Wisdom has long been one of our best publishers of Buddhist books and it is good to see them venture into the field of literature. The twenty stories in this collection — the second in a series — are worthy and wide-ranging, although it may be noted that the Buddhism is mostly tilted towards the Zen and Tibetan traditions.
Yet the thesis proposed in the title is in danger of sinking some of the stories under its weight. Is “Buddhist fiction” written by Buddhists? Or with an explicitly Buddhist subject?
To try and delay these (potential) objections I deliberately read each story before I referred to the biographical notes at the end. Interestingly I discovered two of my favorite pieces — Kate Wheeler’s “Ringworm” and Jess Row’s “For You” — checked both boxes. Their writers are practitioners, and the stories are about Westerners trying to study Buddhism within an Eastern context. And both succeed in the way we want literature to succeed: individual glimpses at individual lives which, in their after-glow, open out to leave us touched with greater sympathy and understanding.
Rather than labels it is this quality of attention that should mark out Buddhist fiction. Stories that give us a deeper sense of the patterns of existence — which Buddhists after all have spent thousands of years mapping; a better understanding of the volitions and tendencies that go to shape us. There are enough of such moments to make this collection valuable. Here for example is an exquisite passage from Mary Yukari Waters’ “Circling the Hondo.” A Japanese grandmother whose life is coming to an end is reading a fairy tale to her two young grandsons:
She looked over her bifocals into Terao’s eyes. Their whites were clear and unveined. Limpid irises, like shallow water — she could see almost to the bottom. Terao must be imagining Urashimataro’s predicament now, the way she did as a child, with the delicious thrill of momentarily leaving the safety of his own world. She marvelled at his innocence, at his little mind’s unawareness of all that lay around and beneath him. His older brother’s mind, on the other hand, was branching out rapidly. But he too had far to go; the expanses of time and space, of human understanding, had yet to unfold.
The current of our humanity being transmitted from one generation to the next. That spark of self-consciousness which, if turned the right way, becomes the key to our awakening.
Manjusvara’s Writing Your Way — a guide to writing and Buddhist practice — was published by Windhorse in 2005.