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Lions Roar : January 2005
Her bestselling first book, The Woman Warrior, appeared in 1976, just as the women’s movement of the 1970’s was reach- ing its peak, and it is now one of the most-taught texts in American literature courses around the world. Her second book, China Men, recounts the journey from China to America of her male ancestors. Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book is Kingston’s first “pure” novel. It tells the tale of Wittman Ah Sing, a Chinese-American bohemian playwright who suffers (comically) for his art. Her most recent work, The Fifth Book of Peace, offers a fragment—a “piece”—from the novel about peace that was lost when Kingston’s Oakland, California, house burned to the ground in 1991. Kingston has almost never been discussed as a “Buddhist author.” In this interview she speaks for the first time about Buddhism in relation to her life and writing, especially in rela- tion to the variety of ideas and practices she absorbed from her mother. Kingston is at times unsure whether these practices are “Buddhism” or something more syncretic: “Chinese religion.” — JOHN WHALEN-BRIDGE John Whalen-Bridge: How much did Buddhism influence your early life, spiritually or culturally? When did you first come into contact with Buddhist ideas? Maxine Hong Kingston: I was born into Confucian rituals and ceremonies that my mother did at holidays: strange offer- ings and altars, speaking in doorways, speaking in front of ancestors, visits to cemeteries, mysterious rituals and words that had no name. She never discussed them, so I didn’t know what was going on. There were also feasts and special foods. We were surrounded by something, but we were never asked or invited to participate. As I grew up I began to think, “What was this?” When there are no words to things, they are not real. Nothing I understood about Confucianism had anything to do with these rituals. It just seemed like an ethical system. My first real thinking about Buddhism occurred while reading the Beats; it seemed as if the dharma was imported by these Americans. What I read was very attractive and I felt such connection. It just made sense. But that’s my educated self. It has no connection with the way I was raised. And then, of course, I read D.T. Suzuki and I read Daoist texts. Do you consider yourself a Buddhist now? I don’t know. Tricycle used to have this two-page spread that said, “Why I am a Buddhist.” They invited me to say why, but I just couldn’t. To say that one is a Buddhist is like saying, “I am a Catholic” or “I am a Protestant” or “I am a Confucian.” It all seems so narrow, even Buddhism. Maybe I can’t call myself a Buddhist because I am what my mother and my ancestors are. They were something so big that you couldn’t even call it a religion. I could as easily say I’m a Daoist, or I suppose I could as easily say I’m a Confucian, except that some of the laws are so antiquated. I heard an interesting phrase lately: “the Chinese religion.” It is that reli- gion which is Chinese. Just being Chinese means to practice the Chinese religion. Maybe that’s what it is. The Daoist festi- vals, the seasons, the rituals, the altars. You know the linguistic concept of “et cetera”? I am Buddhist, et cetera. I am Chinese- American, et cetera. I’m an American, et cetera. I’m a writer, et cetera. [Laughs] In 1984 I visited China for the first time on a trip with Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder and several other well-known writ- ers. We went all over. At Han Shan we saw people doing rituals, and I saw that after the cultural revolution things were chang- ing. There had been a temple with “Hong” written over it— this was the village temple, the Hong family temple. During the cultural revolution, they changed the temple to a tractor shed, but when we got there they were changing it back into a temple. It had an altar that looked just like the altar that we had in Stockton. Coming back on the plane, after I’d been to my family village, and after we had visited Daoist temples and Buddhist temples, I asked Gary, “Is it possible that there is a religion that’s practiced by the peasants, a folk religion that integrates Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism?” He said “No.” That’s all he said. I hadn’t thought it out enough to make my case that we had been living with this always. Even though Gary said no, I can see for myself that a billion people have that—whatever it is that my mother practiced. Meanwhile, my father has always said that he’s an atheist and that there’s nothing else—there’s just this life. So, I’ve always had their two influences. I think about Hans Christian Anderson, who said, “If your mother and father have com- pletely different life views, then you have a good chance of becoming an interesting person.” And I thought, “Yeah. That’s it. I’m Hans Christian Anderson.” I see Buddhism as being so free—or at least the vision of Buddhism that I think Shunryu Suzuki Roshi had. He had a vision of a new American Buddhism, and it was so very free. We could arrive at the new place ourselves. This includes: “I think I’ll make up a ceremony right here. I think I will speak out, and I will give myself a title, and I’ll give you a title.” I think he had this idea that we could do this on our own. That means lay people too. 62 SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2005 JOHN WHALEN-BRIDGE is Associate Professor of English at the National University of Singapore, where he teaches courses in American literature and religious studies. He is currently completing The Dharma Bum’s Progress: Buddhism and Orientalism in the Work of Gary Snyder, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Charles Johnson, a study of the artistic celebration of socially progressive forms of “Orientalism.”