Buddhaland BrooklynPosted: May 21, 2013 Filed under: Book Review, Buddha, Buddhism, humour, spirituality, Zen Buddhism | Tags: Alma Books, America, Book Review, Buddhaland Brooklyn, fiction, Japan, Lotus Sutra, Nichiren Shoshu, novel, Politics, Richard C. Morais, Temple Leave a comment
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)
Buddhaland Brooklyn is published by Alma Publishing and is available from them at £12.99. Also available from Wisdom, Amazon and all good book stores.
when devotion becomes destructive…Posted: May 4, 2012 Filed under: Buddha, Buddhism, spirituality | Tags: Buddha, Buddhism, Dharma, Four Noble Truths, Lotus Sutra 6 Comments
I came across a fascinating essay today by John Crook, entitled: Dangers in Devotion: Buddhist Cults and the Tasks of a Guru, which was a paper presented at the conference ‘The Psychology of Awakening II’ at Dartington Hall, October 1998. The essay is available at: http://www.westernchanfellowship.org/lib/wcf////dangers-in-devotion-buddhist-cults-and-the-tasks-of-a-guru/
It is a long essay, deeply erudite and thoughtful, and one well worthy of concentrated study from start to finish. In it he talks about the emerging danger of some Buddhist organisations in the West descending into ‘cults’, and looks at ways in which this process can be avoided. In particular, he says:
These Buddhist cults resemble the guru-based institutions of Hinduism more than they do their Buddhist origins. In Hinduism, gifted and charismatic gurus become the focus of a personal cult of devotional practice and at any one time there are many of these for potential devotees to choose from. The loose framework of Hindu belief and practice allows a high level of personal choice in such matters but not all gurus are free from the many forms of ethical corruption. How do such ‘cults’ arise? The psychology of such processes has become clear in recent years. Individual identity requires the formation of key values for which social approval is given and without which an individual experiences painful alienation. Traditionally these were given by the society in which a person lived, and we had monolithic religions dominating large areas of the world. Since in contemporary society the philosophical basis for values has become culturally relative and science has for many removed the belief in supernatural forces, individuals are forced to choose between a range of equally valid interpretations of the cosmos and of the way to personal salvation. Once a ‘way’ is chosen it becomes an area of profound psychological investment so that anything that threatens it also threatens the self. On accepting an institutionalised value system personal identity is largely replaced by social identity – that is the individual identifies with the social norms of the group.
Value systems are based in what Muscovici has called social representations. These are ideas and attitudes that are seen to represent the “real” and which are believed to be the truth. Social identity is rooted in the adoption of representations of “truth” and anything that threatens their credibility thus comes also to threaten the person. When the fount of wisdom is a particular individual, an unthinking devotion may develop which in worst-case scenarios leads to the establishment of an accepted tyranny. When an individual finally rumbles what is happening and attempts to break away into independence and an acceptance of his or her existential aloneness the reaction of other believers is apt to be intense. The question must therefore be asked whether cults of this kind and with this psychological causation are compatible with traditional Buddhist understanding in which freedom from suffering remains the goal. This question is vital not only in relation to the institutions which we have been discussing but for all attempts to form an organisation in which ‘enlightenment ‘ is sought and within which teachers and their shadows operate.
Open Buddhism in the Context of Practice
On his deathbed the Buddha told his followers to use the Dharma as a guide not the teacher. His profound advice throws the individual back into himself and his questioning appraisal of what Dharma can be. It does not lie in the views of a teacher, however helpful these can be and however fine an exemplar he or she is, but in the heart where the meaning of selfhood resides. The path to such understanding is essentially a lone quest, just as it was for the Buddha. Guidance lies in the teachings not in a teacher. Essentially the Four Noble Truths, the principles of impermanence, emptiness and the law of interdependent causation lie at the heart of the matter and require experiential realisation not mere intellectual assent. While vehicles for the transmission of the Dharma are essential, realisation is essentially an individual matter in which clinging to identity and all forms of representation is abandoned.
