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Lions Roar : September 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2006 87 IN HIS INTRODUCTION to You Are Not Here, editor Keith Kachtick wonders why Wisdom Publications’ first collec- tion of Buddhist fiction, Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree, sold so well. He asks, “Is our culture waking up to the possibility that enlightenment is a worthwhile pursuit?” I might answer that everyone is continually waking up to such a possibil- ity—it’s the follow-through that’s tough. What it means to follow through is the subject the stories in You Are Not Here seek to understand. Many of these so-called Buddhist stories are crossovers, meaning their readers need have no dharmic background to enjoy or grasp their finer points. Others, though, would be underappreciated by a non-Buddhist audience. One such story is Samantha Schoech’s “The Good People of Lake George.” We meet the recently married Celeste, who, having been raised by Vajrayana Buddhist parents in the company of their well-off friends, is struggling with the notion of being a good person. All the adults in her life have the morality of, well, Vajrayana practitioners. This is akin to having hippie parents with doctorates in philos- ophy: if someone gets hurt, it’s all part of the existential path, so get over it. This bravely written story will strike a chord of deep discomfort and doubt—that is, if you’re familiar with a Vajrayana-influenced environment. Other- wise, its characters will likely come across as indulgent and slightly pathetic. “Humans,” by Dan Zigmond, is a brilliant, tongue-in- cheek story of a Zen monk assigned by his superiors to a mis- sion in the Borneo bush, where he teaches meditation to a colony of orangutans. This story is an example of the best kind of absurdist humor. It is subtle, poignant, and even be- lievable. But again, this is a story that might have less punch for non-meditators. A third story in the “for Buddhists” category is Kate Wheel- er’s very nonfiction-sounding “Ringworm,” set in a monastery retreat in Burma (Wheeler’s bio notes state she was ordained as a nun in Burma). The subtlety of the teacher–student exchange that aerates this gently humorous story could leave a nonpractitioner cold: “You can keep pain dancing in your A Novel Approach to Buddhism YOU ARE NOT HERE and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction Edited by Keith Kachtick Wisdom Publications, 2006. 244 pp.; $16.95 (paper) REVIEWED BY DEDE CRANE hand,” the teacher tells the narrator. But this beautiful image and pith teaching will only make sense to some readers. The greater part of the collection is simply a rich literary read where art and dharma seamlessly meet. “The Laugh- ing Sutra,” an excerpt from the novel of the same name, is written in the style of a traditional fable, while “The Tale of THE” and “Nothing” are short, playful, and sapient. Anh Chi Pham’s “Mandala” is a multifaceted perspective of one monk’s self-immolation with gasoline and match in a pub- lic square. Wonderfully structured, it transcends any and all traps of emotionalism while capturing the ordinary yet poetic truth of cause and effect. In only four pages, “Samsara Suite” succeeds in giving a whirlwind tour of endless eons of incarnations; the results of pained and heartfelt personal choices are palpable on the page. The excerpt from the novel Buddha Da by Anne Donovan is a perfectly rendered voice- piece about a conventional bloke devoted to getting the hang of meditation. As an international bestseller, Buddha Da exemplifies how a book about Buddhist material can tran- scend the Buddhist label. Curiously enough, the title story is the single one—title aside—that has no overt reference to Buddhism. Its point of view reminds me of the autistic narrator’s voice in The Curi- ous Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, and its imagery is some of the freshest and most visceral in the collection: “The kitchen explodes with glare like a hospital ward. Yesterday it rained but today I need sunglasses in my own kitchen.” For a collection of stories with a unifying theme, there’s great diversity between these covers. The quality of the writing alone makes this second volume of “Buddhist fiction” worth reading. What, I asked myself, makes this collection uniquely Buddhist? Perhaps it’s how the best of these stories leave the reader with more questions than answers, a sense of ah instead of oh yeah—a kind of follow-through that keeps going. ♦ DEDE CRANE, a longtime Vajrayana student, has published numer- ous stories in literary journals and is the author of the novel Sympathy, published by Raincoast books.