There are few legends so celebrated in the East as that of Bodhidharma, (Da Mo in Chinese, Ta Mo in Japanese) who is reputed to have brought Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism to China some 1500 years ago. After enlightening the emperor, the charismatic Indian giant, an indomitable fighter, is also reputed to have taught energizing exercises to "weak" monks at the famed Shaolin temple, thereby transforming them into the worshiping warriors of legend. It doesn't matter that some modern scholars dispute many of these details. What matters, as with any legend, is the archetype, the lessons, and in the case of A Sudden Dawn, (Boston, 2010, YMAA Publication Center) the pure pleasure of the exotic, action-filled story.
British writer, Goran Powell, is an accomplished martial artist with an advertising background, and this, his first novel, is a sort of Far Eastern On The Road, albeit it with one of the world's great religions tucked into the trunk. Powell did the requisite homework in writing the book, particularly the sort that helps him to evoke a place with detailed descriptions. He also takes a novelist's poetic liberties, of course, to help us imagine what it must have been like to cross the Himalayas 1500 years ago, to gain access to a Chinese emperor (arguably the most cloistered, closely-guarded and inaccessible figures in history), and perhaps most of all, to wrestle with the profound truths of the Buddha's sutra's and attempt to integrate them into daily life.
In the novel, Bodhidharma, born with the surname Sardili, receives the Buddhist precepts (and more than a few whacks to the head) from Prajnatara, a sixth-century Buddhist sage, before being renamed and sent across the daunting Himalayas to China. The monk travels in the company of a mendicant monk, a palace maid, and a soldier with a past, among others. Powell describes his travails with the gusto, but being a martial artist, he offers up his best with renditions of hand-to-hand combat:
Ko (a disciple) was momentarily stunned by her agility. It was as if she had trained for many years already. He wondered how a simple palace maid could know so much about fighting. Her foot lashed out toward his groin. He blocked with his knee just in time. It caught her hard on the shin. She hid the pain well, but it had hurt her badly. She kicked again, this time to his stomach. His hand came down to parry. Her kick switched in mid-flight and landed on his jaw. Clusters of white light popped in the blackness. His legs buckled under him.
Bodhidharma is a passionate sage, for all his discipline and self-restraint, and the book is not devoid of tales of the flesh. Balancing the sometimes juicy exposition, however, are frequent references to the Zen state of mind, emptiness, and other elusive but bedrock concepts of Buddha's philosophy:
A dwarf deer wandered into the glade and nibbled on a patch of wild grass, unaware of his presence. Sardili clicked his tongue and the little deer noticed him and darted away. He found himself smiling at the creature's stupidity. One moment it had thought the glade safe, the next, a place of danger. But the glade had not changed. Only the deer's mind had changed.
He wondered if he was the same. Could it be so simple?
He dismissed the idea. It was nonsense. But even as he did, he knew it was true, and his life would never be the same. He rose and walked in circles, checking and rechecking his revelation. Was there a flaw in his thinking? A gap in his logic? There was no flaw, no gap. This was beyond intellect or logic. It was something more profound, a simple acceptance that needed to be made. It was the truth about himself.
Powell interweaves Bodhidharma's story with that of a cruel, heartless soldier, a character who is the embodiment of self-centered dispassion and thus the antithesis of the Buddhist idea. We expect that his path and that of the Bodhidharma will intersect, but while the anticipation of that intersection does supply some tension, the salutatory structure is perhaps the novel's only real weakness. Even so, Powell's sense of pacing, especially for a first novelist, is so sharp that it does not really intrude.
A Sudden Dawn is delicious candy with a grain of medicine at its core, and as such is a far more satisfying entertainment choice than some less-than-stellar Asian themed martial arts movies that have come out lately. If you have the slightest interest in Chinese history, if you yourself have wrestled with some of the profound truths of Buddhism, and of course if you are a fan of the martial arts, get a copy, settle into your favorite chair, turn off your cell phone, and prepare to be transported to a wondrously pure land.