Tag Archives: Japan

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.

Interview with Ruth Ozeki about her new novel: A Tale for the Time Being, by Chris Beal

Thank you so much for giving your time to this interview this afternoon. To begin, please say something about how your Zen practice and your involvement in Buddhism have contributed to this novel.

If you sit on the cushion for any amount of time, you understand vividly how much of the time we are in the past, in the future, and how difficult it is to stay in the present moment. In a way the whole book can be read as a parable or metaphor for what happens in the human imagination. In our minds we are time travelers. So the idea of this fictional character projecting into the past and into the future was a way of performing in fiction the kind of thing we do in our minds all the time.

Could we say, then, that the whole novel is a model of what we do in our minds?

Absolutely, and I think that all novels are.

You could argue that everything is.

Yes, and many people have. I mean, Buddhism is all about that, right? This is more overt because it’s pointing to the ways we do that all the time.

You quote Dōgen quite a bit and he’s also talking about time.

The quotes are mostly from Ugi or Genjō Kōan, or actually there’s another – The Merits of Home-Leaving. In that, he also has a lengthy discussion of the number of moments in the day.

That’s in the appendix, too.

Yes. He breaks time down into 6,400,099,980 moments in a day.

What do you see as the purpose of his doing that?

He’s playing with scale. He’s also de-familiarizing. He’s taking the most common thing in the world – a day – and blowing that up. And then he also says that the snap of the finger is 65 moments and every one of those moments is a moment to wake up and to turn your life around and to do things which will create beneficial karma. And so he’s also urging his young monks to do zazen: every moment you’re doing zazen is an opportunity to wake up. So ‘don’t shirk.’

It’s tremendously encouraging because we always think time is going by so fast. We have slow motion cameras and various other means of depicting that now, so we can photograph a humming bird and I suppose that the slow motion video of a humming bird is almost proof that Dōgen is right. But he was slowing it down in the only way he could back then, which is through language.

So playing with scale is also something I was also doing in the book, where Ruth and Oliver are talking about old growth tress, for example. That was a kind of playing with scale. And the discussion of whales and extermination. And Oliver’s project, the neocene – all of that is just sort of playing with different notions of time – geologic time. Just shifting, shifting.

So you brought up the ecological concerns in the book.

The tidal wave appears in the book as a reality, but it also appears metaphorically, talking about, for example, information, or when Jiko talks about “person, wave, same thing.” She uses the metaphor of a wave to talk about impermanence and dependent co-arising. That was there before I started writing about the tsunami, but it gained potency once I realized I could include the tsunami in the book and, in fact, that the tsunami needed to be an essential part of the book.

Both main characters – Nao and Ruth – go back in time.

Especially the whole notion of ghosts comes from Nao’s section of the book. And that does tie back into a pilgrimage made to Japan in 2010 with Norman Fischer. A bunch of priests went to Japan with Norman Fischer for a Zuisei ceremony, which certifies you as a a full-fledged priest. It’s something that in Japan a young priest leaving Eiheiji or Sōjiji would do at a very young age, but for a lot of the priests in the West, it’s a big deal to go to Japan.

You have to do it in Japan?

Well, no – there are Zuisei ceremonies here too but the Sōtō Zen hierarchy in Japan knows about Norman and that he’s a distinguished priest in the West so the lineage wanted him to come. And many of the Sōtō Zen priest in the States have now gone back to do this.

Anyway, while we were in Japan, we traveled around to various temples including Suzuki Roshi’s home temple. And one of things that really came home to me was how Zen is so much about the caring for and veneration of the ancestors. Ghosts are very palpable in Zen lineage – that there’s a real sense of the dead as being very much with us.

In Japanese culture in general, that’s true.

In Japanese culture in general. And so in O’Bon, the dead come back and you have to feed them and send them away again and it’s so much a part of Japanese culture that I thought it was completely appropriate for Nao to meet her great-uncle in ghostly form.

The 104-year old nun’s name is Jiko Yasutani, and Nao’s family name is likewise Yasutani. As you probably know, Yasutani was the name of a famous Roshi who greatly influenced American Zen. Was this a conscious coincidence on your part? If so, how is Jiko similar to the Roshi?

