I picked up the Pelevin‘s Чапаев и Пустота, in English, “Chapaev and Void,” published with the English title, Buddha’s Little Finger, at the library and was immediately enthralled. The introduction–part of the novel, in fact–claims the text to be the true telling of the story of Chapaev, narrated by Petka–you might say, “Petey,” in English–potentially titled, ‘The Garden of the Divergent Petkas’, the introduction written, apparently by the
Chairman of the Buddhist Front for Full and Final Liberation (FFL (b)) (IX)
Needless to say, I dug it.
Pelevin, my acquaintance had told me, actually practices Buddhism, and from what I read in an interview, he seems to me to be very serious about it, and not at all smug or off-putting in that way that some…well…judging mind, judging mind…He speaks:
I only study and practice my mind for which the Dharma of Buddha is the best tool I know: and it is exactly what the word Buddhism means to me. And I also totally accept the moral teaching of Buddhism because it is the necessary condition of being able to practice your mind.
That sounds about right, to me. I found myself, not a third of the way through the book, realizing that it is best approached as a case-study, or koan to use the Japanese most familiar in the United States, like in the Blue Cliff Record. Chapaev is the master, and Petka–as well as others–the students. Petka, early in the novel, references the house-on-fire metaphor from the Lotus Sutra:
I should say that I was not in the least bit afraid of death. In my situation to die was every bit as natural and reasonable as to leave a theater that has caught fire in the middle of a lackluster performance. (29)
That I know the feeling precisely only increased the humor of it, for me.
The Master [Linji] saw a monk coming and held his fly whisk straight up. The monk made a low bow, whereupon the Master struck him a blow. The Master saw another monk coming and again held his fly whisk straight up. The monk paid no attention, whereupon the Master struck him a blow as well.
Chapaev uses a Mauser, rather than a fly whisk, but the principle is the same.
A sudden thunderous crash burst upon my ears, startling me so badly that I staggered backwards. The lamp standing beside Kotovsky had exploded, splattering a cascade of glycerine across the table and a revolver appeared in his hand like magic.
Chapaev was standing in the doorway with his nickel-plated Mauser in his hand[…]
‘That was smart talking there, Grisha, about the drop of wax,’ he said in a thin, hoarse tenor, ‘but what’re you going to say now? Where’s your great ocean of beans now?'[…]
‘The form, the wax–who created it all?’ Chapaev asked menacingly. ‘Answer me!’
‘Mind,’ replied Kotovsky.
‘Where is it? Show me.’
‘Mind is the lamp,’ said Kotovsky. ‘I mean, it was.’
‘If mind is the lamp, then where do you go to now it’s broken?’
‘Then what is mind?’ Kotovsky asked in confusion.
Chapaev fired another shot, and the bullet transformed the ink-well standing on the table into a cloud of blue spray.
I felt a strange momentary dizziness.
Two bright red blotches had appeared on Kotovsky’s pallid cheeks.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘now I understand. You’ve taught me a lesson, Vasily Ivanovich. A serious lesson.’
‘Ah, Grisha,’ Chapaev said sadly, ‘what’s wrong with you? You know yourself you can’t afford to make any mistakes now–you just can’t. Because where you’re going there won’t be anyone to point out your mistakes, and whatever you say, that’s how it will be.’
Without looking up, Kotovsky turned on his heels and ran out of the barn. (200)
Yes, this is absolutely funny, creative, surreal, etc., but it is also very much the work of someone who is seriously engaging with Buddhism as a practice. Satire, it seems to me, is the proper vehicle for Buddhist teaching, certainly Ch’an (Zen, in Japanese). Ch’an masters are, as a group, vastly funnier on average than the population as a whole.
A last bit, which very much reminded me of a teaching I received from my Dharma teacher:
‘Let us start at the beginning. There you stand combing a horse. But where is this horse?’
Chapaev looked at me in amazement. “Petka, have you gone completely off your chump?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘It’s right here in front of your face.’ (150)
The seriousness with which Pelevin has obviously approached Buddhism is evident here. You know you are dealing with a clod if he or she talks about emptiness and denies the reality of things in particular. That’s a cop-out.