Author Archives: Chris Beal

The Devoted by Blair Hurley, sheds light on psychological bondage

Hurley, Blair. The Devoted: A Novel. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.

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.

The Devoted, by Blair Hurley

First-time novelist Hurley, a Pushcart Prize winner, has written about a subject that is not new in the Zen community: sexual abuse by a Zen Master. But the way she approaches the subject and her description of the psychological hold the Master has on his student is original.

Here is what the publisher, W. W. Norton, says about THE DEVOTED:

“A spellbinding confession of what it means to abandon one life for another, The Devoted asks what it takes, and what you’ll sacrifice, to find enlightenment.

“Nicole Hennessy’s life revolves around her Zen practice at the Boston Zendo, seeking solace in the tenets of Buddhism to the chagrin of her Irish Catholic family. After a decade of grueling spiritual practice under her Master’s tutelage, living on a shoestring budget as a shop clerk, Nicole has become dangerously entangled with her mentor. As Nicole confronts her past—a drug-fueled year spent fleeing her family’s loaded silences and guilt-laden “Our Fathers”—and reinvents herself in New York City, her Master’s intoxicating voice pursues her, an electrifying whisper on the other end of the phone. Somehow, he knows everything.

“In deft, soaring prose that bristles with psychological and erotic tension, Blair Hurley crafts a thrilling exploration of Nicole’s ecstatic quest for spirituality.”

THE DEVOTED will be reviewed here following release, expected in August. It can be pre-ordered from many sources.

CLASSIC BUDDHIST FICTION He’s Leaving Home: My Young Son Becomes a Zen Monk by Kiyohiro Miura (Charles E. Tuttle, 1988; English translation, 1996) Reviewed by Chris Beal

How do the parents feel when a child decides to become a Zen monk? This is the territory explored in this exquisite little volume, translated from the Japanese by Jeff Shore. Told in first person from the father’s point of view, the story explores the emotional journey a family takes as the son disengages from his birth family and is adopted by the priest at a temple.

One of the many strengths of this novel is the realistic way the father’s ambivalence is explored. He is the one who first takes his son to the temple to do Zen, when he is still in primary school. The boy expresses a childish desire to become a monk, but it is the father who clings to this notion, as well as the woman priest. She is quite a character in her own right, and the father likes her but also becomes suspicious of her motives in wanting to take his son away from him. All of this is complicated by the attitude of the mother. We only know the mother, of course, through the father’s eyes, but as time goes on, she blames her husband more and more for the fact that they are losing their son.

The awkward title reads more simply in Japanese. The original title was Chonan no Shukke, but expressing in English the culturally dependent, complex ideas embodied in this phrase isn’t easy.Shukke” means “to become a Buddhist monk,” but the characters, translated literally, would mean “home-leaving.” Thus, both the title and subtitle express aspects of the meaning of this word. “Chonan,” too, carries cultural meaning. Literally it means, not “young son,” but “eldest son.” In Japan, of course, the eldest son is the one who carries the family line. In Miura’s story, while there is a younger daughter, there are no other sons, and therefore, no other heirs to the family name. This issue isn’t explicitly explored in the text, but a Japanese reader would, of course, understand the gravity of the situation.

In the West, Zen is not even considered a religion by some of its practitioners, and certainly it isn’t part of our cultural tradition. So probably the most analogous situation for readers in English-speaking countries would be when a Catholic child decides to become a monk or nun. Parents’ attachment to their children is, after all, universal. But the Buddhist emphasis on detachment makes the story all the more poignant. The priest, in fact, tells the father that the loss of his son is his koan (a riddle Zen practitioners are given to advance their spiritual understanding).

It would be an unforgivable omission not to mention one of the facets of the book that makes it so charming: the fanciful illustrations by J.C. Brown. The drawings in themselves tell the story of the boy’s maturation and coming to terms with a monk’s life.

Miura spent time in the United States when he was young, receiving a degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa. Perhaps the insight he gained from living in the West explains, at least in part, why this book has such appeal to English language readers.

In Japan, Chonan no Shukke received the Akutagawa Prize, an esteemed award for fiction. This book deserves to be a classic of Buddhist fiction in its English translation as well.

