Thursday, January 31, 2013

Buddhist Fiction

I read on Buddhist Fiction Blog that Francesca Hampton was going to answer questions about her new book Buddha on a Midnight Sea - Short Stories, which I note is only $5 in the kindle version. I didn't see that, and got a hard copy. I'm going to read it some today.

The first question on the Buddhist Fiction Blog, was what is Buddhist fiction? You can read her answer in her preface to the book on her website, and in the blog, following the links I've put up.

My answer to the question is it's just fiction with Buddhist themes. If everything is a story, then a Buddhist story has certain themes like the Buddha's teaching, struggles to practice Buddhism, etc. The writer, or the characters, or the themes can be Buddhist. It seems Francesca Hampton is a Buddhist, and her characters are Buddhists, and she writes with Buddhist themes. It's not pure, there could be other themes, characters, and a writer could not be a Buddhist but write about Buddhist themes or include Buddhist influenced characters. The cannon of Buddhist fiction will tend to include a higher preponderance of these themes, characters and writers. I would also say it includes certain transcendental science fiction.

The emergence of Buddhist Fiction in the English language parallels the growth of Buddhism in the west. More and more people are converting and more and more people are sympathetic and curious about Buddhism. I can't prove it, but I think it's the fastest growing religion in the west.

Which begs the question, what took it so long? Christianity and Islam spread rather quickly. Is there something about Buddhism that made it spread slower? (Here I leave Francesca Hampton and her book, and I will report back in here later with more thoughts.)

I think coming from Japan isn't easy because there is a strong isolationist streak in Japan, up to World War 2. In the book I reviewed recently, a Zen student talks about how school children always say "foreigner" when they see him. But when he visits many years later, they no longer say that. We are living in a less isolated world.

Coming from Tibet, Buddhism spread in 1959, when China invaded Tibet. If you look at the recent Vajrayana social media guidelines, you see that it's pretty secretive. In a way, you don't want to spill to the entire universe the most intimate teachings of your private and personal guru.

On the one hand, some of the teachings, if you get them too soon, could not be ready to be used, and could easily be misused. Sangharakshita talks about spiritual indigestion, from reading too many rich teachings that you can't put into practice.

On the other hand, it's the way the world works. You can't get training in something unless you pay your dues. Like sitting outside a Zen monastery for 3 days, or developing a relationship with your guru (and out of pure gratitude, you give them money). It's a kind of way of keeping the business going by supporting the teachers, which isn't to be taken lightly. In a way the Tibetan system is great for preserving the teachings, as their diaspora has proven out. But it's also a kind of way of saying, this is really precious to me. I don't want you to treat it lightly. Like trying to get kids to take something seriously, or leave it alone.

There's a new kind of movement though, where people are speaking out, it's a kind of open source dharma. Where the information is shared, and the practitioner decides what they can or can't use. This may or may not be betraying a tradition, and may or may not be good for practitioners. You could see Daniel Ingram's proclaiming to be an Arhant as obvious proof that he wasn't, or you could see it as encouragement that it can be done, to make enlightenment possible.

(Sangharakshita wants order members to focus less on themselves and more on the movement, for the good of the dharma, to enact the bodhisattva ideal, and inspire through that kind of kindness and generosity.)

In the TBC, which I've chosen to seek ordination, there are strains of the old model, but there are also strains of the opposite, like Free Buddhist Audio. And yet, there are talks on FBA that only order members can listen to. FBA is surprising frank with Sangharakshita transcripts of seminars, I read once him saying, "remove that from the public transcript" and it wasn't. Those are the unedited ones. One wonders if that will last. There are people in the movement who want more transparency, and there are some that are more secretive. It's like herding cats to try and control all the order members. What connects them all is their understanding of the Dharma based in the principles Sangharakshita has laid out.

But I digress. My original question was, is there something about Buddhism that prevented it from spreading as fast as Christianity and Islam? And I think the answer is yes; It's built more on personal relationships, less on a kind of missionary and procreating zeal that preaches at people. It's not about spreading it at any cost. Buddhism is careful, which is another way of saying mindful. And I think that's why it's so popular, up and coming and apropos for the world we currently live in. It's a sleek meme that really does improve on past programming. It's a bug fix for many, an upgrade.

This is also why there are more and more anti-Buddhism statements by nervous people of other faiths. Why we elected our first Buddhist senator in the USA, (though she considers herself a non-practicing Buddhist). Why Brit Hume attacked Tiger Woods, implying only Christianity could save Tiger. I use the word "attack", because that's what it feels like when someone implies someone has the wrong religious perspective, in our multicultural society. Brit Hume could have spoken more personally about how he used Christianity to cope with the death of his son, and that would have been more honest and interesting. It just points out the abrahamic presumption in the west.

On the other hand, I'm not afraid of blasphemy. I don't want to go around pointing out Buddhist negativity. Spirituality is a choice, and only the individual can control that, no group, society or family can control individual choice, as much as they try to influence it. And because we supposedly have religious freedom in the USA, Buddhism will continue to grow. (BTW I predicted at the beginning of the season that San Francisco would win the superbowl, even though I'm a Jets fan.) Another book on my pile is How the Swans Came to the Lake.

So onto reading some Buddhist fiction.

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