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Earlier this year Wisdom Publications released Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind: The Life and Letters of an Irish Zen Saint by Maura Soshin O'Halloran. This extraordinary young woman (sadly numbered among those forever young, since she was robbed of the chance to grow older) was a world-traveller who became a very serious student of Zen in Japan in the early 1980s.
The book is a collection of Maura's journals and letters, mainly chronicling her stay in Japan, and is a rare and valuable window into the world of intensive Zen training as experienced by a Western woman.
Her mother tells us in the Introduction that Maura was born in Boston in 1955, the eldest of six, but lived most of her life and was educated in Ireland. By a bitter coincidence, her father was killed in a traffic accident in 1969, just as Maura was to die in 1982. She was on a bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, and as a late arriver was sitting near the front. When the driver fell asleep and went off the road, Maura and the driver and two other passengers were killed. She was twenty-seven years old.
On the grounds of Kannonji Temple in Iwate Prefecture in northern Japan stands a statue known as the Maura Kannon -- Maura is identified there with Kannon (in Chinese, Guan Yin or Kwan Yin), the bodhisattva of compassion.
Maura began her Zen study in 1979 at the age of twenty-four. Westerners had done this training before, but as a Western woman, Maura was an oddity in the hyper-male world of monastic Japanese Zen.
Here are a few snippets of Maura's writing from her early days studying Zen:
Kannonji Temple, February 1980
It was daikan [great cold]. The great, coldest, coldest weeks of the years, coldest prefecture of the country. Go Roshi was delighted that I wasn't used to the cold -- better training. I told the temperature by whether the offerings were frozen or not, and often they were. So, wiping a metal cup the cloth would freeze on. Washing in the morning isn't cracking the skin of ice on the basin but taking a blunt instrument and bashing it. Perhaps the hardest part was not the takuhatsu [begging rounds] itself but sutras in the morning.
Up and run to the little wood stove in the kitchen. A few minutes respite from the cold, then into zendo [meditation hall]. I was first, sitting alone in the predawn dark. The rustling of robes to the rhythm of of running feet, and the bell rings; wood resounds with a dull thud. Slowly incense wafts through zendo. I am more asleep than awake, struggling to incarnate, meditations usually frazzled. Tekan-san's cushion always there, so I wonder if he already sat. Tessai, Tessan, and Jiko-san all gurgle, splash, spit toothpaste, then drift in one by one, Tachibana Sensei [the village high school English teacher] and his ten-year-old son. Could I, can I ever do that, lead a layman's life and still attend to my meditations?
From zendo to hondo [hall for chanting and teaching] where it's even colder. Sutra clouds of frozen breath. At the end, if I have the control to touch my baby fingers together for obeisances, then I'm glad the day is so warm. Sutra ends and we scurry, run, laughing in the darkness, dashing towards the warmth of the hearth.
I thought I noticed changes since beginning Zen. It seems as if I'm laughing all the time, but I can't really remember how I was before. I think I've always laughed, but I don't remember laughing this much. Looking in my tiny, grease-stained mirror, I can never see my face all at once, but I think lines on my forehead have smoothed out, My hunchback posture has become straight. I was very surprised, though, when the chiropractor said, "You have an abnormal spine -- it's perfectly straight."
Eshin-san said last night, "Your face is completely different from when you first came to Toshoji."
Takeo-san agreed and I thought, "Well, of course, I'm bloody well bald."
Then he said, "Your face is shining; it is an enlightened face. Your friends will be surprised."
The only change I can put my finger on since kensho [flash of enlightenment, experience of "seeing (Buddha) nature"] is in reading ookyo [the sutras]. Now I love to shout in a big booming voice. Previously I simply could not. It's such a relief to really shout those sutras, lose oneself (I could even sing at Tekkan-san's party). I finally realize the value of ookyo, but it must be done loudly, then the breathing is very beneficial. The "screamers" in Ireland possibly did catch on to something effective, although they seem to lack the integrative benefits of a 2,500-year tradition. I can see shades of many therapies in Zen. I've started chanting "Kanzeon, namubutsu, yobutsu u in..." [beginning of the Kannon (Kanzeon) Sutra for Protecting Life] while I'm working. It regulates my breathing, and I can work with less distracting thoughts and a greater sense of oneness with the work.
I planted veggies, built a compost retainer, am preparing new beds. I feel such a peace puttering around in the dirt with all the wiggly, slimy, ugly little creatures. The creatures digging and fertilizing the garden and worth no more or less than I. I'm careful about them now; try not to disturb them, carry them to appropriate homes when they take over indoors. At first I was put out that Kobai-san was doing the kitchen, but it's worked out perfectly. I'm learning more about Japanese cookery and get to work in the garden. I'm very, very, very happy.
I stood in the rain for the longest time without getting wet. Nobody knew. It was my koan. The rain noises were on cement, on stone, on my plastic mac [raincoat]. The bird in the apple blossoms shook the moisture from its feathers and sang. I, in sympathy, shook in my mac and was silent.
To become is not to annihilate. To become the quarrel does not really stop it. It both stops and continues it. Wet and not wet. Is and is not.
How can one be Buddhist and not be socialist? How accept and allow the perpetration of a system based on desire? A system that functions as trigger and effect of the desire for money and commodities. A system that, to feed itself, must resort to crass commercialism and ever spiraling desire.
Maura O'Halloran's skillful writing is full of unexpected phrases and word-pictures and overall, a sense of such uncloying positivity that it is a truly joyful read. Over it all, of course, hangs our knowledge of her tragic, early death, and our sense of loss of what we all have missed from her leaving us so early and young. But her writing, immediate and fresh, pierces through that melancholy.
After her death, her teacher Tetsugyu-roshi wrote to Maura's mother:
She had achieved what took the Shakuson [Shakyamuni Buddha] 80 years in twenty-seven years. She was able to graduate Dogen's thousand-day training. Then she left this life immediately to start the salvation of the masses in the next life! Has anyone known such a courageously hard-working Buddha as Maura? I cannot possibly express my astonishment.
Read her book and you will be astonished too.
Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind is published by Wisdom Publications, Boston 2007. It is a paperback and costs $17.95 and may be ordered directly from the Wisdom website. (Quotes above used with permission.)
UPDATE: I should mention that this Wisdom volume is an expansion of an earlier edition published by Tuttle Press in 1995, and apparently there were rumors back in the '90s that the Coen Brothers (of Fargo, Barton Fink, and The Big Lebowski fame) had optioned Maura's book! That would be quite a kick.
-Philip Ryan, Web Editor