Much has been written about the slowly expanding new genre of “Buddhist fiction,” much of it critically focused on the irony of creating and dressing up more “illusion” in the name of helping the reader’s presumed goal of finding a way beyond illusion, or, to use Buddhist terminology, to experience the direct perception of the emptiness of inherent existence. Indeed in many contexts of practice, movies, novels and stories are strictly off limits as too distracting for meditators, and rightly so if one is fully engaged and fully ready to practice whole-heartedly.
But there is a long road from here to there, and many insights about life about and within us that must occur before we sit at last, fully committed, under our personal bodhi tree. The Buddha began with Four Truths: first, that we must learn to see through the charm and dazzle of life to the suffering that lies at the end of all normal pursuits; second, that there are reasons that suffering arises so consistently when beginnings do generally look so promising; third, that there exists in us a capacity to attain, or perhaps uncover, a state of being and seeing that is utterly beyond the risk of more suffering; and finally, that there are proven methods to cultivate this perfection of wisdom.
Any part of those four can take a long time to get your mind around, and much close observation of one’s own life and also the stories of others. And I think it is here that fiction in all its forms has a place. For millennia, storytelling has been one of the ways human beings have shared experience with each other, and shared the insights experience has brought them. Stories, even in fictional form, have the potential to provide us some very fine short cuts to wisdom. It is not necessary to live it all yourself. Stories carry the potential to bring us out of closed loops of habitual thinking. They move us to empathy and more understanding of the depth and range and pathos of sentient experience and alternate ways of understanding what we see. They are also, in the case of Buddhist fiction, a way to peer over the shoulder of fictional meditators and to glimpse at least the outlines of their experience and that spiritual potential that is now so hidden – or even forgotten - in the bustle of modern life. Such glimpses build in us the motivation explore, to practice, or to practice more fully again when motivation has faded.
I have added to the collection of stories in Buddha on a Midnight Sea very slowly over the past four decades, inhibited, as most of us are, by the demands of daily life and the need to make a living. As a novice writer, I also needed to wait for that mysterious alchemy inside the mind when some bit of insight combined with memory or imagery with enough force that it demanded to be put down on paper. All of the stories contain elements of characters met or heard about in real life, yet none is meant to evoke any living person in full. Rather, they are composites of many observations and influences. What these stories hold in common is that they are filtered through the lens of teachings I have received from a long line of Tibetan teachers over the past 37 years, most in the Gelug lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, but some from the Nyingma and Kagyu lineages and some from other Buddhist and even non-Buddhist traditions.
I initially imagined these stories as a break time activity in the context of a Lam Rim (Stages of the Path) retreat or other less intensive Buddhist religious gathering of several days duration, a relaxation activity to inspire practice even as the reader was entertained, and I still hope someday they may be. But I have discovered, sharing them informally with others over the years, that they are also helpful to those who wish a glimpse of the Buddhist path before treading it, or even just a story that brings some lightening of the heart or a useful idea or two in a time of trouble. I have learned that some of the stories have already been shared in study groups and prisons and even added to required reading lists in college courses.
The title story, “Buddha on a Midnight Sea”, was ironically written last with picture and title coming into view even before the story itself. The main character is based on a long ago depressed neighbor, gentle enigma, who set off to sea on a paddleboard with the intention of never coming back. (Sadly, he did not). You may also see echoes of Siddharta by Herman Hesse, though most of the observations made of the astonishing metaphorical qualities of moving water occurred to me directly much later on a thousand and one walks by the sea. This story has never been submitted for publication.
“Teachers,” (previously published in the Sun Magazine, the anthology Best of the Sun, and in the Jack Kornfield anthology Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart) was the result of a stay at the labrang of Tsong Rinpoche in south India in 1981. I had come so far south mainly as a courier, carrying cash and plane tickets for a future meditation course to be offered in the US and was invited to stay for the upcoming Tibetan Monlam (New Year’s) festival. In the two weeks I spent there, I rarely glimpsed the famous lama at the heart of the small living complex. One day, however, he emerged from his quarters and walked down into the courtyard. I was fascinated to watch a young water buffalo, not more than a couple of months old, approach the elderly master and then circumambulate him a dozen times before the old man moved on. And indeed there was actually a westerner with shaggy red hair, enraptured and furious and mostly out of his mind, who gave no end of trouble to the monks of the establishment, though they always treated him with kindness. The meditations of Chenrezig and the “golden teaching” of ton len, giving and taking on the breath, are well-known Mahayana meditations. Though they are presented in much abbreviated form in the story, I hope I have provided a sense of their beauty and profundity to the reader. I cannot know if this westerner became the object of compassionate meditation by any the monks, but there is a good chance he was.
