Buddhaland Brooklyn: Reviews by AndyDharma and DharmaForum
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)
Spiritual and Visionary Communities: Out to Save the World. Review by Andy Dharma
A new book has just been published: Spiritual and Visionary Communities: Out to Save the World. Having purchased it myself and read chunks of it, I can safely say that it is a thoroughly readable and utterly compelling study of some of the many intentional communities around the world, a study that is nevertheless academically rigorous and backed by copious and meticulously detailed footnotes and references. Readers of this blog would be fascinated by this book as it contains a chapter about someone’s experience within the NKT. Yes, folks, you read that right: there is a book out there now that contains an account of life within the NKT, “warts ‘n all”! That alone makes this book ground-breaking and worth reading just for that.
I wrote a review for the book, which is now on the amazon.co.uk website:
I must admit to being biased about this book: I have personal experience of INFORM, the independent charity that collects and disseminates accurate, balanced and up-to-date information about minority religious and spiritual movements, and which has organised the bringing together of the collection of essays that constitutes this book. I have had reason to be very grateful for the balanced, sensitive help and advice INFORM gave me when I experienced the trauma of becoming involved in a bitter dispute within the New Kadampa Tradition, one of the movements written about in this book. The subtitle of this book – Out to Save the World – indicates what is common to all the intentional communities that feature in this book, these communities being just a small sample of the many thousands of such communities around the world. These communities originally start off with the best of intentions, in this case the intention to help save the world in some way. But so often these communities, because they involve some radical experimentation or innovation in communal living, or represent a radical break with a spiritual tradition, or cultural norm, have crises and disputes to deal with which threaten their very existence. How these communities deal with these crises determines, amongst other things, whether the original intention of these communities survives or changes significantly, sometimes so much so that it becomes unrecognisable to the community’s original founders or members. These communities, when they function harmoniously, often help their members to experience the height of spiritual inspiration, even ecstasy, in ways not available in the ‘normal’ world, sometimes creating the feeling of having been ‘saved’ and thereby empowered to help save others. But when they go wrong, the fall-out can be toxic to all involved, especially given the deep emotional, financial and social investment members of these communities often have to make in order to gain entry to them, or at least feel like they belong within them. Exit from these communities, voluntary or enforced, is often deeply traumatic and destabilising for both the people leaving and for some of those left behind.
I will only mention one essay in this book, the chapter written by Carol McQuire about her time as a Buddhist nun within the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), which is deeply controversial within the world of Buddhism generally. I, like Carol, was once a devout member of the NKT and I was deeply moved by Carol’s searing honesty about her experiences, and about her complex and evolving feelings towards the teachers, teachings and organisational practices of the NKT both during her time as a nun and after her traumatic exit from the NKT. I could relate to many of her experiences and feelings and recognised how difficult it is to retain one’s idealism and devotion in the midst of turbulent, confusing and often disturbing change within an organisation like the NKT, which tries so hard to preserve what it perceives to be a ‘pure’ Buddhism whilst at the same time trying to put clear blue water between itself and the rest of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that it originally evolved from and which often itself criticises the NKT as being less than a ‘pure’ Buddhist sangha. Carol’s essay was somewhat cathartic for me and helped me with my present journey towards understanding and integrating my past within the NKT. I suspect many of the other essays in the book will serve a similar function for others who have had contact with either the NKT or the other intentional communities explored in this book.
All the essays in this book are meticulously backed up with copious footnotes and references to academic research and documentary material, and the introductory overview by Timothy Miller of the broad history of intentional communities is extremely useful in putting the essays that follow into context. The stories in this book are about powerful, often bizarre, always deeply felt experiences by real life people within the intentional communities they belonged to, and show a side of spiritual life that very rarely makes the headlines, especially as many communities have fraught relationships with the media and society in general, sometimes preferring not to engage openly with them at all, in order to maintain their ‘purity’ or so as to maintain their freedom to operate in the way they wish to, or simply because they despair of ever getting the wider world to understand or accept them. This book is an invaluable contribution to the study of intentional communities and their often fraught histories, complex social relationships and organisational psychologies. It is also very readable and compelling into the bargain. Truth is often stranger than fiction and this book certainly illustrates that.
