Writing Novels - Maintaining Precepts

Novels are entertaining, or at least try to be, and are often used as an escape from the real world. Because of this, they are in a unique position to share insightful buddhist perspectives to an audience that may otherwise never encounter dhamma. But where does this line of thinking end? Star Trek lands in the Brahma realm - a movie

An obvious view is that the virtue on entertainment is in conflict with reading/writing novels. But what if the subtext is spilling dhamma? - to be specific I’m talking about books like Journey to the West or Siddhartha by Herman Hesse (I actually haven’t read these books in an age so I cannot be sure what amount or quality of dhamma is embedded)

Bhante Sujato posted a short story a while back that may or may not have had a dhamma subtext. Which leads me to my point.

  1. Do you find novels/stories written by monks to be inspiring or do you feel/believe/know they are breaking sila therefore living in an uninspiring way?

  2. What is your view, are monastics allowed to write novels? (I was recently living in a monastery that viewed this as inappropriate and against vinaya)

  3. The Buddha warned that people would prefer to read poetic writing over the suttas. Do you think novels are diluting the dhamma, are they doing more harm than good?

I am a lay person and a candidate for ordination, but my creative outlet is writing, which leads to this conflicting potentiality. I have heard senior monks giving advice to junior monks in the order of “find something to do” aside from meditation of course, this will keep you in robes! Is this “something” incompatible with going forth?

I am interested in any ideas you may have, from both lay and monastic, whether they are based in vinaya or feeling.

3 Likes

In Ajahn Sumedho’s monasteries in the UK he supports visual artistic activities by the monks.

1 Like

Interesting question.

My first thought is: Just listen to Ajahn Brahm’s talks … he doesn’t write down his stories and jokes, but what he does is very creative and could perhaps be classified in the same category as a novel (or actually, there are even a few books with his stories).

Personally I find it inspiring if Dhamma is presented in creative ways. I would find it less inspiring if someone who calls themselves a Dhamma teacher—lay or monastic—would present creative works that have nothing to do with Dhamma (I am not very interested in such things anyway …). However the line there may be a bit blurry.

I have come to learn in my “career” as a translator of Dhamma talks that Star Wars movies have at times a deep Dhamma lesson, although I’ve never seen any such movie, and likely never will.

The other day a Dhamma friend (lay man) told me of a movie he had happened upon, and which was not meant to be a Dhamma movie, or any spiritual work at all. But still he had been deeply impressed by that movie. It was about a man who had been imprisoned by the Nazis in France and was sentenced to death. And he put everything that he could into efforts to find a way to escape. Physical strength, sensitivity for interactions between people, wits—everything. Finally he managed.

For my friend this roused a strong sense of urgency in him: In order to escape from Samsara, we have to put just everything we have into efforts; everything!

So for him this was a Dhamma movie of the deepest sort, although it wasn’t meant as such. That’s how this line is blurry.

Even the Buddha himself presented his Dhamma in creative ways. Count the Suttas that have vivid similes, sometimes fables or the like, and those that haven’t … not sure which are more. I am not a statistician, but there are just so many of them!

I can’t imagine the Buddha would mind using creativity to teach Dhamma, if it’s done in a skillful way.

9 Likes

It seems to me that there’s a certain anxiety over monastics’ conduct in lay communities. Which is understable. Many of us go to great lengths to support monastics, so naturally we’d want to know that we’re supporting good monastics. Supporting dodgy monastics is actually detrimental to the preservation of the Dhamma.

And while it’s good to be circumspect, sometimes it spills into overly critical attitudes. I’ve heard monastic friends say that sometimes lay people criticise them for the tiniest things. Things like wearing a scarf that’s a different shade of brown than their robes etc. And if they do something more controversial, such as driving a car, the criticism often comes long before they’re given a chance to explain the situation. So while I’m not perfect, I try my best to give monastics the benefit of the doubt.

It’d be great if there was a simple and clear answer to what’s allowed with entertainment.
If you can read the Jatakas, why not Hamlet?
If you can read Hamlet, why not Lord of the Rings?
If you can read LOTR, why not Harry Potter?
If you can read Harry Potter, why not Twilight?
If you can read Twilight, why not 50 Shades of Grey?

Obviously, a line has to be drawn at some point before reaching 50 Shades of Grey. But where? Its not clear. But I strongly suspect it comes down to intention. Which is why I don’t believe its possible to categorically say whether people on 8+ precepts should read/write novels. It’s not about the activity itself, but how and why its done.

