Welcome to Brooklyn

A reclusive Buddhist priest from Japan moves to Brooklyn and is overwhelmed by the strange ways of American culture.

Adapted from "Buddhaland Brooklyn" by Richard C. Morais '81

Welcome to Brooklyn

As a reclusive Buddhist priest in Japan, Reverend Seido Oda has nothing but contempt for the Westerners he meets. He reluctantly moves to Brooklyn after being asked to oversee the construction of a new temple. Despite the help of his assistant, Miss Jennifer, he’s overwhelmed by the strange ways of American culture—and of the local Believers, whom he must lead in their first official study lecture.

The Oko was held in a lower Manhattan hotel filled with threadbare carpets, a sour odor, and a constant stream of luggage-wheeling airline staff from South Africa and Malaysia moving back and forth through the lobby. I entered the hotel ballroom on the second floor and found Miss Jennifer and a few other Believers unstacking chairs and dragging them across the floor. The altar was set up on the far wall.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

Miss Jennifer looked up, wiped her brow.

“Setting up.”

“No chairs. The Believers must kneel. It is part of our formal practice. Kneeling shows we have proper humility before the Cluster of Jewels Mandala.”

“But kneeling is a Japanese custom. Americans sit in chairs. Some of the Believers are a little overweight and elderly and really have trouble kneeling. Particularly for such a long time.”

“We do not modify the formal practice of the Eternal Teachings simply because Americans are fat.”

There was a stunned silence.

“That’s a little harsh,” Miss Jennifer finally said, “but, okay, you’re the Priest.”

That day I led the American Believers in prayer, for one hour, as I tried without success to teach them the proper rhythm and pronunciation of the Sutra recitation, even banging a drum during the chanting to help them keep the right tempo. They all wanted to be generals, however, not foot soldiers, and they rushed ahead of my attempts to lead them in prayer, or slowed down, as if drugged. There was no unity. No discipline.

There were maybe 100 Believers in the room, about half of the people who attended the party in Park Slope, and the room smelled of moldy carpet and sour socks. I began the lecture, formally dressed in coal-gray priest robes over the kesa, the white robes, but the Believers before me mostly wore shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops. They slouched during prayers, absentmindedly picked at their feet. A man made a big production about sitting in the front row so he could study, he told everyone, but as soon as he sat down his eyes drooped and a short time later he was snoring. Mrs. Graham sat next to him and had the good manners to be embarrassed. She nudged the fellow once or twice, but other than a slight fluttering of his eyelids, he did not respond.

“Proper Buddhist practice is like taking medicine for the many ills that we experience in the course of life. None of you must take this lightly. If you have a bad infection, but do not properly follow the instructions for taking the antibiotics, then you are never cured and the illness comes back twice as strong. This is similar to Buddhist faith. Buddhism has a formal practice, which is the medicine. To become healthy and withstand bacterial attacks, you must first properly follow the instructions on the medicine bottle …”

The Believers rustled in their bags, hauled out tinfoil packets with all manner of foods, even opened up Coca-Cola cans with a pop and hiss like they were at a picnic, not a religious ceremony. I was almost rendered speechless by this behavior. Miss Laura, the physical therapist with the big eyes and bigger chest, wore a bright red dress and followed my every move with great hunger in her eyes, but I was not at all sure her appetite was for the Tranquil Light.

Mrs. Symes’s orange hair tower was piled inordinately high as usual and even though I could not see her face behind one of the very large Believers, I frequently saw her red nails rising in the air and then disappearing into her hair pileup to scratch her scalp. Mr. Dolan, meanwhile, sat near the front and looked over my shoulder. When curiosity got the better of me, I turned to glance at what was capturing his attention. He was studying his reflection in the glass-framed etching on the wall.

