Hidden Buddhas: A Novel of Karma and Chaos

Hidden Buddhas: A Novel of Karma and Chaos

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by Liza Dalby, Michael Hofmann

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Hidden Buddhas may well be Liza Dalby's best work yet; with its fascinating story of characters caught up in a world they themselves don't understand. Besides taking us on a journey through little-known corners of Japan, it offers us an engaging and believable portrait of people driven to do things they may not have


Hidden Buddhas may well be Liza Dalby's best work yet; with its fascinating story of characters caught up in a world they themselves don't understand. Besides taking us on a journey through little-known corners of Japan, it offers us an engaging and believable portrait of people driven to do things they may not have imagined.”—Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha

According to Buddhist theology, the world is suffering through a final corrupt era called mappô. As mappô continues, chaos will increase until the center can no longer hold. Then the world will end. In Japan, many believe that Miroku, Buddha of the Future, will appear and bring about a new age of enlightenment.

From this ancient notion of doom and rebirth comes a startling new novel by the acclaimed author of Geisha and The Tale of Murasaki. Hundreds of temples in Japan are known to keep mysterious “hidden buddhas” secreted away except on rare designated viewing days. These statues are not hidden because they are powerful—their power lies in their being hidden. Are they being protected, or are they protecting the world?

In this novel, one Buddhist priest struggles with the dictates of his inherited orthodoxy, while another rebels. An American graduate student begins to suspect the mysterious purpose of the hidden buddhas, just as he falls in love with a beautiful Japanese artist who is haunted by an aborted child. The weaving of karma that brings these two together results in a tech-savvy half-Western, half-Japanese child who text-messages her way through the profane world to enlightenment.

Tracing the lives of its characters through the late twentieth century to the present, from Paris to Kyoto to California, Hidden Buddhas turns a cosmopolitan eye on discipline and decadence in religion, fashion, politics, and modern life.

Liza Dalby is an anthropologist and writer specializing in Japan. She lives in Berkeley, California.

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Stone Bridge Press
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Hidden Buddhas

a novel of Karma and Chaos

Stone Bridge Press

Copyright © 2009 Liza Dalby
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-933330-85-3

Chapter One

The Hidden Path

IGNORING THE DULL ITCH of an inflamed flea bite on his ankle, the boy pressed his body against the cool plaster of the east wall, carefully staying out of sight. Crowds of worshippers had shuffled through the temple grounds until the gate was closed to the public at five o'clock. By now all the priests, including visitors like his grandfather, were supposed to be at the main hall for the evening service. The boy knew this, but just to be sure, he waited for the low rumble of sutra chanting to reach his ears. Pale pink flowering cherries trembled in a light breeze. Noboru did not know how much time he had before someone made his way back here to the hall where the temple's hidden buddha was housed.

This place, Kyoto's oldest temple, was once known as Hachioka-dera, Bee Hills Temple, but that name had faded and most people only knew it by its official name, Koryuji, a temple belonging to the Shingon Buddhist sect. The compound was spread out with wide gravel paths connecting the venerable wood and plaster buildings and their precious population of sacred images. Among its trove of Buddhist deities, Koryuji held a hibutsu-a "hidden buddha"-in this case a nine-hundred-year-old gilt wooden statue of Guan Yin. For one day a year, the lacquered doors enclosing the treasured image were opened, and worshippers allowed to view the serene visage of "the compassionate one who hears the cries of the world." Noboru knew there were hidden buddhas tucked away in temples all over Japan because his grandfather, a Shingon priest, was very fond of them. It almost seemed the old man's main interest in life was visiting temples when these hibutsu came on display. He knew precisely when and for how long each one was open to view. Two years ago he had started bringing Noboru along on his pilgrimages. Tonight the monks would close the Guan Yin back up in its black-lacquered sanctum for another year. Noboru looked around nervously. The area around the Hidden Buddha Hall was deserted. He heard the rhythmic sound of men's gravelly voices chanting sutras from the direction of the main building. Inhaling the fresh spring air, he glanced around one last time before ducking into the dark hall imbued with the deeply familiar musty odor of old wood and incense smoke.