SID, by Anita N. Feng (Wisdom, 2015) Reviewed by Chris Beal

Do we live again? Is there reincarnation? Anita D. Feng answers these questions and more in Sid, a lyrical novel that is two tales in one. Or, rather, it is three tales if you count – and you should – the marvelous drawings by illustrator Linda Davidson. Life is just life, whenever and however it is lived, the novel lets us see. The forms change but the essence is the same. And we are that essence.

The structure of the book works to convey this truth. Inhabiting two different eras, that of the historical Buddha and the modern one, the dual cast of characters sport similar names: Siddhartha and Sid; their respective mothers – Mahamaya and Maya; their fathers – King Suddhodana and Professor Sudovsky; their nanny/midwives – Avalokitesvara, bodhisattva of compassion, and her counterpart Ava; and their wives – Yasodhara and Yasmen. Rahula, the son, bears the same name in both stories. There are, in addition, symbolic characters, such as Homeless Woman, identified as “Old Age, Sickness, and Death.” The plots of the two tales are likewise parallel, making it clear that the story of Siddhartha is still happening today.

This is a folktale-like world of archetypes: everything is perfect and then . . . The initial paragraph gives the flavor: “Ask anyone and they will tell you that Kapilavastu is built out of a fragment of sky mixed with a bit of Tusita heaven. The city walls spread thick like clouds of buttery light, and every house within exudes a splendor that even its residents can’t quite believe. Precious stones litter the paths. Precious blossoms embroider the trees. Within the city’s magnificent gates, darkness is as alien as a hungry ghost.” (p. 3)

Or, later, after Siddhartha marries his beloved, we learn that, “their joy creates days, months, and years of perfect weather and bountiful pleasure for all that are blessed to live nearby. . . . Prince Siddhartha never says anything that is not beautiful to Yasodhara’s ears, nor does he see any aspect of his beloved that is not sweet and pleasant to his eyes.” (p. 57) We are, indeed, in the realm of fairy tales.

The book is organized into sections labeled, “Birth,” “Youth,” “Love and Family Life,” “Leaving Home,” Meditation,” “Return,” and “Death.” Each of the sections has a chapter on Siddhartha and one on Sid, and within each section, the story is told from the point of view of a number of characters in turn. And then there is a third section of each chapter: Zen-like drawings by Linda Davidson of animals or other natural scenes, with a short explanation on the opposite page, which together tell the story in still a third, more metaphorical, way. For example, early on we have “Hare,” and his imputed words: “Please do not distract yourselves with the irrelevant argument about what you see. Is it a hare or a man in the moon? Who cares! As for me, I am only grinding the elixir of life into golden dust between my jaws, letting the dust scatter at your feet.” (p.33)

Sid is whimsical, poetic, transcendent, and unique. Its author, Feng, is a Zen master teaching at the Blue Heron Zen Community as well as a poet and sculptor. In Sid, she displays not only her spiritual wisdom but her ability to use her creative skills to reveal that wisdom. I recommend a digital version of Sid if you have that possibility, as the typeface is quite small. But whichever version you read, this book is a gem that may move you to see more clearly how life and enlightenment are inextricably bound together in an eternal web of Truth.

BUDDHALAND BROOKLYN, by Richard C. Morais, Reviewed by Chris Beal

The still-developing genre of Buddhist fiction remains loosely defined. But when a novel’s main characters are all Buddhists, most of them grappling with some aspect of their faith and practice, such a book obviously meets the definition.  Such is the case with Buddhaland Brooklyn (Scribner, 2012).

Aside from the criteria specific to the “Buddhist Fiction” categorization, I want a novel generally to give me well-developed characters, richly defined settings that reflect what the author is trying to convey, and a story that keeps me engaged. At the same time, I’m hoping that the work will move me or make me ponder rather than try to convince me of some idea. (We have nonfiction forms for the latter.)

In all of these respects, Buddhaland Brooklyn succeeds. And while the story is, in a narrow sense, about the intersection of Buddhist belief and practice with lived reality, it has much broader implications: a Catholic priest thrown into another culture, for example, may face challenges similar to those faced by the Japanese Buddhist priest in Morais’ tale. Indeed, anyone coming into an unfamiliar setting with an agenda will find himself or herself so challenged.

The narrator of the novel is Seido Oda, a priest of the fictitious Japanese Headwater Sect of Buddhism. He begins the story with his childhood in a small mountain town, where his family owns an inn that primarily caters to pilgrims to the Headwater Sect temple nearby. Although his brother longs to become a monk while Seido himself feels no calling, he, in fact, is the sibling inexplicably given over to the temple while still a young boy. But not long after he leaves home, a tragedy befalls the family and Seido silently carries the guilt about what happened in his absence into adulthood.