I took a deep breath and pushed on. I explained why there was a candle on the right side of the altar, before the butsudan, and a vase of greens to the left, and the incense burner and cup of clear water at the center of the altarpiece. I explained that the long-lasting and sweet-smelling green leaves symbolized eternal life. When we approached closely the Cluster of Jewels Mandala we should always do so with a green leaf clutched between our teeth, to prevent spitting, for this small formality shows our sincere attitude of respect to the Buddha’s life as embodied and inscribed in the Sacred Scroll. The burning incense, this represented Chudo, the Middle Way between the worlds of life and death.

I was in the middle of explaining the importance of the lit candles—how the light is symbolic of the Buddha’s wisdom illuminating the darkness of this world—when someone near the front silently released gas. I had never smelled anything quite like this, like very old and dead cow, possibly the result of too much American fast food. Because I was so resentful of being in New York, I assumed my presence was equally loathsome to the local Buddhists, and so my immediate thought was that a hostile Believer in the audience had just passed his verdict on my Oko in this rude manner.

I defiantly lifted my chin and pushed on as if nothing were wrong. By keeping my priestly bearing and religious decorum, I decided, I would exemplify Head Temple spirit unswayed by the Winds of Impermanence. But the Believer must have been releasing gas bit by bit to avoid noise, because the smell continued to roll endlessly over us in waves.

There were whispers and shuffling until Mrs. Graham in the front row made a disgusted face, waved the air, and held a perfumed handkerchief up to her nose, all of which seemed to give the other Believers license to snigger and snort.

There was no point in continuing. I wearily ended the Oko with a short prayer, closed the butsudan, and extinguished the candle. The fellow in the front row who had slept through the entire lesson suddenly opened his eyes, stretched, and said, amazingly, it was a “most excellent lecture.” There was much grunting and chatter behind me as I turned around to discreetly take off my ceremonial robes behind a screen, fold them carefully away, and gather up my belongings. I assumed everyone was in a rush to get out of the foul-smelling room, but when I turned back to the hall I found they had all lined up as if waiting for a bus.

Miss Jennifer whispered they wanted my “advice.”

I was stunned. In Japan, Believers came after hours to see the Priest privately and discreetly in his office, and would never talk intimately in public. I did recognize, however, I had little choice but to speak with the Americans like this, as if we were in some open-air market, for there was nowhere else for us to talk until the temple was built.

Miss Laura was first in line, resplendent in her red dress, her big mane of bottle-blond hair teased and shellacked. She licked her lips and talked to me incomprehensibly about “New Age” and “crystals” and “channeling the Buddha’s voice” during evening prayer. In an exaggerated feminine voice, girlish and breathy, she informed me she was filled with “Buddha-love,” before gently putting her hand on my forearm and suggesting we have a drink together.

I blushed for her. Such silly remarks she was making. And it only got worse from there, for she was followed by a Haitian woman who told me she regularly saw the face of Jesus Christ in the shadows of the Cluster of Jewels Mandala. Then a couple invited me to a dinner party they were hosting; I had a strong sense they wanted to show off their “guru” to friends. Another pushed me to teach at a Tibetan Buddhist Center until our temple was built, unaware this was like asking a Catholic priest to say mass at a Jewish synagogue.

“I can help you,” the insurance agent, Mr. Dolan, told me. “You should come to one of my Okos. Really.

I can show you how to connect with the American Believers and teach Buddhism from the gut.”

“Is this so?” I said stiffly.

I was unsettled further by the way the American Believers unburdened themselves in public. They had little shame over publicly pouring out details of their private lives: about their divorce and how they declared bankruptcy three times, about how the staples in their stomach popped, or how they were having sex with their boss, or that their mother had just announced she was moving in with another woman. Even Mrs. Graham, who seemed to me quite reserved and ladylike, wanted to know if I might be available for some marriage counseling. “My husband won’t admit our daughter has ADHD,” she said. “It’s so upsetting. Perhaps you could have a word with him?”

I said very little of substance, but that did not appear to matter, because the Believers seemed to interpret my blank face as confirmation they could head in whatever particular direction they wanted to go. The American Buddhists simply did not grasp the fundamentals of our faith. They seemed to think enlightenment was a place where one was very nice and very rich and free of all problems.

