Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Buddhist Fiction

I'm a fiction writer by trade, or at least I fancy myself one. That's where the majority of my writing experience lies. I've written several novels, none of which has found a "home" with a publisher (that's a nice way of saying that I have shoe boxes filled with rejection slips).

Two summers ago I wrote a work of speculative fiction about a world that had the technology to identify exactly who we were in our past lives. I used the Buddhist principle of rebirth as the basis for the novel. The book explored how our world would change as a result of this technology. Could you claim yourself as Beneficiary in your Will?--after all, if you "inherit" your karma, why can't you inherit property from your previous life? What would we do if we found Abe Lincoln, or say Hitler, in their next (for lack of a better word) "incarnations"?

I thought the book would take right off, but alas I was wrong! What surprised me the most was the lack of Buddhist fiction out there; or rather, the lack of interest in Buddhist fiction. I haven't found one book--besides fictional accounts of the Buddha's life (a la Herman Hesse, Thich Nhat Hanh, Deepak Chopra)--by a contemporary Buddhist author written for a Western audience.

Personally, I see the need for Buddhist fiction. Fiction is a great medium to explore Buddhist-related themes: impermanence, delusion, emptiness, and most of all suffering. For while these are common topics in Western literature, they're perfect for Buddhist fiction. I also think that Buddhist fiction would help solidify or further establish Buddhism in America. (I know that I've said it before, but I'll say it again. Did anyone notice that in President Obama's inaugural address, he acknowledged Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians, but left out Buddhists? This is telling. Buddhist fiction would help give Buddhism the voice it deserves in Western art and culture. Not to mention, it could help educate non-Buddhists, for Buddhism is all too often misunderstood by the average Westerner.)

Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by Buddhist fiction--stories set in the West with a Buddhist audience in mind, where Buddhist characters (although they don't need to be, but it would be a nice change of pace from the standard Judeo-Christian characters who take the lead in most fiction) grapple with traditional Buddhist themes. How cool--not to mention refreshing--would that be?

I teach Creative Writing, and whenever my students tell me they don't know what to write a story about, I tell them, "Write the story you wish had been written." In other words, write the kind of story you would love to read.

So I'm going to follow my own advice. In the next couple of weeks (or "months," would be more like it) I'm going to write some Buddhist-themed stories and posting them here. After a year or so, I might have enough to string them together into a collection. I already have a couple story lines in mind.

What do you think? Is there a demand for such titles, or is this just wishful thinking? Also, if there are any authors who currently explore this genre, please let me know.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: dolmansaxlil.


  1. I'd read it. Have also been contemplating writing something along that line myself...You could be starting a movement here!

  2. I see a lot of Buddhist themed literature and movies, but none outright. I'm not sure how I'd feel about a blatantly Buddhist work of fiction.

    It seems to me that most powerful aspect of Buddhism is how pervasive it is in all aspects of life independent of the label.

    The things that I think of when I think religious fiction are things like the "Left Behind" series which come across as ridiculous and narrow minded. Even the Christian imagery or themes in the "Chronicles of Narnia" which is more palatable. But both can be off-putting when approached by someone not of that persuasion and I could see a blatantly Buddhist book having the same effect.

    That's just my opinion, though. It's not a story that I would love to read, as you put it; not enough to write it myself. If it was there and sounded interesting, that'd be a different thing completely.

    So, I say go for it. I'd read them here as it wouldn't cost me anything but my time and I'd be happy to provide feedback.

    I did notice that about the speech, but he was mentioning armed forces so my feelings were mixed.

  3. Thanks NellaLou and Kevin for the support! It's a project that's been gnawing at me for a couple of months, and now that I'm blogging I thought this would be a great forum to share the work.

    Thanks for reading and commenting. _/\_

  4. I would definitely read it too. I've been searching for some good buddhist fiction to read for a long time. Fiction books - and the themes contained therein - speak to me on a level that non-fiction books do not. I look forward to reading your stories.

  5. I wasn't looking for Buddhist stories but I'm always looking for information simply for the sake of information. I would probably enjoy it.
    As for publishing, do it yourself. 'Conventional' publishers, due to their need to 'be in control' of authors and readers are quickly becoming 'unconventional' or more often 'broke and out of business'.
    Drop by my blog for my Email and I can give you a low cost (very low cost) source for publishing that has worked well for me.

  6. Ted Biringer did this in "The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing." Has anyone read it? I've been meaning to get my hands on a copy for a while now, but have never gotten around to it.

  7. There is actually quite a bit of fiction that is labeled Buddhist. Check out Kimberly French's list here:

  8. I'm thinking along those lines, myself, Andrea. I say go for it. And, a ps: I agree with Kim Kimberly French's list is a good place to begin to explore the range of the literature today...

  9. Hi Andre,

    I just came across your blog here and love it! I'm currently helping an author friend of mine from India edit his second book on Advaita teachings.

    I, too, see a real niche out there waiting to be filled with Buddhist fiction. It's touted as one of the fastest growing 'religions' here in the U.S., so I'm surprised at the lack of some good reads. Often, you can learn more from a good fiction writing than you can from a 'manual' or traditional text, which can feel sort or 'dry' sometimes.

    I look forward to what you have to offer!


  10. You're right, it is still hard to find publishers for "Buddhist Fiction" but, like you I believe it is a genre much needed - with a shelf that is beginning to fill. Wisdom Publications has two anthologies of short stories. The Buddhist Fiction Blog
    will point you to many others.
    Last and no doubt least, my own short story collection "Buddha on a Midnight Sea" is now available and speaks very directly to the wish you make above - by a Buddhist, set in the west, primarily for Buddhists.

  11. Some of you may enjoy this - a novel about a man trying to live by Buddhist principles and not doing very well at it.