Seido Oda becomes a quiet but stubborn priest who specializes in teaching art and has found his niche at the temple while going out of his way to avoid any surprises in life. But when his superior tells him he must go to Brooklyn to help the believers there build a temple, he is incredulous. Surely there is someone better for this task! No, his superior insists, there is no one else.

Oda’s first months in New York are chaotic and, for him, distressing. He can’t stand the Americans and thinks they practice their faith lazily and without understanding. He insists that he must teach them the proper forms in word and deed – “proper” being defined in terms of how things are done in Japan. In one scene, he converses with a New York Headwater believer who conducts a series of lectures on Buddhism:

“’And the lectures are based on what study material?’

‘Ton of books. The Reader’s Digest Encyclopedia of Religion, Tales of Siddhartha, Buddhism for Dummies. The list goes on and on.’

Buddhism for Dummies? I am not familiar. . . .’

‘Don’t let the title deceive you. Heavier than it sounds. Excellent text.’. . .

‘I see . . . . very interesting choice of doctrinal material.’. . .

‘The Believers here know all about karma. All about it. I spent three sessions explaining the concept.’

‘This is very efficient. In Japan we believe it takes a lifetime to understand karma. At deep level.’

‘Yeah, well, you’ll find things go a lot quicker in America.’” (pp. 86-87; ellipses added).

The Brooklyn setting, too, is keenly observed, with all of its abundant chaos. But as Oda changes, the way he sees Brooklyn changes as well, reflecting the key theme of the novel – that we make our own reality.

Here are some questions readers may wish to ponder:

How is Oda’s experience as a child and a young man in Japan a set-up for what happens later, in America?

Do you think Oda’s superiors sent him to Brooklyn because they knew what he needed?

Do you think a Buddhist priest coming to America for the first time would experience Americans the way Oda experiences them? How much is the way Oda experiences the United States a product of his unique personality and how much is common to the Japanese character?

Because the story is told in first person, the language the Oda character uses to describe his experiences is very important in conveying his inner world and how it changes. Do you think Morais succeeds in conveying these changes?

Although it is extremely unlikely that a Japanese who has never lived in any English-speaking country would understand the idiomatic slang with which Oda is confronted when he lands in New York, it would not be funny to have the character constantly saying, “Sorry, I don’t understand.” Is artistic license justified here for the sake of some good laughs?

If you are American – and especially if you are a New Yorker – were you insulted by the stereotypes in the book? Do you think they were accurate? Do you think Morais can get away with this because he himself is American?

Although Morais avers in his Acknowledgements that the Headwater Sect of Buddhism is fictitious and based on a variety of sources, some not even Buddhist, he also says in at least one interview that astute readers will notice similarities to Nichiren Buddhism (and points out that many already have). In what ways does Morais capture the essence of Nichiren’s teachings? Are there ways in which he doesn’t? Based on your experiences of Buddhism in general, does Morais get the doctrine right?

How does the language Morais uses to describe Oda’s inner experience convey the changes he goes through?

Do the numerous haiku in the story enhance it? If so, how?

We love to get comments! Let us hear your impressions of this book.

Chris Beal is currently reading BUDDHALAND BROOKLYN by Richard C. Morais

Here is the publisher’s description of the book we’ll be reviewing next, Buddhaland Brooklyn (Scribner, 2012):

“Seido Oda spent his boyhood in a small mountainside village in rural Japan. When his parents hand him over to the monks at the nearby Buddhist monastery, he devotes himself to painting, poetry, and prayer—and avoiding human contact. But his safe and quiet existence is unexpectedly upended when he reaches middle age and is ordered by his superior to open a temple in Brooklyn.

“New York is a shock to the introverted Oda, who now must spiritually lead the ragtag army of eccentrics who make up the local Buddhist community. This motley crew provides for a host of hilarious cultural misunderstandings. But when tragedy strikes, Oda’s eyes are finally opened to the long-buried sadness and personal shortcomings in his own life. It is only when he comes to appreciate the Americans, flaws and all, that Oda finds in Brooklyn the home he has always sought.”

Check back in a couple of weeks for a more thorough discussion.  Happy reading!