HIDDEN BUDDHAS: A NOVEL OF KARMA AND CHAOS, by Liza Dalby. Reviewed by Chris Beal

It is next to impossible to classify HIDDEN BUDDHAS. A mystery but not primarily a mystery, a love story but not primarily a love story, the novel delves into one of the unique aspects of ancient Japanese Buddhism while keeping another foot in contemporary life both in Japan and abroad.

A group of characters, initially strangers, gradually become acquainted, until, by the end, everyone is involved with everyone else in some way. Although told from the point of view of each of the characters at various times – about ten different viewpoints, in all – the switch from viewpoint to viewpoint is seamless. In the summary below, I’ve omitted a few minor characters.

Philip Metcalfe is an American graduate student studying Buddhism at Columbia University when he meets a visiting professor from France who is interested in the “hidden buddhas” of Japan, icons of the esoteric Shingon sect. The icons are at temples scattered throughout Japan and are shown to the public at various times – some once a year, some less frequently. (These icons actually do exist.) Philip goes to Japan, ostensibly to study another subject he’s already signed up to do his dissertation on, but the more he becomes interested in the hidden buddhas, the more he is convinced he wants to study them instead.

A second strand of the story involves Nagiko, a successful, young Japanese clothing designer. She was working in New York but returned to Tokyo when she became pregnant. Back in Japan, she had an abortion but the child she aborted seems to be haunting her. She cannot sleep, hears the child screaming, and feels she is going out of her mind. A friend takes her to a temple in Kamakura where they minister to “water babies” – fetuses that have miscarried or been aborted – by giving them a symbolic burial.

The priest who comforts Nagiko in her grief and guilt, Tokuda, earns most of his livelihood ministering to “water babies” and their mothers, but his real concern is the hidden buddhas. He happens to be the carrier of a secret transmission regarding them. He has the capacity – a kind of sixth sense – to tell whether they are “alive” or “dead.” If they are alive he can hear a kind of buzz coming from them, and he can also feel and see their power. But one by one, the various icons are being killed off by some unknown person or power. As they die, mappo – unenlightened chaos – is supposed to descend on the world, and, when the last one ceases to protect the world, the world will end. Tokuda visits each of the icons during its viewing period, and can tell if one has been killed off since the last viewing.

Meanwhile, at Mount Koya, the center of the Shingon faith, Phillip meets a young priest in training, Koji. Shortly after, on a pilgrimage, he meets Jun Muranaka, a layman living in Tokyo. Later, in Tokyo, he meets Nagiko on a chance encounter at a bookstore and it is love at first sight. The couple become involved and gradually, mostly through Philip, all of the characters’ lives start to intersect.

But Philip has a tragic accident. He doesn’t die right away but he leaves center stage and the other characters begin to play a more prominent role in the story. Meanwhile, Nagiko is pregnant with Philip’s child. As the child, Mayumi, grows up, she becomes very difficult, and Nagiko always wonders if Mayumi is the reincarnation of the “water baby.”

One by one, the hidden buddhas are still being killed off, and Tokuda comes to believe it is his responsibility to stop this from happening. He still goes to all of the viewings to see which remain alive and try to determine the culprit. At one point he views a live icon but when, a few minutes later, he goes back to view it again, it is dead. Who could have killed it in such a short time? The whodunit element of the story becomes more and more prominent, as Tokuda tries to figure it out. Will he discover the culprit before the last buddha is killed off and the world ends?

Readers might want to ponder these questions:

  1. Did your interest flag at all after Philip’s accident? Or were you able to turn your attention easily to the other characters who took center stage, such as Nagiko?
  2. Were you able to buy into the idea that icons can be alive? If not, did this affect your ability to enjoy the story?
  3. Does Tokuda’s fear about the world ending dovetail with what you know about Buddhist theology? How or how not?
  4. Did you find it credible that someone with Tokuda’s acute sensitivity, as shown by his ability to “sense” the aliveness of the hidden buddhas, would jump to the erroneous conclusions he did as to who was killing the buddhas?
  5. Did you figure out who the buddha-killer was before Tokuda? If so, how did you guess?
  6. Did you feel that Tokuda lacked remorse – at least until he realized his error – over his actions against the first person he believed was the buddha-killer? If you felt he lacked empathy with his victim, was his coldblooded attitude justified in light of the goal of protecting the hidden buddhas?

We would love to get readers’ comments about these questions or any other aspect of this novel you found intriguing.

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