Author: Helen Manos is a South Australian author and practising Buddhist. Her books include Rules of the Game, Roller Blaze (published by Scholastic Australia), Snapshots, Spider Killer and Me (published by Omnibus Books). Helen has been writing since she was a child (she wrote and illustrated her first novel when she was six years old). The idea for Samsara Dog arose because Helen “wanted to write a book for children that gave the idea of reincarnation in as natural a way as possible, that is, the concept of a character coming back and back until she or he has perfected his/her mind”. Helen chose a dog as the main character because “most children have experienced some emotional connection with a dog or a pet, and just as many have experienced the death of a pet”. Illustrator:Julie Vivas is one of Australia’s foremost illustrators. Her very distinctive watercolour style is seen in such well-known books as Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partidge, The Nativity, Let the Celebrations Begin, Let’s Eat and Hello Baby.She is not afraid of taking on difficult picture books that deal with controversial issues. Samsara Dog is no exception. Julie says, “Samsara Dog was an exciting challenge to illustrate”. She worked daily with Dog for more than two years, and says, “There were times when he was difficult and elusive to capture. But I grew to love him. And now I look forward to seeing how Dog fares in his next life – out there with his readers”.
SYNOPSIS ‘SamsaraDog lived many lives’. Throughout his different lives he had many experiences, and although he didn’t remember these lives, sometimes a whisper of each life ‘flitted across his memory’. In one life he had a miserable existence on the streets. In other lives he belonged to a bikie gang, he was a sniffer dog, a fragile and ailing pup, a juggler’s companion, a rescue dog, and a family pet. Dog lived each life as it came until when, in his last life, he became the soul mate of a boy who needed his guidance, friendship, and love. In this life Samsara Dog learned the most important lesson of all - that compassion is ‘the tree that shelters all beings. It is the universal bridge that… leads the weary traveler out of Samsara into Nirvana.’ This picture book for older children looks at life, love and dying from a Buddhist perspective.
Samsara Dog begins with a reflection adapted from the 8th century writings of Shantideva, and a succinct lyrical outline of Dog’s journeys. These passages anticipate the compelling tone, and the meaning of the story that follows. Samsara Dog is essentially a series of stories within a story. Eight distinct narratives, each a ‘short story’, build an understanding of what Dog learns from each life - of his journey through Samsara and eventually into Nirvana. The beginning of each story hints at the kind of life Dog will lead: ‘In one of his lives Dog lived on the streets’;Dog was bornvery small and very sick’; He came back as a rescue dog on a cold and craggy mountain; Dogmoved through a tunnel of light into his next life, to a big house with four girls who adored him.’ Each life ends with Dog’s death, ‘He closed his eyes and drifted peacefully away’; ‘the juggler held him in his arms and cried as his friend slipped away; ‘And with his last breath, dog kissed him back’. The story is structured to draw the reader through Dog’s journey – the first three lives portray Dog as mistrustful, angry, reckless and aloof. The fourth life seems to be a turning point in the story. This is Dog’s shortest life. ‘…the thin thread of his life was fast unravelling. As he is dying a gentle voice says to him, ‘When it is time you will know great love. Go and learn what you must learn.’ The next three lives show Dog as more friendly, trustful, loving, and making closer connections with those around him. Helen Manos uses poetic metaphor to portray a wide range of emotions. ‘Fear was the worst. It thrashed inside him like a trapped bird’; or ‘curled up like two spoons, Dog and the boy caught each other’s dreams.’ The whole story has a satisfying conclusion in which Helen Manos skilfully combines a sense of sadness for Dog’s death, with the realisation (for Dog and the reader) that he has ‘perfected his mind’ and can now enter the ‘state of Nirvana where he can remain happily for ever’
