Stories have been a beloved pastime of mine since I learned to read. In my childhood I devoured fiction of all kinds: from fantasy novels based on pop culture franchises to my favourite genre of world myths and legends retold in modern prose. Odin, Hathor, and Trickster Raven were my companions as much as my high school friends and classmates. As I became more involved in the great religions of the world I discovered that Buddhists, Christians, and practitioners of all faiths regularly explore the depths of meaning in their traditions’ stories. I’ve always thought of life itself as a tale in progress, and that a life well lived was, in essence, a story that could be told with a sense of poignancy and meaning. How beautiful, even if sometimes impossible, is the simple wish for a happy ending?
The human impulse to produce and consume stories is universal, even if we know those stories are fictitious and can be deconstructed, taken apart, dismissed. In my interview with Sri Lankan poet Ramya Jirasinghe, she made the emphatic point that “artistic creation and working through the Eightfold Path can’t be linked as they have contradictory goals and processes,” since artists and writers need to work from their self and experience and the Buddhist must see through the illusion of the self. No self, no story, just a process that is misinterpreted as a story.
But even though it’s true that fiction is illusory on a fundamental level, it can also be deployed to highlight, in entertaining and relatable fashion, the central Buddhist notions of dispelling illusion and gaining insight. Look no further than Alice in Wonderland and a slew of other popular classical and modern fiction that can educate us about Buddhist truths through the “lies” of storytelling. I also believe strongly that a Buddhist who wishes to write fiction can deploy Buddhist imagery and invoke themes of Dharma without ever mentioning a single word of Buddhist jargon (J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis are household names that wove Christian themes intimately with their deservedly popular novels). In his article on creative writing, David Brazier highlighted a poem by Saigyō Hōshi that, while not mentioning Buddhism, perfectly illustrated Buddhist themes of impermanence, suffering, and being torn between the melancholy of the present moment and dwelling on what has already passed.
Sad, the haze in the meadow
where I pick young herbs
when I think
how it shrouds me
from the faraway past.
(Watson 1991, 24)
Perhaps the dilemma is when fiction becomes so enjoyable that it starts to seem like a goal worth pursuing in and of itself. There’s no point in crafting falsehoods for its own sake. We should stick to a moral message, a beneficial teaching of Dharma. Yet wouldn’t it diminish or impoverish a piece of writing or any work of art if we desired a reader or viewer to feel only what we felt, to interpret it only as how we understood it? So: from a Buddhist perspective, could fiction be said to be the finger pointing to the moon? Or would it be more accurate to call fiction the reflection of the moon in a clear pond? Does the artist create the story, or does the story make its author? Do a reflection and finger assist us in perceiving the moon, or entangle us in distractions?
I suspect no one has the answers. The only thing I think we can do (since many of us can’t help it) is to continue exploring, to continue creating, to continue to revel in our curious capacity for finding joy and truth in the illusory… mindfully, of course.