doctoral work a decade "in purgatory" spin me off another direction: "Jacob's Ladder," "The Truman Show," "Groundhog Day," "Fight Club," "Memento," and...? I confess avoiding any explications of such films as to relevance so as not to spoil my own quest. That'd be another exciting course to design and direct, combined with lively texts. Out of such musings, I recreate my own Nalanda, my own imaginary locale for entering the inner via the outer medium. I note a Wiki "Films about Buddhism" reveals no titles that look to have escaped the East.

Perusing Beek's list, I welcomed memories from some books from the exotic East via Western eyes which I've enjoyed: Kim Stanley Robinson's alternative history (what if the Black Plague had nearly wiped out Europe, so Christians did not conquer much of the globe?) "The Years of Rice and Salt", Roger Zelazny's phantasmagorical, "altered states" utterly-1967, Hindu (less so Buddhist) clash of the mega-titans as "Lord of Light", Rudyard Kipling's mostly calmer if rather tangential "Kim". (I've started J. Jeffrey Franklin's study of Buddhist reception in 19c Britain, which argues how "Kim" and other texts, factual as well as fictional, represented a "cultural counter-invasion" to Victorian verities.)

However, that trio--and others she includes--may touch more lightly on Buddhism than other influences. Western Buddhist fiction, placing themes within more mundane settings, appears to look within and sometimes pause at rather than plumb its subtler currents. Much as I liked the appropriate second-person voice dominating Keith Kachtick's "Hungry Ghost", that plot felt as if it yearned to loom as a Manhattan-to-Morocco thriller on the big screen. More placidly, Anne Donovan's "Buddha Da" nestles a Glaswegian house painter's shift towards practice within domesticated settings, but it falters in sustaining its tripled narrative perspective and its momentum. Translated into English last year, Bruno Portier's "This Flawless Place Between" unevenly balances the exotic Himalayan and the everyday urban encounters; it boldly depicts the (so-called) Tibetan Book of the Dead come to "life."

Two collections of short stories, one excerpting the first chapter of Kachtick's novel, the other Donovan's first, span the gap between their quotidian orientation and the more vivid or daring fiction that challenges perceptions and plunges the reader into more of the disorientation of Portier, if not quite Zelazny. It's disappointing that speculative fiction at least to my limited gaze has not produced newer imaginative applications of Buddhist thought, but these may lurk under New Age, fantasy, or inspirational categories, which I don't drift among. Blame my skepticism, and my impatience with what nears self-published uplift. That's why for all its colonial insistence, I preferred the energetic  mindset of Kipling, to my surprise. However, that gives way as Franklin follows, to more manifestations of globalization. Turn to two nets of tales plucked from big fish and small fry, grilled on the page to spice, savor, or taste. My appetite tends to roam and wander more than settle down.

Compared to its 2004 predecessor, "Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree""You Are Not Here and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction" 2006 anthology blends more little-known with established names in the Buddhist realm in the West. Its editor, Keith Kachtick, provided his strong opening chapter from his novel, "Hungry Ghost" to the collection of "Nixon" edited by Kate Wheeler, and Kachtick returns the favor with room for her long story, "Ringworm." It's not the only one among volume two's twenty entries to feel semi-autobiographical (at least), but it works as one of the best, as it evokes Burma through a Western nun's eyes---feeding a sick kitten--before one of many military crackdowns.

Many stories, or vignettes, in both collections failed to rouse me to stand up and cheer. Some contributors obviously were included for "marquee draw" from the American Buddhist pantheon of name brands. I do betray my own detachment along with my ongoing interest. I liked some authors lesser known but more ambitious or subversive. What do I want? Fiction as friction, afflicting the comfortable, as the Buddha's message meant to wake us up. The links to both anthologies reviewed reveal who roused me more. Any reader has his or her own reaction. My serpentine, spiraling nature regarding belief tangles me. I squirm with "unease" if pigeonholed. I try to elide denominational bias in my real-world "Contemporary Religions" (as I prepare to teach it again online tomorrow), which does attract the credulous, denying, or dogmatic, along with earnest pilgrims or ornery iconoclasts.

As for these titles, any uncredited links above to all but the unread "Maitreya" (my own reminder), take you to my Amazon reviews for in-depth critiques, and as another guide for online seekers. If you have suggestions for my imaginary course, let me know. Maybe it can reincarnate somehow as real. "Keep Calm and Enter the Void": Image credit.

1 comment:

tony bailie said...

I'll sign up for that course John