Not Just-So Stories

A milestone in Buddhist fiction

Dan Zigmond

Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree
And Other Works of Buddhist Fiction
Kate Wheeler (Ed.)
Boston: Wisdom Publications, April 2004
280 pp.; $16.95 (paper)

Buddhism has been infiltrating English-language literature since Rudyard Kipling’s Kim more than a century ago, and vigilant readers may have noticed a growing number of novels with Buddhist themes. But you won’t see a “Buddhist fiction” shelf in most bookstores, or in local libraries, and you’re more likely to stumble upon a poem than a short story in your sangha newsletter. Buddhist fiction is out there, but it hasn’t been easy to find.

Until now. In Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree, Kate Wheeler, a Tricycle contributing editor, has assembled a marvelous collection of stories inspired, in one way or another, by Buddhism. They range in length from a few lines to several thousand words, and cover topics as diverse as driving, acting, politics, food, birth, rebirth, love, lust, death, murder, suicide, animal adoption, and lawn mowing. Half of the thirty stories are published here for the first time. Certain themes emerge—we meet monks and nuns of various sorts, and earnest and not-so-earnest meditators in foreign lands—but there are plenty of surprises. Keith Heller’s previously unpublished “Memorizing the Buddha,” about a tailor whose prodigious memory wreaks havoc until it is put to use preserving the dharma, provides a vivid reimagining of life in the sleepy Sri Lankan village of Ratna, 450 years after the Buddha’s death:

Ratna’s only road wound through dense undergrowth, and long ago wild brambles and creepers had been allowed to obscure the passing traffic with a natural latticework of branches. This helped to preserve the village from political upheavals and the various temptations that too much wealth and knowledge often give rise to, yet the isolation also doomed the village to being forever forsaken, its people as ignorant of the world around them as they were of the stars above.

Heller’s fable is a stark contrast to Jan Hodgman’s “Tanuki,” the much darker story of Koen, a Japanese nun living at a remote mountain temple. Hodgman’s powerful tale is filled with haunting images of loneliness and self-sacrifice:

Every morning at four Koen rose from her bedding on the straw-matted floor, dressed in her black monk’s robes, lit a stick of incense in front of the memorial plaque dedicated to her aborted baby (her husband convinced her that the threat of deformity was great since she had contracted mumps during her pregnancy), whispered a short sutra, and climbed the rocky path to the meditation hut. Her feet knew the bumps and turns of the trail even on the darkest of nights, though others found the leaf and moss-covered rocks treacherous.

Like so many of the stories here, “Tanuki” is wonderfully understated. We don’t hear about the abortion again (and her aborted marriage is described only as “tasteless”), but the image lingers, helping us understand why Koen chooses the solitary existence of a monastic, negotiating her way along that treacherous path.

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