Yudron Wangmo: Vajrayana Based Novels for Teens
Yudron Wangmo is an American Nyingma practitioner who completed a three-year retreat in 2012. Since the early nineties, she has been guided by the late Lama Tharchin Rinpoche, Lama Pema Dorje Rinpoche, and Adzom Rinpoche. Yudron is currently continuing her Dharma path and writing fiction for teenagers about Buddhist values and healing the heart. She lives in a peaceful sanctuary in the middle of Oakland, California where birds chirp in the foreground and gunshots resound in the background. www.yudronwangmo.com
Lama Dechen Yeshe Wangmo: Welcome to Vajrayana World and thank you for sharing your experimental journey as a Vajrayanist novelist for teens. Very cool!
I love that the strong story-telling tradition in Tibet inspired you to write these novels to help teenagers understand and heal their experiences. Many parents are probably prostrating to you! How did you come to identify teenagers as your audience?
Yudron Wangmo: Thank you, Lama Wangmo. I had two or three dreams that made me think that I had some connection to teens and college-age students.
In one dream, I found myself on a stage with an acoustic guitar, singing to a large crowd of young people. I was singing a classic song in a simplified folk style and the crowd was loving it. I was wearing all black, including leggings, top, and a leather skirt. People who know me will recognize this as an extremely unlikely outfit for me! It evoked the attire of both a wrathful female deity and Saraswati, deity of music, writing, and language.
In this dream, there was a boy in the crowd with longish hair, colored purple in part. A gay teen. I got a ride with him and other young people who were getting involved with drugs. I started to teach them, very simply, how meditation might help them with their pain. I had a sense it could save their lives.
My lamas have never addressed there being such a thing as dreams that are not based on our ordinary mental habits. Sure, there are practices to do before and during sleep, but they assume the impurity of our dreams—dreams as yet another manifestation of our desire, aversion, and ignorance. That being said, based on these dreams, I decided to move forward with attempting to communicate about Dharma with young people in high school and college. I haven’t taken up singing to them yet, but I am writing young adult fiction.
Novels reach beyond mainstream Dharma
My novels attempt to communicate traditional tantric Buddhism in a simple way that may catch the ear of people who the learned scholars and enlightened yogis cannot. If even one young person turns to Dharma as a result, I'll be completely satisfied.
DYW: Cycle of the Sky is a four-book series about four young women and Granma Sandy, aka Lama Sangyey. Each teenager represents one of the four enlightened activities that benefit beings— pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, and subjugating. Two novels are already published — Excavating Pema Ozer and The Buddha of Lightning Peak. Can you share the story lines?
YW: These novels take place in the four seasons of one year. In the summer, a girl named Weslyn, whose relentless panic attacks following the trauma of learning that a young child who she loves had been shot, have made her feel alienated from her friends; depressed and withdrawn. When she goes to live with her beloved eccentric grandmother for the summer and she finds someone else is living there in a backyard shed—a Tibetan meditation teacher. She begins to attend classes with him, and this stimulates a series of dreams of being the attendant to Uza Khandro (later known as Sera Khandro) in Golok, Tibet, in the early twentieth century. The girl is named Pema Ozer. The title Excavating Pema Ozer refers to this process of discovery. Parallels between Weslyn's current life and Pema Ozer's life launch her on her own heroic journey to retrieve the missing works of Sera Khandro’s partner and teacher Tulku Drime.
The Buddha of Lightning Peak takes place in the autumn. It is a harsher book. The protagonist, Dee Adair, has had a rough life. Her brother is in a juvenile detention facility in Oakland, her uncle a drug dealer, and her grandmother is abusive. It is through sports, and particularly connecting with the natural world, that she has been able to decompress. More recently she connected with Weslyn’s Granma Sandy and the Tibetan lama, and began practicing Vajrayana in the practical, simplified, way her Tibetan teacher recommended.
Each summer, she is a counselor at a summer wildlife camp, and this means everything to her. Suddenly, she discovers that the mountain that rises above the camp is going to be mined and flattened, sending her and her friends on a crusade to save it. In that dangerous struggle, she relies on her new meditation practice and her trust in her teachers to guide her.
Hidden benefit of independent publishing...
It should be said that Dee is a black lesbian. It is because I am not writing for a commercial publisher that I can write a book about characters who are far afield from the typical people you see at Tibetan Buddhist centers. I run the risk of straight people thinking this is a book for lesbians, lesbians thinking this is a book for Buddhists (it doesn’t have the romance element or coming out as central themes,) white people thinking this is a book about a black person, black people being wary of a white author writing about a protagonist of color, and so on. Publishing independently has allowed me to put this powerful story of personal transformation out and let its destined audience gradually find it through the powerful Amazon search engine.
Fiction which parallels deity practice and sadhana...
DYW: You've also written about novels which parallel deity practice and sadhana practice since they are both transformational modalities. This is a very interesting idea. Please give us an example as it applies to your novels.
YW: My books are thematic and symbolic but also realistic. It would be easy to go into fantasy but I don’t. Yes, the heroines experience healing and transformation through their Buddhist practice but they also gain a sense of purpose, dignity, and satisfaction. This means they do not fly out of their problems on the back of a turquoise dragon. Instead, they turn and face them.
Before I starting to write Cycle of the Sky, I created names and traits for all the characters. Lama Sangye (Sandy) is the central Buddha Family dakini. Then there are those that represent the dakinis of the five families, the four enlightened activities, and the five protectors—including a California spiney lobster who represents Rahula. There are also hints of the animal-headed dakinis. Mr. Archer, the Tibetan lama, represents the mahasiddha Saraha. His late father (Lama Sangye’s original teacher) represents Padmasambhava, Guru Rinpoche.
