Buddhism for (Sci-Fi) Teens
Six months ago, as the world tried to take its bearings again in the wake of the pandemic’s second wave, someone emailed and asked me to write a book. True story. Actually, I assumed it was spam. But no, turned out to be a genuine request — prompted, as it happens, by my new publisher (the excellently named Callisto) reading this frankly occasional blog.
The book they wanted me to write was not the one I ended up producing. And no one was more surprised than I was when, after talking for a couple of months, we settled on a different proposal: to do instead a book called ‘Buddhism for Teens’.
With hindsight, it makes more sense: I’ve always wanted to write for children and young adults. In fact, I have done, finishing a short novel for ages 8–12 a couple of years ago that is, as yet, unpublished. And anyone who’s read my previous blog on the stories and images that move us will probably have caught how a deep-sourced love of classic/modern children’s and YA literature sustains my somewhat fanciful heart.
I won’t rehearse here all the background details of writing the book itself. Except to note that it had to be drafted in 6–7 weeks, and has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of creativity I’ve had to date. Up there with making a record in a month; finishing books of poems, and drafting novels; or, for that matter, creating cool websites in a few weeks under the pressure of Covid. I felt like an athlete training for some big event: up every morning at 5:30am, cranking it out to meet my deadlines.
Apart from the discipline required, I learned a tremendous amount about the modern book making and publishing industry, and how to work with external, unknown editors — I hope with some grace. I really came to respect and value expert editorial process; and Callisto (the book is actually published under their imprint, Rockridge Press) have been nothing but supportive and encouraging. It was quite something to be given both a fairly tight structure and then an almost entirely free hand creatively. You can say what you will about “data-driven publishing” (Callisto are fiercely focussed on Amazon’s algorithms, like many small and large publishers these days; it’s not my favorite model, but I get it) — but they don’t sacrifice the bit that matters in pursuit of their goals. And hey, speaking as a generally unknown writer, they pay newbies pretty well too.
The thing I want to talk about here — which also prompted my lead-off quote from the passage about Doctor Who, introducing an exercise that encourages kids to time travel in their minds in order to better understand how they see the world in the moment — is the freedom I had to introduce into the text sci-fi references that were, for me, formative in my own teenage years. I may never have been an American teen, my ostensible audience, but some things cross time and space and cultural boundaries. I think sci-fi is one of them.
In one chapter, for example, I wanted to write about the famous image of Indra’s Net: a paradigm for reality where the whole universe is overhung with (or, I suppose, itself woven as) a great golden net whose strands are connected via points jeweled and radiant; each jewel reflecting all others, and sometimes evoked as the chintamani, the mythic ‘wish-fulfilling gem’ of Buddhist tradition that brings true freedom when it (or the mind beholding it) is properly held. I explored this (in the context of Callisto’s super spartan word counts — only 500 words per story!) by telling the tale of Mal Kya and Professor Sorensen, who are exploring energy fields and mysterious jewel-like lights under the ice in the Arctic; and whose base is found mysteriously abandoned. We only have their journals for clues as to what may have taken place under the great arc of the aurora…
You can see how Indra’s Net and this kind of vision of interconnectedness lends itself to sci-fi: the story of the cosmos as a story of relationship. Of course, this still foregrounds us and our “consciousness”, our manner of perceiving, in ways that are potentially at odds with a bigger reality. One in which earthly forms of life, our planet, our species, may not be central after all; where what we call consciousness may not, in fact, be the stuff of the universe, much as we might wish it to be so. But it makes for a great tale.
I had a lot of fun writing the book, especially around the stories. And the brief from the publisher had two particular aspects that made sure I wasn’t just phoning it in when it came to retelling classic Buddhist tales of practice, drawing out questions and points of interest for teenagers who, let’s face it, may well be reasonably inclined to see the whole enterprise as a bit shady in the first place. First, the tellings had to be original in the sense that they did not recycle or quote from other people’s translations. This meant going back to the sources of Buddhist stories I first encountered in my early twenties and figuring out how to make them engaging for a young audience 30 or so years later. The second injunction I had unlocked, in a way, the challenges of the first, and was key to re-presenting trusty staples of Buddhist narrative in ways that are sometimes very different from the versions found in “grown-up” Dharma books. To my own surprise, it all centered around diversity.
