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Lions Roar : September 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2012 58 universal human truths, it’s common for writers of all faiths and traditions to express some Buddhist ideas in their work, even if they are unschooled in Buddhism. As Charles Johnson wrote in his foreword to Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction, “The Buddhist experience is simply the human experience.” Nonetheless, novelists who have studied or practiced Buddhism tend to offer a refreshing perspective by con- sciously weaving the dharma into their stories. You could call fiction a lie. It’s an invention, a fan- tasy. But fiction writers are using their “lies” to tell the truth—as they see it—about our world. And in show- ing us their truth, they offer us a path to compassion. Novels, written well, take us directly into the hearts and minds of others. These others may be fictional charac- ters but they’re also a lot like our friends and families, our enemies and adversaries, and the strangers on the train or at the grocery store. When we read novels, we see why characters are driven to do what they do, and by extension we get a glimpse of the inner lives of the real people who are all around us. IN HER LIFE, Susan Dunlap has been immediately sure of three things: Zen, her husband, and the city of Berkeley. In the 1970s, she walked into a zendo for the first time and felt instantly at home. An only child, she’d been raised by parents of different religions—one Catholic, one protestant—and whatever conflict there’d been in the family was over that difference. As a result, she learned that spirituality was an important issue and that she could make her own decision about it. According to Dunlap, Zen is a fit for her because it doesn’t demand that practitioners accept doctrine per se; instead it emphasizes practitioners’ own experience. She says, “I want to be able to sit quietly facing the wall and know that what is real is what’s going on in this moment, and that there’s nothing else forced upon me.” It was Dunlap’s husband who got her interested in Eastern spirituality when he gave her a copy of Autobi- ography of a Yogi. They met in 1968 and, as she puts it, they’ve been married “forever.” Her theory is that when your job is writing the thrilling stuff of murder mysteries, you don’t need constant change and excitement in your relationships. Laughing, she adds, “When you kill people in fiction, you don’t need to kill them in your regular life.” It was early on in her marriage when Dunlap began writing mysteries. One day she was reading an Agatha Christie novel, and she turned to her husband and said, Best Not to Wear Red From Susan Dunlap’s novel No Footprints. LEO—GARSON-ROSHI—poured tea into our small ceramic mugs. It was a task I, the assistant—jisha— should have done. It was a sign of his concern. I wanted to pick up the mug and drink down his caring, but it was too soon, the tea would scald my tongue, the mug burn my fingers. I put my hand over the cup, feeling the steam. ... “After I pulled the woman back from the bridge, she knocked me down hard, banged my head. Then she left her cute red jacket and vanished. Why?” I was expecting a quote from some ancient Zen sutra. What he said was, “If you’re going to disappear, best not to wear red.” Huh? “Where are you now?” “What?” He sipped the hot tea, put down the cup, and said nothing. He was telling me—no, waiting for me to realize—that I wasn’t operating in the now. Now? “A l l right.” I took a sip of my tea, using the movement to focus, to let go of imagining and its seductions, of the theories I wanted to try out. “Now,” I said, “I know nothing about her except that she left her jacket after I saved her from killing herself. I can only speculate—” “Or not,” Leo said. Despite everything I laughed. And he smiled too. “But if I don’t speculate how am I going to find her?” “Going down the wrong path isn’t necessarily progress.” From No Footprints, by Susan Dunlap (Counterpoint, 2012). PHOTO©MYKOLAVELYCHKO/DREAMSTIME.COM