Telling stories could be one of the most ‘present’ things we could do.
In high school, I loved reading Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse’s classic tale of a young Indian man who rejects his Brahmin caste, meets the Buddha (who also happens to be named Siddhartha), and embarks on his own search for enlightenment. Growing up in a conservative Midwestern town, I was inspired by his courage in rebelling against his religion and privilege, and by his passion to follow his own path.
For a long time that’s as far as my exposure to Buddhism went, certainly in literature.
Then, a few years back, I came across the story “Ringworm” by Kate Wheeler, in the collection Not Where I Started From (Houghton Mifflin, 1993). She had originally published it as a nonfiction account of her five months cloistered behind the walls of a Theravadan monastery in a Rangoon suburb, while the military government brutally quashed the 1988 uprising by Burmese students and ordinary citizens outside.
In her revised fictional story, a young American whom the abbot has named Sumana shaves her head weekly, wears four layers of pink robes, lives in a hot and mildewed dorm with five other “foreign women,” eats two morning meals then drinks only glucose tea, and sits seven hours and walks seven more in meditation each day. She’d heard that young girls would attain what the Burmese call cessation—liberation, or the end of suffering—during their summer holidays and thought surely she could, too. She admits the banal, guilty distractions that block her and that she knows would annoy the monks: feeding a stray cat, jotting down observations in a notebook, getting crushes, pretending to meditate. Her path was both grindingly ordinary and momentarily exhilarating, almost unimaginable to my Western mind.
“I tried to remember what time I sat down,” Sumana describes her moments of bliss. “I think it was eleven. I felt as if I had been sitting for two minutes, but actually an hour had passed. . . . It was absolutely different. My mind was on rails, a locomotive. The body swung free, unconstrained by perpetual attention.”
I’ve kept an eye out for more of Wheeler’s writing. She’s now at work on her second novel, about a group of American Buddhists who travel to Asia to meet a teacher. A few years ago an anthology she edited, Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree (Wisdom Publications, 2004) billed itself as the first collection of Buddhist fiction. In 2006 Wisdom published a second volume, You Are Not Here, edited by Keith Kachtick, in which “Ringworm” also appears.