Wednesday, July 20, 2011


        E. Ethelbert Miller asks a series of linked questions: "There have been a number of books published that collect "Buddhist" stories. How original can these stories be?  For example, your story "Prince of the Ascetics" is a retelling of the Buddha's life.  Do these types of stories simply offer pleasure to the reader? Are they didactic and convey the principles a Buddhist should follow? How risky is it to begin a story with - 'Once upon a time...' and not be seen as just writing for children?"

First, before I settle down to business, let me recommend to readers a lovely, recent book that collects contemporary Buddhist stories. The title is Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction, edited by Kate Wheeler (Wisdom Publications, 2004). This work includes my foreword, which is a reflection on Buddhism and the aesthetic experience.

 As for the story under discussion today, "Prince of the Ascetics," it was, like so many of my stories for the last 13 years, originally written for the yearly Bedtime Stories fund-raiser for Humanities Washington. Our theme that year was "night watch," so the story's title at that time was Night Watch, 500 BCE, because when he achieved awakening the Buddha sat through three watches of the night. It was first published in StoryQuarterly. Since then it has been reprinted in 18 Lies and 3 Truths, the StoryQuarterly Annual in 2007; in the popular Buddhist magazine Shambhala Sun in 2008; in The Best Buddhist Writing, 2008, edited by Melvin McLeod; The Best Spiritual Writing 2010, edited by Philip Zaleski; and in Philosophy: An Innovative Introduction: Fictive Narrative, Primary Texts, and Responsive Writing co-authored by Michael Boylan and myself. Naturally, I hope all my stories bring a reader some degree of pleasure, and that none are experienced as didactic.
It's true that for the last 2,600 years there have been countless stories told about Shakyamuni Buddha. And there is, of course, an important reason for that. In all of human history, this is one of the greatest stories every told. It has proven itself worthy of being retold over and over for two millennia. Like an old, old coin that has traversed continents and many cultures, picking up something from each one, and being passed down through centuries, it bears the sweat and palm oil of  billions who've handled it. As a narrative, it must be regarded as a story that contains the collective experience of mankind. It is universal. It is timeless. It is, one might say, an essential part of our human inheritance. Of our very humanness.

But something I noticed is that in all the accounts of Prince Gautama Siddhartha's journey from a life of privilege and sensual pleasure in his father Shuddodana's palace to his night of awakening, very little time was spent describing or imagining the six, difficult years he spent between those two periods as an ascetic practicing life-threatening austerities in the traditional Hindu manner with five followers. Across southeast Asia, there are statues of him during this period that depict the future Buddha as being emaciated, gaunt, and skeletal. In some he looks like a corpse that just crawled out of its grave. My friend John Whalen-Bridge at the National University of Singapore, a Buddhist and a scholar of Buddhism, and I see this section of the story differently. I think that for JWB, this period of Shakyamuni's journey represents failure and for that reason humanizes him, i.e., that it brings him and his journey closer to us mere mortals because we all can relate to the experience of falling short of our goals and being fallible. My interpretation of those years is different, as readers of this tale will see. But I'm open to accepting JWB's interpretation, too, and I think it's good for us to argue, debate, and disagree about the meaning of those years.

And, yes, this is a tale that begins with "Once upon a time," because I always prefer to write in the yarn-and-tale-telling tradition. That phrase, Once upon a time, far from being words that limit a story to children, performs something like the
phenomenological epocheIt invites us to "bracket" the Natural Attitude, as Husserl called it, and set momentarily aside our assumptions, prejudices, presuppositions, and what we think we know so that we can experience the world anew, and often with a sense of enchantment. If you like, think of Once upon a time as a phrase that speaks to the child in all of us, one who is listening to the tale as it is told by a beloved parent or grandparent, a child who has not yet fallen into cynicism, pessimism, suspicion, bitterness, negativism, and Schadenfreude. 

 Yet, ironically, the narrator of this story, one of the Buddha's followers named Mahanama, is a miserable man who suffers from exactly those all-too-familiar attitudes. He is jealous of the privileges young Shakyamuni enjoyed and abandoned, and he wants him to fail in his quest for liberation and awakening. (I used artistic license in characterizing the Buddha's followers in this chapter of his life because so little of what I've read presents them in detail. We know their names but almost nothing about them as individuals.) This story is very much about class and caste. It is about a man who pushes himself to death's door for six hard years in order to find an alternative to egotism, selfishness, greed, illusion, dualism, lust and ignorance. 

That is the period in the Buddha's story that I wanted to imaginatively inhabit---when he discovers the Middle Way---and with the hope that it would help readers experience the tale from a different (and rather modern) viewpoint, and possibly with new meanings that rise to the surface based on this specific, dramatic rendition.

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