Buddhaland Brooklyn is the story of a middle-aged, Japanese Buddhist priest, Seido Oda, who, after a quiet life creating and teaching art in his mountainside monastery in Japan, is suddenly sent to New York to lead a group of American believers and to manage the construction of a new Buddhist temple there.
Seido Oda tells his own story and it is soon apparent that he is not a man who will adapt to change easily. Culture shock is, of course, inevitable. He has to learn to cope with the boldness, variety and energy of Americans, and there is confusion and humour to be found in misunderstandings of language and situations, but that is not unusual. What is more unusual are his encounters with the various members of his new ‘flock’. Often their behaviour offends his Japanese sensibilities but he must also learn to cope with their idiosyncratic interpretations of Buddhism.
Richard Morais set himself a difficult challenge when, as an American with no Japanese ancestry, he chose to write as a Japanese Buddhist priest. Not only does he try to convey the family life and the cultural milieu in which Seido Oda grew up, he also writes an insider’s view of the Buddhist Headwaters Sect in which his priest lives from the age of eleven. It helps that the sect is Morais’ own invention and that modern life has impinged on it in many ways, but I did not always find his interpretation of either of these two cultures convincing. Even the frequent use of Japanese words and phrases, references to famous Japanese art works and a scattering of haiku by Basho and Issa, seemed to me to be contrived, rather than a natural part of Seido Oda’s life. Nevertheless, Morais tells a good story and his many American characters are vividly drawn and often funny.
Reverend Oda is a likeable character, even in his stolid acceptance of the foibles of his American ‘Believers’. “How could I explain”, he comments after meeting Arthur Symes, an elevator-sales magnate, “that increased elevator sales were not proof that Buddhist prayers worked”. He faces a variety of predicaments, including the suicide of a mentally disturbed young man he had tried to help, and he learns much about America and about himself in the process.
Morais’ descriptive writing is often evocative and beautiful, and his extensive study of Buddhist texts is apparent from his acknowledgements pages, but this is not a serious novel about religion or culture. It is a simple, very human story of Seido Oda’s life and experiences. If Morais does have any message for us, it is in Seido Oda’s own acceptance of his fate. “The life of man is like a ball in the river”, he tells us at the beginning of the book, “the Buddhist texts state – no matter what our will wants or desires, we are swept along by an invisible current that finally delivers us to the limitless expanse of the black sea”. And at the end of the book, as an elderly man looking back over the life he has just described for us and musing on his struggles, he concludes: “I now believe enlightenment is a simple state: it is the ability to suffer what there is to suffer; it is the ability to enjoy what there is to enjoy. To understand that, truly, is enlightenment.
Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
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