My husband is a novelist. When we met, he was not a Buddhist. I told myself, for a long time, that it had never been my intention to convert my husband to Buddhism, but then, a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that it was most certainly my intention, and that—while I never preached to him, I had suggested, weeks after we met, that we go on a monthlong pilgrimage in India, followed by several weeks of empowerments in the Pin Valley.
My point in all this is that my husband has friends from before we met, most of whom are happy for us to keep quiet about the Buddha. One is a famous writer. He is maybe the most famous writer in America. I’ll call him Famous Writer. We went to dinner with him once, and he got a little drunk (Famous Writer did) and finally turned to my husband and said, “You’re Tibetan Buddhist now.”
Famous Writer didn’t say, “You burn incense, wear scarves, get down on the floor in front of Asian men, and believe that when you die, you’ll turn into a dog.” But then, he didn’t have to. We got it.
This type of attitude might be why George Saunders—a famous writer, although not the one I referred to up there—seemed to keep his religion on the down low for so long. Born in 1958, he barely graduated from the Colorado School of Mines with a degree in geophysical engineering, then spent a year and a half working as a field geophysicist in Sumatra before coming back to America, where he worked as a doorman, a roofer, a convenience store clerk, and a knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse, which he says gave him some insight into capitalism’s hidden dark side. In 1986, at a wild party, he picked up a copy of People magazine and read interviews with Raymond Carver and Jay McInerney. It was the first time he’d heard of an MFA in creative writing. He applied to the MFA program at Syracuse, got in, and after more rough work—technical writing now—he published his first story in The New Yorker. Four years later, in 1996, he published his first collection of stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and ever since then, it’s fair to say that he’s been one of America’s major league writers. His list of honors is long: MacArthur Fellowship, The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40,” Guggenheim Fellowship, and so on. But more than a résumé, he has a reputation, among literary types, for being unusually kind.
George Saunders is a Tibetan Buddhist. He can’t have kept this totally secret, because Buddhists knew he was a Buddhist. I knew he was a Buddhist, and my friend the writer Noa Jones knew. But you never saw it mentioned in the media, and other literary people seemed to be in the dark about it. More, Saunders’s writing, however compassionate it might have been toward its characters, avoided the subject. I never asked him why. For some reason, though, I always had the impression that it wasn’t because he was being a secret yogi. I had the impression that he didn’t want to have to discuss Tibetan Buddhism with people like Famous Writer. There are many Famous Writers. And Editors. And so on.
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