Of all the peculiar experiences I had during that early period of adjustment in New York, none surpassed that unusual morning when, after breakfast, Miss Jennifer and I descended to Cortina Street together.

My assistant was returning to her flat in Cobble Hill, and I was off for my newspaper purchase before settling down to write Reverend Fukuyama. But as we exited the building’s front door, I caught a glimpse of a vaguely familiar shape in the periphery of my vision, lurking among the boxes of lettuce and red beets and cabbages of my landlord’s sidewalk stall.

“Reverend Oda! Is this where you live?”

It was Miss Laura in her usual high heels and tight-fitting dress. Every instinct in me said this was no coincidence, to find Miss Laura shopping where I lived, and I did not know how to respond to this awkward situation. But Miss Jennifer stepped forward and lightly said, “Hey, Laura.”

Miss Laura was visibly startled and instantly looked to the front door from which we both had come. You could see, in her face, her brain racing with questions, but she managed to reply, “Hello, Jennifer. I’ve heard so much about Vedure di Mamma Colonese.

For years. Thought I’d finally give the store a try. Glad I did!”

She then turned back to the shop attendant and handed him a $20 bill from her purse.

“That’ll be all, honey. Thank you. I’ll settle up now.” The boy dashed back into the store with her money, while my landlord, Mr. Giuseppe, stood at the shop’s entrance with his arms folded, looking out at Miss Laura with an expression of open distaste. Miss Laura dismissively turned back in my direction, and said, “Are you settling in, Reverend Oda? Moving is so difficult. I can’t stand it.”

“I am settling in. Slowly.”

“And you’re being properly taken care of?”

My assistant stiffened at this remark and so I responded slowly and carefully, “Miss Jennifer is taking excellent care of me, thank you, even though my helplessness in the kitchen and with general housekeeping must be troubling to her.”

Miss Jennifer was chewing gum so hard I could see the muscles clenching and unclenching in her jaw, but she responded lightly, “I have three brothers. Trust me. You’re no trouble at all, Reverend Oda.”

The boy returned with Miss Laura’s change. Smiling, resting her hand gently on my forearm, the woman whispered in my ear, “Must run now, Reverend Oda. But remember, you promised me a drink. Here’s my number. I’ll get my feelings hurt if you don’t call.” There was some yelling across the street, which momentarily distracted us, and Miss Laura used the moment to press a card, with her telephone number, into my hand. “Bye, sweeties,” she cried as she trotted off in her high heels in the direction of the subway.

From the doorframe where he was leaning, Mr. Giuseppe spat out a word that to me sounded like “pootana.” I did not know what this meant, it must have been Italian, but in tone I understood it was not at all complimentary. Miss Jennifer and I started walking down Cortina Street together. I kept replaying in my head the conversation with Miss Laura. “What does this woman want?” I finally blurted out. “I do not understand why she gave me her telephone number.”

“Get out of here! She slipped you her number?” Miss Jennifer rolled her eyes. “Well, it’s pretty obvious Laura wants to jump your bones. Subtlety has never been the woman’s strong point. She once made a pass at Artie Symes. Can you imagine that? Harriet almost tore her apart. It was ugly.”

“Jump bones? What is this?”

Miss Jennifer paused briefly before she said, much more gently and slowly, “Laura is hoping to see what you have under your robes, Reverend Oda. Do you understand? Am I being clear?”

I blushed a deep red, curtly excused myself at the next corner, and headed over to Castor Street, allowing Miss Jennifer to continue down Cortina Street by herself. Imagine my shock at hearing such a thing. Just imagine.

Richard C. Morais ’81, author of The Hundred-Foot Journey, is the editor of Penta, a Barron’s Web site and quarterly magazine providing advice to wealthy families. An American raised in Switzerland, he was stationed in London for 18 years, where he was Forbes’s European bureau chief.