The writing between these two covers is purely an act of imagination and should in no way be taken as a doctrinal explanation of Buddhism. The Headwater Sect is invented, and while some readers knowledgeable of Buddhism might spot some similarities with Nichiren Shōshū … please know these similarities are superficial and meaningless.
So this is not a serious novel about religion but it still manages to say a few thoughtful things about family and culture albeit in its own light-hearted way. On the surface Buddhaland Brooklyn couldn’t be more different to Richard Morais’s first novel The Hundred Foot Journey (which I reviewed here) but actually they’re more similar than you might first imagine. In The Hundred Foot Journey an Indian boy winds up in France where he finds himself through the local cuisine. In Buddhaland Brooklyn a Japanese monk gets sent to New York where the locals help him reassess his beliefs. Both are novels of self-discovery and transformation.
In my review of The Hundred Foot Journey I wrote:
At the end of the day I’m not sure about this novel. I suspect that Morais’s ambitions for the book have been just beyond his reach but all credit to him for not simply writing a jolly book about food. The New York Times reviewer Ligaya Mishan called the book, with her tongue a little in her cheek I hope, “Slumdog Millionaire meets Ratatouille,” adding, “The novel’s charm lies in its improbability.” I think that’s a bit harsh but I can see where she’s coming from.
You could say much the same about Buddhaland Brooklyn. At its core we have an innocent thrown into a melting pot, stirred and left to simmer for a few months. The priest is an innocent alien and by that I don’t mean he’s an extra-terrestrial; I mean ‘alien’ as in ‘illegal alien’ only in his case his papers are all in order but he might as well be from outer space because New York is so different from the world he’s used to. That said, even in the Buddhist monastery he was the quiet one more interested in art and poetry than people. His inability and lack of desire to understand his peers prevented him from thriving. The other monks found him unapproachable, a man set in his ways. He even scurried along the paths behind the buildings in order to avoid running into any pilgrims, whom he viewed as inferior in their practices. Out of the blue, however, he’s ordered to get on a plane and take charge of the construction of an American temple. The job comes with a promotion—he’ll now be chief priest—but Seido Oda is the least ambitious man you can imagine; nothing about the job appeals to him. He acquiesces, reluctantly—on the condition that he’s replaced by a more suitable candidate as soon as practicable—and obediently heads off to the New World. Nothing could’ve prepared this quiet and unassuming man for what he encounters next:
After the long stillness of my life at the Temple of Everlasting Prayer, Brooklyn appeared through the haze of my jet lag as a singularly belligerent attack on my central nervous system.
“[Q]uiet and unassuming” is exactly how I describe Hassan in The Hundred Foot Journey by the way.)
A character is placed in a situation completely unfamiliar to them. Humour and/or tension is created as the character adapts—or doesn't.
He’s probably more like Chance from Jerzy Kosinski's Being There than Mork if I’m being honest. At least at first. His parishioners—not sure if Buddhists have parishes—include some very wealthy people who (and this is not entirely their fault) have some very … let’s just go with American … ideas about what Buddhism is all about. Up until Oda’s arrival they’ve been happy to refer Buddhism for Dummies, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Reader’s Digest Encyclopaedia of Religion for guidance:
“Buddhism for Dummies? I am not familiar…”
“Don’t let the title deceive you. Heavier than it sounds. Excellent text.”
Oda manages to keep his aghastness to himself. Just.
If I had to hear one more time from the Americans that “Buddhism is not really a religion but a philosophy”, I believe my samurai ancestors would have risen up from the dead and run them through with the point of a katana sword. The Americans seemed to believe … that praying for material benefits and receiving them somehow proved that our religion “worked”. Some did not address me respectfully as Reverend Oda but slapped me on the back and called me “Seido” or “Rev” or “Reverend O”, and I had no idea how I should respond to this inappropriate informality, for I had never experienced anything quite like this before.
He institutes a few immediate and sweeping changes—for one, the removal of all chairs during study-lectures (“We do not modify the formal practice of the Eternal Teaching simply because Americans are fat.”)—which his believers find hard to swallow but since most of them are actually sincere they go along with him. For a while.
The problem is Oda’s natural reserve stops him connecting with his flock (again another Christian expression—sorry); he goes about his duties … dutifully—attending meetings, praying, lecturing—but he never opens up to anyone. We, the readers, only know what we know about his past because Morais devotes the first few chapters to his backstory which is interesting but the book only really starts on page 81 when he steps off the plane at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and it might’ve been better to jump straight there and dribble in details about his past as flashbacks. It might’ve been better if we got to meet him and judge him solely on his behaviour. Morais did the same with The Hundred Foot Journey, spent longer than I would’ve liked in India. But maybe that’s just me, in a rush to get where I’m going and not terribly interested in the journey.
