August 05, 2011

Buddha Buzz: stories, stories, and more stories

In a recent piece for The Telegraph, Tim Stanley wrote about his time in Hollywood. The article itself isn't particularly enlightening, but he did say something about Buddhism and personal narratives that I thought was worth noting:

That might be one reason why Buddhism is so popular out here. It’s all about personal narratives—one man’s voyage from ignorance to enlightenment. And I’ve heard many, many of them. One Buddhist movie producer explained that, “We don’t judge or evangelise; we are all on our own journey”. But for faith to transcend personal therapy, it relies on externals – doctrines, churches, monks, priests, communities. No one in Los Angeles, I sense, exists for other people. How can they, sitting as they do on their yoga mats in perfect isolation from one another—colliding only at vegan picnics to save the white tiger? Everyone is very friendly, friends even. But for relationships to have value there must be flickers of love and hate. In the purple light of the Pacific Ocean, everything in Los Angeles is… Zen.

Buddhism is all about personal narratives? That's news to me. On the other hand, you can't deny that stories have a place in the Buddhist tradition. Many Buddhists are inspired/spiritually-nourished by the life story of the Buddha. In week 1 of her current Tricycle Retreat, Rita Gross explores the "Biographies of the Buddha." One retreat participant asks, "I'm not clear on how the story of the Buddha (the whole prince thing) relates to my life, as a metaphor or allegory? How is it then different than a novel or movie I might like or any other story?" Rita responds:

The story of the Buddha's life as a role model for us turns on the humanity of the Buddha—a human being who became enlightened. His life as a prince is a teaching that even if you have the very best that samsara can offer, it doesn't work. It doesn't bring lasting happiness or true peace.I don't think the story of the Buddha is fundamentally different from any other story. Stories teach great lessons and contain a great deal of truth, but only if they are interpreted rather than taken literally.

In related news, there's a new blog out there that's dedicated to exploring the idea of Buddhist fiction. Kimberly Beek, a Ph.D. Candidate in the department of Religious Studies at McMaster University, started the Buddhist Fiction Blog to connect with readers of Buddhist fiction, the subject of her dissertation project. On her post "Can There Be Such a Thing As Buddhist Fiction?" she writes:

So can there be such a thing as “Buddhist fiction”? I think so, particularly because literati and interested readers are paying attention and applying the label to many different works of popular fiction. The more pointed and complex question about Buddhist fiction I have been sidestepping is “how do you identify it?” Any answer to this question is somewhat subjective, based on the novel or short story being read, the reader, and the familiarity with or experience of Buddhism they bring to the reading. For now I will make use of United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous phrase: “I know it when I see it.”

Surely Thich Nhat Hanh's new novel, The Novice, will make Beek's list of Buddhist fiction. Although, maybe not, because as Dan Zigmond points out in his review of The Novice in the current issue of Tricycle, the language in the book is "more that of a parable than a novel. (Which is good, because monks and nuns aren’t allowed to read “worldly novels,” let alone write them.)" Whether or not readers find the story in The Novice compelling—it's a retelling of a traditional Vietnamese story, where a young woman poses as a man in order to ordain as a monk—the book does shed light on the Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh. Zigmond writes:

Did Thich Nhat Hanh’s beliefs really change somewhere between the all-embracing simplicity of Being Peace and the more rigid austerity of The Novice? In retrospect, there were signs from the beginning that his teachings were more nuanced and complex than they may have seemed.

Read the rest of the review here.

How do we come to terms with personal narratives and stories in a religion that emphasizes that there isn't a self? This burden makes me think of Kim Behan, the hardworking executive director of Buddhist Global Relief (the organization featured in the current issue's "Good Work" section), who told me recently, "One of the most important parts of Buddhism is the teaching of non-self. I used to struggle with non-self. But doing this work, I don’t even think about that. It’s brought to life the Buddha’s teaching."

Some people work too hard to worry about stories of the self. Others work hard telling those stories—such as those bringing us "Zen," the new mystery series on PBS. But I digress…

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Dominic Gomez's picture

Interesting post by Sam. One aspect of Shakyamuni's own narrative that got lost in his later "deification" is his personal struggles with his own internal demons prior to his historically unprecedented realization regarding the true nature of life and the universe. These "demons" are personified as Mara.
His self-doubt and hesitation to speak out are common to every sincere human being who seeks truth, and also form the thematic backbone of many great works of art, music, poetry and literature.

buddhabrats's picture

Having just written a work of Buddhist non fiction, i see the immense value in narrative as the carrier medium for teaching. Showing how one uses techniques to liberate oneself from suffering is exactly what the Buddha did and the more of these examples we have the better.

Of course a lot of what we write is in retrospect but being able to conjure up the mood of the moment albeit 15 years ago is the art of storytelling. Yes the self is changing and ultimately empty but it is the impersonal dance with form which makes such interesting story line.and shows the nature of the mind, and it is the dancing with this mind that we all grapple with.

Not everyone resonates with the Buddha, being a Hindu prince and all but everyone grapples with suffering and it is this commonality that makes Buddhist narrative so interesting to me. I am generally coming from the dzogchen view which makes storytelling even more interesting as if all is perfect why write anything at all. To answer this I can only abide in the emotion of needing to tell my story, also a perfect state and what arose for me.

The actual act of writing ones own narrative is a very interesting process, as one literally has to comb through ones memories and the emotions associated with them which is in itself a highly beneficial practice.

If you are interested in Buddhist non fiction check out my book on


justone's picture

Unless I am completely missing something, your statement, "How do we come to terms with personal narratives and stories in a religion that emphasizes that there isn't a self?" is not entirely accurate. The posit is not that there are no selves. It's that there are no "isolated, separate, unconnected, permanent selves". Shunyata is defined as "voidness; lacking any inherent self-existence separate for other co-arising factors" (my definition, but you can find very similar verbiage such as in Stephen Batchelor's "Alone with Others, pg. 106, 1983.)

The point being that there ARE selves. That is plainly evident in that you even exist and to deny as such is foolish. Rather, the self called "you" is not independent of a multitude of co-arising factors. And you do have a narrative, otherwise you would not be able to sit and write a blog entry.

That being said, coming to terms with our narratives, our stories, is HUGE. Particularly because we solidify them so often that they then limit our felt sense of who we are as human beings.

But perhaps I misunderstand your languaging, and if so, my apologies.

By the way, could it be that Thich is stepping outside tradition with a so called "worldly novel", and participating in the emergence of a new, more relevant form of "Buddhism" for our times?

James Shaheen's picture

About stories—Alex Gooch opens an article from the spring issue with this:

"I have yet to experience a story. I think stories are actually lies. But they are incredibly important to our survival. —Wim Wenders, 'Impossible Stories'"

Gooch's "Being Someone, Going Nowhere: The Tales We Tell Ourselves" came to mind when I read this post. Wenders's statement, he says, is

"... an unflinchingly honest and direct expression of the tensions and complications presented by our natural inclination to tell stories, which makes his reflections particularly apt for dharma practitioners. My own engagement with Buddhist practice has been plagued for years by confusions and difficulties around the issue of the stories we tell, so Wenders’ account of his struggle to come to terms with stories as a filmmaker speaks clearly and powerfully to my experience and also helps to point the way toward a resolution of these difficulties."

Rita Gross points to the value of stories; Gooch points out the danger of our attachment to them.