Skip to Main Content

Storied Companions

Cancer, Trauma, and Discovering Guides for Living in Buddhist Narratives

Published by Wisdom Publications
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
LIST PRICE $18.95

A professor, mother, and Buddhist practitioner helps readers discover new ways of facing and experiencing life, death, and impermanence.
 


“With my diagnosis of grade IV brain cancer, I no longer observe the truth of impermanence from a critical, analytical distance. I am crashing into it, or it into me.”

Facing a terminal cancer diagnosis, Karen Derris—professor, mother, and Buddhist practitioner—turned to books. 

By reading ancient Buddhist stories with new questions and a new purpose—finding a way to live with her dying body—she discovers new ways to make them immediate and real. For instance, reading with her terminal prognosis, she becomes one of the four omens (the four signs of impermanence and suffering) the young Siddhartha sees in his excursions from the palace. What would it mean for her to be in the crowd, straining to see the prince with her own sick and impermanent body—to be pushed aside and out of sight by the palace minders, just as our society so often tries to brush aside anything uncomfortable, but to nonetheless be seen by the young bodhisattva? Or reading as a mother, maybe she shares something akin to what Queen Maya may have felt, knowing she was dying, giving her newborn son over to her sister’s care? What will it mean for her own children to be motherless? She follows the knotted threads connecting Milarepa’s angry, vengeful mother to Karen’s own mother, who physically abused her throughout a traumatic childhood. By placing herself into these stories, she turns them from distant and static narratives into companions, and from companions into guides. 

Storied Companions interweaves Karen’s memoir of her life of trauma and illness with stories from Buddhist literary traditions, sharing with the reader how she found ways to live with the reality that she won’t live as long as she wants and needs to. Honest, powerful, and insightful, Storied Companions itself becomes an invaluable companion, guiding the reader to discover new ways of facing and experiencing life, death, and impermanence.

Dr. Karen Derris is a scholar of South and Southeast Asian Buddhist traditions and professor of religious studies at the University of Redlands. Her research focuses on the intersection of literature and feminist ethics in pre-modern Buddhist traditions, particularly focusing upon the central importance of community in Buddhist ethical and spiritual development. Dr. Derris received her PhD from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University in 2000.

“Karen Derris writes of her journey through life, cancer, and facing death with such eloquence in Storied Companions. Often paired with Buddhist narratives, she tells how living with an open heart is possible even when living with a terminal illness. This is a touching and inspirational book.”

 

– Sharon Salzberg, author of Lovingkindness and Real Change

“This book holds an astonishing combination of hard reality with visionary light and love. Neither cancels out the other. The result is a gift to its readers, teaching us how to see our own reality, whatever that might be; teaching us how to place ourselves directly into stories of great profundity from Buddhist tradition; and teaching us how to read our own life stories through the lucid lens of honesty with which Derris tells us hers. This is a book of great compassion and clarity.”

 

– Janet Gyatso, Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies Harvard Divinity School

“In the right hands, Buddhist narratives can offer us abundant and consequential lessons about how to live and how to die. After reading this nuanced, layered, tender, and courageous book, we are left feeling profound gratitude. Because of Karen Derris’s deep practice of reading and re-telling Buddhist stories, we can clearly sense that she is ‘looking over her shoulder,’ extending to us her hand, and encouraging us to orientate our lives by love rather than by fear. This is an amazing gift, one beyond measure.”

– Jan Willis, author of Dreaming Me; Black, Baptist, and Buddhist and Dharma Matters: Women, Race, and Tantra

“There are many miracles in Karen Derris’s life. Not the least of which is this shimmering memoir. Reading the life story of this smart, compassionate scholar and writer, as intellectually bold as she is physically courageous, I learned how the great Buddhist stories reflect and intermingle with the most profound human experiences. This is a book about love in its infinite manifestations. In the face of daunting circumstances, Derris’s voice is sweet and strong, an aria of benevolence. Reading Storied Companions made me want to be a better person.”

– Leslie Brody, author of Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy