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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Lincoln in the Bardo, a Bodhisattva Story?

First some definitions:

In Buddhism, bodisattvas are people who are enlightened but stay with us suffering mortals to help, even absorb our pain, in order to aid us on our individual journeys to enlightenment (oneness with All That Is).

And bardos are an intermediate state of existence between two lives.

It took a day to hit, but when it did, the recognition of Abraham Lincoln in Georges Saunders's wonderful novel Lincoln in the Bardo as a bodhisattva made me feel like laughing and crying at the same time.

What an imaginative, unusual, and nicely bawdy book, but I'm not sure you would be drawn to it if you have no background in Eastern traditions or predilection for, or merely willingness to suspend disbelief about, the notion that life exists beyond what we experience in our bodies or that in more ethereal realms thoughts create reality and that energy can move like great literal ocean waves, causing experiences and communications between the realms.

I found myself yelling as I recognized my ego issues in people living in the bardo where Abraham Lincoln's young son, Willie, ends up after he dies. I was so affected by the recognition that I altered my actions to do what I was avoiding because of my ego fears. And I groaned in recognition of our common human mess — everybody is represented here with all their defenses, excuses, and denial! And they're all trapped, married to their suffering.

I imagined George Saunders having a blast, wandering through cemeteries and imagining lives and deaths for all the people buried there.

The story is about what happens between Willie and his dad (and who knows, maybe he really was a bodhisattva!) as told by all the different characters living in the cemetery, as well as sometimes real and sometimes fictional quotes from references, and my one complaint is that the cited names and sources follow each entry instead of preceding their text, so reading is awkward — especially when they aren't identified until the following page.

Nevertheless, I really enjoyed being surprised by this exquisitely written book. Yay, George Saunders, for being so daring and free and exposing all of us in this unique tale about suffering and eventual liberation!

And, on further contemplation, where are today's bodhisattvas? What a bummer that we can only seem to recognize them long after they've left us.

10/18/17 Update
The book just won the Man Booker prize! According to The Guardian, Saunders accepted the prize this way:
"If you haven't noticed, we live in a strange time. So the question at the heart of the matter is pretty simple: Do we respond to fear with exclusion and negative projection and violence? Or do we take that ancient great leap of faith and do our best to respond with love? And with faith in the idea that what seems other is actually not other at all, but just us on a different day.

"In the U.S. now we're hearing a lot about the need to protect 'culture.' Well this tonight is culture. It's international culture; it's compassionate culture; it's activist culture. It's a room full of believers, through the word, in ambiguity, in beauty and in trying to see the other person's point of view even when that's hard. Believers in working to eliminate hatred and meanness and lazy habitual thinking even when—especially when—we find these in ourselves."

Sure, sounds like a Bodhisattva to me.

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