After long years of living in a land far away, my anticipated return to America two years ago was troubled by fear of cultural adjustments I knew were waiting on the horizon. I worried that America would turn out to be a society nearly foreign to my sensitivities. The fears all came to life once my feet were back on native soil. For months I thought the plane had set me down in the wrong place, dropped me in a land completely out of sync with what I remembered. Stranger in a strange land, a fish out of water, a square peg in a round hole, a hopeless misfit.
No surprise that time has softened the hard edges, and while occasional aspects of life here continue to baffle me, I’ve discovered my place and no longer thrash about out of water, ill-fitted to those around me.
Had the great good fortune last week to stumble upon a book that left me dazzled by its story of a middle-aged man suddenly uprooted from everything he knows and thrust suddenly into what seems to him at first a Martian landscape full of odd creatures. The book is Buddhaland Brooklyn by Richard C. Morais, published last month by Scribner.
Seido Oda is a thirty-nine year-old Buddhist priest who has lived and worked most of his life in a remote mountain temple in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. Entering the temple as an acolyte at the age of eleven, he has known no other life, apart from a brief flirtation with the outside world during his time at college in Tokyo. Even within the temple precincts Seido manages to live in a world all his own, a world of books, painting and poetry, insulated within the idyllic setting of his leafy private quarters. There are events in the priest’s early life that have shaped his ways and made him something of a thorn in the side of his superiors, and it is this prickly concern that prompts the Head Priest to send this cloistered soul to Brooklyn, New York with the task of overseeing the building and foundation of a Buddhist temple there.
Met, hugged and welcomed at JFK by what Reverend Oda imagines is a ‘militant American lesbian’ he finds himself bundled into a car and lurching onto the highway…‘She drove like she had just robbed a bank.’ Meeting an important member of the American Buddhist community a day later he is confronted with a startling sight. ‘The woman’s hair, and even the tinge of her skin, resembled the color of overripe oranges. She was short and plump, with numerous gold rings snaking around her fingers. She wore a tent-shaped dress of black and gold material that was light and diaphanous, so the overall impression I had was of someone wearing an expensive shower curtain…Mrs Symes insisted I call her Harriet.’ But Harriet is just the beginning. The baffled priest soon meets another of the American believers, one who has been guiding the weekly study group using The Reader’s Digest Encyclopedia of Religion and Buddhism for Dummies.
The culture-lagged priest is further beleaguered by a female member who lusts after him, another who keeps a picture of Jesus on her Buddhist altar and one other devout believer who spends much of his time in a mental home. But amidst these oddities of life and work in Brooklyn, Reverend Oda begins to catch glimpses of something that is more human than anything he has known before, realizing as well that he is beginning to learn more about his own faith, opening doors and windows into long shuttered corners of his heart.
One reviewer of Buddhaland Brooklyn complained that Morais occasional goes overboard with purple prose, one particular criticism this reader is far from understanding. For a moment I thought I might have misunderstood the term (overly elaborate; ornate), but a moment later decided the critic had simply applied an erroneous label to what most others would call exquisite prose. The novel is full of poetry, art, a few basics of Buddhism and never faltering in its accuracy. Too often a writer chooses as his setting an unfamiliar place, an exotic culture and then proceeds to describe it all based upon poor research, ending with characters speaking odd phrases in settings imbued with the resonance of postcard photography. In this sense, Morais has provided an exemplary model of accuracy.
Buddhaland Brooklyn is indisputably a feel-good fairy tale skillfully leavened with color, personality and laughter, but one including as well a wee dose of sad endings. Definitely a contender on my 2012 list of favorite books. First discovered in the library, after the first fifty pages I stopped reading long enough to order my own copy of the book, along with the writer’s earlier book, The Hundred-Foot Journey.