Buddhaland Brooklyn

  • Richard C. Morais
  • Scribner
  • 256 pp.

“The life of a man is like a ball in the river, 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.”

Reviewed by Susan Storer Clark

“The life of a man is like a ball in the river, 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.” So says the narrator of Buddhaland Brooklyn, the Buddhist priest Seido Oda. But when the action of the novel starts, Oda is more like a rock stuck in the streambed, unwilling to be moved.

Oda is a studious, introverted artist, born in a remote village in Japan, and sent at the age of 11 to be a priest. Soon after he enters the temple to study, a fire kills his entire family, including his beloved older brother. The boy is devastated, but the monastic life in the temple comforts him, and suits him well. He tries once, when he’s 18, to enjoy the secular world of Tokyo art students, but he ends up so frightened that he spends the next 22 years at the temple, teaching art and pursuing his studies.

Oda is 40 when the head of his temple tells him bluntly that he is being reassigned. “I want you to become our priest in Brooklyn, New York.” Not only that, but Oda is expected to lead a group of American believers as they build a fine new temple. Oda is terrified. He tells the head of temple he will become ill, that his English isn’t good enough, that he is a poor public speaker, that he is afraid. It does not matter. The head of the temple, who is also his good friend and mentor, says, “Have you noticed, to get fresh air into a house after a hard winter, you must sometimes use a little force to open the window that has for too long been sealed shut?”

Oda’s mother had passed on to him “a visceral disgust for Americans, those bumbling barbarians who had somehow defeated Japan.” The fact that he’s going to Brooklyn would seem to be a setup for a farcical comedy of culture clash, featuring an uptight Japanese prig and caricatures of crass Brooklynites. The culture clash is certainly there: when Oda meets elevator magnate Arthur Symes, the largest contributor to the building of the new temple, he is entirely at a loss for words: “How could I explain, just minutes after meeting him, that increased elevator sales were not proof that Buddhist prayers worked?” Eccentric characters abound, but author Richard Morais avoids the temptation to set out his story as crude satire. It is instead a humanely told and delicately rendered tale of Oda’s change in attitude toward himself and his congregation.

Buddhaland Brooklyn is Richard C. Morais’s second novel. His first, The Hundred Foot Journey, featured a clash of two different cultures when a teenager from Mumbai, a talented cook at his family’s restaurant in a French village, unwittingly begins a culinary war with the owner of the prestigious traditional restaurant across the street. In Buddhaland Brooklyn, Morais lovingly renders both the country inn where Oda grew up and the Little Calabria neighborhood in Brooklyn, even though Oda decides after an early foray into his new neighborhood that it was a “disorienting mix-and-mash of cultures,” and he thinks “Brooklyn is not solid. It is unstable.”

Oda learns to understand his intelligent assistant, Jennifer Meli. He comes to terms with the Haitian woman who believes that she sees Jesus on the Buddhist altar. He learns to treat gently the American who has appointed himself “head study honcho” even though he is teaching members of the congregation from The Reader’s Digest Encyclopedia of Religion and Buddhism for Dummies. Oda survives the mental breakdown and suicide of a congregation member, although he is deeply affected. He does tell them that some of the practices they have developed on their own are unacceptable, but he also comes to understand that these people, whatever their shortcomings, are sincere in their search for enlightenment, and that they deserve the honest services of a priest.

Buddhaland Brooklyn has many wonderful moments: Oda’s terror when, met by a woman at the airport in New York, the woman hugs him: “I stood stiff as a winter cherry tree holding out frozen limbs, as the woman grappled me like a sumo wrestler.” Oda’s first look into his local Laundromat shows him that “old women with buns of iron hair and dressed identically in black skirts and cardigans sat along the far wall of the Laundromat, watching the clothes tumble. They looked to me like Noi, the fearsome temple guardians …” A mysterious extra voice joins sometimes in the chanting of the temple, one that does not belong to any of the people in the room. At first Oda is terrified, but when he hears it again, he realizes that “it was the voice of my dead,” his family, his friends and mentors, and his ancestors, “joyously reuniting with me in that holy place that exists somewhere in the in-between world.”

Buddhaland Brooklyn is best enjoyed as a slow read. The world Morais creates for Oda and the reader is quirky and enchanting. His recurring rumination on the meaning of enlightenment and acceptance is worth savoring.

Susan Storer Clark is a frequent contributor to The Washington Independent Review of Books. She recently completed The Monk Woman’s Daughter, a historical novel set in 19th-century United States. Ms. Clark has been a member of the Holey Road Writers for more than 10 years, and is a former broadcast journalist and a retired civil servant. She and her husband Rich live in Silver Spring.

comments powered by Disqus