Noboru Tokuda had been born in a temple. His father was a Buddhist priest, his mother the daughter of one. Sutras had been the lullabies of infancy and the soundtrack of his entire childhood. But Noboru's nostrils widened now, sensing an odor different from the ordinary temple smell. Not musty at all-ineffable and pure. Familiar, yet new. The delicate fragrance seemed to emanate from the statue of Guan Yin. He crept closer and sat on his knees, tucking his bare calves under his indigo cotton kimono. Hesitantly at first, Noboru formed his hands into the mudra gestures his grandfather had showed him earlier that day. The fragrance, rather like sandalwood and rare flowers, intensified. Concentrating deeply, the boy now made out a pale glowing penumbra around the statue. All his senses strained toward it. His grandfather had told him that if he indeed had the ability to comprehend the aura of a hidden buddha he would feel its effects on every sense.

The odor was the first thing he recognized, with no training at all. In fact, until today, he had thought everybody smelled it. This morning was the first time he had he even thought to ask. The old man stared at his grandson.

"You smell it?"

"It smells really good," Noboru replied. "Like incense but not incense. What is it?"

"It's the fragrance of the hidden buddha," said the old priest slowly. "But not everyone can smell it."

The possibility that his own grandchild had the ability filled him with relief and joy-followed by a twinge of trepidation. He must begin training Noboru immediately.

"It's a special talent that you're born with or you're not." Curious, the old man probed, "... besides the fragrance, do you see anything else about this statue? Or hear anything? Any other sensations?" Noboru hung his head. He had never paid close attention.

"No matter," said his grandfather. "Perhaps with practice." He taught the boy the ritual hand gestures of Shingon that were used in worshipping Guan Yin. "We'll continue tomorrow."

But tomorrow this hidden buddha would be closed up again. Excited by his grandfather's words, Noboru wanted to test himself before the hibutsu was hidden away until next April.

And now, alone with the statue, he found he could detect a glow! What about his ears? Was there any sound? He listened intently. A faint hum. Could it be his imagination? As he concentrated on the barely perceptible vibration, his hands dancing the mudra to Guan Yin, he became aware of a soft warmth on his skin. At the same time the hum became more audible-almost a high human voice, but vibrating like a koto string. Nose, eyes, ears, skin, tongue. The five organs of perception. Smell, sight, sound, touch, taste. All had engaged. A sweetness welled up in Noboru's mouth. It reminded him of the dark millet syrup his mother poured over rice dumplings. He felt tears of happiness squeezing the back of his eyes. The sixth element, consciousness, holding the five senses like a string through beads. Noboru, his senses, consciousness, the Guan Yin-melded without distinction.

The statue's serene full-cheeked face tilted up slightly, resting on one of its three right hands, elbow propped on knee. Another hand held the wish- granting jewel, as if giving it to him. It was already his. Noboru's mouth hung open, his eyes stared, unblinking. He could feel the statue offering him the wheel of the Buddhist law, balanced like a spinning toy on one of her left hands. He would devote his life to the Buddhist Truth. A lotus bud, too, held out. Compassion for the world-for him. His senses overflowed.

He had no idea how long he was suspended in this state, when, suddenly, the golden light wavered. The singing tone died away. The fragrance faded, and with its loss the warmth and sweetness dwindled away. All sensations ebbed into a dark emptiness that sucked Noboru's happiness, understanding, and love with it.

Panicking, he scrambled to his feet. Someone else was in the dim hall. He called out to his grandfather.

"Your grandfather's not here. Nobody's here."

Noboru whirled around, blinded by tears. The low voice belonged to a beautiful young woman. She, too, must have slipped into the building to pray to the statue. Her yellow skirt, fashionably cinched at the waist, seemed to glow in the fading evening light. She turned, glancing back briefly at Noboru before stepping outside.

"Wait!" The boy choked. Something terrible had happened. Even without understanding, he felt it. She was gone. His senses raw, Noboru now became aware of another odor. In front of the altar where the woman had been standing a lingering scent pricked his nose. It was like nothing he had ever smelled before-sharp, cool, insinuating. He had no words for it, but he would never forget it.

From the direction of the main gate, the great bronze temple bell rang once, sending its deep reverberations rippling through the balmy early evening air. Holding his head in his hands Noboru dropped down on the cool stone floor and wailed.

His grandfather, the head priest, and three disciples discovered him there. The head priest was angry. Someone had rung the great bell without permission. His suspicion immediately fell on the visiting priest's twelve-year-old grandson. Noboru's grandfather was already apologizing. He took the sobbing boy by the arm. The fact that Noboru was hiding in here, terrified, pointed to his guilt. What had gotten into him? But, then, he was only twelve ...

