E. Ethelbert Miller: "In "Kamadhatu, A Modern Sutra" we are introduced to Cynthia Tucker. She seems to renounce the academic life at the end of your story. Did your spiritual development ever make you want to consider doing something like that? Is Tucker a character that might appear again in a future story?"
Saturday, December 17, 2011
KAMADHATU: A MODERN SUTRA
I think it might be helpful if I unpack and explain a little of the complex personal and professional history behind the creation of "Kamadhatu: A Modern Sutra." There is often so much beneath and behind the genesis of a particular story that sometimes it is helpful if a writer explains in detail how a particular work came to be. The following explanation will be timely, I hope, because "Kamadhatu" will be published in the next issue of Shambhala Sun. It will be that popular Buddhist magazine's second feature in the issue soon to reach newsstands. (Giving a work of fiction such a high profile is something rare for their publication, though its editors previously have reprinted two of my other stories, "Dr. King's Refrigerator" and "Prince of the Ascetics.")
In my first story collection, The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Tales and Conjurations (Atheneum, 1986) there is a second-person story titled "Moving Pictures." This story was first published in North American Review in 1985, and reprinted in Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas (Peregrine Smith Books, 1986), with a statement that I wrote on this (at the time) new literary form, often called these days "flash fiction" or "blasters." It was reprinted again in Fictions, edited by Joseph Trimmer and C. Wade Jennings (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989). Here is what I wrote about the short-short story as a form in the volume by Shapard and Thomas:
"The likely father of the unusual form called the contemporary short-short story is, I'd wager, Edgar Allan Poe who, in his classic essay called "On the Aim and Technique of the Short Story" (1842), emphasized for modern fiction the virtues of brevity, priority of 'effect,' and the unity achieved by a work short enough to be read in a single sitting. Of course, the blame for fathering this form can't be placed on Poe alone. Editors like it because it means we can publish several titles in a single issue, thereby creating diversity. (Note: when I wrote this I was serving as fiction editor of The Seattle Review, a position I held from 1978 to 1998). Readers, who are doubtlessly the real culprits here, can digest the short-short in a few minutes as they sit in the bathroom, ride the bus, or wait in the checkout line at Safeway---if nothing else, the short-short is symptomatic of an Age where speed is everything, the Concorde is admired because it saves time, and where our rhythms have been conditioned by sitcoms that stop at twelve-minute intervals for commercial breaks; an Age of "digests" that churn out three-minute videos for adolescents with short attention spans, fast-food retaurants, and the 24-hour divorce. Can anyone doubt that for a tired, time-harried reader, who has dozens of things competing for his or her attention, the short-short is fiction's version of the quick-fix?
"Yet, it can be a powerful fix, like poetry which it resembles because the short-short demands compression and economy. It usually relies on narration (dramatic scenes classically structured on Aristotelian lines take too long), a bewitching voice and, given its brevity, it often achieves the lasting wallop carried by Japanese haiku and koans, as in the fiction of Jim Heynen and Barry Lopez. It is strangely pure. And all of a piece. Moreover, it is protean, assuming any shape---the sketch, fable, parable, a transcript of dialogue, a list---and, adding to its appeal, it gives writers a vehicle for expressing all those scraps of experience that are fascinating but too thin for a traditional 'rising-conflict-to-resolution' story or novella. Only a fool would rigidly define the short-short because, above all else, it must be an innovative, attention-grabbing exploration of that perennial mystery that is the origin and end of expression itself: language."
