Pushcart 2011: Marilyn Chin, “Three Buddhist Tales” from Black Renaissance Noire Fall 2009/Winter 2010

Black Renaissance Noire, Fall 2009/Winter 2010

Black Renaissance Noire cover, Fall 2009/Winter 2010

The dead and the living shall bury themselves and be reborn over and over, with the same lust for life, the same fury. The egg-born, the womb-born, the moisture-born, those with form, those without form, those with consciousness, those without consciousness, those how are neither conscious nor unconscious: All singing together, in one loud hissing harmony.

Hello, I am Zin, and this is the second story my writing pal Dwayne (hello, Dwayne!) will be studying at The Writers Studio in January! I hope he will add to my understanding and appreciation!

Each tale includes a Buddhist parable, and a modern real-life application, and in the first two cases, a meditation that ties them together and emphasizes the point of the section. This is a lovely piece! It is one of those stories where underlining does not work, because every word is important, which is maybe one definition of an excellent story!

It is helpful to have some understanding of Buddhism, at least the aspects covered here; I am not sure it is essential. I did look up some details, like the symbolism of the animals, and the moon haiku, but I have some vague familiarity with Buddhist concepts. There are many sites that explain such things if you wish. One basic concept is the Eightfold Path; desire (and attachment, the consequence of desire) is important in these stories.

CICADA has a nice little A-B-A-coda structure. It starts with (A) a Buddhist parable about the cicada (a symbol of rebirth) who is so enjoying his brief life that he does not see the mantis, who so enjoys his meal he does not see the cat, who does not see the hawk. There is a transition (B) to Jack, who finds his dead cat and becomes a contractor in Iraq where so enjoys an Almond Joy bar he does not notice the sniper who is so overcome with joy at his successful kill he does not see the helicopter, and the pilot finds her husband has run off with a higher-ranking officer and she sits alone in despair listening to the cidadas…see, a nice little circular thing there! And then the above quoted section acts as a coda, and we are all together in this, all life, one We.

PIGLETS also starts with a parable about the piglets whose mother dies, but they do not realize it, and one has a harder time than the others realizing she is gone. There is a brief meditation, an aside to a higher power:

Why, Great Matriarch, shall there always be those who cannot recognize their mother when she is still whole and those who cannot detach even when she has been shattered? Why this eternal contradiction?

And then we hear the story of the piglet who could not detach, except she is a hallucinating vagrant; this is the link between the parable and the example. She thinks someone is Mei Ling but she is wrong. A closing meditation addresses the reader, and the writer tells us: “She survives to remember.” I am not sure what this means, but it is a beautiful coda. So the structure is similar but not identical to the CICADA: A-Meditation-B/A-Coda.

RYOKAN’S MOON is a more traditional narrative, but it is based very deeply in a story about the Buddhist monk Ryokan: a thief broke into his humble hut and could find nothing to steal! When Ryokan returned, he felt bad for the thief, so took off his clothes and gave them to the thief so he would not leave empty-handed. Then he sat naked and saw the moon (a symbol of enlightenment) and regretted he did not give him the moon. He then wrote a famous haiku:

The thief left it behind:
the moon
at my window

That is so beautiful! Haiku are much more complex than just counting syllables!

So back to the story! It is about Mei Ling (aha, the connection to PIGLETS) who has gone camping with her boyfriend, and he is off doing something. A junkie comes to her camp and tells her to take her clothes off, and she tells him to go rob someone else. He leaves, then comes back, and she gives him her clothes, because she wants to have the right intention and the right action, which are important concepts in Buddhism! Right intention involves resisting desire, resisting aversion, and resisting aggression! Right action is to not hurt others (including animals!), not steal or lie, and not using sex for evil. The thing is, true wisdom is like breaking the letter of the law to preserve the spirit. The “creep” (as he is referred to in the story) leaves. He comes back again to rape her, and she tells him she has crabs, and shows him the blue marks the medicine has left, and he leaves. She then thinks about Ryokan and realizes she is not as enlightened because she wants the moon all to herself.

This is a very complex idea. Is she lying about the crabs? Is it ok to lie so he will not rape her? If she allows him to rape her, is it rape? Does being enlightened mean anyone can have sex with you? Of course not! So this might be an example of breaking the letter of the law to preserve the spirit! I am not sure, though, I need a Buddhist monk to explain this to me! But this is supposed to be a story, not a religion lesson!

I think the structure, and the transitions and connections, are the interesting part of this story! I am not sure, however, why this is an exceptional example of this kind of thing, and I am pretty sure there are other stories like this out there. I enjoyed it very much, it touched my heart and my mind, but I am at a loss to analyze it, so I hope Dwayne will help!

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One response to “Pushcart 2011: Marilyn Chin, “Three Buddhist Tales” from Black Renaissance Noire Fall 2009/Winter 2010

  1. Pingback: Pushcart XXXV (2011): Final Thoughts « A Just Recompense

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