[Blog] Report on the Buddhist Literary Festival (Canada) 2021 by Kimberly Beek

By Kimberly Beek, McMaster University

The second Buddhist Literary Festival Canada (BLFC) was held virtually from December 10 to 12, 2021 between 2 and 5 P.M. each day, for a total of nine hours. The festival was conceived and coordinated by Venerable Professor Bhikkhu Mihita (formerly Dr. Suwanda Sugunasiri) and conducted through Emmanuel College of Victoria University in the University of Toronto. Bhikkhu Mihita’s motivation to coordinate the event this year was to provide what the Buddha called “phassāhāra” or “contact food” as comfort and nurturing in the midst of an isolating global pandemic. The festival was co-sponsored by four temples in the Greater Toronto Area: Mahadhammika (Burmese, Greater Toronto Area) Temple, Mahayana Pure Land Temple (Chinese, Markham, Ontario), Pho Hien (Vietnamese, Greater Toronto Area), and Toronto Mahavihara (Sri Lankan, Greater Toronto Area). Attending the festival each afternoon was rendered highly enjoyable in no small part due to careful, cordial, technical facilitation by Shawn Kazubowski-Houston, Events and Media Coordinator at Emmanuel College.

On the first day, after the opening ceremonies, attendees received a warm welcome address from Professor John H. Young, Interim Principle of Emmanuel College. This was followed by an introductory talk from Bhikkhu Mihita entitled “Buddha as Language and Literary Entrepreneur” in which he noted the variety of genres of Buddhist writing in the Pali canon that reveal how the Buddha personalized his narratives for his audiences. In this way he was a language entrepreneur, using discourses and stories creatively to deliver the dharma. Bhikkhu Mihita gave the example of the Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta (“Sutta on the Great Final Deliverance”) which has the structure of a novel, so, accordingly, the Buddha was the first to narrate in this structure. Following the example of the Buddha, our festival gathering was in appreciation of language as literature in Buddhist writing and practice.

Next, Upāsikā Eleanor (Dr. Eleanor Pontoriero) (University of Toronto) presented on the Therigāthā, the verses of the female elders, the earliest Buddhist nuns. After giving a detailed introduction to the prominent nuns featured in the verses, Upāsikā Eleanor described how the Therigāthā is currently being used to support a contemporary context for gender equity which concerns the higher ordination of women as Bhikkhuni. In this way, Upāsikā Eleanor recontextualized and represented these Buddhist poems as documents of social and political engagement, showing the contemporary relevance of these texts. Professor Martin Adam (University of Victoria, British Columbia) then presented on nature imagery in the Theragāthā or verses of the male elders. In his reading of certain Theragāthā verses, natural phenomena and beauty are paired with a call to practice, encouraging readers to consider how Buddhism and the environment are intertwined, even (and especially) in the midst of the current climate crisis. Following these two presentations that connected canonical Buddhist literature to our contemporary cultural milieu, Terry Watada firmly anchored Buddhism and literature in the current Canadian social imaginary with a reading from his most recent novel Mysterious Dreams of the Dead (2021). He chose to read a part of his novel that provided a descriptive tour through Japanese Buddhist Toronto of the mid twentieth century. The combination of history with imagery rendered the reading akin to a guided visualization of the palpable and practical ways Japanese Buddhism manifests in a Canadian city. The remainder of the first day was Honouree Hour, during which time Bhikkhu Mihita formally recognized, with gratitude (kataññutā), eleven people and/or groups who pioneered Buddhism and literature in Canada.

The second day of the BLFC began with poetry readings. Terry Watada read poems from his book of poetry The Four Sufferings: Shiku Hakku (2020) and from “The Haunting,” a work not yet published. Then Asoka Weerasinghe read his poem “The Bamiyan Buddhas.” The poem is a form of grieving over the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan by Islamic fundamentalists in 2001. In this evocative poem, Weerasinghe offers a structure of emotions of sadness and anger that frame an unwillingness to forgive, all of which stand in stark contrast to the generally assumed compassion and loving kindness of Buddhists. Next, Dr. Bryan Levman (University of Toronto) gave a fascinating and thorough presentation on the history of the Pāli canon titled “The Transmission of the Buddhadhamma” that chronicled how the oral tradition became literature. Then, extending the Pāli canon’s influence to the present day, Dr. Vanessa R. Sasson (Marianopolis College, Quebec) spoke about her experience writing the novel Yasodhara and the Buddha (2021). The novel is based on stories of Yasodhara found in the Pāli canon, from Sinhalese tradition, and from Thai stories. Sasson wanted to represent her protagonist as vocal about her plight and not weak, has known a lot of loss yet was consistently able to be compassionate. As if following in Yasodhara’s footsteps, Toronto public school student Sachini Jayewardene from the Toronto Mahavihara gave a moving talk on loving kindness.

