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Chaos will reign if hidden Buddhas die

by Hiroaki Sato

“Hidden Buddhas,” or hibutsu, are Buddhist statues that are kept out of sight, though only a few are kept so permanently. Most are put on display for worshippers at regular intervals: once or twice a year, once every several years, once every 33 or 66 years.

HIDDEN BUDDHAS: A Novel of Karma and Chaos, by Liza Dalby. Stone Bridge Press, 2009, 396 pp., $16.95 (paper)

The premise of this appears to be that these statues possess such powerful virtues the believers can feel them without seeing them embodied.

But suppose — posits Liza Dalby, who has written books on geisha and kimono, and also an “autobiography” of the author of “The Tale of Genji” — these “hidden Buddhas” were created for a purpose, to prevent the world from falling into utter chaos. They are alive, with emanative powers, though only a select few can perceive them. And there is an agent abroad killing them off.

Each time he does, disaster strikes. And the number of hibutsu left with prophylactic powers is dwindling fast.

The idea, yes, is the Buddhist eschatology of mappou, the world deprived of the blessings of the correct Dharma. Against this grand worldview, Dalby sets up a very human concern, also Buddhist related: What happens to an aborted fetus? If it becomes a mizuko (“water child”) without succor, as some say, does it then turn into a karmic agent of retribution?

Noboru, a descendant of a special line of Buddhist priests, experiences the snuffing out of a hibutsu as a boy while attending its public display in Kyoto, and he sets out to protect other hibutsu. As a matter of priestly profession, he mainly looks after women who have had abortions. One woman he thus becomes acquainted with is Nagiko. A beautiful designer, Nagiko had to terminate a pregnancy that resulted from one night’s mistake in New York.

Philip, a student of Asian religions at Columbia University, decides to pursue the whys and wherefores of hibutsu, inspired by a visiting French authority on Buddhism, Bertrand Maigny. He goes to Japan, meets Nagiko, they fall in love and, in a high-class inn, she becomes pregnant. When the two are about to marry, he is struck by a car.

His brain damaged, he is flown home, to California, where his parents live. He had discovered he has the ability to perceive hibutsu’s emanatory powers and, with the guidance of Maigny, now back in France, was close to solving the mystery of the hidden Buddhas. But he dies before doing anything further on the matter.

Nagiko gives birth to a girl, whom her friend names Mayumi. The child is extraordinarily beautiful but born with webbed fingers and toes. Nagiko’s doctor assures her it’s a common occurrence and can be fixed. Still, haunted by her mizuko ghost, she suspects the malformation to be a manifestation of karma. She becomes an estranged mother, a woman who does not know what to do with her daughter.

The period “Hidden Buddhas” covers from the time of Harvard scholar Ezra Vogel’s book “Japan as Number One” (which inflated the Japanese far more than it deflated the Americans) up to the present.

Mayumi grows to be one of those outlandishly dressed, sexually carefree teenage girls that haunt flashy parts of Tokyo.

Here’s Mayumi with “dark blue eyes,” one night out in Shinjuku: “She had on a skimpy flippy miniskirt in the Burberry plaid her mother hated, even if it was worn ironically. Her panties — which flashed when she sat down — were matching Burberry plaid. In screaming contrast, her low-cut blouse was purple Lurex with a shivery long black fringe at the bottom edge. She had rubber-soled tabi (traditional sandals) on her feet. Originally they had been gold black, but she had decorated them with gold thread.”

This is before she becomes a reputable model in Paris, and before she opens a cutting-edge fashion boutique in Kyoto that takes full advantage of the Internet.

What happens to Noboru’s search for the “killer” of hibutsu? “Hidden Buddhas” is part high-paced detective story and part novel of international manners encompassing Japan, the United States and France.