Historical fiction has a particular hold on the reader’s attention. It has a direct relationship with our known world and why and how important things happened. We feel as participants in the characters’ journey, as a fly on the wall. Now, take this three steps further. The journey covers multiple lifetimes, and the reader is a fly on the mind’s wall.
LEVEKUNST art of life is proud of having successfully conducted this cyberspace interview with Douglas J. Penick, a well-known author of historical fiction, with the twist of the mystic’s perspective, whose short story A Distortion in Transmission can be read here in the LEVEKUNST magazine.
Your writing has been centered on some of the great figures in Buddhist history, and even your recent novel has been a kind of representation of Trungpa Rinpoche’s world. How did you come to take this on?
Oh my. One thing just led to another really. I don’t quite know why but towards the end of his life, I promised Trungpa Rinpoche I would bring the stories of Ashoka Maharajah, Gesar of Ling, the Yong Le Emperor and Prince Shotoku Taishi to greater prominence in the West. He considered these four to be the ancestral sovereigns in the Shambhala tradition. Until then, I had been writing poems and short prose pieces, so I had no idea how to proceed. As he frequently advised, he said: “Just do it.”
When I first saw Trungpa Rinpoche giving a talk, he was so clearly so much more intensely alive. I was magnetized. And scared too.Douglas J. Penick
I remained sort of stuck until after Rinpoche’s death, Peter Lieberson asked me to do the text for a chamber opera about (and titled) King Gesar for a group with Yo Yo Ma, Peter Serkin, Emauel Ax and other superb musicians at the Munich Biennale. I decided I had to do a kind of run through of the epic’s major elements before choosing what would work best for a one-hour piece.
I immersed myself in particularly the Asian epic tradition, and it was Peter Brooke’s setting of the Mahabharata that really opened up the whole thing for me. Epics, as you know, contain the grandest scale of human actions combined with the most intimate lyrical expressions. They have a sweep which can accommodate everything in human experience. They provide icons of our inner life. And they bind people and cultures together over vast expanses of space and time.
Unlike most of the great classical epics, Gesar is a tradition that is still alive. It’s still being written. Still being sung and improvised on. Somehow that made it possible to tune into Gesar and the momentum of his deeds.
Are your stories based on dreams, meditation experiences or visions?
As to the basis: it seems that there has to be a sense that the piece, is needed or could be helpful. This is true whether it’s writing a specific episode like Gesar going to Hell to rescue his mother, or a specific inquiry into the relations between the inner and outer life of an Chinese Emperor.
But, if Peter or someone hadn’t asked, I don’t know if I would have found a way to begin. He asked, and, for whatever reason, I knew I could do it. (It’s also happened that people asked about doing a piece, the life of Guru Rinpoche for instance, and I knew at the time I absolutely couldn’t.) Then once a piece is in process, all kinds of personal experiences go in to finding and presenting the life in the story and the characters.
Personal experiences serve to give life to this larger commitment. Once having committed to a story or person, it guides, to some degree, what one notices in all one’s experience or memory.
Why did ancient Asian mysticism catch your attention?
I, like a lot of people in the late ‘60’s and early 70’s, came to sense that mind had far greater dimensions than we had previously assumed. We all shared a deep longing for something we could not describe. When I first saw Trungpa Rinpoche giving a talk, he was so clearly so much more intensely alive. I was magnetized. And scared too.
So it was not any idea of ancientness, or mysticism, or Asian-ness or, for that matter, transcendence or escape into the divine that was enticing. It was the possibility, and the uncertainty, of a deeper being alive. Here and now.
How do you see the link between the siddha tradition and people living today?
I think you know much, much more about this than I do, Erik. Certainly your translations have made it much more possible for people in the secular world to practice.
What do you think about dharma art?
Well, it’s certainly not a matter of iconography or even adopting Buddhist concepts. And it’s not self-expression, is it?
It seems that all great works of art, whether Bach’s Musical Offering, Watteau’s Gersaint’s Shop Sign, the poems of Li Po, Robert Johnson’s Love in Vain, Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, the Mahabharata, Proust, paintings at Tun Huang, Zeami’s Takasago, Hagia Sophia among innumerable others, bring us into the awakened state in as many new ways as there are galaxies of stars.
Website of Douglas J. Penick.
Photo of Douglas J. Penick by Bill Oliver.
Photo by the bridge Nicolas Raymond
Among Douglas J. Penick’s published works is CROSSINGS on a BRIDGE of LIGHT: The Songs and Deeds of GESAR, KING OF LING as He Travels to Shambhala Through the Realms of Life and Death.
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