If Only I Had Listened with Different Ears

This website begins with the publication of my new book, “If Only I Had Listened with Different Ears: Three Buddhist Tales.”

History of writing historical fiction

I began writing “King Bimbisara’s Chronicler” in late 1994, early 1995 (the dates in this article are to the best of my recollection). I wrote the first ten chapters or so and then stopped, as was my custom in my early novels. I would do that to see if a novel was worth continuing, and I had abandoned at least two other novels at that point (while also deciding to complete for my first two novels, written when I was in my twenties). In 1995, I gave a reading of these chapters at the Bodhi Tree Bookstore to a largely receptive audience. I knew I had to continue writing “King Bimbisara’s Chronicler” and I finished the novel later that year or in 1996. I gave another reading of the opening chapters at the Dharma bookstore in Whittier and began reading them at my retreats, rarely getting more than halfway through the novel. I then produced a 180-minute taped version of my reading a slightly abridged version of it. I also submitted it for publication in 1998/99 and had an ongoing exchange with Parallax Press. Incidentally, the then publishing editor of Parallax Press, Arnie Kotler, is the person who connected me with Sumeru Press for the current publication. In 1999, a friend of mine in Sri Lanka wrote to me that Sarvodaya Vishva Lekha would be interested in publishing the book, which they did in 2001. They printed a thousand copies and most of them sold within the first couple of years, but they did not offer to do a second printing, even though it got nominated for an international literary award. It has been basically forgotten for the past two decades until this new release.

“After the Parinibbana” was written in a few days during the winter of 1997/98. It was the first section of a three-part novel. I later abandoned the other two sections, as they seem contrived and held no interest for me. But the first section, where I introduce the relationship between an old monk and a young nun, was an idea I had been working on for a few years in my head, never writing anything down until one week when I was probably snowed in and had nothing else to do.

“Myth of Maitreya” was the last of these three Buddhist tales to be written. I wrote it when I took a break from writing, “Seeking Nibbana in Sri Lanka.” It was probably written sometime in 2000, after writing “Behind Closed Eyes.” It was also the time period that I wrote the first version of “Unlearning Meditation.” As you can see, this was a creative period in my life. I had very little outside work and was mostly living off savings and my wife’s income. What I usually do at uncertain points like this in my life is write fiction. Oddly enough, I finished these three novels and the book on unlearning meditation at around the same time, and then my meditation teaching work began to pick up. 

What distinguishes “Myth of Maitreya” from everything else I have written, in my opinion, is that it is a non-linear story that takes place in mythic time.  It is supposed to make sense and then not make sense and finally make sense, and then the cycle repeats itself. You grasp some meaning in the story and then, like a slippery fish, it jumps out of your hands and back into the water, only to surface again later on, where you can hold it differently, perhaps more delicately. As a stand-alone story, it would be far more challenging than as the final book in a trilogy. I’m very curious to hear what readers experience from reading it, not just once, but a few times. It is the most experimental novel of mine from this time period and the one I have always had the most insecurity and uncertainty about. But, it always gets me thinking about the Dharma in provocative and unexpected ways.