Buddhaland Brooklyn by Richard C. Morais
Buddhaland Brooklyn is the story of the enlightenment of Reverend Seido Oda, a repressed Japanese Buddhist from the fictional Headwater Sect of Mayahana Buddhism. Sent to Brooklyn to oversee the construction of a new temple, his journey from Japan to the U.S. is a cultural challenge and a spiritual awakening in which he learns to practice what he preaches.
This book begins when Oda, the second of four children born into a family of inn-keepers, is still a boy. His family owns an inn called Home of the Lotus, that caters to Headwater Sect pilgrims. Oda loves his mountain idyll, located in Fukushima Prefecture.
There was something supernal about this stone-and-wood village in the crags of Japan’s mountains. At night, a silky film of dew was laid across every roof tile, bridge and bush of the village…
Oda’s parents—a depressed father and mother who thinks Americans smell “like horse farts”—send him to join the priesthood at the Headwater monastery when he is just eleven years old. With deep regret he leaves his family, taking up residence with the other acolytes. Soon after, Oda’s entire family dies in a fire at their ryokan. The little boy is wracked by sorrow and survivor’s guilt, but represses his feelings.
I determinedly locked the tragedy of my family away in the deepest chamber I could find, as if it all had happened to a different person in a different world.
As he grows up and becomes a priest, Oda studies the doctrines of the Headwater Sect, for whom Compassion is the highest virtue. As one of the monks describes it
Imagine a closed oyster, rough and ugly, suddenly opening up to reveal an exquisite pearl long held inside. That is how it is. The Buddha nature is there inside us, always, and can appear at any moment.
One day, however, his superiors order him to Brooklyn to be the Reverend for a temple under construction there. A panicked Oda seeking advice from an older priest, is warned
The Americans will challenge you, count on this, and the New York Believers are the most demanding of all. Remember, in Japan, Buddhism is a mainstream religion, but in America, it’s an alternative religion. This is very difficult for Japanese priests, because Buddhism attracts the alternative-lifestyle people in America. Outcasts. People with metal in their faces.
And difficult it is. When Oda’s flight lands at John F. Kennedy airport in New York, Jennifer Meli, the woman who will be his assistant, meets him and delivers him to his apartment in Little Calabria, a pleasant neighborhood inhabited by Italian immigrants. Fuelled by prejudices that cloud his mind, Oda makes a snap judgment, “This is a militant lesbian.”
The Brooklyn temple’s congregation is a motley but well-intentioned crew. But compassion does not come easily. Sister Marie, a Haitian who invites Oda to join a group of worshippers at her Manhattan flat, shocks him with the revelation of a Buddhist altar side by side with a voodoo altar.
Just a few feet away from our simple Buddhist shrine stood another altar. Jesus Christ, carved from what looked like wax or tallow, stood at the centre of the table, eerily lit by a spotlight draped in red gauze.
Other believers include the wealthy donors Mr. and Mrs. Symes, owners of an elevator company.
Mr Symes made a promise during his initiation rite that, if the Buddha assisted his company, he would give twenty thousand dollars as an offering for every extra elevator he sold.
They keep a jar of ball bearings on their Buddhist altar.
Then there is Laura, a curvaceous physical therapist who continually tries to get Oda in the sack.
She licked her lips and talked to me incomprehensibly about “New Age” and “crystals” and “channeling the Buddha’s voice” during evening prayer… she informed me she was filled with “Buddha love”, before gently putting her hand on my forearm and suggesting we have a drink together.
Helping guide Oda through the confusion of personalities is Jennifer, who is not a lesbian and turns out to have a PhD in Italian literature from Columbia University. She becomes Oda’s most promising disciple even as she teaches him the goodness of life in Brooklyn. She provides earthly as well as spiritual nourishment, cooking meals for him, from fresh ingredients like squid and Italian sausages from Oda’s Italian neighborhood grocers.
But the opening of Oda’s inner oyster is a long time coming and requires some buffeting from without. At first the congregation finds him cold and ritual bound. One worshipper says,
Everything you say and do gives the impression you’re secretly sneering at us, like you think American’s are not really smart enough to understand Buddhism… it makes a mockery of the whole premise that we all have a Buddha nature.
The story hinges on a moment of grace when Oda unlocks repressed feelings about his long-dead family during a recitation of the Lotus Sutra. He becomes newly fluent and able to communicate with the Brooklyn believers.
Though the dialog can at times seem strained, the novel is a thoroughly enjoyable Buddhist parable, imbued with humor and written with a light touch.