The day continued with a presentation on classical Chinese literature from Professor Henry Shiu (Emmanuel College of Victoria University in the University of Toronto). He highlighted the multiple, dynamic narrative genres identifiable in Chinese Buddhist sacred texts. Next were presentations about Canadian Buddhist publishers Nalanda Buddhist Publishing, a Division of Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies (2000-2006) and Sumeru Press, Inc. (2009-present). Jim Vuylsteke reviewed the Nalanda publications that showcased the work of Suwanda Sugunasiri. Then John Negru described how Sumeru Press, Canada’s largest independent Buddhist book publishing company, continues to thrive and develop in new directions while still offering the dharma and many new works of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction every year. Carrying on with the idea of Buddhist literary publications, Venerable Ajahn Punnadhammo Mahathero gave a talk on four works of Buddhist literature that greatly influenced western literati: The Light of Asia by Sir Edwin Arnold (1879); Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901); Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (1922, trans. to English in 1951); and, The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac (1958). Professor Martin Adam finished the day with readings and video excerpts from his play “What the Buddha Never Taught.” The play is a rock opera, with music written by Marc Atkinson and Martin Adam. The story is based on the autobiographical travel book What the Buddha Never Taught (1990) by Vancouver born author, Tim Ward. Ward’s book is a humorous pilgrimage story of a young Canadian at a Buddhist monastery in Thailand. The play was originally scheduled for a July 2020 debut in Vancouver but has been postponed until this summer due to the global pandemic.

Professor Glen Choi (Seneca College) started off the last day of the literary festivities with a highly enjoyable reading from his creative non-fiction book Beginning, Middle & Zen: Tales from Canada to Korea and Back Again (2018). Choi described how his biography writing process was collaborative. As time passed, his perspectives changed about events and experiences, so Choi asked people to recount their memories of specific events that he wanted to include in his memoir, thereby strengthening the integrity of his memories. Next, Chris Ng introduced the Buddhist Education Foundation of Canada. Her recounting of this charity, incorporated in 2001, has raised and accumulated funds in order to financially support courses in Buddhism and related areas of study, Buddhist studies programs, and chairs and centres for Buddhist studies in Canadian universities. Following this, Bhikkhu Mihita spoke about “Literature in the Sky! (as in the Canon).” He related that since Buddhist sacred texts narrate stories of devas—sky beings—who speak in poetry, there is literature everywhere, even in the sky. Lastly, Venerable Ajahn Punnadhammo Mahathero finished the BLFC with an “Overview of the Realms of Existence” that highlighted Buddhist cosmology and mythology as rich sources of inspiration for all genres of fiction, from alternative history to science fiction.

The BLFC finished with a townhall meeting in which attendees discussed the future of the festival as well as other Buddhist literary ventures. Bhikkhu Mihita proposed a Buddhist Times Canada newsletter, and plans were made to turn readings and presentations from the BLFC 2021 into a Literary Supplement of the newsletter. Everyone agreed that the foundation of the BLFC is a belief in the idea that literature can reach people in a way that perhaps dogma cannot, so it is beneficial to promote Buddhist literature. All attendees were grateful for the collegiality of the BLFC 2021 that, in effect, was our sangha for the duration of the festival. The BLFC 2021 (and future BTC) Literary Supplement will be posted on https://buddhistcouncil.ca/literary-supplement/ in 2022.

Kimberly Beek is a retired Logistics Officer of the Royal Canadian Air Force who began her doctoral career as a mature student. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree (Advanced) in English Literature and Religious Studies and a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies, both from the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. For doctoral studies, Kimberly chose McMaster University’s Department of Religious Studies to examine the emergence of contemporary, popular fiction with a Buddhist worldview. She is interested in story and discourse that offers a view into the processes of religious acculturation and demythologization. Her approach is interdisciplinary and includes ethnography and textual analysis. She has taught English Literature and Religious Studies courses for Athabasca University, Royal Military College of Canada, and the University of Regina. While at McMaster University she was a teaching assistant for many courses on Buddhism(s) and Asian religions offered by the Department of Religious Studies. She currently lives with her family in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where she is finishing her dissertation project, planning future research and writing projects, and learning to appreciate the desert.

One thought on “[Blog] Report on the Buddhist Literary Festival (Canada) 2021 by Kimberly Beek

  1. Greatly appreciate your involvement in such timely Buddhist literary activities as these. Hope you are able to do a tremendous service to the world of Buddhist literature in future. Among other projects, your attempts to learn to appreciate the desert appears to be a most touching work on this earth. Congratulations!
    Wetara Mahinda


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