Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Buddha Boy by Kathe Koja

"Do you know the concept of karma?  It's kind of like a circle, or cause-and-effect, like a slow-tolling bell you rang maybe a year ago, five years ago, maybe in another lifetime if you in believe that.  Karma means that what you do today, and why you do it, makes you who you are forever:  as if you were clay, and every thought and action left a mark in that clay, bent it, shaped it, even ruined it...but with karma there are no excuses, no explanations, no I-didn't-really-mean-it-so-can-I-have-some-more-clay. Karma takes everything you do very, very seriously."

Buddha Boy reminds me so much of Jerry Spinelli's YA classic Stargirl.   It has a similar type of narrator, a regular kid who is drawn to an eccentric new student that none of his fellow students really understand.  The narrator faces the same problem, whether to follow his heart and stand up for the friendship or follow the mean-spirited crowd.  In both cases the title characters stand out due to their unusual creativity and willingness to act out non-mainstream ideas.  Neither book ends exactly the way we want it to, and the maturation the narrators experience is the kind that comes from loss.  

"So explain this, now:  You wish, want, work for one thing, but instead something else happens, the thing you most dreaded, the thing you tried your best to stop.  And then it turns out that what you wanted, all you wanted and more, stood hidden behind exactly what you didn't, and to get to one you had to take the other first. 
Is that how life goes?  Is that how life is supposed to go--like walking blindfolded and backwards to get to where you need to be?  Or is it just karma, gods and lions and hungry ghosts, doing what it has to do?"

Buddha Boy is a short, thoughtful story about friendship and seeing under the surface of people.  Justin is a kid who is content to be ordinary, in the middle, where "it's comfortable, it's easy, and it's safe".  Buddha Boy, or Jinsen (his spiritual name, given to him by a Buddhist teacher, meaning "the fountain of God, the place where God springs up in the world")  arrives in Justin's high school with his head shaved bald and a begging bowl instead of a lunch bag.  Emulating a Buddhist monk, he baffles the student body and enrages the hotshot "kings of the school" with his odd appearance and pacifistic mindset.  Justin and Jinsen are partnered for a class project, and Justin soon finds himself fascinated by Jinsen, his artistry and his zen view of life.  The two boys form a bond which is tested as the school bullies home in on Jinsen with ever-increasing ferocity.  

What I liked most about Buddha Boy, aside from the gorgeous, layered writing, was the complexity and fullness of characterization that Koja achieved while keeping her story simple. The reflective, ever-so-slightly poignant tone does nothing to diminish what Justin in the end takes from his friendship with Jinsen; the insight that inside, we're all gods, even those of us who are unaware. 

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