Julie Vivas’ distinctive illustrations deepen the meaning of this powerful story. She says, “The first challenge was how to maintain Dog visually as a single character throughout his eight different existences”. She began by doing many rough drawings to find a way to bend and stretch the images towards the story. Another challenge was matching the strength of the text, especially in the first half of the book where she had just one double page spread to depict each life. In each ‘story’ she has beautifully captured the essence of each life. The illustration for the first Dog perfectly captures the menacing, fearful ‘dog-eat-dog’ mood, through the stark, ominous moonlit setting; and the sense of dog’s fear, anger and mistrust is depicted through his taut body, piercing eyes and bared teeth. The illustration of the very small, very sick Dog cupped within gentle hands evokes a totally different mood – one of vulnerability, coupled with warmth, tenderness and hope. The illustration of Dog with the four adoring girls – their sprawling, fluid bodies, and the soft, delicate colours - shows Dog at the centre of joyous exuberance and love. Julie Vivas says that starting the watercolour artwork was almost like starting the book again. “The use of colour can transform a drawing dramatically. The sheer weight of colour, for example, can conceal or dissipate expressive line work. Alternatively, it can add focus to an aspect of the composition and make the whole much stronger. The end result is always different from what you imagined”. The watercolour illustrations in the book add to the drama of the text. Consider how the illustrator has captured a sense of calm and belonging in the picture of Dog and the boy ‘curled up like two spoons’ (a close-up of Dog and the boy, peaceful, contented and snuggled down in the folds of the green blanket). Then think about how the next scene portrays a completely contrasting atmosphere (the expressive body language of the people on the stairs, the darkening sky, the single star, the tiny figures of the boy and Dog at the centre of a sweeping middle distance landscape, and the alert stance of Dog as he stands guard over the boy). The final illustration beautifully captures the pathos of Dog’s farewell, and, at the same time, his blissful anticipation of entering Nirvana’.
Helen Manos: “Buddhists believe that once someone has reached the point of perfection there is no need for him/her to come back and suffer worldly problems. The state of endless existence is called Samsara. To help gain an understanding of this concept have a discussion about Dog’s first seven lives. Consider: How each Dog responded to the world he was born into, or came to live in. What did Dog learn about himself and others in each life? What understandings and/or emotions did Dog gain in each life that helped to move him towards the ‘point of perfection’ in his final life.
Helen Manos: “The point of no return is a blissful state called Nirvana, where the mind is linked with universal consciousness. So, at the end of the book, when Dog leaves his existence behind for good, he enters the state of Nirvana where he remains happily forever. At the end of the eighth story Dog can ‘leave his existence behind for good.’What is it about Dog’s life with the boy that leads him to ‘the point of perfection?’
Make up your own dog stories, maybe recalling dogs you have had as pets. Consider: What it is about dogs that gives you the most pleasure? Have you had a dog that has died, or been in an accident? Are you afraid of dogs?
Using Samsara Dog as a model create your own Samsara Dog books by combining your different stories. Consider the way Helen Manos uses rich and expressive language to build an understanding of each Dog. When putting the stories together remember that Dog lived many different kinds of lives and had many different experiences.
For Dog’s final life create a whole class story. think about and incorporate the kind of character traits, feelings, and knowledge Dog will have gained.
Julie Vivas: ‘The text for each of these lives generated a powerful, almost visceral emotion, which I had to capture visually. Look carefully at Julie Vivas’ drawings and talk about how she has captured these strong emotions in her illustrations. Think about and discuss body language, facial expression, the surroundings, and the portrayal of secondary characters.
Julie Vivas: ‘I had to keep drawing and drawing until the right form emerged – draw your own dogs, trying to capture the essence of their character or personalities. Think about the drawing techniques you can use to show that your dog is happy, alert, aware, vulnerable, afraid, angry. Like Julie, it may take many drawings to capture the right look, atmosphere or feeling.
Consider how Julie Vivas has approached the design and layout of each story to reflect the kind of life Dog is leading. (The helter-skelter energy of the bikie gang roaring down the centre of the double page spread; the threatening menace of a deep, narrow precipice falling away from the bottom of the page; the soft, sprawling poses of dog and the four girls spread across two pages, with lots of space around.
Using watercolour, illustrate your Samsara Dog stories in the style of Julie Vivas. Consider the design for each page. Will you use close-ups or distant views. Will you use tight restrictive view or more fluid relaxed perspective? How will you use colour to suggest atmosphere and emotions?
This story may be the starting point for further discussion and research into Buddhism.