“Greyhound Bodhisattva,” originally published in the magazine Eclectix and chosen for Wisdom Publications’ anthology Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree, really was partly inspired by an encounter with an actual 16th generation Tibetan tulku making his troubled yet always compassionate and helpful way in America. He really did meet and talk with a man from New Guinea on a visit to the Greyhound Station in San Francisco, and did indeed for a time live an intriguingly anonymous life in Los Angeles and later near San Francisco. However, while this character was initially inspired by this tulku, it is by no means an accurate portrayal of any actual person, for it also draws from the stories of other immigrant monks, as well as the accounts in Four Lamas of Dolpo by the historian David Snelgrove in which taking the form of deities while in a dream state in order to help solve the waking life problems of villagers was experienced as routine in old Tibetan culture. The choreography of the circle dance comes from a dream of my own, dreamt, quite wonderfully, just before the visit of the Dalai Lama to California in 1979. (I have since learned that such fine dreams are not uncommon among his event organizers). His Holiness stood in the center of a circle of those of us who were helping to organize his visit, and invited us, through the linking of arms on shoulders, to make the spokes of the wheel of the Dharma and turn about him. The next day his letter of acceptance to our Dharma center’s invitation was in the mailbox. I marvel still.
“The Inner Outer and Secret Journeys of Mary Sullivan” has not yet been published. It is my most ambitious effort at complex structure in a story, following the model of the Kalachakra or Wheel of Time teachings in which a disciple receives triple instruction on the real world of appearances, the inner world of meditative cultivation, and finally on insights only achieved in the most subtle of enlightened meditative states. Mary Sullivan, an ordinary middle-aged American woman from Colorado, is a long way from enlightened, but she has a strong past life connection to Buddhist practice that is reawakened by the prospect of an interview with the Dalai Lama in this life. On a physical journey to India, she also takes another, more spiritual one in a series of interconnected dreams, even as the Dalai Lama, leading the multi-day Kalachakra initiation and teachings in South India, leads his disciples deeper and deeper into the mandala of their own future enlightenment, an intense inner journey in which Mary Sullivan is also, albeit unconsciously, included.
The title “City of the Queen of Angels” is based on the elegant and barely remembered original name Spanish name of Los Angeles, La Ciudad de la Reina de Los Angeles. It was partly inspired by an encounter with an English girl in the throes of a nervous breakdown in a campground in New Delhi in 1974. She was a simple young woman from an unpretentious London family who had run away to India with her boyfriend, simply because he was going there, and she did not want to lose him. She went there and lost him anyway. And found herself trapped for over a year in Asia, destitute, the passed-along girlfriend of a string of travelers who could pay the bills, ending with an aging French heroin addict on the River Ganges with whom she was arrested on drug charges. She never saw him again, but later endured gang rape, she claimed, by the police of the local station. When she retreated into a dreamy floating kind of madness, they let her go to wander among the tourists of the campground, assuming perhaps that no one would believe the story of a madwoman and unnerved by her random violent furies when she would chase those nearby with a stick. I called the English embassy and made sure, before I too moved on, that a kind embassy worker knew of the girl’s plight and was working to get her sent home. But what becomes of such lost souls who have lived so intensely so young in a world unlike any they are likely to find again at home? My story is an attempt to answer that question as a middle-aged motel maid in Los Angeles, unsupported by anyone, attempts to rebuild her shattered ex-traveler’s life around a heartfelt practice of the female Buddha Tara. Astute readers may also see the echo of a Tibetan teaching story of a learned monk who came home to visit his village and attempted to teach his mother the Tara practice and the mantra that goes with it. When he returned home a second time, many years later, he was astonished to discover that his mother, who had received none of the advanced teachings he had, and who had been saying the mantra wrong all those years, had nevertheless attained high states of meditative quiescence and realization through her diligence and sincere prayers.
“Landing Light” once began this series, and indeed was my first attempt at a short story long ago. It is built on the long ago expressed wish of my father, who grew up on Catalina Island off of Los Angeles, to return there to die and be buried in the hills one day. He was a photographer, as the character in the story is an artist. And I began by trying to imagine what life might be like for an elderly man for whom dreams and hope are shutting down, and who finds himself on the threshold of death on this island. What might he experience? And what would he find there on the edge of dissolution? Tibetan teachings say there are a series of subtle experiences that come to those who are dying, available even to non-meditators if their death is slow and peaceful enough for them to be become aware of what is happening. Eventually, for all, full unconsciousness descends, followed by the dream-like experiences of the “bardo” or in-between state. I do not go all the way through that door in this story, only up to the turning of the handle, and finished it with the hope that my father, who got his wish to have his ashes strewn on Catalina, may also have found his way through that moonlit valley and into a next and better life.