Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Although Ruth Ozeki's A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING didn't win the Booker Prize, its being a finalist says something important:  Buddhist Fiction has come of age.

No book is even going to be nominated for Britain's most prestigious literary prize unless it appeals to a general readership -- I mean, of course, a general literate readership.  Such a book has to have virtues beyond a Buddhist theme:  the prose has to be outstanding, the subject matter serious and worthy of thoughtful people's time and energy, the theme of universal significance.

And yet -- this book is also Buddhist. I mean, lots of writers explore the nature of time -- fiction is so well-suited to that kind of exploration because the stroke of the pen can take readers to any time and place, or multiple times and places in even a single chapter.  But when quotations from Zen Master Dogen frame the exploration, as in Ozeki's book, then we are in Buddhist fictional territory.

Or again, the nature of reality is also easily explored in fiction: a few keystrokes make things appear and disappear.  But when the analogy to the nature of consciousness is made clearly, then we have Buddhist fiction.

There's always a danger that a genre with a religion as its modifier -- Buddhist fiction -- is going to be dismissed as parochial or didactic, as not worth reading by those who don't share the faith.  A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING is not alone in showing that Buddhist fiction can be bigger than this.  But the fact that this book has gotten so much attention can draw the attention of readers -- especially non-Buddhist readers -- to a genre that they may have dismissed before.

Note:  My interview with Roland Merullo, another Buddhist fiction writer, appears here:

Thursday, October 10, 2013

"Enlightened by the ten thousand things"

Lately, I keep coming across the above quotation from Dogen, the ancient Zen Master. But apparently the phrase has an earlier origin because a bit of on-line research also yielded this:

"The ten-thousand things and I are of one substance."
Zen Master Seng-chao (384-414)

This is a bit more to the point for most people, perhaps, but Dogen's way of putting it is more dynamic, expressing how seeing from the right viewpoint (which is no viewpoint) can result in (although "result" isn't the exact word, since it's already there) instantaneous enlightenment.

I'm pondering all this with respect to literature, and more specifically with respect to a thoughtful article by Ruth Ozeki I read recently: http://www.ruthozeki.com/archives/1174

The article is about a very old Japanese nun and former novelist, Jakucho Setouchi, who, according to Ozeki, stated once in an interview that love affairs were the best subject for a novelist. Ozeki takes issue with this point of view, although she doesn't explain why, so this post is not a reply to her, but rather a musing on where that statement took me.

Love affairs take the life energy and run with it.  We get carried away -- and most of us enjoy losing ourselves in such passion.  There's an old song, "I Wish I Were in Love Again" that expresses this well.  But if one is writing a "spiritual" novel, are love affairs still the best topic?

Or, more to the point, is there really such a thing as a "spiritual novel"?  As the above quotation makes clear, there actually is no such thing as enlightenment, nothing at all that separates the "ten thousand things" from the consciousness that appears to witness them.  And so, for a writer, can there be any separation between "spiritual" and "worldly" topics?

Nothing is inherently "spiritual."  It is all in the eye of the beholder.  If we really get to the bottom of what a love affair is about, we must be in wonder at how life produces such passion.  And, because we can never really get to the bottom of what a love affair is about, it produces endless opportunities to mine the wealth hidden in its depths.  That wealth is spiritual because everything that is is spiritual when it is seen truly. So what makes a novel "spiritual" is not any particular content but simply the urge, the determination, to see things as they actually are -- as Dogen did.