As most of the world has just entered the warmest seasons of summer or monsoon, depending on where you live, it feels like it’s time to offer Buddhist Fiction Blog readers ideas for summer reading. Following the theme of seasons, Winter Into Spring by Liz Unser (2020) fits this bill.
At just over 325 pages, Unser’s story about Elin Peterson, an unassuming UK teacher with a seemingly idyllic life that comes crashing down around her makes for an easy, breezy read. The novel begins with a dedication: “For all members of the SGI worldwide especially those in SGI-UK and SGI-USA.” After reading this I was eager to read the rest of a novel that referenced Soka Gakkai Buddhism.* It is refreshing to read a Buddhist fiction novel that reflects the lived experience of SGI (Soka Gakkai International) members. I can think of only two others: The Buddha, Geoff and Me (Rider & Co, 2005) by Edward Canfor-Dumas and Taneesha Never Disparaging (Wisdom Publications, 2008) by M. Lavora Perry.
The back cover of the book says “Winter into Spring interweaves life struggles with musings on female friendship and practical Buddhist philosophy.” This is a sufficient summary of this self published novel, but it leaves out the loveliness of the female friendships, the developing sisterhood, that guides the protagonist Elin to her own practice of chanting the Daimoku, the main practice of Soka Gakkai Buddhists. Indeed, Amazon lists this book under the popular fiction sub-genre categories of “Contemporary Women Fiction” and “Religious Literature and Fiction.”
As a work of Buddhist fiction, the emphasis in this novel is on PRACTICAL Buddhist philosophy, which is a fitting reflection of Soka Gakkai. The character development is superficial for the most part, except for Elin’s forays into Soka Gakkai, where there are more nuanced connections nurtured between the protagonist Elin and many of her female friends-cum-teachers, like Chrissie. One of my favourite elements of the novel is this friendship between these two characters, and the way that Chrissie supports and encourages Elin to chant for the betterment of herself and the world. In a prolonged discussion about Elin searching for a new job, we read on pages 258-259:
“How about searching for the right job?” suggested Chrissie. Elin smiled but didn’t speak so Chrissie continued, “Be determined when you chant! You’re a wonderful human being just as you are. Believe in yourself, find your inner wisdom and courage. Gradually you’ll understand the wider effects too, like wanting other people’s happiness as well as your own” . . . . . . . . . . .
On the drive home Elin reviewed their conversation. They’d laughed about dance, drama, and the drama of Elin’s life, but Chrissie had also said things that seemed important and Elin didn’t want to forget them. . . . . . .
. . . . . “Any development on the job front? It’s only been a week but I wondered.”
Elin sighed. “No, nothing at all.”
Chrissie squeezed Elin’s arm. “Don’t get disheartened, it may sound crazy but your chanting will help.”
“It does sound crazy, but I can feel something changing. I’m more optimistic. When I chant I feel my troubles are temporary.”
These brief conversations between the characters Elin and Chrissie reflect a practical understanding of impermanence, the application of optimism, and an appreciation of interconnectedness found in Soka Gakkai teachings. This story does not offer deep Buddhist philosophy, but represents a unique form of contemporary Buddhism as it is lived and practiced – one could even say embodied. And herein is the best part of the story, that it is about female friendships, sisterhood, and a Buddhist practice meant to enrich everyone’s lives in our crazy, contemporary world.
Years ago, summer reading lists were filled with adventure and romance novels. In the twenty-first century, we have seen the rise of chick lit and “galentine” novels (women’s friendship fiction) that have become go to warmer weather reading material. Winter into Spring makes for cool summer reading.
*If you want more information on Soka Gakkai, a form of contemporary Japanese Buddhism, you can read more about this self-described “global, community based Buddhist organization that promotes peace, culture and education centered on respect for the dignity of life. Its members study and put into practice the humanistic philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism” here: https://www.sokaglobal.org/