What then is the role of the teacher? The vehicles (Theravada, Mahayana, Zen etc.) are perspectives on the Dharma with the power to induce realisation. The teacher is a facilitator of this individual process. Any attempt to be an authority on the scriptures, a paragon of virtue, or a defender of a faith misses the point. A great lama or a solitary yogin consulted in some remote cave only have Buddhist validity if they facilitate the insight of others. There are many skilful means, as the Lotus Sutra makes clear. There is no absolute truth which has to be believed. All views disappear in absurdity. Attachment to any representation is thus an error. Krishnamurti was right in arguing that any institutionalisation of religion becomes divisive and yet a vehicle for the Dharma needs a structure.
All schools of Buddhism hinge upon and return to the understanding of emptiness. This insight is conveyed in a variety of ways and nothing can be picked or chosen as more relevant than anything else. That which is relevant is that which works. As Wittgenstein advised – look for the use and not the meaning. If a device or an idea works that is enough, for there is no ultimately discoverable meaning. This means that when a great Zen master and a fine lama meet there are no barriers between them. Although one may be riding a horse and the other a camel they both survey the same view. If this is not the case, understanding of the Dharma has at some point been lost.
The implication of this is that the Buddha Dharma must be ‘open’. Even though individuals may subscribe to contrasting traditions of practice and viewpoint if there is openness to the underlying empty vision then understanding can arise. We need therefore to cultivate a tradition of ‘open Buddhism’ and only if we manage to do so will the Buddha Dharma find a place in the West free from cultic factionalism and argument.
Crook goes on to provide tentative suggestions for a ‘Code of Ethics for Spiritual Directors’, which makes fascinating reading in the context of recurrent scandals and problems in the West regarding Buddhist teachers who allow the dark side of their personalities to be projected onto their students and their dharma centres. I really recommend a study of this code and its possible applications to the needs of dharma centres in our time.
Crook goes on to say that:
Democracy in Buddhist Institutions
There remains one final point. The problems of many Buddhist organisations have rested on the unlimited authority of the guru. This has often extended to matters of belief, practice, financial control and property. It is hardly surprising that mistakes have been made which have usually been as much a result of devotees’ lack of responsibility as it is due to the leader’s failure in self control and insight.
Cults can be profitably undone by democracy. All that is needed is proper attention to the creation of an institutional structure in which the power relations between guru and followers is balanced, in which problems and disputes can be raised and discussed and in which the formation of appropriate committees allows decision making processes reflecting the wishes of the membership. Many Buddhist institutions lack proper constitutional organisation and a prime recommendation may be that this issue be immediately addressed.
This task is not simple. The teacher is often the bearer of a lineage of teaching going back many centuries, maybe even to the Buddha himself. The teacher has received some form of transmission from his own guru to pass the way on to others. Those who have not received such transmission are hardly in a position to criticise the essential message. Too much democracy could mean that anybody’s version of what the Buddha may or may not have said could gain equal credence with an inevitable regression to an ill-prepared salad. It is rather the manner in which teachers present themselves, their attitude to others, their ethical stance and correctness in relationship and in financial concerns that become the legitimate focus of committees set up to monitor an institution’s well-being. It is to this concern that an institutional constitution should be directed.
Given the nature of the psychological process active in cults such a change may not be easy. It will often require grassroots action within the institution. Indeed, if these institutions are to survive, this will become essential. Further publication of destructive arguments such as those we have discussed here will be to the detriment of all Buddhist institutions in the West. It is time to set our houses in order.
The need for a truly ‘open Buddhism’ and a truly democratic and accountable constitutional structure within Western Buddhist organisations is, I feel, very urgent now if Western Buddhism, certainly in the UK, is ever to truly flourish and become harmoniously integrated within a liberal Western culture. Chieftains of the tribe of the Enkaytees would do well to take note.