The Finger is Fiction

You Are Not Here and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction
Ed. Keith Kachtick, Wisdom Publications Boston 2006


The radical notion of collecting Buddhist fiction presents a sort of koan: Is fiction the dharma? Is the dharma fiction? The stories in You Are Not Here, like most anthologies, are hit or miss. The hits are very good, and even the misses offer fine writing and a valuable response to the koan.

The first story, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler, concerns an elderly man from Vietnam now living in the US where his children and grandchildren have grown up. His family is still actively anticommunist, but he is being visited by the ghost of his old friend, Ho Chi Minh. There are direct Buddhist references in the narrative, but more importantly the story evokes the contemplative aesthetic:

“This was a smell that had nothing to do with flowers…”

Butler uses the sensation of smell, a sense that develops pre-language, in a narrative that exists only as language, mimeticly demonstrating the contemplative experience. Consciousness is not a thing but a process of experiencing. By describing the memory of smells in a kitchen, the fictive quality of the old man’s consciousness is highlighted. He smells sugar but it is a scent that has been gone for decade, it is a scent that is not there. By describing the smell as having “nothing to do with flowers”, the fictive quality of the reader’s consciousness is highlighted. What a reader, so moved by the story, actually smells is the process of consciousness, a scent that is not there.

Any story could be read with a contemplative interpretation, especially within the context of this anthology, but other readings are also possible. Ringworm by Kate Wheeler is explicitly Buddhist and almost entirely set in a Burmese monastery. The writer created a plot emblematic of capitalist realism and a narrator mired in its ideology. As this Guardian article points out, Western-style Buddhism’s palliative qualities might actually allow the suffering of modern life to continue. This approach sidesteps the destructive aspect of the Four Noble Truths, essential to the Buddha’s first teachings. At the conclusion of Ringworm the narrator has left the monastery and is having dinner with her father:

At this dinner he proposed a toast to me and my adventures. I didn’t stop him from filling my glass with French wine… The first drop told me I was capable of anything.

That drop would have brought my kittens back to life; as I drank it, the monastery gates closed behind me. The most rigorous enlightenment system in the world shut me out. Or so I felt that night, not understanding my own rigorousness.

“Here’s to you, too, Dad,” I said, and drank the rest of the glass. I didn’t quite know how I’d go on living, but I knew that I must.

Of course, the wine and the dinner with the father are emblematic of Christianity but also of capitalism. The wine is French wine. The father is Republican. The narrator has returned from her exotic quest in strange lands to live in the heart of the empire, the real world, a world that is both unacceptable and necessary. As Mark Fisher would describe, the means by which the dinner restructures of her social reality back into her father’s world is contingent on the cynical distance provided by her contemplative attitude that enables the ideology of capitalism to function. Her experiences in the monastery have made her the ultimate cynic, allowing her to simultaneously disavow and consume.

Humans by Dan Zigmond is another explicitly Buddhist story with contemporary Western themes. The main character is a Zen monk living and working within a overly bureaucratic system indicative of late capitalism. The bureaucracy first gives him enjoyable work and nice places to live, but finally sends him to Malaysia to do the impossible task of teaching meditation to orangutans. Just as with secular capitalist bureaucracies, the impossible task must be monitored by the authority of a Big Other, and the main character is placed in a position of needing to show “a little progress” so the authority will promote him out of the impossible situation. Eventually, both the orangutan and the monk (but not the authority) accept the task is impossible and have a satisfying exchange. Yet, the story concludes before the authority figure arrives, giving the reader a sense that the characters languish in a Kafka-like indefinite postponement.

Stylistically the stories in this anthology are varied. Geshe Michael Roach’s parable Meditation is pure meditation instruction. The Tale of THE by Sean Murphy playfully recounts a definite article on the hero’s journey. Several stories engage the theme of mortality and two stories concern the concept of rebirth, specifically. Samsara Suite by Sean Hoade has the feel of flash fiction describing the interactions over millenia of several characters. Ann Carolyn Klein offers a sexist critique of the lama tradition in Tibet in Dream of a Former Life. The narrator’s consciousness chooses to be reborn as a female and encounters unexpected life circumstances. Even when stories in this anthology miss the mark of Buddhist fiction, the writing is good fiction.

More importantly, these stories are culturally and psychologically necessary if the spiritual teachings of Buddhism are to be integrated and lived, rather than merely studied. If students of dharma only read non-fiction texts, they will be lulled into believing in the finger. The stories in this collection, along with other Buddhist inspired literature, such as Osamu Tezuka’s graphic novel series Buddha and Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, can-more effectively than a dozen other manuals and guides-point to the moon because the finger is fiction.

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