issue 23 Summer 04
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State of the art encounter

Buddhist fiction - a new genre - has hit the shelves. Erin Ferguson asks editor Kate Wheeler about a collection of short stories called Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree.

A couple of years ago Kate Wheeler reflected in a Buddhist magazine that while many fiction writers had a strong Buddhist message, nobody was explicitly writing 'Buddhist fiction'. She herself is an exception - a former Buddhist nun living in Massachusetts, who has received numerous awards for her fiction and short stories. After her essay appeared, people wrote to her mentioning other exceptions. The editors at Wisdom thought that a critical mass had been reached, and the result is Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction. Even before it is published, the anthology has created a buzz: something is definitely in the air.

To me, the idea of Buddhist fiction suggested a painful writing workshop assignment: 'Use Dharmic themes to write credible fiction. Have your characters realise the truth of all things. Include giving up wrong views, descriptions of meditative experiences, and tragic consequences of the law of cause and effect.'

Kate Wheeler has a big, round laugh and a boisterous, engaging personality. When we spoke I asked her if she felt 'Buddhist fiction' needed to contain an explicit Dharma teaching, or would it suffice simply to illustrate the truth of the human condition? (In which case, I thought, Balzac would surely be a Buddhist writer.) Wheeler responded by saying that fiction, like the Dharma, is a confrontation with life as it is. The characters are made up, just like in the mind, because perception itself is like a fiction. However, when there is a flash of recognition in that made-up world - as in meditation - it can cut to the bone. Then it seems real enough. In a story, Wheeler suggested, our experience might be distilled into a word; conversely, in meditation our experience expands to resonate against some unspeakably profound background.

The stories were chosen, she says, because they were 'satisfying'. While some of them felt to me self-conscious and over-literary, I understood that they were chosen because they depicted discovery and awakening. 'Really good Dharma discourse,' Wheeler said, 'is all about seeing life from the perspective of deep meaning.' As I progressed through the book I felt a growing kernel of recognition. The feeling, as Wheeler put it, that 'yes, life's like that'. This is fiction's gift: the intimacy of someone else's mind closing in on your own, narrowing the gap between self and other.

I still wondered how something called Buddhist fiction could contribute to modern western literature. Wheeler suggested that western fiction often remains mired in the first Noble Truth, depicting the suffering we endure without delving into the third and fourth Noble Truths, the all-important way forward. In general, she mused, western fiction dwells on compassion, but over-exemplifies pain and often reaches an acutely depressing conclusion. She wondered if Buddhist fiction might point to our ability to liberate ourselves from our suffering, to face it, feel it, and loosen our attachment to it.

Are these writers Buddhists? It varies. 'It's not necessary to avow oneself as a Buddhist to be influenced by the Dharma, and even serious Buddhists have mundane aspects to their minds.' First Wheeler looked for writers with names. As a result, the book includes such writers as Victor Pelevin, who offered a previously unpublished story about the last thoughts of Yukio Mishima as he performed ritual suicide. And Pico Iyer, the renowned travel writer, contributed an extract from his book The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto. She also received stories from Doris Dörrie, who wrote about a prison inmate, and Sharon Cameron, who contributed a moving excerpt from Beautiful Work: a Meditation on Pain. Wheeler also chose some authors who had never been published or even written before.

The book's title is taken from the story of a dying actor who experiences a moment of transcendence while acting the part of Richard Nixon, who's also dying. It contains 29 stories, mostly from unsolicited submissions. The writers come from diverse backgrounds and many traditions. One spent eight years in a Japanese monastery; another offers meditation classes in New York City's youth prisons; one is a Catholic who studied the urasenke way of tea; another founded the Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement; yet another is a member of Sri Lanka's Buddhist Publication Society. The strength of their affiliation with Buddhism ranges from the well-known teacher Lama Surya Das, who has twice completed the traditional three-year meditation retreat, to Maggie Speece, an American writer who simply finds Buddhism 'a source of poetic language and interesting stories'.

Short story collections tend to be punctuated affairs, here a gem, there a bit of dull glass. Some of these occur in beautiful Buddhist settings, such as a monastery in England where a nun bakes a cake for her teacher; others unfold in more secular surroundings, such as a tourist-laden Mexican beach where a photographer lets a moment of potential connection slip through his fingers. Some are no more than two or three paragraphs. A story, written by an author I can only imagine to be a closet Buddhist, uses burning as a metaphor for letting go: 'Love is kerosene thrown and flesh a chunk of fuel that will hold fire for a long time É and our whole earth can burn in minutes, each of us with our fingers pausing in an act of undressing on a button that detonates a firestorm out of our own blackened hearts.'

Wheeler believes the collection is timely. 'People want to be informed about the current cultural conversation, and Buddhism is increasingly part of our daily discourse.' Perhaps, I suggested, the book allows non-Buddhists to absorb a set of cultural references without needing to read anything overtly spiritual. 'In a tantric sense, maybe it will help to make the Dharma more accessible,' Wheeler responded. 'The Dharma in the West seems very dynamic right now. We don't have as much to build on as in the East. I'm constantly wondering if our efforts are legitimate. But how is this transplanting of Buddhism to the West legitimised?'

I asked how editing this volume has affected her. 'I'm used to doing my own work, so I felt a vicarious pleasure in other people's capacity to be creative.' It was also an integrating experience both as a writer and meditator. 'I don't always feel synchronised in those two areas of my life - so seeing how other people do it showed me possibilities. I used to think Buddhism had to be Buddhism and writing had to be a very New Yorker kind of writing. Not any more.'

What would Wheeler like for the book? 'I hope it's for everybody. I hope people feel it's both literature and entertainment, something new that bridges Buddhism and literature.' And is she finding new ways to communicate the Dharma? 'It's nothing so grand. This book is an intermingling of a western art form with an Asian sensibility. The specific art form of the literary story doesn't exist within the Buddhist canon, so this book differs from anything that exists within Buddhist arts.'

Lastly, I asked Wheeler if, from a Buddhist point of view indulging in literary pleasures can be a form of escape? A mature and generous mind, she replied, is contented. It doesn't want more, and it has the capacity to give things away. 'There should be no shame in this pleasure. Take it when it comes, let it go when it goes.'

Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree is available from Wisdom Publications, $16.95/ £12.95 p/b