Callisto’s diversity and inclusion policy was highlighted early in our discussions, and gave me much to think on. In the end, I believe it really helped make the book. As part of an historical tradition from south-east Asia, Buddhist scriptures do fairly well in some aspects when it comes to the depiction of diverse personages exploring ideas about reality through engaging with the figure of the Buddha (as interesting a literary character as Odysseus or, for that matter, Homer). At least we can assume without contradiction that Siddhartha, if he was a real person, was some shade of brown. No White Jesus nonsense here, thank you very much. And in a tradition quite at home with beings of many kinds (hungry ghosts! Yakshas! Garudas!), I suppose our culture’s general habit of asserting fixed, normative, knowable identity is always subtly attenuated.
However, it doesn’t take too long to figure out that there is a basic issue with gender in Buddhist teaching traditions. For starters, apart from a few celebrated exceptions (the Therigatha, Khema, Dhammadinna, Kisa Gotami), most of the classic interactions between the Buddha and any seekers after truth are depicted as taking place between men. Most stories from the Tibetan and Zen traditions also depict exchanges between or amongst men. Most of the great teachers and lineage holders of the many Buddhist traditions are men. Without getting into a treatise on the shaping dynamics of any tradition where almost all the defining words of power and truth get written down and handed on by men, there was clearly a problem to solve.
Thankfully, that problem wasn’t an ideological one, at least from my perspective. It was wholly pragmatic: how to make sure that, to my own and the publisher’s satisfaction, my text was accessible to all readers (a given for any Buddhist writer, surely); and actively representative of as many kinds of teenage beings as might be reasonably assumed to be reading it? Without compromising the integrity of the Buddhist teaching involved, or changing the important dynamics in exchanges between the Buddha and those asking their questions about the nature of reality. And what a trip it has been! I think the task has made me a better writer, and, as it happens, a better and clearer thinker when it comes to Buddhism and the challenges it faces adapting to the future.
But that’s another essay (or, likely, book!). For now, here are a few examples of attempts to address issues around diversity in a Buddhist book for teens:
- Making sure the physical activities in the book are cognizant of different body types, especially where they involve movement.
- Making sure modes of engagement with ideas don’t unconsciously assume neuro-typical minds, class norms, or educational attainment levels.
Sidebar: lots of today’s “western” Buddhists are middle class and university/college educated. That’s not the future for everyone in this book’s target audience, by any means. Incidentally, what price a useful, if doubtless controversial, engagement with Marxist critiques of Buddhist history and societies? Ah, but that’s another book too…
- Making sure the guided meditations take active account of people using wheelchairs, and others with disabilities.
- Making sure the presentation of Buddhist teachings eschews reliance on metaphors only immediately accessible to some: eg. avoiding too much use of “seeing” as an easy shortcut when talking about ‘insight’ (whatever that means). My friend Paramananda, an inspiring meditation teacher who has been gradually going blind since childhood, is excellent on this area. (I think he talks about it a bit in this Q & A session.)
- Making sure some of the leading characters in stories — those who hold or pass on Buddhist wisdom perspectives, and those inquiring — are female or non-binary.
- Deciding how to talk about the Buddha’s pronouns! This was a really engaging point of exchange with my editors, and I was very happy they were able to support the approach taken. I was struck that few Buddhist books address directly the obvious upheaval in gender identity going on right now in some cultures — especially amongst teenagers. I mean here experiences and explorations of being non-binary, gender-fluid, queer, etc.
- Again, I’m well aware this is an area of genuine concern and disagreement for some Buddhists — perhaps for many people — but I wasn’t really interested in the more abstract aspects of any controversy. I just wanted to make sure my book was intelligently aware of the context in which it would be received by many (mainly American) teenagers today. And that any approach had some connection to the way the Buddha’s ‘Enlightenment’ is represented in the source material. My assumptions were:
- Whatever happens for Siddhartha in transitioning to become “the Buddha”, it has nothing to do with gender. And whatever may be said about the life choices involved in setting up good conditions for ever-deepening practice, gender itself is irrelevant to our potential for attainment.
- In descriptions of ‘Awakening’, the Buddha speaks explicitly of a great discontinuity between the kind of consciousness experienced before and after the arising of a definitively clearer understanding of reality (of our relationship to reality — within it, as part of it). There is some continuity too, attested to in the details of the Buddha’s biography and the picture that emerges in the suttas of a continuing personality, aspects of temperament, etc. But discontinuity is an important part of the historical/literary accounts we have.
