Thursday, July 5, 2012

Researching Bodhidharma

Writing a novel sometimes requires research. You want to get your facts straight, or they're all going to laugh at you.

As dramatic as that scene from Carrie may be, it's really not all that bad. Sometimes the answer is just a Google search away, but sometimes a writer must go a little deeper than that. For my first novel, "The Fountain of Eden," I researched mythology and delved into some classic fiction. For the next one, I'm researching the life and times of Bodhidharma, the times being 5th-6th century India and China.

I've learned many new things about Bodhidharma in recent days. There are many conflicting accounts of the life of this pivotal figure in the development of Zen Buddhism, as is to be expected with someone who lived (and . . . died? . . . well, that, like most things in life, is debatable) over 1500 years ago.

The oldest mention of Bodhidharma is in "The Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks," written in 645 by Daoxuan, a Chinese historian who modern day historians thank very much for all the useful writings he left behind. There are also a handful of later accounts, each putting their own little twist into the Bodhidharma legend.

What all this conflicting information means is that I can pick and choose what I want to use and drop the stuff that doesn't fit my story. I can shuffle dates as needed, and make some other stuff up and throw it into the novel because I like it and I think it's fucking cool. That's my prerogative as a writer of fiction.

But aside from Bodhidharma's life, I also want to get a good grip on the time period. How was it back in India in the late fifth century? What were people besides Bodhidharma and Emperor Wu up to in early sixth century China?

Well, I'm getting there. For now, I'm fascinated by his life.

I've been reading "Tracking Bodhidharma" by Andy Ferguson. Ferguson takes a modern-day jaunt along Bodhidharma's ancient path, beginning in Guangzhou in southern China, where Bodhidharma is said to have first set foot in the Far East. Weaving past and present into a brilliant narrative, Ferguson's storytelling is engrossing (especially to someone researching Bodhidharma), although it doesn't delve much Bodhidharma's early life, in India, which is where his story begins. Ferguson's book will leave you with a new impression of China and remind you that, no matter where they live, people are people, just trying to get by.

Next on the reading list are Heinrich Dumoulin's "History of Zen Buddhism" and Jeffrey L. Broughton's "The Bodhidharma Anthology."

As a side note and a shout-out to an excellent book, one of the most interesting and entertaining takes on the Bodhidharma legend I've read is the "Zen Katha" by Partap Sharma. It is a play, and Sharma does an excellent job of tossing just about every Bodhidharma legend he can into twenty-four scenes in two acts.

As for the upcoming novel, I've got a few chapters sketched out, a few scenes written up in my notebook, the first chapter pretty much done, chapters two and three worked up into skeletal form. But I'm-a-keep reading for a while, because I want to be fully immersed in Bodhidharma's world before I begin seriously typing down some prose.

So I'm curious about how other authors research. Do you have a go-to guy or gal you contact when you need some solid information? Or do you Google it and hope whatever shady website you pull the information from is legit? (Don't get me wrong, I love Wikipedia, which has become the "go-to" place for information online and really isn't all that bad, but I do keep in mind that just about anybody can toss their brains around over there. So I find multiple sources and verify! Sometimes this requires a trip to the library. Or at the very least checking the freaking links at the bottom of the Wikipedia page.)

Again, I will leave you with some sweet tunes. This one's an old, obscure Bob Dylan number redone by Old Crow Medicine Show.

The video is effing hilarious, no? Did you see those kids and the old men in the crowd there towards the end of the video? And I love the fact that these dudes, these musicians, these artists, are in the peep show, spotlight flickering, half-naked chicks all over the place, and what are they doing?

They're playing their music.

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