5 Likes

Actually I think Suttas like the Aggaññasutta can be classified as novel.

1 Like

Confession: I’m currently reading a “non-Dhamma” book. It’s pretty entertaining. It’s In An Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh. He’s a novelist, but this particular book is nonfiction based on his graduate-school research. It’s no ordinary academic monograph though. He brought all of his talents as a novelist to bear to bring medieval Egypt alive and to weave it together with his own experiences of the country and its people.

It’s reminding me strongly of some of my other favorite books. Behind the Beautiful Forevers similarly tells the story of an overlooked people in the shadow of an empire. Or The Traffic in Hierarchy which Ward Keeler wrote while staying in a small temple in Myanmar.

I do feel like fiction, weaving an illusion, is quite contrary to the mindfulness practice. I’m not interested in hearing “tall tales.” But true notes from an “antique land?” Or earnest reflections on society and life from a Burmese monastery?

George Saunders speaks very eloquently about writing as a spiritual practice and while I don’t agree with everything he says, I do agree that the process of writing and revising, reading attentively and revisiting can help show us our own blind spots and take us out of our myopic perspective.

Thankfully, we don’t need to write fiction to do that.

5 Likes

What would you say about a novel written with the intention of demonstrating Dhammic qualities in a narrative way, as opposed to a didactic one? In what ways would it be different from poems and inspired utterances, personal accounts or mythical and quasi-mythical stories in the Canon, aside from the length and having language and structure that‘s more agreeable to contemporary tastes?

Aside from length, language, and structure a novel differs from poetry, memoir, and the Canon in that it is made up.

I have no clear position on this yet.

On the one hand, just before my going forth in oct 2020, I had read 250+ books in that year, mostly fiction, science fiction, and it’s via text to speech or audiobook, speed up a lot. At one time, 3 books per day.

I initially regarded this as akin to watching shows, but just in the theater of the mind. So I had to strictly put a limit to no fiction books for me after going forth. But non fiction, non Buddhist books are still almost as time consuming now.

I also had plans to write science fiction Buddhist novels before going forth, now abandoned. Turns out to write a good novel, one has to have good working knowledge of almost everything. Not just the science, tech, futology, politics, history, economics, psychology, sociology, etc… One has to make the novel fit into certain mold of like the hero’s journey even when the protagonist is a monk. And now, I realized that I couldn’t write a good convincing monk protagonist back when I was lay. Too little knowledge of vinaya and what dhamma does monks practise, and the progress.

It’s too much work in short. Of course, for shorts like ajahn brahm jokes, it’s just from real life, thus no need for thinking much about it. It’s easy to put them into books.

I am curious for the harbingers by ajahn Sujato, so I read it. It does have some minimal Buddhist elements at the end, mostly the novel is focused on more or less realistic climate apocalypse.

Now too I have finished the Jātaka, as well as journey to the west, but those are at least related to Buddhism very closely.

I still don’t think that I would continue on any fiction writing. And try to avoid fiction novels, but summary I am still ok to read. Maybe I should be more strict to say that plot summary is still too entertaining.

I would be ok to do a popular culture and Buddhism comparison given my geek background. But then it could indeed encourage those who read it to go into popular culture instead of getting those already into popular culture into Buddhism.

@Benjamin what’s your plans for your future ordination? I think you’re ok for writing whatever you would like as you’re still a lay person. Journey to the west did a great service to put Buddhism as part of china’s and chinese cultural heritage.

2 Likes

The difference between made up and true can be fluent, and there can be several layers to a story which might outwardly seem factual or fictional, containing different levels of truthfulness. But supposing we have very clear cases, how would a narrative about things that actually took place be different from a narrative about things that didn‘t in a way that would make one permissible, but not the other? Both can be merely entertaining, both can be used as a teaching tool.
I‘m not trying to be contrarian here, but genuinely wondering. This seems like one of those grey areas to me, and I think that they matter a great deal when trying to understand a system of thought.

Honestly, if writing is your vocation why would you consider becoming a monk?

1 Like

People are a bit more complicated… and they can hold more than one identity at any time.

Looking at the suttas we find many people had other professions and trades before they decided to ordain. The Buddha often taught them using experiences from their profession to help them understand practice, such as Ven Sona.