- The importantly ‘transcendental’ nature of the Buddha’s Awakening is apparent from the first moment of expression after it happens: “Anyone can do this!” That should not be a surprise, since the heart of transcendence in Buddhism is often evoked as going beyond an experience of fixed identity, and leaving behind any sense of fixed separation between ‘self’ and ‘other’. But it seemed important to me writing the book that there is something essentially plural both about the experience of Awakening and the Buddha’s articulation of it.
So, with all this in mind, I decided to use inclusive pronouns for the Buddha that are both gender neutral and plural. In the stories of the young Prince’s life leading to Awakening, he is clearly “he”. In the moments and years after the Buddha’s transcendent attainment, they teach and share what has happened. This experience is theirs, and it is also accessible to us because we share their fundamental human nature (which is, as any good Buddhist knows, no nature; or, at least, there is nothing essential about it.). I hope, even with any awkwardness engendered within English prose (see what I did there?), it’s as encouraging for teenagers and anyone else to read as it was for me to embrace writing in this way.
Okay, so what does all this have to do with sci-fi? Well, let’s look at the book cover. When I first saw it, I confess I was a little unsure. But as soon as I realized what was familiar to me about it, I felt much happier and have since come to feel quite excited about the image as a distillation of core aspects of the book: its approach to working with our emotions, minds, bodies, and relationships, all pointing towards freedom of heart.
Sci-fi and its naturally expansive sensibilities as a genre is part of my own history of relationship to that kind of freedom. The cover image is reminiscent, I think, of fantastical paperback sci-fi covers from the 1950s and ’60s, the visual style of which hit my brain in the 1970s, searing their reflexes into my wee psyche, my mind’s eye, my already over-active imagination. Here are some examples:
These covers and their artwork are also redolent with something else sci-fi first delivered to me: ideas that came from outside the known (itself weird!) universe of Christianity, which had furnished my imaginal and philosophical awareness to that point. The cover of ‘The Lotus Caves’ by John Christopher is an early example. Not just other worlds, but also the florid, not to say lurid, realities that lie tantalizing under the grey surface of things. Doctor Who novelization paperbacks had already turned me onto aspects of this with a somewhat different aesthetic. But it was probably Ursula Le Guin (before I knew her work with a ‘K’) that made the biggest difference. I’ve written elsewhere about my early exposure to ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ and all those majestic dragons of the mind, but here I want to turn to her sci-fi, starting (given the gender identity issues already discussed) with ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’.
I actually encountered this book as a more or less fully fledged adult, but I was aware of its classic cover earlier. It’s daunting and magnificent. In researching this article, you cannot imagine the levels of unbounded delight I experienced at finding the original paperback art for more of her Hainish cycle (including in Norwegian! 🤩). You’re welcome. Anyway, ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ seems the perfect visual and cultural reference point for a modern book on Buddhism trying to calibrate for an audience that will not, no matter how insistent older generations try to be, see things as simply binary when it comes to gender, or sexuality or, probably, very much at all. We’d better deal with it.
Of course, the covers weren’t always what UKLG herself had in mind. Especially when they sinned against Ged and Earthsea, insisting on whiteness wholly absent from the original descriptions of her characters. But often enough they do capture something of the non-Utopian, anthropologically intelligent, economically literate, philosophically permissive, sociological questing and questioning of her sci-fi fantasy writing, which she refused to her dying day to allow to be dismissed or diminished as mere ‘genre’ fiction. Look at these covers and you get the sense of minds opening even while coming to terms with the attendant clichés that might easily rush in. They may be judged innocent or naive; they may be vulnerable to exoticism or risk not being taken seriously by the kinds of curators and gatekeepers of taste and culture UKLG stood steadfastly against her whole writing life. But if any teenager looking at these covers — these beautiful soft books emerging implausibly, unfeasibly, from publishing capitalism and its need to make a decent return on initial hardback investment — doesn’t get some sense immediately that wide open are the doors of perception (or the gates of the deathless, as the Buddha might have said), then there is work to be done.
That’s the work I hope I touched into in writing this book. It’s what I see in the cover art: hints at how (I imagine) any teenager might apprehend, with some part of themselves, that there is more to life than whatever they’ve heard from the world so far. What they’ve seen on YouTube, watched on Twitch or TikTok, or any of the platforms that purport to carry their dreams for them.
The cover for ‘Buddhism for Teens’ gives me hope then. That something of what I was trying to do came through to illustrators whose names I may never know; who sketched out, then drew out their comprehension, however fleeting, of what the Dharma is trying to say. The oldest truth of all: “Come and see, come and see, come and see.”