What do you get when you parachute a stiff, introverted Japanese monk into the melting pot of a raucous and dysfunctional New York Buddhist community? The delightful tale that is Buddhaland Brooklyn. The Publishers – Alma Books – asked me to review this novel by Richard C. Morais and I am truly delighted that they did.
The book is written in the first person by Reverend Seido Oda who leaves behind a tragic childhood and a peaceful temple in the remote mountains of Japan to find his patience and beliefs sorely tested by a motley crew of lay American Buddhists.
Although Morais insists his novel ‘should in no way be considered a work depicting a particular school of Buddhism’ there are so many gosho quotes, allusions to the Treasure Tower and references to the Lotus Sutra that I am sure the story has been inspired by Nichiren Buddhism more than by any other school.
Oda’s initial impressions of Brooklyn’s lay believers are that they lack the intelligence to practise Buddhism correctly and that their prayers are ‘barbaric, rushed and sloppy.’ His first response is an ultimately doomed attempt to ‘maintain the proper hierarchy and authority of the priesthood.’
There are hilarious moments throughout, such as his shock at meeting a ‘militant American lesbian’ and his clumsy attempts to handle the amorous advances of one of his flock. Reverend Oda comes to New York to teach the believers how to behave but ends up learning more from them than they do from him, likening his transformation to tectonic plates that ‘began to subtly shift and lurch without my realizing it.’
Although Brooklyn’s Buddhists gradually breach his defences with their criticisms of his over-formality, Oda is also a man whose prejudices are pierced from the inside by his own vulnerabilities, as his Buddhahood begins to bloom and he comes to terms with the tragedy that deeply marked his childhood. He defeats his ego to appreciate the many qualities of Brooklyn’s Buddhists and the whole book was a beautiful reminder to me that the lotus flower only grows in a muddy pond, that there should be no middle-man or guru between you and your Buddhahood and that, as Nichiren wrote, it is the heart that is most important.
It takes a deft touch to craft a book that is by turns melancholic (depression is a recurring theme), farcical (there are some almost ‘Clouseau-esque mishap’ moments) and poetic (check out the haikus…) but the author achieves exactly that. Given the theme of the book, I was reminded more than once of another excellent Buddhist-inspired novel, The Buddha, Geoff and Me by Eddy Canfor-Dumas, while Morais’ prose also has shades of Kazuo Ishiguro, Paulo Coelho and even Marcel Proust.
Many times as I turned the pages of this exquisite novel, one of my favourite quotes from Daisaku Ikeda came to mind: ‘Your home is where your loved ones live. Your home is the place where you work together with your fellow human beings to build a paradise, a realm of peace and prosperity for all. When we are asked where our home is, we can answer: “My home is the world. Everywhere in the world where my fellow human beings live, all of it, is my home”.’