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Lions Roar : January 2005
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2005 81 BUDDHA DA By Anne Donovan New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004 330 pp; $14.00 (paper) REVIEWED BY DAN ZIGMOND We are witnessing an explosion of Buddhist fiction in the West. In recent years, we’ve seen a slew of new Buddhist novels, from Doris Dörrie’s delightful Where Do We Go From Here? (Bloomsbury, 2001) to darker, edgier works like Keith Kachtick’s Hungry Ghost (HarperCollins, 2003) and Bruce Wagner’s Still Holding (Simon & Schuster, 2003). We’ve had intriguing Buddhist genre fiction, such as John Burdett’s fast- paced thriller, Bangkok 8 (Knopf, 2003), and the latest install- ment of Eliot Pattison’s popular Tibetan mystery series, Beautiful Ghosts (St. Martin’s, 2004). And this year has brought the West’s first anthology of Buddhist short fiction, Kate Wheeler’s mar- velous Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree. But we haven’t seen anything quite like Anne Donovan’s charming new novel, Buddha Da. Written entirely in Scottish dialect, it tells the story of Jimmy, a Glasgow house painter who stumbles on the dharma, and the effect his conversion has on him, his wife, Liz, and their daughter, Anne Marie. Told through the voices of all three characters, it weaves their stories together in an engrossing and entertaining narrative of spiritual journey, marital crisis and coming-of-age. The characters’ dialect takes some getting used to, at least for North American readers, but their distinct, individual voices are so strong, so honest, that we quickly come to accept their manner of speaking as integral to the story that Donovan is trying to tell. Jimmy’s new-found faith takes his family completely by sur- prise. When he first tells Liz he’s on his way to the local Tibetan Buddhist Center, she asks if they’re serving free drinks. He responds by describing his first encounter with Buddhism this way: OK, ah know it’s funny, ah probably should of tellt ye afore, but it’s no the first time ah’ve been there. Know that job we’ve been daeing in toon, thon shop? Well, as wis getting a couple rolls for ma lunch when ah met wanny they Buddhist guys. We got talking and ah went along wi him tae see the centre. It wis rainin, ah’d nothing better tae dae and ah thought it’d be a laugh, you know, in funny claes, chantin and that.... And it wasnae like that. They were dead nice, dead ordinary, gied me a cuppa tea, showed me the meditation room and, ach, it wis the atmosphere, hen. Ah cannae explain it, but it wis just dead calm. This theme of “ordinary” pervades Buddha Da, and Anne Donovan’s protagonist stands in stark contrast to the almost painfully hip bachelor Buddhists of Hungry Ghost and Still Holding. Jimmy is a working-class man, someone who enjoys a cuppa tea or a stop at the pub, who after a lifetime in Glasgow says that even nearby Edinburgh feels like “another country,” “another planet even.” And although he immediately takes to the dharma, he has difficulty understanding why, let alone articulat- ing his reasons to anyone else. When Barbara, a fellow Buddhist, asks how the practice is affecting his life, Jimmy answers: “Well, you know, ah just dae the meditation. A lot of time ah’m in the dark aboot how it affects anythin really. It just seems tae make other folk mad, at me ah think.” This presents some challenges for Donovan, who very much wants to explain something of Buddhism to her readers. She gets around the problem by letting other characters do the explaining. This allows Donovan to incorporate a good deal of Buddhist doc- trine (and even a little bit of Tibetan politics) into the novel. Here, for example, is the local Rinpoche explaining meditation to Jimmy: The mind is like a house, with many rooms. And some people’s houses are very clean and tidy and clear while other people’s houses have lots of junk in them. But our minds are very clever—we can keep some parts of our minds tidy by pushing the junk into other rooms. The meditation process is one of clearing. We need to clear the junk from the room we don’t use, to pull it out, look at it. And it can get very messy for a while. But if we don’t do it we never get clear. Like other modern works of Buddhist fiction, Buddha Da includes some pointed criticism of the Buddhist practice. Jimmy’s daughter Anne Marie, for example, questions the role of women at the center. The book opens with the local lamas going off to inspect a newborn baby who they think might be a rein- carnation of an important teacher, only to find out that it’s a girl. “Only a male child can be the successor to the lineage,” they explain to Anne Marie. “It is our tradition.” But she refuses to accept this explanation, which sounds like simple sexism to her: That’s no reason. That’s whit they said aboot no letting lassies on the fitba team at school but when Alison’s ma wrote ta sumbdy on the council they had to let us play. And ah’ll tell you sumpn, the team wins a sight mair often since there’s lassies on it. Today, Buddhism is widely practiced in the West, and nonfiction accounts are available in almost every local bookstore and library. Modern Western Buddhist novels are set in New York, Los Angeles, southern France, Glasgow, or wherever their authors actually live. And while many writers create a questioning, skeptical distance between their characters and Buddhist ortho- doxy, this does not imply a lack of understanding or respect. In many cases the authors themselves are practicing Buddhists. (Donovan is not, but has studied meditation.) These writers take Buddhism seriously, despite their sometimes mocking tone. The new millennium has also brought us new editions of some true classics of Buddhist fiction, which make for an interesting They Were Dead Nice, Gied Me a Cuppa Tea