The metaphysical map in these novels that overlays the material world is a vast sacred circle or mandala. The center is Lama Sangye’s house situated on an island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. Her pure realm overlays the Bay Area and also encompasses infinite space.
The four girls —Weslyn, Dee, Shanti, and Graciella—are activity dakinis. Their adventures take them in the direction associated with their activity: Weslyn’s magnetizing activity takes her to San Francisco and the Peninsula, Dee’s subduing activity takes her to the northern Central Valley, Shanti’s pacifying activity to the Sierras, and Graciella’s enriching activity to San Jose and beyond. At first, the girls exhibit the afflictive emotions associated with their buddha families: Weslyn is plagued by an unmet desire for love and inclusion, Dee is competitive and envious, gentle Shanti has a hidden anger, etc. By the end of each story, these karmic features have begun to undergo the process of transmutation.
Since the cycle of the black wrathful dakini is associated with practice of severance or chöd, the girls all go to scary places and encounter sudden upheavals. They face off with demonic adversaries by drawing on their connection with their lamas and their practice instead of guns or arrows.
Interesting characters, conflicts and plot drive a good story. My challenge is to put these themes and symbols in the background and let the drama play out between the characters in a compelling way.
DYW: Thank you for sharing your template. This brings me to ask if we might see a sadhana-novel for adults in the future?
YW: I’ve promised my readers four young adult books. I also have material for two non-fiction works about Buddhist practice on my hard drive. Whether I continue with fiction—teen or adult—will depend on how many sales the Series generates and the moral support I receive for going forth. Writing a bad novel draft is easy but making a fictional work people want to read is an amazing amount of work!
I think of myself as creating these books as treasure packets for young people with a karmic connection to Vajrayana. But, if it turns out that fiction is not effective, then maybe we will see the creation of more Buddhist movies, video games, and music that speaks more effectively to teenagers.
DYW: My guess is that there’s not much in the way of Buddhist teen fiction these days. How have your novels been received? What’s the buzz? Who are your colleagues?
YW: My books are doing better than your typical self-published novels and they are being well-reviewed by people I don’t know. I promote my work on social media. I'm waiting until next year when I'll have released three novels, and will be working on the final book of the series, to do more costly publicity. Readers like for there to be a body of work published before exploring a new author.
My biggest surprise has been that a few guys in their twenties have been my most vocal fans. Who would have guessed that? The most gratifying things I have heard is from mothers of Asian-American girls who really loved Excavating. The girls are shy when they met me in person. However, one mother told me her daughter would re-read the book each time she felt down. It made her feel better. That totally rocked my world!
As for my colleagues, Ellis Nelson’s Into the Land of Snows tells the story of an American teen boy who has meaningful encounters with lamas in the Mt. Everest region. It includes some supernatural elements that don’t match with a strictly Buddhist point of view, but it is a good read that could interest a teen in lamas and the Himalayas.
David Michie's novel series that begins with The Dalai Lama’s Cat is both popular and accurate about Dharma. It's a charming and clever tale about a feline friend who wanders around the neighborhood of the Dalai Lama’s palace and temple in McLeod Ganj. He is an excellent writer, but we haven’t had a chance to connect yet.
DYW: I know you enjoy outreach—presenting your books at events and meeting your readers. Has anyone come forth to tell you about the impact of your novels?
YW: Yes, this happens. I was delighted to hear from a European mom that my books were being passed around by the teens at Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s youth program in Mexico. That was a peak moment for me.
Another highlight was leading a meditation at a private school to teens who had not read my books yet. They seemed extremely interested as I introduced a short meditation on Tara, so I splurged and gave away a bunch of paperbacks to them.
DYW: I’d also like our readers to discover your blog that goes beyond the scope of your teen novels. I recently saw your posts on meditation, bodhicitta, reincarnation and more. How does your blog play a part in the universe of Yudron Wangmo?
YW: The “Yudron Wangmo” personality I call my own is an expressive one that has a desire to write, speak, and—yes—sing. Also, there is a desire to help sentient beings. The Carefree Yogini blog on my website is geared to sharing what I love about Dharma in a simple way, mainly for adults. I'm also on Twitter and if they want to see the old gal, I have videos on YouTube.
DYW: Yudron, before we end, I would love you to talk about what you've called magic.
YW. Let me say first what is not magic about Vajrayana. As an un-enlightened practitioner, I have never experienced anything in practice that could not be explained away by a scientist. It took me a long time to figure out that Vajrayana is not about having special experiences. The signs of accomplishment that matter are the deepening of bodhicitta, becoming more trustful of Dharma, and retreating less into a fortified sense of oneself. That might even make one seem increasingly boring to others.
So, to me, the magic of Vajrayana is feeling as though the wisdom accessible to all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is inside me, too. And, at the same time, I can’t shake the belief that my enlightened lineage lamas—whether they are embodied or not—are guiding me to eventual enlightenment.
Being a Vajrayana practitioner who is at once the central deity of my mandala, and a peripheral deity in the mandala of Guru Rinpoche, gives every encounter—every event—in my life meaning.
What greater magic could there be than changing from a pointless life racing around like an animal searching for pleasure and avoiding pain, to a fully supported quest for enlightenment?
From Lama Dechen Yeshe Wangmo: Hope you enjoyed this interview. If you know some teenagers or have some yourself, get on over to Amazon and purchase a book or try a digital version.
Meanwhile, I love for conversations to happen here on Vajrayana World. I asked Yudron how VW could be of assistance. She would like to ask you some questions. Please reply below and Yudron will reply to you:
Did you first connect with Dharma at a young age? How did you get interested in it? What about it drew you in?