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Daily Connect: Buddhism Vs. Literature

A recent article in the New York Review of Books suggests that many of the greatest works of literature, (particularly modern literature), wouldn't have been written if their authors were Buddhist.   The writer, Tim Parks, believes that the all the attention non-Buddhists and non-meditators place on their thoughts results in the creation of narratives that focus on confusion, chatter, and suffering.   He cites Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground with its depressed and sullen narrator; Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and its tormented veteran with PTSD, and believes that Hamlet's inability to make a decision or take an action is the result of getting caught up in his conflicted thinking.

Mr. Parks' idea for this article followed his participation in a ten-day meditation retreat.  He writes:

It's all too evident how obsessively the mind seeks to construct self-narrative, how ready it is to take interest in its own pain, to congratulate itself on the fertility of its reflection...

But you can also choose not to go that way. You can decide that your mental chatter is not after all so damn interesting; the second arrow declined. How else would these people around you have learned to sit so still, for so long and in such serenity? Imagine Dostoevsky’s man in Notes from Underground, or Beckett’s Unnameable, or Thomas Bernhard’s narrator in The Loser at a meditation retreat, learning to be silent, learning to sit still, learning to put to rest the treadmill of reflection.

I don't know what would happen to literature if we all became aware of our suffering and learned to work with our minds.  I suspect we'd write a lot more poetry.   And maybe our stories would be more other-centric - what would an interdependent novel look like?  Does Cloud Atlas count?  (I always thought Proust's Search for Lost Time was very Buddhist -- its central concern is the nature of suffering, and it concludes with a realization of  impermanence, dukkha, and non-self.)   Even in the Buddhaverse, will our tales continue to reflect the narrative nature of being human?  Or will they be endless recursive loops into infinity, ala Borges and his Library of Babel?




Etching by Eric Desmazieres for The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges

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war and peace is buddhism-influenced

Tolstoy, well-known early Western appreciator of Buddhism and idiosyncratic convert, wrote a fantastic novel about all life's struggles for meaning, and how over and over we impose "This is it No Really THIS Is It NO NO NO I'VE GOT IT NOW" on the ceaseless ups and downs of life. Call it the original Six Feet Under, plus Napoleon war movie. Takes a while to get going, but utterly riveting and life changing after about 3 of those long chapters.

Also, you want fascinating conflicted meditators, go read the poetry of Ikkyu Sojun, or the diary of Gendun Chophel, or even Hakuin Ekaku and his adorable Buddhist comic books about "Bodhisattva One Hand Clapping."

Look, of course the Western novel might not have existed in its exact form if these guys had better control over their issues, but that's because contemplative practice (on one level) is a different technology of learning--one largely pushed aside by the printing press, and which we are learning to reintegrate now that the Internet has shaken things up and now that cognitive science has finally started learning from spiritual practice. Only with those two things in place do we have the vantage point to see the conditioned nature of novels as ways of forming a self... They are utterly wonderful and bring us in deep touch with the experiences of others (I argue that they're a gateway to compassion and the sense of a larger world beyond what's dreamed in our personal philosophy, and I work in publishing so I MEAN that) but they depend on a world where social interaction works a certain way and in which our attention is trained for reading in a certain way, and not everyone lives in that world now. Media envy does not lead to excellence, but recognizing our strengths and where they are most useful just might.

Finally, a last thought: some of the most staggeringly well adjusted and happy people I have ever met are cult horror movie writers. Just because you can go dark places doesn't mean those places own you.

Great food for thought!



Interesting. I recently read how Murakami's literary works and characters largely relate to the theme of conscientiousness. I also read an interview whereby he suggested there is no such thing as a constant self and although not personally identifying as a buddhist per se, he was sympathetic to a buddhist worldview. Lastly, Murakami offered up that his very writing was a form of self-therapy at some point in time.

What do I know? I once took a college lit seminar entitled "Women and Madness" and we seemed to often talk about fear and confusion as constant themes along with political forces and social conditions (i.e. race, gender, class, etc.). I remember Ethan once discussing postmodern theory in relation to buddhist philosophy/psychology, which helped me understand a great deal. Last night Kate referenced Celle from the Color Purple in her talk on suffering and the fourth noble truth. I do not remember the exact wording, but I think Kate suggested that she found Celle to be is a figure of spiritual enlightenment ("If you pass by the color purple in a field and don't notice it, God gets real pissed off.") All such good stuff...

cynthia g posted the "interesting..." comment :)

apologies for lack of clarity and anonymous tag!

just because your mind is clear

doesn't mean that you can't create characters who are muddled and confused.

Cause and effect.

It is a funny game to play, the what if game, but perhaps I will play the game of cause and effect!

'What if' implies that there is going to be to be a potential outcome from the change of one cause. What if implies a direct one thing leads to one thing (or many things) kind of scenario to play with. It is tidy, but the game is a flawed one, because even with my limited reading, I have found Buddhist text that uses logic that proves that cause and effect cannot exist and then uses that to prove that phenomena cannot exist.

Therefore, I hereby declare that the Mr. Parks has a lot more research to do if he is going to claim that his understanding of Buddhism leads him to declare that things would so if they were so! His very contemplation is a game based upon confusion!

Yet! What fun!

(Besides that, I'm writing a play, and it is riddled with Buddhism, yet, if I didn't tell you, you wouldn't know it. And there is plenty of drama, because we always have the drama of misunderstanding what is true, and that is always an interesting story to tell, no?)

To be quite plain, the question is rubbish. Well, not rubbish, more like melted butter, and we should ice skate on it a bit, hold hands, and giggle, because, really, what are we doing ice skating on melted butter!?

Yet, I am happy that the question is out there!

Mindful Writers

This is fascinating to me on so many levels! We talk about some of these issues in my writing group. Very excited to see this blog post :-)

I don't think narrative storytelling would necessarily disappear. But there might be more poetry. Poetry makes you reevaluate your relationship with words, communication, form, categories...I think that's why it makes so many people uncomfortable (at least it made me uncomfortable for the longest time!)

I think working with our minds as writers can only help us to reach more people through our writing. I think the more aware of our suffering we become, the more aware of others' suffering we become, and we can figure out skillful means for telling our stories. I think that includes narrative storytelling, too, because that's what so many people love to read.

Curious to hear what others think!

(whoops, this is Emily

(whoops, this is Emily Herzlin, by the way!)

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