Like all religions, Buddhism has strong roots in story-teaching tales, illustrative parables, illogical koans, and subtle sutras. The pieces in this self-proclaimed “first ever” collection of Buddhist fiction range from short prose-poem paradoxes to encounters with the spiritual in everyday life.
Although a few of the stories were created by professional fiction writers, such as Russian author Victor Pelevin, many come from Buddhist practitioners long on belief but short on technique. Editor Kate Wheeler notes that several stories were submitted by believers who have never written fiction before. As a result, Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction is apt to appeal more to students of Buddhism than to lovers of challenging short stories.
However, once one gets past the puzzling paradoxes that only believers will fully understand, several pieces have broader appeal. Gerald Reilly’s award-winning title story, which he has said is about managing “inner landscapes,” stirs together politics, protest, and role-playing, in a story about an AIDS-stricken man “becoming” Richard Nixon in a stage drama.
Kira Salak’s “Beheadings” is an engaging tale about a woman journalist searching for her brother who is trying to deal with his guilt over accidentally killing a young boy in an auto accident. Easton Waller’s “The War Against the Lawns” effectively recounts a skeptic coming face-to-face with transcendence, while Francesca Hampton’s “Greyhound Bodhisattva” explores the incarnative mix of flesh and spirit in a mundane, everyday encounter.
Other stories, such as “Memorizing the Buddha,” which revisits that point in time two thousand years ago when followers of Buddha decided to transcribe his teachings, as well as some of the brief elliptical meditations included here, will best be appreciated by initiates in the know.