The Bodhisattvas

“The Bodhisattvas” appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Subterranean, guest edited by Johnathan Strahan for Spring 2010. (A Korean translation, by Kim Chang-gyu, titled “보살들,” appeared slightly earlier in the <백만 관년의 고독 > One Million Light-Years of Solitude) SOAO Workshop anthology from Omelas, December 2009.)

This story was influenced by my attendance of two astronomy-focused workshops for creative writers (and other creators): The SOAO Workshop at Sobaek Mountain (South Korea) hosted by the Korea Astronomical and Space Science Institute in February 2009, and the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop in July 2009.

The original version of this story formed part of my MA Thesis, back in 2001, for a degree in English Literature (with a concentration in Creative Writing.) It was extremely different, though some of the characters appear in both stories. Those interested will have to pry the files from my cold, dead hands. I don’t have a hard copy of the thesis, though it does exist in the holdings of Concordia University Library in Montreal, Canada, and, maybe, some national archive where they collect Canadian grad theses. I don’t advise the search, though. It’s not worth it.

The original story was much closer to the inspiring source material, much of which appeared in the book Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism, edited by Stephanie Kaza and Kenneth Kraft (Boston: Shambhala, 2000). In particular I drew upon “Guarding the Earth: A Conversation with Joanna Macy” by Wes Nisker and Barbara Gates (originally published in Inquiring Mind). A quotation from this interview with Macy, best-known as a Buddhist environmentalist activist (here’s her website), was the epigram for the original version of the story, which focused on a group of deep-future Buddhist monks (the last sentient beings on Earth) living on the site of an old nuclear waste site.

This is the quotation, from Macy’s answer to a question about future generations grappling with our creation of nuclear waste and nuclear weapons:

The challenge for beings of the future will be in accepting what their ancestors have done, and for that acceptance to occur, a measure of forgiveness will also be necessary.

It seems to me that even though I have removed the epigram, this observation has aged increasingly well: now, undeniably, our descendants will have to deal not only with whatever toxic waste we fail to find a way of processing into oblivion ourselves… but now, we have ocean levels rising at scary rates, a biosphere that’s crumbling, slowly but unmistakably, and only a small proportion of the public, and of our global leaders, are taking it seriously enough to keep alive any slim hope that we’ll avoid the ecological holocaust depicted in my story.

(An article by Macy on this basic theme, and with a line startlingly similar to this quote, is available via Google Books.)

Other bits of the book that also inspired the story include:

  • The jataka tales (of the past lives of the Buddha) collected in part 1, which inspired my own version of a different jataka tale, though mine is based more on a jataka tale I found in a small collection of such stories which I bought in Dharamsala, India.
  • The various Boddhisattva vows that appear in different sections of the book (and another book I no longer have in my possession), of which mine is a variant.
  • Tangentially, the appearance of the “Dharma King” in Yana’s meditations is a riff on a part of the Lotus Sutra included in Dharma Rain, in a translation by Burton Watson, which begins with an invocation of that figure.

Finally, the text I relied upon most for my (weird, distorted) theories about a interbrane “biosphere” was Dr. Lisa Randall’s book Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions, which, if it treats a whole bunch of speculations, I found at least admits they’re speculative and is relatively even-handed about it. (From what I could understand. There are certain kinds of nonfiction books that feel like a physical workout. This is one of them. And for advice regarding the physics (and to some degree the Buddhist-related material) I am particularly indebted to my friend Mark Ancliff for comments and suggestions.

Yana’s religion, though it is clearly a form of Buddhism, is a loosely imagined future school descended from the traumatic collision of Mahayana Buddhism with climate disaster, ecological collapse, and the exodus of a significant proportion of humanity from our solar system (followed by the dieoff of the majority of the human species — specifically those who could not afford passage on the escaping starships). It is in no way intended as a depiction of a real-world, modern form of Buddhism.

While to my knowledge romantic coupling, marriage, and childbearing are not part of life on a normal Mahayana sangha in our world (though there is room for married people or parents to take monastic vows, for example, and some Buddhist traditions expect a degree of permeability in the line separating monk from layperson), the monks of Yana’s time have no other option to replenish their population, and have consciously decided that participating in the circle of life is a sacred and necessary part of their Buddhist practice. It’s not so far-fetched, if you buy that anyone would hang around stewarding the ruins of Mother Earth after The Collapse. The far-fetched part is the bit about mass exodus: the impracticability of such an escape for even a small portion of humanity means that the reality would be, I fear, much darker.

Edit: Oops, I forgot to note one thing: this story was written and edited in a repeating loop mostly of one song, Kenny Garrett’s (quite uncharacteristic, but very beautiful) “Tsunami Song,” from the album Beyond the Wall. Here’s the track:

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