Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 8 Fall 2015
Anita Feng's major awards in poetry include a National Endowment for the Arts grant, an Illinois Arts Council grant, a Washington State GAP award and the Pablo Neruda Prize. Publications include two books of poetry, Internal Strategies, published by the University of Akron Press and Sadie & Mendel, winner of the Backwaters Press Prize. Individual works have been published by Nimrod, Ploughshares, Black Warrior Review, North American Review, Northwest Review, and Primavera among others. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She teaches Zen at the Blue Heron Zen Community in Seattle, Washington, and works as a ceramic artist making raku Buddhas.
Anita Feng (Zen Master Jeong Ji) has practiced Zen in the lineage of Zen Master Seung Sahn since 1976. In the late '70s she lived and studied intensively with Zen Master Seung Sahn at the Providence Zen Center. Since the '90s she studied under the guidance of Zen Master Ji Bong, receiving Inka in 2008, and full transmission as a Zen Master in 2015. She is the guiding teacher for Blue Heron Zen Community in Seattle, WA.
"Evolution of a Buddha," ceramic raku by Anita N. Feng. See more of her raku creations at: golden-wind.com
Charlotte B. Collins
holds an M.A. in Critical Studies of Media. For a number of years, she taught writing at the University of California, Irvine.
During the recent decade, she has worked as a graphic artist, web designer and videographer. She received refuge and practices in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. She is a founder and serves as president of Sakyadhita USA.
The story of Siddhartha. The story of Sid. The story of all of us.
by Anita N. Feng
Artwork by Linda Davidson
Wisdom Publications, 2015, 176 pages. $16.95
Reviewed by Charlotte B. Collins
On the surface, Anita Feng’s Sid is the story of Siddhārtha told through the device of two parallel narratives. One contains the familiar story of Siddhārtha’s journey from birth in 5th century Kapilavastu, through his Awakening, teaching and on to his Parinirvana. The other is the interwoven story of Sid Sudovsky, the motherless son of a university professor in contemporary Boston, who grows to manhood, loves, marries and undergoes what looks like a mid-life crisis of identity and meaning. Sid achieves an awakening of his own, a recognition that love, compassion and gratitude in the present moment are the keys to real happiness. Of course, both stories are more complicated than this, as we would expect if we if we are already followers of the Buddha’s path.
What makes this book a powerful retelling of the story is Feng’s use of a cinematic device that creates a virtual experience for the reader. This is no accident nor a surprise considering that Feng is a published and acclaimed poet. The job of the poet is to create scenarios in language, to paint pictures in a spare and precise choice of words. Similarly, the book is structured in very short chapters, and the chapters contain very short scenes creating the overall effect of a tightly knitted narrative film. Another part of Feng’s art lies in the juxtaposing of the scenes, where no scene stands out or takes central command of the narrative, yet by the end, the combined effect of so many subtly meaningful events and affecting moments grab the reader by the heart. It’s a slow, slow burn through which she elicits the reader’s compassion and recognition.
We already know where the story of Siddhārtha is going. But here Feng’s retelling approaches hagiography. Unlike Thich Nhat Hahn’s Old Path, White Clouds, which is a fictionalized account of the Buddha’s life told in codes of realism, Feng situates her Buddha’s life in a mythological kingdom where the mystical and the magical prevail. For example, her description of Kapilavastu:
“Ask anyone and they will tell you that Kapilavatu is built out of a fragment of sky mixed with a bit of Tușita heaven. The city walls spread thick like clouds of buttery light, and every house within exudes a splendor that even its residents can’t quite believe. Precious stones litter the paths. Precious blossoms embroider the trees. Within the city’s magnificent gates, darkness is as alien as a hungry ghost.” (p. 3)
Similarly mythological is Siddhārtha’s birth:
“On the night of a full moon, Mahāmāyā passes through the Lumbīnī gardens, accompanied by pealing bells and swansongs throbbing in the evening air […] she wanders further, among fragrant blossoms, until she comes to a sala tree that gently lowers one of its branches to meet her hand […] she stands very still. All sentient beings, it seems, conspire in energetic joy. She smiles. And a moment later a lovely child steps out of her side.” (p. 5-6)
No messy human birth from a mother in an ungraceful posture.
