A Q&A with Seth Greenland, author of The Angry Buddhist.
A novel about three brothers, The Angry Buddhist is a steamy mix of murder, matching manga kitten tattoos, and a fierce congressional election. The eldest brother, Randall, is the politician and he’s running against Mary Swain, with her pro-death penalty stance and five-hundred-dollar highlights. Then there’s little brother Dale, who’s in and out of prison, and Jimmy, for whom the book is named. He’s a cop with anger-management issues, alcoholic tendencies, and post-divorce bitterness. Yet with the help of meditation and a few cute photos of dogs, he’s slowly turning his life around. The Angry Buddhist is Seth Greenland’s third novel, and a TV series based on it is in development by Showtime. Greenland was also a writer-producer on the Emmy-nominated HBO series Big Love and one of the original bloggers for The Huffington Post. For twenty years, he has been practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness and Buddhist practitioners put a lot of emphasis on accepting things as they are. But fiction is a fantasy. it’s not real. So for you, is there any contradiction between your practice and your writing?
I want to accept things as they are. But first I need to know what they mean, and in order to understand what they mean, I write about them. I write fiction to make sense of things.
What message about Buddhism did you want to leave people with?
Samuel Goldwyn, the great old film producer, said that if you want to send a message, call Western Union. So it’s not like I wrote the book to send a message, but one of the takeaways is that there’s great value in practice. There are many satirical elements in this book, but what I don’t satirize is mindfulness and Buddhism. I treat them very respectfully. And there’s a reason for that. I think they have terrific value.
But Jimmy’s teacher, Bodhi Colletti, teaches online and her email address is [email protected]. You’ve definitely treated her satirically.
The book is not meant to be a deep exploration of the student/teacher relationship one finds in Buddhism. I don’t mean to disparage Colletti—you can have a terrific teacher online. It’s just a very modern construction, and she’s teaching a form of Buddhism lite. Jimmy, though, is benefiting from her teachings. I guess one of the points I’m making is that you don’t need to go on retreat or travel to Tibet to have a positive interface with Buddhism. These things can be fine, obviously, but you don’t need to do any of them.
I get very annoyed when I talk to practitioners who are braggy about going off on long retreats. I talked to somebody once who said to me, “Oh, my son is doing a three-year retreat in Tibet,” and I thought, oh God, poor you, poor him, poor everyone, because to me the value of these practices is to take them out into the world and—by being a better version of yourself—to make the world a less horrible place. I support the day-to-day practicing of Buddhism one-hundred percent but I find that a lot of practitioners are competitive about how extreme their practice is, and to me that’s narcissism. But I’m not a Buddhist. I’m a secular person who looks to the incredible gift of Buddhism to find ways of being a better version of myself—and they’ve helped me immeasurably.
How do they help?
When you’re standing in line at the post office for half an hour waiting to get stamps, you’re less likely to kill the person who is holding up the line if you can do mindfulness practices. For an example of what happens without mindfulness, I was driving in Los Angeles the other day and I accidentally cut off this guy—he was in my blind spot. Well, he was driving a Volvo, and it had a bumper sticker that said, “War is not the answer.” This guy gave me the finger.
Exactly. But I want to say also that I’m not perfect—I’m no avatar of mindfulness. I’m just continually trying to be better at it, and I am less reactive than I was before I began practicing.
How does mindfulness affect your writing?
I wish it helped me more. The creative process is such a struggle. Mindfulness has helped me in the sense that it has given me a subject. I couldn’t have written The Angry Buddhist if I wasn’t a practitioner, because otherwise I couldn’t understand the practice to the degree that I do. Mindfulness is the heart of that book. Jimmy is struggling to find a way of being a better person in the world. That’s what he has to fight with every day, because there are so many things that are tempting him to not be better.
What inspired you to explore Buddhism and mindfulness?
It was back in 1993. My wife, Susan, and I had a two-year-old and she was pregnant with our second child when I was diagnosed with a life-threatening form of cancer. Neither of us had done any meditation before, but I said to Susan, “I hear meditation is very good for dealing with stress, so we better learn to meditate ASAP.” We went to a Zen center in Manhattan and, after receiving meditation instruction, went into a room and sat in a circle, facing out. We had to sit for about twenty minutes, which if you’ve never meditated before is an awfully long time. It feels longer than the Civil War, because you don’t know what monkey mind is and you have no idea what’s supposed to be happening. But I’m very good at following instructions, so I was sitting there and sitting there. Then I felt a whoosh behind me and I heard a door open and close. I wanted to catch Susan’s eye and kind of have a little laugh about this person who couldn’t take it anymore because, of course, we were such great meditators. But I didn’t do that. I resisted the impulse, and the twenty minutes finally came to an end. I looked around for Susan to share a loving look with her and I realized she was the person who had run out. The great irony is that she has become a devoted student of Buddhism, a deep meditation practitioner, and has turned it into her profession. I am a hobbyist at best.
I understand that you and your wife, Susan Kaiser Greenland, have a foundation called Inner Kids.
Susan deserves most of the credit. It’s her work, and I support it. Susan is a former corporate lawyer, and in the late nineties she began doing pro-bono work where she would go to the Santa Monica Boys and Girls Club and teach kids how to meditate. She would get these kids, who had no idea what meditation was, sitting in a circle and she’d meditate with them for two, three, four, five, sometimes ten minutes at a time. Then she decided she wanted to get into this in a more serious way. We established the foundation and she took these practices into after-school programs and shelters and community centers. What’s mind- blowing to me is that she gets really young kids to meditate—you don’t believe it until you see it done. Susan has written a book called The Mindful Child that’s in its ninth printing now. She’s kind of a pied piper of this movement, and I’m standing there behind her.
Do you think mindfulness will continue to be more widely practiced?
I remember a time when people heard the word “yoga” and they thought it was witchcraft. Now if you go to a mini mall in Cleveland, Ohio, there’ll be a yoga studio between a Subway franchise and a nail salon. I think mindfulness practices are currently where yoga was about thirty years ago. But because of the Inter- net, the integration of mindfulness into popular culture is going to happen exponentially quicker than it happened for yoga. And that’s fantastic, because God knows the world needs it. Look at the level of anger and vitriol in America today. Mindfulness, while not a panacea, is a terrific way to begin to approach systemic problems in human relations.