Years ago, when I was just beginning my journey into serious Buddhist practice, I found myself faced with a nagging fear that Zen would hijack my writing career.
Just for the sake of timeline: I began living in and practicing with Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple in 2001. In 1998, I had gotten my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, specializing in fiction. For my thesis, I had completed a collection of short stories, but I always believed I’d eventually write novels. In grad school, I’d written stories about people keeping secrets, about mythical battles, about characters with a deep-seated fear of some internal phantom.
And yet when I looked for a model of Buddhist fiction, I perceived it as very different. I suspected that a Buddhist novelist would only write about Buddhist topics, like compassion, equanimity, loving-kindness and sympathetic joy. That a Buddhist story would strive to present a paragon of good Buddhist behavior. And if, through meditation, I’ve worked out the twists in my own mind, then probably I’d write characters who were less twisted.
Is that what I’m supposed to write?
There are some books of Buddhist children’s stories which, in my opinion, epitomize the kind of storytelling that I don’t want to do. When we have a children’s service at Still Point, it usually ends with reading one of these. They are all parables of children who learn a valuable lesson of acceptance, patience and honesty. And I practice my acceptance and patience when reading them to children, but honestly, I am cringing on the inside. So I know that there are great, timeless children’s books out there–The Monster at the End of This Book, or Harold and the Purple Crayon, or Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. But comparing it with Buddhist Stories for Children feeds my fear that a Buddhist writer is going to be one who makes it cloying and boring.
I’ve been trying to reconcile. Is there a way to keep hold of my dream, my training, my career, while also being devoted to the Buddhist practice?
To spend this summer getting deeper into my writing, I’ve convinced myself to think of it another way. A “Buddhist novelist” is much like a “Buddhist violinist” or “Buddhist plumber.” Works shouldn’t always be infused with specific Buddhist memes. The plumber who practices Buddhism is not going to shape every pipe into an “Om,” and is especially not going to revise the goal of plumbing into teaching people to accept with serenity their leaky faucets and flooded basements. Sure, we could say the Buddhist will act with mindfulness and dedication, with equanimity and patience, but at the end of the day, if there’s a job to do, it must get done. If my novel is shaped by Buddhist thinking, it will be inherent in the way I do it, not deliberate. Much like a musician might be shaped by the nuances of Buddhist practice, without ever saying “Notice how Zen my violin sounds!”
So I’ve been pondering a scene I haven’t written yet where characters talk about what they wish after they die–what kind of arrangement and memorial, and then what they’d want done with their earthly remains. One of these characters is an Indian Muslim, and I am not sure I know what he’d say, what is typically done in those cases and how a young person might choose to question it. I’d found the basics in Wikipedia, but still didn’t feel confident.
In a break from writing, I got a chat message from my friend Sikandar. He lives in Delhi but had just returned from his hometown, Bodhgaya, the most important pilgrimage site for Buddhists, home of the tree where Siddhartha attained enlightenment. In the chat message, Sikandar told me that his grandfather passed away.
“I am so sorry to hear that. My condolences to you and your family. I will keep him in my prayers.”
Then I took a breath.
“Listen, if it won’t make you too sad to talk about it, can you tell me about the funeral? What happens at a Muslim funeral in Bihar?”
I wasn’t sure if I should feel good about mining his story for my novel. But he was happy to tell me about the procession, carrying the remains to the Muslim cemetery. “It’s right by the Buddhist temple, you know,” he told me.
I looked on Google maps. Right behind the Mahabodhi temple, the site where Buddha sat in meditation and awakened, the road changes names, from Butter Lamp Road to Masjid Road. (Masjid is the Hindi word for mosque.) I’d been on that road but didn’t know it had a name–signs and road names are not as common on the ground as they are on Google Maps. And now I had other things to tell in my story–Butter Lamp Road, the Muslim cemetery in the shadow of the tall Buddhist temple, and a train ride taking a sad grandson back to Delhi.
Sikandar should know by now that the currency of my trade is stories; when we met, I asked him to tell me a story while we drank our chai on the road that Google Maps lists as “80 Feet Statue Road.”
Anyone who befriends a writer should know that telling a writer a story is taken as an invitation to re-tell, to put in writing. Even the stories you don’t think you’re telling, if the writer notices your odd turn of phrase, or your nervous habits, or the button on your shirt you left unbuttoned. We have this job to do, and we’re using everything we can find to do it.
That might not be a Buddhist thing. That might be just a me thing.