So the above statement was how in 1986 I saw the way we experienced the form of "short-short" fictions like "Moving Pictures." On the surface, that story is about an unhappy novelist-turned screen-writer who sits in a Seattle movie theater, the Neptune Theater, watching a film he wrote the script for. His life is a modern mess. His wife is divorcing him, he "sold out" his artistic dreams for the lure of doing profitable hack-work in Hollywood, etc. Clearly, when I wrote this I was being somewhat cynical about some of my experiences based on the script-writing I did for PBS in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The unnamed, second-person protagonist (the "you") is watching a film he wrote, a silly Western, and he remembers seeing what the film looked like on reels in the editing room. It is at this point that the story draws upon Buddhist epistemology to dramatize how the Dharma describes our acts of perception, i.e., Buddhist writers have often metaphorically compared the blank screen in a movie theater to the mind upon which is projected all manner of perceptions and passions and events yet the blank movie screen ( consciousness, or one's original mind "before one's parents were born," as one Zen koan puts it) remains pure and untouched by this eruption of perceptual experience. The mind remains as unsullied as the fabled Lotus flower that rises up from muck and mud. But the story's protagonist never realizes that (if he did, he would be led to awakening and liberation); he never sees that, ironically, he is "a triple-threat talent...producer, star, and director in the longest, most fabulous show of all." In other words, his life and all things he experiences are products of his own mind.
Over the years when visiting different colleges and universities, I met two professors who taught "Moving Pictures" because, I guess, the use of a film world setting appealed to them (or they thought it would appeal to their students). But they completely missed the philosophical level of Buddhist epistemology or theory of perception at the story's center. They only saw the "surface" of this story. That always disappointed me. But then the late scholar Gary Storhoff, my friend and a Buddhist, published a reading of "Moving Pictures" that explained its meaning perfectly. I always felt indebted to Dr. Storhoff for this explication of the text. And indebted, too, when at one of the meetings for the Charles Johnson Society at the American Literature Association (Storhoff was one of the Society's officers; see my E-Channel tribute to him dated November 14, 2011), he again stunned his audience (and me) with another Buddhist reading of one of my fictions, "Executive Decision." At that meeting, I swore to him that he had inspired me to take another shot at dramatizing Buddhist epistemology, this time in a story that might be more accessible to general readers. That story is "Kamadhatu: A Modern Sutra."
It was written in 2004 as one of my (now 13) stories created for the annual Bedtime Stories fund-raiser sponsored by Humanities Washington (the theme we were given to write about that year was "dreamland"). The story is dedicated to Martin Hughes, and that is an important detail. In the 1990s, I had a black student in one of my creative writing classes who was a friend of Hughes, a young, white Buddhist monk who grew up in the northwest and began Zen training in Japan when he was 18-years-old. That student introduced us. Over the years, Martin Hughes and I became friends. He worked out at the "Twin Tigers" Choy Li Fut kung-fu studio I co-directed with Gray Cassidy in Seattle. He showed me his poetry and prose, and a manuscript (still unpublished) he wrote about his experiences training in the Rinzai Zen tradition, which I gave him some editorial advice on. Our friendship was deeply rewarding for me, and I learned much about his unique life in Japan as a (white) monk.
Martin Hughes became a Rinzai Zen abbot and priest, one of only two white abbots in Japan. With that "promotion," he was able to apply for and receive his own temple in Osaka, one of many old, abandoned temples in a Japan that today does little to sustain its rich Buddhist history. Hughes named his temple Daigo-ji Temple (Anraku-ji). Downstairs, just inside the entrance at my front door, there is a framed, 100-year-old scroll written in delicate calligraphy on rice paper in Japanese (a Buddhist prayer or gatha), one of several Hughes unearthed when he began repairing and cleaning his temple, and which he sent to me as a gift. He drew up a list of international names (his friends and associates) who he wished to have as the first members at Diago-ji. Cassidy and I were among the first 20 or so people he registered as members. Then, suddenly, we stopped receiving messages from Martin Hughes. Time went by---a few years---and still we heard nothing until one of our martial arts students who grew up in Osaka, a young Japanese woman, said she would look into where Hughes was when she made a visit home. We learned that Martin Hughes was dead. He had volunteered to do social work helping young street kids in the Philippines. There, he ate something not properly cooked or sanitary, fell into a coma, and died at a too young age.
