Thursday, July 21, 2016

Literary Creation and Buddhist Practice

Raymond Lam did a fine interview with poet Ramya Jirasinghe recently, entitled "Tensions Between Literary Creation and Buddhist Practice" which I read with interest because it's centered on the questions of Buddhist poetry in the Theravada tradition and why it can seem so slow to see any significant output from our community.

Ramya Jirasinghe works as deputy director at the United States – Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission. She’s completing a PhD, and her first book of poetry was There's an Island in the Bone (2012). You can read some examples of her poetry at Poem Pigeon.

While I'm still processing all of her remarks, I think she raises worthwhile questions that have application in our own efforts to encourage Lao American poetry. She remarks "At the deepest level of Theravada Buddhist practice, where you are working at letting go of attachment to death and rebirth, I find that the modern process of artistic creation that is usually so inextricably linked to the self and the identity of the creator does not complement the practice."

I'm not certain how many of our Lao American writers, particularly our emerging writers give that matter much consideration, but it would be interesting if that is something that's subconsciously holding back many in our community.

For her: "A writer who is embedded in the real Theravada practice would be driven less by the artistic ego and more by the forces of equanimity, kindness, and generosity and will be able to create a space to nurture and encourage others’ writing and growth.” 

This is something that I might find resonance with in my own work and the work of my fellow writers in the Lao American Writers Summit, and seems to fall in line with a growing tendency to advise one another to work with others in the process of telling our various stories, to see writing a community process.

Modernity often convinces us to emulate the stereotype of Hemmingway or other rugged individualists who we're taught hammered it all out on their own in solitude. But in real life, most plays, movies, TV shows, comic books, and so many other things are created in a community or small group process, and I think Lao writers can't be shy about pursuing this route, even in our poetry.

There are many interesting ideas that she puts forward, but near the end her remarks on Sri Lankan history make me think of parallels in the Lao experience, as well:  “In Sri Lanka, we have been fighting wars for centuries over what conditions us: national, ethnic, religious, and social identities. It would be interesting if writers could in some way incorporate the concepts of anicca [impermanence] and anatta [no-self] into their work. The challenge, however, is to not sound didactic! I think many of our filmmakers have been maestros at incorporating a very Buddhist ethos in their work. I think it is harder to achieve that ethos verbally, without sounding ‘Buddhist.’ ”

I consider her remarks also through the lens of a speculative poet, wondering wherein a Buddhist approach to science fiction, fantasy and horror ties into everything, but that may well be a conversation for a different point. In the meantime, be sure to give the whole interview a read and see what you think.

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