The head priest was mollified by the older man's repeated bows and apologies. He gave Noboru a pro-forma cuff on the side of his shaved head. At that moment Noboru felt his grandfather stiffen, his bony fingertips digging into his shoulder. He looked up and saw that the old man was staring at the statue of Guan Yin. The head priest noticed nothing. He invited them to join the other monks for their evening meal before the ceremony of returning the hibutsu to its tabernacle.

"I need to talk to my grandson," said the older Tokuda. "We will be along. Please don't wait for us."

Figuring the boy was in for a private scolding, the other priests withdrew.

As soon as they were alone, Priest Tokuda squatted down in front of Noboru.

"What happened?"

"The bell ..." Noboru began.

"The bell doesn't matter," snapped his grandfather. "The hidden buddha. What happened?"

Noboru told him about the effects on each of his senses. "Do you feel it too, Grandpa?" he asked.

The old priest nodded.

"But then it all went away," said Noboru. "I couldn't feel it any more. Not even the smell."

"I know." The old man's shoulders sagged.

Noboru trembled.

The priest watched the boy's reaction. It was remarkable. With the barest hint of training, the child had applied his abilities and felt the full power of this hidden buddha. Priest Tokuda needed no more proof that Noboru was meant to be his successor.

"I'm going to explain something to you," he said to the bewildered boy. "And I'm going to depend on you for help. Listen carefully. The hidden buddhas exist to protect the world. And over many, many years a few people have had the job of guarding them."

"Is that your job, Grandpa?"

"Yes. And one day it will be yours as well. Tell me, was there anyone else in the building?"

The beautiful young woman. Noboru's senses had been in such an over-stimulated state that he couldn't be sure now whether he had really seen her or not. He remembered hearing the temple bell, and then the priests crowding around.

"Someone-or something-is stealing the hidden buddhas' protective power," continued his grandfather. "Over the years, slowly killing them off. It always occurs when the statues are on display. That's when they're vulnerable."

Suddenly it dawned on Noboru why his grandfather wandered from temple to temple, always visiting the hidden buddhas that were briefly on view. He wasn't worshipping them, he was watching over them. And today, one had been destroyed right under his nose. Noboru had been there. This would be his job now too-to protect the hidden buddhas.

But he also realized that he had already failed. His throat tightened. How could he admit this? Definitely, a woman had slipped in to the hall while he was transfixed by the hibutsu. But until he understood more, he had better hide this fact. Next time, he vowed to himself, he would know what to do. His grandfather would teach him skills. One day he would find and confront her-he was sure there would be another chance.

"I'm not sure ... I don't think there was anyone ..." he faltered. Then, "Does the head priest know what's happened to this hibutsu?"

His grandfather jerked his head. "He knows nothing. None of them do. It's very rare, you understand-the sensations you have."

"What about my father?"

The old man shook his head. "He's a good priest, but he doesn't feel a thing." That had been a major disappointment. But it didn't matter now.

"Whatever is destroying the hidden buddhas sucks out their power so all that's left is the husk. The dead image. Most people can't tell, of course. The statue looks the same. Most of the hidden buddhas now are empty shells. I only watch over the live ones."

Noboru was still upset. He shivered. What, exactly, were the hidden buddhas protecting us from, he wanted to ask. He winced remembering that afternoon's experience of being uplifted to a plane of complete joy and then dropped into a dark void.

"Come on." His grandfather took him by the hand. "Let's get something to eat before it's all gone."

"But the hidden buddha?" Noboru turned to look at the image of Guan Yin.

"There's nothing we can do about this one. It's dead."

In the garden of career choices that sprang up in postwar Japan, modern-minded sons of Buddhist priests often chose to become businessmen rather than shave their heads. But it was obvious to everyone that Noboru Tokuda would follow his father and grandfather's calling. On school holidays, he traveled with his grandfather, viewing hibutsu, learning about Shingon. No one, of course, knew exactly what the older man was methodically transferring to his quietly serious grandson-or indeed that anything was being transferred at all. For his part, Noboru intuitively grasped the necessity of hiding the secret knowledge he was given.

