Destinations: Japan and Brooklyn, New York
This new novel, like meditation, encourages calm thoughts and some new insights into oneself and one’s culture. But it brings some laughs, too.
I gravitate to books that bring a culture to life, and since I’ve never been to Japan, I appreciated the subtle ways that Richard Morais introduces the Japanese mindset in Buddhaland Brooklyn: A Novel. What we are used to, we assume, is “right” so we have no trouble reading about the culture of Japan–as Americans, comparing it to our own American culture.
In this book, about a third of the way in, the tables are turned and we see Americans through the eyes of a Japanese man who takes for granted the rightness of his own culture. We start with the story of Seido, a little boy in a family that runs an inn on the slopes of a mountain in Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture. When his family dedicates him to the priesthood at their Headwater sect, he goes to live in the 900-year-old Head Temple, which he describes in loving detail.
Through the forest and down the mountain the Head Temple came dramatically into view below me–massive, squat, three floors high, and made of ancient dark woods, six sectional wings spreading out from the Great Hall of Worship, designed to take the pilgrims’ breath away. Even the Head Temple’s swooping red-trimmed roof eaves appeared to reach out beyond the laws of physics to touch the Four Corners Heavens.
The temple, the town, and even the religious sect are fictional, but Morais’ descriptions of the people and the landscape are so real that I felt I had been to Japan without the disadvantage of plane fare and jet lag. The landscape descriptions of the man recalling his childhood reverberate with his love of his own land, and read like the exquisite Asian watercolors of mountains and pines.
It comes as a shock when after years of study at the Head Temple in his Japanese Buddhaland, his superiors assign him to go to Brooklyn in the United States to build a new temple for Headwater Sect Believers–the first in America. His mentor, Fukuyama, realizes that Seido is keeping feelings bottled up inside and needs to learn more about life. As the mentor explains the new assignment to Seido in one of the small Buddhist sayings and lessons that are scattered through the book, Fukuyama asks:
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?
The young Japanese monk’s introduction to American life nearly throws him for a loop. His culture shock and sense of self-righteousness leads him to misunderstandings that can be amusing. When he arrives at the airport, he sees a woman carrying a sign that says “Reverend” but her outfit of black T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops and spiked hair, he thinks, are “entirely inappropriate for formally welcoming a priest.”
I had read on the plane a long Japanese article about the decadence of American society, about same-sex marriages, and single-parent families, so perhaps this was why, at that moment when we first locked eyes, I thought, ‘This is militant American lesbian.’
The priest discovers that an American man has taken it upon himself to teach the congregation, although the man is not up to Seido’s (Reverend Oda’s) standards. Mr. Dolan, an insurance agent, calls himself the “head study honcho” and justifies his studying by listing the “ton of books” he studies, including The Reader’s Digest Encyclopedia of Religion and Buddhism for Dummies. After attempting to explain enlightenment to his congregation, the priest thinks:
The American Buddhists simply did not grasp the fundamentals of the faith. They seemed to think enlightenment was a place where one was very nice and very rich and free of all problems.
But little by little, he finds things to appreciate about America and about the Believers, and he even finds beauty in Brooklyn. At first he thinks
“The buildings looked to me like monsters striding across the earth; I was little more than a tiny and insignificant animal scurrying around in their dark shadows, trying not to get squashed underfoot.”
A far cry from his beloved Head Temple in the Mountains. But after he has been there several months, he finds unexpected beauty in Brooklyn in the moonlight, and he writes this Haiku:
The sliver moon of silver
Reveals the jagged roof.
The once unbending Buddhist priest becomes involved in the lives of the Believers, and even defends them to the visiting Reverend Kashimoto from the Head Temple, who finds the Americans henna hitotachi (extremely weird). Reverend Oda says,
It is hard for even us Japanese Priests, with all our training, to understand enlightenment, so imagine how much harder it is for these Americans who do not even share our cultural way of thinking…..And I know, firsthand, some of these ‘bizarre people’ you refer to are closer to the Buddha than you and I…
And his view of Manhattan changes, too.
On this strip of rock the thrusting ambitions of man rose straight up into the heavens, skyscrapers at hard angles. I had always thought, from my outpost on Mount Nagata, that great beauty could be the product only of nature. But these American skyscrapers..were the solid manifestations of soaring human spirit and a kind of service to a greater cause.
As he comes to the realization that Buddhaland is not just in Japan, he adjusts his Brooklyn haiku.
The sliver moon of silver
Reveals my neighbor’s roof.
I highly recommend this book for anyone’s library, and if you’re thinking about visiting Japan–or Brooklyn, for that matter–it particularly belongs in your travel library.
If you want to read more about visiting Japan, I recommend this article from Walking On Travels. For several articles on travel in contemporary Japan, see Around the World “L”. You can find Lillie’s Japan articles here. Her reflections on her own culture shock are in her Closing Thoughts on Japan article.
Disclaimers: The publisher provided the book for review. All the pictures here are from Flickr, and you can learn more about the photographers by clicking on each picture. Links to Amazon provide a handy way for you to shop, and they are also affiliate links, meaning when you do your Amazon shopping through my links, I earn a few cents. Thanks for supporting A Traveler’s Library.