The Dharma Forum has been asked to review Buddhaland Brooklyn by Richard Morais. We welcome this opportunity and have created a page in our menu for our past reviews. Enjoy reading! And we hope to make this a feature of the future where we can preview Buddhist related books and films. There are two reviews here, the first by AndyDharma and the second by DharmaForum.
Buddhaland Brooklyn, the new novel by Richard C. Morais is a cracking good read, enjoyable from first to last. But, being a novel about Buddhists from East and West trying to get their act together to create a Buddhism that works in the modern world, it presses all the right hot-button issues without ever, to my mind, satisfactorily resolving them, although they are so resolved for the main character of the novel, Seido Oda. But then, having been a Buddhist for over 20 years myself and having seen close-up many of the shenanigans Western Buddhists can get up to in the internal – sometimes infernal – politics of trying to get a Buddhist tradition established in the West, I am deeply sceptical of happy endings such as the charming one this novel has. Mind you, I wouldn’t mind being in a group such as the fictional Headwater Sect that Seido Oda belongs to, a mish-mash of Japanese Zen, Nichiren and Pure Land traditions. Theirs is a simple, cut-down form of Buddhism that relies upon deep faith – especially faith in the Lotus Sutra – and an application of that faith in a willing engagement with others in the apparently mundane affairs of everyday life. Seido Oda, the narrator of the novel, is a priest in the Headwater Sect, and grows up in the Japanese temple his parents put him in as a child before being posted by the Sect to New York to help build and open a new temple built there by the American ‘Believers’. He takes the affairs of everyday life quite literally indeed, having a passionate affair with the young American lady who is his closest assistant in the New York temple project. But the Headwater Sect, like Japanese priests in general, appear to have a laid-back attitude to sex, not seeing strict celibacy as necessary in the priesthood, so no scandal or serious complications follow from this affair. In reality, in the West, scandalous, damaging sexual affairs between Buddhist monks and their disciples is fairly common, especially in the more puritanical of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, partly the result of unrealistic expectations on the part of Western Buddhists about ordination and partly due to the misunderstanding of the cultural norms and psychological dynamics of Western disciples on the part of Eastern priests/lamas/monks. Indeed, in the novel, Seido Oda’s affair helps him to grow up and to loosen up, and leads to him being able to better connect with, and understand, himself and his denial of his own past traumas and emotional needs, as well as helping him better understand his students and the cultural context of his surroundings in Brooklyn. But the novel is not really about sex. It is about the inevitable cultural clash that occurs when Eastern Buddhism comes to the West and the many difficulties of adjustment that follow. What emerges is, as always, something which is neither wholly East nor West, but an unexpected amalgam of the two. Whether you end up with a ‘pure’ Buddhism, however you want to define it, is another question entirely. Seido Oda thinks he has, but I’m not so sure. But then I’m just an incorrigible sceptic.
More to the point, Seido Oda has a passion for Japanese haiku and any novel that skilfully blends the immortal haiku of Basho and Issa into the narrative gets my vote anytime. Perhaps the perfection of haiku as a vehicle for truly great poetry is the greatest contribution of Japanese Buddhism to Buddhism in general, if not to world art. Anyway, Morais’ own writing style gets pleasantly poetic at times, especially in his descriptions of the natural environment of Japan that Oda grows up in and which helps to deepen his spirituality:
“The Buddha’s Elbow Waterfall stood in the forest, a white-water thrashing of stones that forced involuntary sighs, gulps and gurgles from the river. Sake-coloured froth turned at the water’s surface and sent a drunken spray into the air, moistening nearby mats of green moss. The river eventually settled and the exposed rocks in the lower pool jutted up, round and pert, like stone breasts” (p.30).
Indeed, Morais’ description of the surrounding, whether it be in Japan or Brooklyn, seem to be stronger and more effective than his characterisations of people, some of whom hover perilously near to comic stereotyping. But his understanding of psychological dynamics helps to make the plot of the novel believable overall and those dynamics play out neatly towards the charming ending, where a contented Oda sits in Brooklyn watching the world go by and sees that enlightenment is “the ability to suffer what there is to suffer; it is the ability to enjoy what there is to enjoy” (p.276). Is it that simple? I don’t know, but I hope so. At least I had the ability to enjoy this enjoyable novel; that will do for me.