It’s also possible for us to see past and contemporary culture, science, politics etc with our Dhamma goggles, and expands our understanding of the Dhamma.

For those who aren’t monastics, it’s sometimes difficult to appreciate just how much is given up with monastic ordination. But you don’t just suddenly lose all your conditioning when it comes to interests or sensibility. In fact, often these are what brought people to the spiritual and monastics paths. So these interests might continue to have value and continue to inform ones understanding of Dhamma even though it might not be from the suttas or regular Buddhist culture. Indeed what we take as Buddhist culture today didn’t always exist and evolved over time because people always need to create meaning in new ways that matter to them.

3 Likes

Yeah, it’s certainly a grey area. The OP invited “feelings” so I’m sharing my own. I’m not trying to be prescriptive or definitive or systematic.

There are some things fiction is good for. I haven’t read it but I’ve heard good things about Ministry of the Future and of course Bhante wrote Harbingers — helping us collectively prepare for the future of climate change. I suppose these are less “fictional” in the sense that they are honestly trying to imagine our actual near future (as opposed to being purely escapist fantasies).

Mostly my point was to put in a good word for nonfiction. I think you can do a lot more with nonfiction than just write dry academic or one-sided didactic prose.

1 Like

Exactly. Being a monk is a vocation, and it is demanding. Being a writer is a vocation, and it is demanding. Both vocations are often lonely and depend upon communities of support. If @Benjamin is at point of deciding vocation and is conflicted he has to make his decisions, and, fortunately, the vocations that are drawing him are flexible to change.

Again … people are a bit more complicated and so is the monastic and literary tradition. The path to monasticism is not linear. There are many ways to get there and also many ways to be a monk. Being a monk and wanting creative expression is not contradictory. Being a writer and wanting to be a monastic isn’t contradictory either.

Let us not forget that much of the Dhamma was composed in verse!

5 Likes

With all due respect @Akaliko writers aren’t restricted to dhamma.

Hi @Meggers, I can’t help but feel you’re missing something here by making this rather obvious point to me. Probably didn’t really need to be stated!?


@Benjamin: Stories are so integrated into the dhamma. The Buddha was a consummate storyteller, a marvelous inventor of similes. He used prose, poetry with complex metrical compositions, myths and more to teach the Dhamma. He also praised monks and nuns for their extemporaneous verses. So,
I’m sure you will find a good way to use your talents as a writer as a monk.

5 Likes

These are a lay person’s feelings, not based on Vinaya.

I find having a monastic express themselves artistically a positive. It gives me one more way to connect to the monastic and their teaching.

I think this could be very useful for Buddhism. Buddhism doesn’t have a work like the Divine Comedy is to Christian thought yet. And even more so for Theravada - it doesn’t have an art form tied to it like Haiku has become tied to Zen in people’s minds.

I was quite excited to read Bhante @Sujato’s fiction.

So I can’t answer in terms of Vinaya, but I personally think a Theravada monastic novelist or three would be a great contribution to both the world and the spread of the Dhamma.

2 Likes

It has the Phra Malai Kham Luang.

Phra Malai Kham Luang (Thai: พระมาลัยคำหลวง, pronounced [pʰráʔ māː.lāj kʰām lǔaŋ]) is the royal version of a Thai legendary poem of the Sri Lankan monk Arhat Maliyadeva, whose stories are popular in Thai Theravada Buddhism. The vernacular version is known as Phra Malai Klon Suat. Phra Malai is the subject of numerous palm-leaf manuscripts (in Thai bai lan), folding books (in Thai samut khoi), and artworks. His story, which includes concepts such as reincarnation, merit, and Buddhist cosmology, was a popular part of Thai funeral practices in the nineteenth century.

Legend of Phra Malai

Phra Malai, according to the various versions of the story, was a Buddhist monk who accumulated so much merit that he acquired great supernatural abilities. Using his powers, he traveled to the various Buddhist hells, where he meets the suffering denizens and is implored to have their living relatives make merit on their behalf. He later traveled to the heavenly realms of the devas, Trāyastriṃśa and Tushita, where he meets Indra and the future Buddha Maitreya, who instruct him further in merit-making. Beyond the basic elements of the legend, further embellishments and flourishes were often added during recitations of the tale, to better entertain the audience.

3 Likes

Thank you, @Mumfie.

Do you know if there is an English translation anywhere online? I haven’t been able to find one.