I knew, of course, that Yasutani is a famous Zen Master but that wasn’t why I chose the name. It was just there – it seemed like the right one. It very often happens that the name will just be there. Although to some extent, knowing Yasutani was a famous Zen Master was in the back of my mind somewhere. Also there was a movie that had something about Yasutani in it – and it was a bit of a wacky movie, too. So that was kind of in the back of my head, too, that it wasn’t a name that was completely foreign.

How do you define enlightened consciousness and do you see the book either in form or substance as reflecting or pointing to such consciousness?

I really don’t think that much about enlightened consciousness and I certainly don’t spend any time going after it, whatever it is.

That’s very Sōtō.

It’s very Sōtō. I truly am a product of my lineage. So, yes and no. When I’m writing a book, I’m concerned about the book being an expression of my mind and my awareness at that moment. I’m trying to understand and express my mind at any particular moment. I think that when novelists write, we’re trying to express some kind of truth. And that’s why we write fiction because we understand that truth isn’t something that can be expressed by trying to express it. Truth is not something that can ever be expressed.

And I think that may be the same with enlightened consciousness, whatever that may be. It’s not a term I use. But that I write fiction to express my understanding of truth, that’s something I can say – and fail to do. Because it’s impossible to do – there’s no way to ever express more than a fleeting glimpse or moment. So the failure is built into the effort. But the doing of it is the expression. When Dōgen talks about zazen, he talks about practice and realization being the same thing. When you sit zazen you are an expression of enlightened consciousness. You are an expression of things as they are. That’s the kind of writing I try to do.

What did you learn from writing this book?

I think that what I’ve learned through the writing of this book – which took six years – is that books are time beings too – they take the time they take – and you can’t really do much about that. You have to keep showing up. This is Zen again. Just coming back over and over again. We talk about zazen as a practice of return. And writing is like that too, just showing up, not whether you’re doing it right. It’s just the showing up that counts. And that’s wonderfully encouraging. And so I do have more faith in that practice as a result of having written this book.

Anything you want to add that I didn’t address?

There are so many ways of doing philosophy. And in the West we have one way which is very analytical. And if you read, let’s say Heidegger – because being/time is his theme – it seemed clear to me that Heidegger’s thinking was in some way influenced by Japanese Buddhism and by Dōgen. I’m pretty sure there was a Japanese Zen Master who was in Germany in that time and whom Heidegger had met and I’m pretty sure there is historical evidence of that.

But you read Heidegger’s work and you see philosophy being done in one way, and you read Dōgen’s work and you see it being done another way. So it interested me to take these philosophies of time and being and to do them in another way. It’s a different kind of expression that raises the same kind of issues and takes these larger questions and turns them and turns them and looks at them from different points of view and does that in a way that opens up these questions in a way that is certainly more accessible and more interactive.

I like the way you say “opened up” because when you think of philosophy, you think of people laying down what the premises and conclusions are in a straight line –

And really it’s more in line with how Dōgen does it – it’s not in a straight line at all.

So I was playing with how you write literary fiction that somehow embodies and performs these kinds of questions. And it’s not about just laying them out in the text but about somehow performing them. It’s almost between the lines.

It’s all the blank space.

It’s the holes.

Well, thank you so much Ruth. This has certainly been illuminating – and a lot of fun as well.

Announcing New Buddhist Fiction: A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING, by Ruth Ozeki (Viking Penguin, 2013)

Three-time Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki is at it again. The plot of her new novel interweaves the stories of Ruth, a writer living on an island off the coast of British Columbia, and Nao, a Japanese teenage girl. Nao’s family is a mess – except for her great-grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun who has turned her own past tragedy into wisdom and helps Nao endure in a way no one else can.

When Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunch box washed up on the shore of her island and begins to read the journal she finds inside, she learns of Nao’s difficulties – how she was forced to return to Japan after her father lost his job in Silicon Valley, and,  having grown up in California, is now treated like a foreigner in her own country, mercilessly bullied and tormented in school. Seeing tragedy looming in Nao’s future, Ruth wants to change the expected outcome for both Nao and her family. But can she intervene to effect change when the story presumably took place long before she is reading it?

With quotations from Proust and Zen Master Dogen setting the tone, this meditation on time and so much else makes us ponder how we can live in the face of the transient nature of existence, how we can care for each other along the way, and how we can be transformed in the most unexpected ways.


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.