Buddhaland Brooklyn is fiction and that’s a shame. We enjoy the characters and the land so much that we want them to be true. The Headwater Sect is based on the Nichiren Shoshu, or another similar group of Buddhists from Japan. This is because their sole practice is reciting the Lotus Sutra. Interestingly, this leads their monk, Seido, and all the others characters in the monastery to feel free to engage in whatever activity that appeals to them, whilst remaining monks. Not surprisingly they hide some of their excesses, such as drinking sake, from the local community, but the Lotus Sutra has freed them into a consideration that the Buddha Nature is free, and so are all activities. He quotes (p.152):
“No affairs of life or work are in any way different from the ultimate reality.” Lotus Sutra
This is a very advanced view and requires the student to see emptiness before engaging in this way of life; before freeing themselves from the karmic restraints of controlled behaviour. As Padmasambhava said, “until you have realised emptiness directly you must maintain all your vows and behaviour utterly.”
The book is good and apart from the above slight criticisms, which are more wishful thinking than telling off, I thoroughly recommend this book for bedtime reading.
Here is an extract to judge the timeless quality of life in rural Japan conjured so effortlessly.
“I am reminded of the ancient poem by Iio Sõgi.”
“I cannot recall it.”
“However low one may be,
It is in holding oneself in sway
That is imperative.”
Senior Acolyte Fukuyama sighed in appreciation. “But still,” he finally said, “I prefer a bit of humour. Kobayashi Issa:
Tub to Tub
The whole journey –
Reverend Kawaguchi smiled. “Yes. This poem is very fine.”
In that moment – sitting under the cypress, the breeze sweeping yellow pollen across the river’s pooled surface, the air laced with the priests’ poetic murmurs – a belief within me took hold with such force that I involuntarily shivered. I was just a boy, true, but in the hellish aftermath of my family’s destruction I was visited by a conviction that a clearing filled with Tranquil Light was waiting for me somewhere, and that one day I would find my way to this clearing, this safe haven patiently awaiting my arrival. (p.31-32)
Seido’s struggles in Brooklyn are more difficult. He has been sent to New York to open their New Temple, a kindness to his teacher that he cannot refuse. Seido craves only the peace of Japan, but temple politics will not permit it and his karma must be fulfilled.
The children’s voices in Sant’ Andrea Park beckoned like birds in the forest around the Temple of Everlasting Prayer. An old man and woman rested on a park bench with their parcels, wheezing jokes as they watched the shoppers passing back and forth the intimate, earthy poetry of Brooklyn.
The tired woman finally dropped her white head on the shoulder of her husband’s peacoat. “Come on”, he said, squeezing her thigh. “Let’s get this stuff home. You’re tired.” It was good advice, and I decided to return home, too, in order to give thanks to the Buddha. But as I moved to leave the park, as I breathed in the air, the reality of where I stood finally hit me.
It was the Buddhaland. (p.262)
An absolutely fascinating public debate took place recently between Stephen Batchelor and Don Cupitt regarding the evolving nature of religion and religious truth in our time, and the debate contains many stimulating insights into the nature of modern Buddhism and the attempts of Buddhism to entrench itself in the West. The debate had great meaning and especial poignancy for me in the light of the traumatic experiences I and some of my dharma colleagues have been through recently, but it also gave me lots of clues about how to develop my dharma practice in the future and confirms me in my growing conviction that dharma practice has to be protected from the tendency of religious organisations, even Buddhist ones, to periodically become fossilised and over-rigid in their attempts to maintain doctrinal purity and hierarchical authority, destroying the creative tension of debate, even dissent, that is an essential part of keeping any tradition fresh, alive and dynamic. Better still, ways of practising dharma outside of any dependence or over-reliance upon an organisational or institutional structure may need to be developed and/or encouraged.
