Monday, October 22, 2012

Walter Mason reads Richard C. Morais' Buddhaland Brooklyn

Richard C. Morais, the author of Buddhaland Brooklyn, is a magazine editor and film maker who has turned his hand to novel writing, and in this book he has created a quite unique world. It is the world of an introverted and intellectually stuffy Japanese Buddhist priest, a formalist and ritualist of the Nichiren school, who is sent by his masters to New York to establish a branch temple. This he manages to do, all the while dealing with the unexpected, and previously unknown, politics of a vociferous lay-committee and the emergence of feelings and emotions that had previously been kept in check. And yes, these feelings include love and lust, which is less scandalous than it sounds because monks of his particular order are allowed to marry, and even drink alcohol and eat meat. 

A gohonzon mandala of the Nichiren school of Japanese Buddhism

Morais has written a fascinating, and original, story about religion, loneliness and cross-cultural confusion, all the while employing a deftness of touch and a great eye for story. Buddhaland Brooklyn is a terrifically fun read all on its own, even if you are not interested in Japan or Buddhism. 

Author Richard C. Morais

I loved his excursions into the Japanese monastic world, lovingly recreated with a great depth of knowledge and an eye for detail, as well as for the surprisingly quotidian nature of such a seemingly transcendent way of life. In the Japanese head temple the monks pray and use their prayer beads, but they also fight, gossip, compete and complain.  The head temple was perfectly drawn for me, and I could see its souvenir stalls, its endless parade of chattering pilgrims and its “gently sloping hill, surrounded on both side by mountain cherry orchards.” And I so wanted to be there!

The quiet, artistic priest Oda, the novel’s protagonist, is far from being an ambitious opportunist keen for a cushy posting in the West. Instead he is an unwilling recruit, a worrier and fretter who would much prefer to stay in his Japanese mountain idyll. His journey to the West is a cause for consternation and regret, forcing him:

“...whenever possible, to the Great Hall of Worship, to fall on my knees and pray for courage and wisdom and the Buddha’s serene guidance during this extraordinary period of change.”

Anyone who has ever been involved with an Eastern spiritual tradition will find much that is familiar, funny and evocative in this book, particularly as monk and Western followers take turns to aggravate, expand and sometimes seduce each other. This is such an original and entertaining book – I really think that everyone will gain something from reading it. 

Kyoto, Japan
 You can purchase this book, or any others, through the bookstore links above right.

1 comment:

  1. As you will see watching the video of this month's chosen books, I am also tremendously enthusiastic about Buddhaland Brooklyn. I am fascinated by so many aspects of Japanese culture and have visited Japan several times, including twice to Koya-San, world heritage listed mountain home of Shingon Buddhism, a quite fascinating mystical sect little known outside Japan. I can't judge if Marais entirely "gets" Japan but it felt very sympathetic to me and I was captivated also by the minor characters that come to life in this lovely novel, along with Oda. I can recommend it unreservedly.