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October Reader's Den: "Buddhaland Brooklyn" by Richard C. Morais, Week 2
Welcome back to October 2013 edition of the Reader's Den!
Our title this month is Buddhaland Brooklyn by Richard C. Morais, a continuation of this year's New York theme. For week two, we read chapters 1-4 (pages 1-69). If you need a copy of the book, then you can reserve it through the NYPL catalogue. The book is available in both print and electronic formats.
If you already have a copy, then please join the discussion. There are a few questions at the end of this post, but feel free to discuss any points that came to mind as you read the book.
"[T]here are times when we float lightly along life's surface, bobbing from one languid, long pool to another. But then, when we least expect it, we turn a river bend and find ourselves plummeting over a thundering waterfall into the churning abyss below."
The author's use of foreshadowing throughout the narrative builds a quiet sense of dread and uneasiness amidst the calm. Small details become parts of the larger picture as the story unfolds. We learn about Oda's home life through stolen glimpses from doorways, through windows, and in the boyhood moments shared with Oda's siblings. Oda's childhood memories of Japan are almost idyllic—set against the backdrop of Mount Nagata, the ever-present Kappa-gawa river, and the mists of Devil's Gate Gorge as he fishes with his brother. He lives surrounded by the calming beauty of nature. However, there are hints of darkness that tinge the edges of his memories with shadows. Oda notices the subtle feeling of despondence and hopelessness that emanate from his parents. He becomes more aware of hidden tensions that are just below the surface. At a young age, Oda notices that he is treated differently from his siblings. He is given small gifts and is not asked to help with the more difficult tasks. In a surprising twist, his father decides to break tradition and send him, the middle brother, to the monastery. Oda has no interest in the monastic lifestyle but must obey his father's wishes.
Shortly after his departure, he learns that his entire family has perished in a fire. He arrives at the family inn to see the smoldering ashes that were once his home and is hit with the realization that he is now alone in the world. Oda is spared the fate of his family but now faces the challenge of existing among the living with the breath of the dead upon his neck. He carries a deep guilt and loneliness that affect his interactions with others. Oda fails to connect with those around him and finds solace in poetry and art. The priests recognize his natural talents and send him to study sansuiga in the Japanese Painting Unit at the Tokyo University of the Arts. Here he experiences life in the fullest, worldly sense. However, he soon realizes that he cannot exist in this setting and stay true to his inner life. His inability and lack of desire to understand those around him prevent him from thriving. At the monastery, Oda only has two friends. The other monks see him as an unapproachable outcast, who is set in his ways. Oda even walks the paths behind the buildings in order to avoid the pilgrims, whom he views as inferior in their practices.
Following two literal earthquakes, Oda's own ground is figuratively pulled out from underneath him. He must leave the monastery and oversee the construction of a new temple in the United States. To his further dismay, he is told that he will also serve as the head priest once the temple is completed. Why is he chosen to travel across the ocean to open a new temple in Brooklyn, NY? If he cannot manage his surrounding in a quiet monastery, then how will he cope with daily urban life in a bustling city?
Week 2 Questions:
1) Early in the story, Oda's mother does not hide her disgust for foreigners, especially Americans. As a monk, Oda also has a less than positive attitude towards foreigners and lay people. How does Oda reconcile these feelings with his duties at the inn as a child, as a university student, and later at the temple as a monk? How will these feelings impact his effectiveness in America?
2) What are your thoughts about Oda's father? Is Oda's father depressed or is it something else? In your opinion, does his father actually have a favorite child? What role does Oda's father's favoritism play in the story? What are your ideas about where this favoritism might be rooted? How does this shape the man that Oda becomes? What are your thoughts about what really happened on the morning of the fire?
3) Oda finds a deep sense of solace in poetry and painting. What role does poetry play in Oda's life? Do you think it helps him to express himself or does it prevent him from truly understanding his own feelings by substituting the words of another person? Discuss.
4) The Headwater Sect has no behavioral precepts to follow (p. 31); they are allowed meat, alcohol, marriage, and interaction with the outside world. Yet, the monks are also instructed to "prevent any dilution of [the] eleven-hundred-year-old practice". Is this challenge possible or a contradiction between ideals and behaviors? Why is Oda so rigid in his approach and reactions to the modern world? What are your thoughts on his experiences as an art student at the university and his behavior upon return to the monastery?
Feel free to comment on any other points of interest or to pose your own questions.
Revisit last week to see what you missed or to continue the discussion.
Next week we will discuss pages 70-137 (chapters 5-8).
If you missed any previous Reader's Den discussions it is not too late to join in on those discussions now.
I look forward to your comments and insights.