There are other similarities between the protagonists in both books. I said of Hussain:
He starts off with nothing, next to nothing anyway, and ends up a success. I’m really not giving anything away by letting you know that things work out well for the young man. But he’s not a particularly interesting young man out of the kitchen. Kitchen work involves notoriously long hours and so Hassan doesn’t have much time to do anything bar hone his skills.
Oda starts off with next to nothing, spends thirty years honing his skills—most of that time, thankfully, we skip over—and he ends up enlightened (I’m being slightly facetious here) thanks to his involvement with the American Buddhists. He’s really not a very interesting person. The only thing of consequence that happens to him is as a young boy when his parents are killed in a fire that his depressive father may or may not have started deliberately. So, although he doesn’t really realise it, part of his quest is for family and that’s what he finds in America. You can choose your friends but not your family, so the saying goes. I guess that truism applies to spiritual families too.
When I talked about Hussain in The Hundred Foot Journey I remarked that he was not unlike Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The same is true here. The supporting cast are what save both books. The Americans are pretty much what you would expect, loud, opinionated, status conscious but friendly too. The girl who meets him off the plane, for example:
The woman waiting for me in the crowd was wearing a black T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops. She was in her late thirties, I guessed, with frost-tipped hair that stood up spikey and ragged. This could not possibly be my official greeting party, I thought, for her attire was entirely inappropriate for formally welcoming a Priest.
I bowed. The look of relief on the woman’s face was great, and she pushed her way through the crowd in my direction. I panicked, not sure if I should bow in a Japanese greeting or shake hands Western-style. The woman did neither. She threw her arms around me and hugged me tightly to her bosom.
I stood stiff as a winter cherry tree holding out frozen limbs, as the woman grappled me like a sumo wrestler. It took what seemed like an eternity before she was satisfied I was of flesh and bone…
And they’re all like that, larger than life, some more eccentric than others. And yet they are—for Americans—very, very patient with their new priest but not endlessly so. After several months one of Believers interrupts Oda who’s in the process of delivering one of his dry lectures expounding some technical feature of the priesthood:
“What’s enlightenment? No one ever tells me.”
So he stops what he’s doing and over the course of the next page instructs her. Her response?
“Reverend Oda,” said Mrs Symes, rummaging in her purse for chewing gum. “I can’t follow a word you’re saying. It’s like you’re talking Swahili.”
Eventually it all comes to a head. Jennifer, the woman who met him from the plane and who had been assigned to be his assistant but who eventually became his lover (apparently in this sect such things are not disallowed) addresses the problem head on:
“Who are you? Look, I know you have a real understanding of Buddhism and the world we live in, knowledge I am sure you are just dying to share with us. But the fact is you’re just not good at communicating your understanding of Buddhism. It’s not just the language barrier. Everything you say and do gives the impression you’re secretly sneering at us, like you think Americans are not really smart enough to understand Buddhism, that only the Japanese are sensitive enough to really get the subtle depths of this faith. It’s really incredibly insulting. And, when you think about it, actually slanders the teachings. It makes a mockery of the whole premise that we all have the Buddha nature.”
You tell him girl! The student has become the master. If only for a few minutes. Could it be that his mother’s contempt for Americans following the Second World War has affected him more than he might have imagined? Of course it all works out in the end but not before Oda learns a few more life lessons from these seemingly uncouth souls. It’s an old story. But it’s one that still needs to be told as long as people look down their noses at others. Oda is a flawed man. Literature is full of flawed men. We like flawed men. We like them to succeed despite their flaws. We like them to overcome their flaws, to turn them to their advantage if possible. And that’s what happens here. It’s not exactly a Hallmark moment but I’m sure if they bought the rights to the book they could turn it into one; all the building blocks are there.
If you’re keen to read a novel about Buddhism then go for Night Boat. If you want a light read with a spiritual edge then Buddhaland Brooklyn is a fine way to distract you during a long flight.
You can read an excerpt from the book here.
An American born in Portugal and raised in Switzerland, Richard Morais has lived most of his life overseas, returning to the States in late 2003. He was stationed in London for 17 years as Forbes’ European Correspondent (1986 to 1989), Senior European Correspondent (1991 to 1998), and European Bureau Chief (1998 to 2003.) He wrote numerous cover stories for Forbes, from billionaire profiles to corporate dissections, but he was best known for unusual business stories on everything from the hashish entrepreneurs of Holland, to the ship breakers of India, to the human organ traders of China. Morais has won six nominations and three awards from the London-based Business Journalist of the Year Awards, the industry standard for international business coverage.
Morais started his career in New York as a news intern for the PBS TV program, The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, and eventually rose to selling freelance film features to The New York Times. While he was in the UK, he appeared regularly on Sky News, BBC News, ITV News, and various radio stations, including the influential Today show on the BBC’s Radio 4. In the United States, his work has led to an editorial credit on 60 Minutes, plus appearances on Ted Koppel’s Nightline, ABC, CNN, and various NPR radio stations.
Morais is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York with his wife and daughter.