To give a flavour of the debate, here is some of what Stephen Batchelor said:
I think we have to do more than just modify or reform some of the existing Asian Buddhist traditions, although that is of course something that has been happening now for the last fifty years or so: in other words, the modification of Theravada Buddhism or early Buddhism into the vipassana and the mindfulness movements, certain ways in which Zen Buddhism has been transformed into a practice that Christians and Buddhists alike are engaged in. I think we need a rather more radical rethinking of the dharma, what the Buddha taught, and what is that all about, and can we imagine it in a way that enables the wisdom of this tradition to speak in a language that addresses our circumstances, our condition today? I think, and again I feel I am probably very close to Don here, that Buddhism needs to be rethought from the ground up. We somehow, perhaps, are in such a different situation to that in which Buddhism has traditionally worked in Asia, that we might in a way have to start all over again. That can sound very threatening to someone who is invested in certain traditional Buddhist beliefs, but personally I find it very liberating. I think it brings the imagination, creativity into the scope of our practice as Buddhists and leads us obviously into an unknown. I don’t know where these ideas will go, how they will evolve or develop – or not. I just don’t know. I am concerned therefore that the Buddhist tradition somehow engages in a dialogue with modernity, not just a dialogue with other religions, but begins to somehow get to grips with the secular world, secular culture of which we are a part.
Later on Batchelor says:
I think that we have to distinguish between a living tradition and a dying tradition. A living tradition surely is one that is in constant ongoing conversation with its own past, which is a phrase I picked up in the writing of the American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who also says that traditions are “continuities of conflict”. I feel it is only when there is conflict that in a way the religious and spiritual life really comes alive. The danger that we can also see, particularly with certain more fundamentalist forms of religion, is that dialogue, conversation, conflict, interpretation, tend to be suppressed. And there I think a deadening begins to set in. So I feel that although I may be criticised for taking too great a liberty with certain Buddhist texts and traditions, I feel that, in the bigger picture, I am trying to keep alive an animated discussion, a discourse and language that will allow the tradition to breathe afresh.
And to really put the cat amongst the pigeons, this question was put to Stephen Batchelor: “Is a lot of Buddhism’s teaching about happiness a way of trying to promote itself in the West? I just wondered if you could comment on that.”
To which Stephen Batchelor replied:
Well, I think Buddhism has been somewhat hijacked by the happiness industry in some sense, and I think it is another example of how we reach for this knee-jerk inclusion of happiness, because obviously it sells well. But I don’t think Buddhism is in the business of happiness, at least not overtly. I think a great parallel with how Buddhism is presented as being about happiness is that its very first teaching is to embrace suffering and dukkha – the first truth. And the parallel with this is that if one really wishes to live a life fully and abundantly, that requires us to be entirely honest and forthright with the reality of the world as it is, rather than in some imagined perfected future. So I always see happiness as a kind of a bonus, as a rather good side effect, but frankly I don’t practise Buddhism because I want to be happy. I would think that a rather superficial reason. I seek to practise Buddhism because, in the words of Don, it gives me a narrative, a framework within which to make sense of my life. And that to me, in other words the question of meaning and fulfilment, is more important than whether I feel happy or not. One could argue it’s better to live a happy life with the accent on fulfilment and meaning rather than on the feeling of happiness.
Now that makes you think, doesn’t it? But I do recommend reading the transcript of the whole debate and Stephen Batchelor’s statement distributed before the debate itself. I promise you, it’s compelling stuff!
For the next teaching in a fortnight, I have chosen the subject Non-existent.
For those who want to, I have created a web-page they can visit.
If they go there, they will find I haven’t written anything.
A lottery ticket blew into my flowerpot. Not a crisp packet, or a newspaper. Two lines of numbers for Wednesday’s draw.
“Do not be fooled by the universe!” I told my students. “It will only let you down! A sign from the Universe that I should use the wealth wisely? No, a sign of sunyata, the worthless, the clothing of samsara. Ignore it and the universe will be yours.”
Confident was I in my practise of Sunyata.
Anyway, there was was only one right number in both lines.
The mad Yogi was looking at his wife.
“What are you staring at?”
“You. I was looking at your parts.”
“What’s wrong with my parts?” she frowned.
“Nothing. They are all beautiful.”
Relaxing, his wife smiled.
“It’s the whole I have problems with,” he muttered.