Although we already know Siddhārtha, we don’t know this modern character, Sid Sudovsky; however we are told on the book jacket that Sid is a modern era Buddha-to-be. So we read expecting to discover the parallels. The “Cast of Characters” listed in the front of the book offers clues. Siddhārtha’s mother and father are, of course, Mahāmāyā and King Śuddhodana; his wife is Yaśodhara and his son is Rāhula. Modern Sid’s mother (who dies in childbirth) is Maya and his father is Professor Sudovsky; his wife is Yasmin but their son is also called Rāhula. I will leave the reader to discover all the parallels, except to say that there are a number of surprises because of the author’s artful use of dialogue. The characters in the contemporary version ring true and realistic, not magical, or not very much so. Where magic does occur, it’s the result of one very special character, Avalokiteśvara/Ava.
The most interesting and unexpected device used by the writer is in the character of Avalokiteśvara/Ava, who acts as the common thread that binds the ancient and modern stories together. In the list of characters, she is described as: “The bodhisattva of compassion, also known as Guan Yin, Kwan Seum Bosal, Kannon, etc.” As Ava, she is midwife and nanny to both Sid and Siddhārtha and she is nanny to both Rāhulas. She is the voice of compassion, clarity (enlightenment) and thus wisdom. In the ancient story, she is at one point Spokesperson for the women of Kapilavastu; at one point in the modern story, she is a student of Sid’s (he has become a math teacher).
In the first chapter, both Siddhārtha and Sid are born and Avalokiteśvara is introduced:
Once called, she becomes the universal door. There is no dwindling end in the ten directions where one cannot present one’s life as a plea at her gate. With her thirty-three forms and eighty-four thousand heads, she will turn to listen, and listen, and listen again. She will hear all. (p. 6)
At Sid’s birth, the character of Ava, in a plainspoken and almost working class idiom, explains his mother’s death and Sid’s birth:
We midwives roll the dice, and we do what we know or don’t know how to do. It can be a sorry business sometimes, that’s for sure. I’m telling you straight, we try with all we’ve got. If we stood any closer we’d be taking the mother’s place ourselves. What else can I say? Sometimes mothers still die. […] But you made it out okay, Sid. Welcome to our little show-stopping, precious life. It’s a revolving debut, like the doors in front of Macy’s. Welcome to our hocus-pocus brave new world, kiddo. I’m telling you—every time a new child appears, it’s another miracle. (p. 14)
Avalokiteśvara (or Ava), the bodhisattva, watches over the abandoned wives Yaśodhara and Yasmin, whispering in their ears consoling words. As Ava the nanny, she comforts the two abandoned sons named Rāhula. Movingly, she shows up for both Siddhārtha and Sid when each has left home on his quest for enlightenment. While Siddhārtha fasts and starves himself,
Avalokiteśvara, in tears, observes his self-abuse and inserts secret nourishment through the pores of his skin. Even so, his face, which had been a beautiful golden color, turns black. (p. 100-101)
Due to suffering a painful melancholic discontent, Sid has left his home, his wife and his son. He sits on an empty park bench facing a pond in the Boston Public Garden, vowing not to move from the spot, “until he understands something, anything.” (p. 111) He is startled to hear his old nanny Ava whom he “hasn’t seen in ages” calling out,
“Sid, sit up straight! Oy vey! How many times have I told you that with posture like that your breathing is compromised and by extension, your immune system and overall good health will suffer?”
Old Ava is dressed in a dark green city park uniform, carrying a paper sack containing a “steaming falafel wrap, oozing with hummus” which she offers to him and he accepts. When he asks what she’s doing there, she replies:
You should know me by now, Sid. In my spare time I like to do volunteer work. Today I’m riding the swan boat back and forth, making sure no one falls out before getting to shore. So? Don’t look at me like that! What else should I be doing? […] What am I going to do with you? She asks. If not for me, you’d starve. (p. 111-112)
We trust this bodhisattva because of her sincerity, forthright plain speech and commitment to acting out of compassion for the frail human beings she has promised to aid. The lesson in this endearing little book is about compassion. Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, shows us how compassion acts and that even Buddhas need compassion.