Dharma Brothers: Kodo and Tokujoo

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Dharma Brothers: Kodo and Tokujoo, A Historical Novel Based On The Lives Of Two Japanese Zen Masters (Volume 1)
Arthur Braverman
CreateSpace, December 2010
592 pages, 6 x 9
(Also available in a Kindle digital edition)

From the publisher…
Dharma Brothers: Kodo and Tokujoo is based on the lives of two Japanese Zen Masters, how they grew from two ordinary boys, walking very different paths to become extraordinary men, and the deep spiritual bond between them. It is also the story of Japan from 1880 to 1965, of two personal accounts of Zen journeys to enlightenment, and of love and friendship. The story follows the lives of these two Dharma brothers, set against a backdrop of the Japanese-Russian War of 1905, and the rise of fascism in Japan in the 1930s. Kodo was an orphan, brought up in a harsh environment, while Tokujoo was the son of a well-to-do businessman. They both spent years studying in the most stringent Zen monasteries and became life-long friends. Each struggled to find his way clear of the circumstances in which he had been reared. Each sought a way of life offering more meaning and truth, ultimately becoming a different exemplar of Zen practice and living Buddhism.

About the author…
Arthur Braverman is author of Living and Dying in Zazen and translator of Mud and Water: A Collection of Talks by the Zen Master Bassui; Warrior of Zen: The Diamond-hard Wisdom Mind of Suzuki Shosan; and A Quiet Room: The Poetry of Zen Master Jakushitsu. He studied Zen at Antaiji Temple in Kyoto, Japan under Zen Master Kosho Uchiyama (Kodo Sawaki’s Dharma heir). He lives in Ojai, California.

The Sumeru review…

I read a lot of books, and they fight for space on my table. Good books get finished, while the not so good ones languish half-read. Dharma Brothers quickly became my book of choice and yesterday I finished it, after a few weeks of stolen moments.

What was the pull? It’s very simple – I could see myself mirrored in the story and I wanted to know what happened next. Braverman’s novel, based on the true stories of two well-known Japanese roshis, illuminated the day-to-day path of zen practice with grace and wit in a narrative story format. That is not a topic which would appeal to a broad audience (which is why it is self-published), but for practitioners, it is one of immense import.

It is not easy to write a novel. It is not easy to write a historical novel that portrays another culture credibly. And it is not easy to write convincingly of a spiritual journey, without tumbling into either hagiography or maudlin melodrama.

Braverman does a very good job of walking the middle way. That’s not to say the book is without structural flaws, but those flaws are matched with vignettes that soar. My biggest complaint is that a lot of the book is spent in setting up the early practice of Kodo Sawaki Roshi and Tokujoo Kato Roshi. Braverman’s choice to focus on the intimate details of their daily lives comes at the expense of our learning more about their public activity, teaching and dharma work later in life. I would have liked to know more about their sermons and teaching methods in the public sphere, since they were such influential teachers in the 20th century.

Similarly, I would have liked to know more about Japan’s social, cultural and political evolution over the period covered in the book. Braverman spent a number of years practicing in Japan with Kodo Sawaki’s dharma heir, Kosho Uchiyama. That experience has allowed him to portray Japan at the turn of the century with riveting accuracy. It would have been fascinating for him to include more of that context in the book, since it was such an important part of world history and since it was so integral to the transformation of all schools of Japanese Buddhism.

On the other hand, Braverman has captured perfectly the nuances of monastic practice and the “one taste” of zen. His accounts of zazen, koan study, dokusan, shikantaza, kinhin, physical labour as practice, temple architecture and routines, hermit practice, life for hereditary priests, and so on, all ring true without a false note.

Dharma Brothers steers clear of describing Kodo or Tokujoo’s satori experiences in any great detail, and even goes so far as to downplay those awakenings by placing them within the context of life’s ongoing challenges and emotional waves. Failure and uncertainty are recognized as teachers too. As Tokujoo’s teacher notes at one point in Tokujoo’s middle practice – the early student tries to control everything in his environment; the advanced student lets nature unfold and responds appropriately.

Zen is a Buddhist tradition that relies much more heavily on experiential learning through meditation than on study of sutras and commentary. It also places great value on everyday living. But it would be disingenuous to imply that one can progress along the path without knowing what that path is. Which leads us to some of the deeper issues raised in this excellent book:

  • priests, monks, hermits and laypeople in Japan’s Buddhist landscape
  • operation and maintenance of Buddhist institutions in Japan after 1880
  • lives and prospects of non-eminent monks
  • marriage as part of the dharma path, rather than antithetical to it
  • zen versus bushido
  • tradition versus modernity
  • real practice versus going through the motions

Dharma Brothers: Kodo and Tokujoo, A Historical Novel Based On The Lives Of Two Japanese Zen Masters (Volume 1) tackles all of these topics, to greater or lesser degrees, in the context of a story that makes you want to keep turning pages. You will as likely be left with more questions than answers, but that is a good thing.

Braverman never gives any explanation of why his first novel is tagged as volume one, but we can only hope he keeps writing fiction along with his other endeavours.
Karma Yönten Gyatso

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