A friend of mine recently handed me a copy of this book which I had come across many years ago, but had never quite got around to reading. It tells the story of Maura (Soshin-san) O'Halloran, an Irish-American Catholic woman who was one of the very few women ever to be allowed to train at a male-dominated traditional Zen monastery in Japan. She was ordained a Zen Buddhist monk in 1982.
She was born in Boston in 1955, the daughter of an Irish father and American mother. They moved to Ireland when she was four. She spent most of her youth in Ireland, though the entire family along with her five younger siblings also spent time in Boston, and especially in Maine where her maternal grandmother lived. Her father died suddenly in a road accident when she was 14. She was very socially aware, and became active for social justice while attending Trinity College in Dublin, and during her early working life. She was a courageous and adventurous traveller, at times braving solo travel through Central and South America.
At some point during this time, she became drawn to the conviction that the social changes she longed for in her environment could possibly be more effectively brought about by changing oneself, rather than seeking to change others or institutions. Inspired by a family friend, she decided to visit Japan, to deepen her own meditation practice and to study Zen. She was very aware that control over her thoughts and mental processes was key to her sense of well-being and happiness. The book, told through her own journal accounts of her three years in Japan, give great insight into daily monastic life at two Japanese Buddhist monasteries under a master Zen tutor (Roshi). We learn about her life there, about Zen, about the sacred moments, the squabbles and the cultural diversities. Her journals also reveal her loving and open relationships with her family and many friends.
Of late I feel ridiculously happy. No reason. Just bursting with joy... Now I'm 26, and I feel as if I've lived my life... Any desires, ambitions, hopes I may have had have either been fulfilled or spontaneously dissipated. I'm totally content.
Maura was engaged with the honorary role of monastery chef, but her daily workload often consisted of long arduous hours of cleaning, cooking, gardening and sewing. She had help at times from other monks, but remained primarily self-motivated to seeing work as a continuation of her Zen practice. Over time, she solved the various koans (Zen riddles), worked tirelessly to prepare for extended Zen retreats, engaged in the Zen practice of begging/blessing (Takuhatsu), often in freezing temperatures and snow while wearing only straw sandals, and long periods of sitting meditation including overnight meditation while getting one hour's sleep sitting upright. Her Zen practice became a minute by minute dedication to the task at hand with full focus, attention and presence. This was her primary training, life itself. Through this, she achieved great spiritual breakthroughs, and came into a deep sense of peace, surrender and self-abandonment, while growing in inner contentment, acceptance and joy.
Everything seems wonderful. Even undesirable, painful conditions have a poignant beauty and exaltation. So in a sense I feel I have died; for myself there is nothing else to strive after, nothing more to make my life worthwhile or to justify it.
As she immersed herself more and more in her work and Zen practice, her own needs and desires further dissolved, and she became dedicated to helping others. The journey of her discipline and mindfulness practice is altogether uplifting and inspiring, and clearly puts our daily grumbles into perspective. Maura's journals take you on your own retreat with her. You appreciate her struggles to overcome her own conditioning, as well as her moments of hardship and discouragement. Mostly, you sense her vibrant energy, her great sense of humour, her excellent discernment, and purity of heart. I couldn't help but have a sense of companionship as I read on, that a compassionate listener was present.
Having always had a generous nature, she planned to open a Zen training centre in Dublin on her return.
I have maybe 50 or 60 years (who knows?) of time, of a life, open, blank, ready to offer. I want to live it for other people. What else is there to do with it? Not that I expect to change the world or even a blade of grass, but it's as if to give myself is all I can do, as the flowers have no choice but to blossom. At the moment the best I can see to do is to give to people this freedom, this bliss, and how better than through zazen? ( Zen practice of sitting meditation ) So I must go deeper and deeper and work hard, no longer for me but for everyone I can help.
There are poignant parallels with Thomas Merton's desire to help others and to be of service in the world, as well as his tragic death in Thailand. Some also compare her short life and deep realisations to that of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Each have blessed us though their journals with the gift of seeing and understanding their inner journeys of liberation and transformation from the conditioned self to the realisation of the divine nature within.
Silence and Presence exist everywhere and in every tradition. However we feel pulled by Silence, it seems fulfilment and enlightenment lie in our ability to find rest there, and to let our actions move from there.