Plath and a Surgeon’s Knife and Pen

Part of our KtB retreat last week up at Blue Mountain Center involved leaping once again into the great conundrum — how to define Killing the Buddha? In ten words or less. The manifesto has held up amazingly well since Jeff and Peter first formed it nearly ten years ago, but it takes more than a few words, and the telling of a Zen tale, and too often, the listener is lost, falling back to their preconceived notions of “religion” long before we’re done trying to explain.

I found a hint of an answer in an unlikely place. Elizabeth Gudrais has a wonderful profile on surgeon and New Yorker writer Atul Gawande in this month’s issue of Harvard Magazine. In “The Unlikely Writer,” she describes a framed Sylvia Plath poem, “The Surgeon at 2 a.m.,” that sits on the doctor’s desk. Plath

describes a patient’s innards as “tubers and fruits/Oozing their jammy substances.” From the surgeon’s perspective, she writes: “I worm and hack in a purple wilderness.” Gawande notes that Plath, not a surgeon, nevertheless got things just right….

He likes the Plath poem because it casts the surgeon in an ambiguous light. “Most writing about people in medicine casts them as either heroes or villains,” he says. “That poem captures the surgeon as a merely human, slightly bewildered, a little bit benighted person in a world that is ultimately beyond his control.”

While the subjects of surgery and Buddha killing might seem disparate, the sentiment applies. We’re tired of writing about religion that makes heroes or villains out of the characters. We hope, like a Plath poem, that here at KtB, we’re capturing the merely human, the slightly bewildered, the little bit benighted person in a world truly beyond his control. When viewed from this vantage, whether there is some supreme entity in command beyond us becomes, somehow, irrelevant.

Meera Subramanian is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about the environment and culture for Nature, InsideClimate News, Virginia Quarterly Review, Orion, and others. Her first book is A River Runs Again: A Natural History of India from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka (PublicAffairs, 2015). Visit her at