Reviewed by Chris Beal.
In Japan, Buddhism is an established religion, of course, and believers tend to be the more conservative members of society. So, as someone who was introduced to the religion there, I had a bit of trouble wrapping my mind around the idea of conversion to Buddhism as an act of teenage rebellion. But Nicole, the protagonist in The Devoted, arrived at her devotion to Buddhism the Western way: she read Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums.
As the novel opens, Nicole is 32, but her youth is presented in extended flashback. She was raised in Boston, a Catholic at the time the sex abuse scandals were rocking the Church there. Her family’s local church was one of many closed and sold, as the archdiocese sought to raise money to pay the numerous judgments against it. In the midst of all this, Nicole finds a religion she believes to be purer and truer. Her parents neither understand nor approve.
Buddhism is only part of Nicole’s rebellion. She finds a boy as rebellious as she and runs away with him and his friend, without telling her parents. She has read about a Buddhist community in Colorado and sets her sights on it. When things don’t work out, she returns home chastened but still determined to find a Buddhist practice and teacher.
The teacher she finds makes her feel special and valuable – something she missed in her upbringing – and when he begins to teach her privately, she is delighted. Soon she allows him to seduce her. He tells her that in order to get enlightened, she must do everything he says. This is where I, as a reader, began to squirm. How will this dangerous liaison play out? And there is certainly irony in leaving a religion in which sexual misbehavior was rampant only to find such misbehavior in the new, adopted faith.
The Master (he is never given a name) tells Nicole that she needs to overcome her Catholic repression and insists there is nothing wrong with their liaison. Yet his advice is belied by the fact that he sees her only in private meetings, never venturing into public with her, and even in private, he barely acknowledges the sexual nature of their relationship. Why does she continue? Here I think it might help to understand what the student/teacher relationship is like for many dedicated students of Zen and most other types of Eastern spirituality. The teacher – at least in the beginning – is seen as the complete source of wisdom. So when the Master tells Nicole that she must do everything he says, he is only voicing what she already believes. That he uses her belief in him for his own selfish purposes is, of course, unconscionable. And that the reader is meant to see this, while Nicole does not, sets up the primary conflict: when will she see the truth and what will she do about it when she does?
The first hint of her suspicion of his motives comes when she learns that a younger and newer female student is now also the Master’s lover. How many more does he have? We never learn that, but even knowing that he has more than one disciple/lover tells us plenty about this man.
The Master is never physically described, which was the cause of some confusion for this reader. At first, I assumed he was Japanese, so when it was mentioned that he had studied Zen in Japan as a foreigner, I was surprised. A description, even in broad strokes, would have allowed readers to picture this man from the beginning and thus to understand that he shares Nicole’s cultural background.
Portions of the book seem designed mainly or solely to educate the reader about Zen and Buddhism in general. They don’t go on too long, so the already-informed reader doesn’t get bored, but they do slow the action down a bit. The most extended example of this occurs later in the book, when Nicole begins a relationship with a man named Sean, a relationship she hopes will allow her to overcome the hold the Master has on her (although, significantly, she doesn’t tell Sean about the Master). Nicole writes Sean long letters about the dharma, the purpose of which seems unclear. Although it is later revealed that Nicole never sent the letters, this doesn’t really answer the question, in terms of narrative coherence, of why she wrote them.
Another question I had concerned the Master’s teaching the Shin Buddhist mantra, Nembutsu, to Nicole. Having practiced both Zen and Shin Buddhism in Japan, I couldn’t help wondering why he would do this. In Japan, at least, Zen and Shin are completely separate sects with entirely different approaches to attaining enlightenment. I never heard Nembutsu recited in a Zen temple.
Still, these quibbles aside, The Devoted is one of the most successful and well written Buddhist-themed novels I have read. The characters are well drawn – including a number I haven’t mentioned. I especially appreciated the author’s knack for choosing perfectly apt and unique words and phrases to describe both people and places. But mostly, the novel is a success because the point of view works. We know about the Master because of what he does and says not because of any authorial pronouncements. We want Nicole to get a clue, but we know how trapped she is because, most likely, we too have been trapped at some point in our lives by a love that is unfulfilling and yet impossible to jettison.
For all of the above reasons, readers of all persuasions, whether Buddhist or not, will find Blair Hurley’s novel an enjoyable and psychologically penetrating look at devotion. The novel can be purchased at Amazon.com here or at theW. W. Norton & Company web site here.