Uninterested in sports, Noboru nevertheless had an athletic grace. His naturally Fuji-arched eyebrows were balanced by a square jaw that saved his face from being pretty. Throughout his teenage years, girls were attracted to him-and he enjoyed girls. He realized that he was not aroused by them, but he maintained a keen appreciation for the various ways in which they were beautiful. He could hear the hopes and desires hidden underneath the surface of their words, and so girls were inclined to share their confidences. When he appeared at graduation with the shaved head of a Shingon initiate, they all sighed. How old-fashioned.

By the time Noboru was twenty he knew all the gestures of mudra, and the sacred syllables of the mantras. He studied the life of Kukai, Shingon's founder. But Noboru was also learning other things from his grandfather that his fellow acolytes had no idea were part of Kukai's legacy. Every time a hidden buddha came on view he was given a chance to test his ability to sense its aura. His senses were trained to the point where he could read a hibutsu even when it wasn't on display, from behind the closed doors of its tabernacle. Allowing all his senses to vibrate in harmony with a hidden buddha became, for Noboru, the most blissful experiences of his life.

One morning in the middle of October, while looking into the nebula of dissolved bean paste of his breakfast soup, Noboru's grandfather was seized by the conviction that it was time for the young man's confirmation. The ritual he had to perform would be an initiation as well as the last test-the sign of whether Noboru was indeed meant to be his successor or not. If the youth passed-and he couldn't even know he was being tested-old priest Tokuda would then explain the final detail s of the enormous responsibility he would transfer to his young shoulders. Finishing the miso soup in one long gulp, he set the bowl down and told Noboru they would go to Mt. Koya that weekend.

Koyasan was the heart of Shingon-the mountain where, over a thousand years ago its founder, Kukai, built an enormous temple complex and where he now rested in an Inner Sanctum, venerated by thousands of worshippers. Noboru had been there often, but he sensed today would be different from previous pilgrimages. The two shaven heads, one bristled white, one shadowed blue-black, joined the crowds bowing their respects at the Hall of Lanterns in front of Kukai's mausoleum. In the late afternoon, as most people headed toward the parking lots, the two Tokudas hiked past the golden buildings and splendid tombs, farther into Koyasan's cedar-forested slopes. Just before dusk they reached an old, seemingly abandoned temple at the end of an overgrown path.

Noboru felt slightly giddy breathing the rank, mildewed air inside. He waited while the old man felt his way around the back of the dark altar, looking for the mandala he would need. The older Tokuda had not seen it since his own initiation, when his teacher, Priest Zuicho, had declared that, of his seven acolytes, Tokuda was to be heir. Now he stroked his fingers gently across the joinery, feeling for an almost imperceptible latch. There. He reached inside the well-hidden compartment and touched the smooth paulownia-wood box holding the scroll of the Womb Mandala that had been used by Zuicho, and his master before him. It had been recopied every four hundred years, always an exact copy, stretching back over a thousand years to the one Kukai himself had painted.

As he carefully unrolled the painting, Tokuda was flooded with memories of his venerable teacher. Zuicho had lived through the hard days of the late nineteenth century when the Meiji government, turning against imported tradition, had done its best to rip Buddhism from the fabric of Japanese life. For centuries, to be a monk was to be a vegetarian. Suddenly, bureaucrats told them to eat meat. They were discouraged from wearing clerical robes, and even celibacy was frowned on. "Get married if you want," priests were told. Zuicho remained steadfastly single, but his students all took wives. Tokuda's generation was the first in which Shingon priests had families in the temples.

Decades later, statues that had been buried away to keep them safe from the anti-Buddhist pogrom were dug up, temples were rebuilt, and Buddhism reclaimed its place in society-but things were never quite the same. None of his predecessors seemed to have had any problem finding a successor, but Priest Tokuda had reached a point of desperation. There had never been a hereditary connection in the long line of guardians. Succession was decided by ability alone-master to disciple, not father to son. This dearth of candidates was another disquieting sign. Even ordinary priests were starting to have trouble finding successors these days. Who would uphold the Law of the Dharma if priests all became salarymen? Tokuda's sole hope now rested on his beloved grandson.


Excerpted from Hidden Buddhas by LIZA DALBY Copyright © 2009 by Liza Dalby. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Anthropologist (PhD Stanford) and writer (Geisha, Tales of Murasaki) best known for having become the the only westerner ever to become a geisha. Her story was dramatized on US network TV. In 2004 served as geisha consultant to film of Arthur Golden's novel, Memoirs of a Geisha.

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