- Putting the NKT into perspective (maitreyabuddhistcentre.wordpress.com)
- The ultimate heresy? (maitreyabuddhistcentre.wordpress.com)
The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra: Review by AndyDharma
A book I have just finished reading , The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra, by Rob Preece, has been so compelling that I felt I had to share a few thoughts of mine about it. I have not read a book that so successfully helped me to start putting Buddhist Tantra into some sort of overall context, especially within the cultural context that we have here in the West. Preece concentrates on comparing Buddhist Tantra with the psychology of the Jungian tradition of psychotherapy, and he does that very successfully, although I think it would also help greatly if Buddhist tantra were also put within the context of the wider world of Western psychology generally, especially within the emerging discipline of positive psychology, whose research findings in recent years are rapidly influencing the Western view of what facilitates the most positive mental states. Jung does not get as much publicity, I feel, as he deserves, which is a shame as his view of the mind is very subtle and nuanced, but he had, as Preece explains, a blind spot when it came to his view on Westerners’ ability to use meditation effectively. He was overly pessimistic on this, which is ironic as his psychological views are actually an asset in helping westerners to get an intellectual grasp on the deeper significance of tantric symbolism and how it can be integrated with the symbolism we are familiar with through our Western cultural heritage, which influences us greatly even if we are not consciously aware of that influence. Jung does a great job in exploring the archetypal images that come up time and again within Western culture and which reveal the unconscious drives and energies that influence our conscious thinking. Preece usefully links up some of the archetypes Jung explores with the archetypes that lie behind tantric symbolism. For example, Preece makes the interesting point that Heruka Chakrasambara is very similar to the roles played by Dionysus and Kernunnos in Western culture, and that the Western language of alchemical transformation is analogous to the symbolism of ‘generation stage’ tantra, especially with regards to the ‘inner offering’.
Preece makes the very valid point that Westerners practising Tantra may actually create problems for themselves if they do not have the necessary degree of psychological stability and that Western psychotherapy has much to contribute to help Westerners achieve this, especially as Eastern teachers of Tantra, according to Preece, often display a lack of understanding of the psychological complexes and problems that are familiar in Western societies. Tibetans may be very concerned about ‘spirits’ and ‘demons’ interfering with tantric practice, but Westerners are usually more concerned with dealing with memories of traumatic events or dealing with emotional issues arising in childhood, especially in their relationships with their parents.
I particularly liked Preece’s point about tantric practice having to be integrated into a deliberately cultivated sensitivity to the natural environment in which the practice is done. Tibetans certainly had a very keen sensitivity to how the energy forces within their local environment influenced, and were influenced, by the energy-winds within the human body, and that keeping the body in harmony with nature as it is experienced is a crucial part of successful tantric practice as well as ensuring that the individual feels an integral part of the surrounding world. Preece links this need for heightened nature sensitivity with a fascinating explanation of how mandalas work from a psychological perspective.
Anyway, Preece convinced me that making tantric practice come truly alive is very difficult unless it can be translated within one’s own understanding of how one’s psychological life, especially one’s emotional experience, works. And that understanding perhaps depends crucially upon cultivating an increasing sensitivity towards how tantric symbolism needs to be interpreted through ones’ own understanding and experience of the symbolism and archetypes of one’s own culture. It also needs, I think, a growing understanding of how one’s own experience of one’s immediate natural environment can be integrated with that tantric symbolism so that the mandala becomes a living manifestation within one’s life experience. Just jumping in and trying to impose an alien Tibetan tantric symbolism upon one’s mind without any kind of awareness of how one’s Shadow side could be dangerously and uncontrollably unleashed into conscious awareness seems to me now like reckless folly. And with that provocative claim, I take my leave – for now!
Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain: Review by Andy Dharma
If you wish to study the evolution of the New Kadampa Tradition in the wider context of Tibetan Buddhism in general and within the cultural context of Buddhist adaptation generally within the modern West, you may find the academically rigorous analysis by Dr. David Kay in his “Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain – Transplantation, development and adaptation” to be essential reading. This is exactly the sort of wider context that makes so much of what the NKT does more understandable. It is the sort of context that would probably never be supplied from within the NKT itself but which needs to be supplied from outside the NKT if any kind of balanced perspective upon the activities of the NKT is to be even possible. I’m not going to quote from the essay, because it is such a long one and I really think it needs careful reading all the way through to get a real understanding of the full historical background to the NKT. In the process, I think one gets a much better understanding of Tibetan Buddhism in general and of the ongoing challenges Buddhism faces in its transmission to the West. It also gives one some insight into how much the NKT itself has changed already and is likely to change even more as it tries to deal with its own turbulent past and the fast-changing dynamics of its present situation. Without reading this essay, one would probably never know – unless one has been a long-time ‘insider’ – just how much, and why, the NKT has changed, as the NKT is very good at rewriting its own history in order to promote the impression of it having an untroubled, stable and secure identity that has endured over time, free from challenge by internal conflicts or external disputes. I heartily recommend that Kay’s work be studied, especially as he bends over backward to be as fair and objective as he can. Happy reading!
The New Social Face of Buddhism: a call to action. Review by AndyDharma
Following on from my last post in which I featured an article written by Ken Jones, one of the more articulate and profound commentators upon modern Buddhism, I would like to recommend a very erudite and informative book of his, called The new social face of Buddhism: a call to action (Wisdom Publications, 2003). There is much in this book that not only shows insight into Buddhism in general but also into the difficulties and dilemmas that Buddhism – especially the traditional forms of it coming from the East – faces in it attempt to not only integrate itself within Western societies but also deal with the challenges of modernity. But there are some issues within Buddhism that show up in any age and in any society, and one of them is the issue of ‘Buddhism as ideology’ and under this section Jones comments upon the phenomenon, that:
…virtually every Buddhist starts out as something of a Buddhist ideologue, for whom Buddhism is an idea that makes self and world more understandable, and that provides assurance, consolation, and self-identity. This helps to get started! However, there are plenty of warnings in the scriptures about getting stuck there for the rest of one’s life, such as this admonition from the Vimalakirti Sutra:
He who is attached to anything, even to liberation, is not interested in the Dharma but in the taint of desire… The Dharma is not a secure refuge. He who enjoys a secure refuge is not interested in the Dharma but is interested in a secure refuge…. The Dharma is not a society. He who seeks to associate through the Dharma is not interested in the Dharma, but is interested in association.
Similarly the Zen master Sengchen warned: “Do not search after the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.” Buddhism is a religion of ehi-passika, come and see, come and experiment for yourself.
What amazes me when I contemplate passages such as these is how much I suppressed my intuitive understanding of the need for creative experimentation in my search for inner truth in order to conform to the organisational needs of the Buddhist tradition I ‘belonged’ to, despite the increasing frustration I felt over the years about how those organisational needs were increasingly going in strange, and non-Buddhist directions without any open or transparent explanations of why that was happening. The mystery and the wonder is that I remained loyal to that tradition for so long despite my misgivings. Perhaps the simple answer is that I was attached to the ideological baggage that the tradition so amply provided by the truckload. The secondary gratification I was getting from just belonging to the tradition was greater than the unsatisfied but deeper, more primary need I had for Dharma wisdom, which is always a double-edged sword that cannot be defined and controlled by any organisation, even a Buddhist one, and certainly in the long-term undercuts any ideological underpinnings such an organisation may have. Anyway, whatever the answer, it is fascinating that I have, over the last nine months, found the freedom of Dharma study and practice outside of the organisation, outside of any Buddhist organisation, to be liberating and profoundly creative, even though it has been a sometimes lonely, and emotionally uncomfortable process. But I suspect that you can’t have your cake and eat it: the freedom to be a true Dharma seeker perhaps often comes at the cost of being an outsider, unable to accept, or be accepted by, any formal Buddhist organisation – and being an outsider, any kind of outsider, is often an emotionally or psychologically uncomfortable place to be. Crazy yogis in Himalayan caves and Dharma-nerds in suburbia perhaps have that in common…