Not Just-So Stories

A milestone in Buddhist fiction

Dan Zigmond

There are many other gems. Ira Sukrungruang’s “The Golden Mix” is a funny and moving account of an ordinary guy who happens to meet the Buddha. Kira Salak’s “Beheadings” weaves a complex narrative about a journalist whose guilt-ridden brother takes refuge in Cambodia, and concludes with a startling vision of redemption through practice. As novelist and scholar Charles Johnson, also a Tricycle contributing editor, writes in his elegant foreword, these stories succeed because they “dramatize the dharma by taking us intimately into the lives of [their] characters,” and show us “how the Buddhist experience is simply the human experience.”

The book’s title story, an O. Henry Award-winner by Gerald Reilly, is a masterpiece. Its main character is Dallas Boyd, a failed actor who finally finds his true calling playing Richard Nixon in an obscure play. Boyd practices Tibetan tonglen meditation (taking on the suffering of others and sending them relief). Reilly conveys the mystical connection between the actor and the former president in warm, lyrical prose:

It is simply indescribable doing this meditation with Dick Nixon. Some days he finds himself thinking about Cambodia and all the bombs that were dropped and the black karma coming so thick that it clouds out the sun until Dallas feels he can hardly keep breathing and then, just before he panics, he is letting go, all the bliss and blue skies exhaling out to Nixon. It works counter to everything in the life of a struggling, up-and-coming actor, what’s supposed to make up your most basic nature, your survival instinct. You’ve changed, friends told him. He knew he had grown altogether more somber; he felt like he was wearing a jacket and tie all the time now. He was dying and yet he was worrying about poor Dick Nixon.

Wheeler’s own crisp, smart short stories, collected in Not Where I Started From (1993), would have been very much at home in this anthology, but she has chosen not to include them. In her introduction she explains that her precondition for taking on this project—conceived by Wisdom Publications’ Rod Meade-Sperry—was that “we would not define what the nature of the Buddhist connection had to be.” This ecumenical approach results in a few selections that contain no explicit references to Buddhism and probably wouldn’t be associated with the dharma if read in another context. Some others don’t seem to be fiction: Pico Iyer’s poignant contribution, “A Walk in Kurama,” is taken from his memoir The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, while Diana Winston’s entertaining “Mi Mi May” was originally published as a nonfiction article in Tricycle (Summer 2001). The excerpts from two novels—Keith Kachtick’s Hungry Ghost and Doris Dörrie’s Where Do We Go From Here?—are not entirely satisfying in their shortened form, but they at least whet our appetites for the complete books.

Not everything could be squeezed into a single volume. (Wheeler tells us the submissions “filled two large cardboard boxes.”) Buddhist-inspired genre fiction—such as Eliot Pattison’s popular series of Tibetan mysteries—is unrepresented, as is the work of Asian authors and most others not writing in English. But what’s omitted only serves to underscore what a vast landscape Buddhist fiction has quietly become. Taken as a whole, this volume is surely a milestone in Western Buddhist literature—and a book that fiction-lovers, Buddhist or otherwise, will very much enjoy.

Dan Zigmond is a writer, software engineer, and Zen priest living in California. He reviewed Bangkok 8, a Buddhist detective novel, for the Winter 2003 issue of Tricycle.

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