Even as I write these words, my heart is heavy. I still have manuscripts of his writing (prose and poetry) that he sent me. Some years ago, I was able to convince an editor at Manoa, a literary journal in Hawaii, with whom I sometimes correspond, to publish some of Hughes's writing in one of their special issues. What I know about the everyday practice of Buddhism in contemporary Japan is largely what I learned from my friendship with Martin Hughes, and so "Kamadhatu" is dedicated to him.
(By the way, there is a special sadness---and responsibility---that falls to someone when they are entrusted with the work of a writer friend who has passed away. Here at my house, I also have two boxes of writing by my high school creative writing teacher, Marie Claire Davis. She published three of my youthful stories---"short-shorts"---in 1965 when I took one of her writing classes. At the time, her claim to fame was publishing a few stories in The Saturday Evening Post. At Evanston Township High School in the 1990s, I funded an award in her name, "The Marie Claire Davis Award," that is given each spring to a senior for the best portfolio of writing. The English professors at E.T.H.S. select the winner each year and send me a copy of his or her work. Even after she retired from teaching and lived in Florida with her husband, Marie Claire Davis would travel back to Evanston, Illinois in the spring to shake the hand of the winner of the award named after her---she once wrote me that she felt this award vindicated the years she spent struggling to write, always juggling the demands of teaching with her desire to create fiction. A couple of years ago, Marie Claire died. Her husband just couldn't bear to have her writing around as a reminder of his lost loved one, so he asked me if I would take this material. I did. Two boxes. In those boxes are diaries and workbooks dating back to the 1930s when Marie Claire was a teenager and dreamed of becoming a writer. My hands almost tremble when I handle these workbooks, letters, drafts of her fiction, and diaries: they are a special portal into her life, a time machine that takes me back to the Great Depression. And I know, like the writing of Martin Hughes, that this work must be preserved for posterity. Whenever I give my "papers" to some university---two or three have requested them---you will find among those papers two boxes of writing by Marie Claire Davis and material from Martin Hughes.)
The protagonist of the story "Kamadhatu" is Toshiro Ogama, a young Japanese abbot who, like Martin Hughes, acquires and restores a very old temple, where he lives alone. He has a tragic past and doesn't wish to see visitors. To make a little money, he translates American books for Hayakawa Shobo (my Japanese publisher for Middle Passage). One day a visitor does appear at his temple---a young black American Buddhist named Cynthia Tucker. She comes to visit him because he is translating one of her books on the Dharma. Tucker is very much based on black American Buddhists writers such as Jan Willis and Angel Kyoto Williams. She volunteers to help him clean some store rooms at his temple. There, she finds an old movie projector and canisters of film that record life at this temple in the 1950s. Toshiro's encounter with Tucker and this film footage, which I will let readers experience for themselves, leads to my second attempt to dramatize Buddhist epistemology using the metaphor of movies. Perhaps one day I will compose another story featuring Cynthia Tucker since black women practitioners of the Dharma are seldom portrayed in our fiction.
When I finished this story, and read it at Bedtime Stories, I was so emotionally drained that I didn't even bother to send it to my literary agent. I just stuck it in one of my filing cabinets of writing (there are 4 full ones here in my study). But later, Indian scholar, Nibir Ghosh, who spent the 2003-04 academic year at the University of Washington on a Senior Fulbright Fellowship to study black American literature in general, and my work in particular, wrote me after he returned to Agra College (where he chairs the Department of English Studies and Research) and requested a story for Re-Markings, the journal of scholarly articles, stories, and poems that he publishes. So "Kamadhatu" first appeared in a publication in India, Vol. 6, No 1, March 2007 of Re-Markings. When Ethelbert Miller and Dr. Ghosh published Charles Johnson: Embracing the World (Authorspress in India, 2011) Ghosh included "Kamadhatu" in this festschrift volume. When I read it again after so many years, I realized I should give the publisher at Shambhala Sun the opportunity to read it. So I sent him a copy. He responded with great enthusiasm, bless him, and so after seven years this story will finally be available to American readers.
This, then, is the history behind the eight-page story titled "Kamadhatu: A Modern Sutra."
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 7:09 AM