It’s impossible to separate the journals and letters of Maura “Soshin” O’Halloran, a young Irish-American Zen Buddhist nun, from the brief, dazzling pattern of her life itself. Less a book than an intimate glimpse, this collection is a moving record (compiled by her mother) of personal notes, fragments, and fleeting impressions of the three years O’Halloran spent at Toshoji, a Tokyo temple, and at Kannonji, a remote temple in northern Japan. She was killed in a bus accident in 1982, at age 27, having just received official dharma transmission from her roshi.
What sets O’Halloran’s autobiographical writing apart from other contemporary Zen literature is its utter lack of pretension, the absence of any self-conscious “Zen” identity, or desire to conform to one. While her letters home, as one might expect, are cheerful renditions of her experiences, meant for her family’s ears, it is her journals that hold her most candid observations. Her thoughts about “no-self,” “emptiness,” and satori mix with observations of the daily routines of temple life: kneeling on bare boards, laughing to keep warm as she and the monks clean the temple in the early morning, gathering wild plants and mushrooms in a bucket. She evokes the hardships of winter in a mountain temple, breathing “steam engine billows of icy vapour,” her hands oozing pus from frostbite. A spring thaw is “Beautiful—a black old man pushing a black barrow, etched against the wintry fields.”
The real gift to the Western reader, however, is the way intense longing for enlightenment is reflected in these journals, and how it leads to the beginning stages of spiritual awakening. As O’Halloran’s practice deepens, she speaks of that state of consciousness not as some mysterious “beyond,” but as an awareness that is close, familiar, emerging from within herself. Shortly after arriving at the Tokyo temple she writes:
Everything was simple. I was laughing. Mu was only mu. I felt ecstatic, couldn’t contain my joy. I ran out of the hall, kissed the trees, stood in the garden and was the garden, really was it. All through dinner I beamed. Jiko kept staring. The others had described enlightenment. This was so much stronger. I didn’t meditate that night, only lay wrapped snug in bed, listening to the rain.
As time passes, her identification with everything around her increases. For example, she writes that in a sesshin, “when someone would have kensho [self-realization], it was I that felt relieved.” Pulling weeds, she finds, “they were part of me but different, like the back and front of my hand are different but not separate.”
The only bothersome aspect of Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind is the book’s inclination to look upon O’Halloran as a saint. It is the same tendency that O’Halloran herself observes in the people around her in Japan—a wish to romanticize her, to view her and other religious people as inhabitants of some higher plane. Dismayed by one elderly Japanese woman’s infatuated gaze, O’Halloran writes, “I realize how easily people are fooled in spiritual affairs. They want to believe people have attained depths and to feel associated with the extraordinary.” The same tendency permeates the introductory and concluding essays. The writing that accompanies O’Halloran’s own feels somehow out of synch with the rest of the book. One gets the feeling that although the people who wrote these essays loved her, perhaps they didn’t quite know what to make of her and, by default, have allowed her to become posthumously canonized. This is especially unfortunate because the appeal and usefulness of these journals lies not in O’Halloran’s having been a saint, but in the reassurance that she is like us.
Maura O’Halloran’s life holds an eloquent message: though she endured hardships that are beyond the imagination of most Westerners, her level of awakening was still at an early stage, as she points out a number of times. She saw that life doesn’t make sense, and never can, and that not enlightenment, but life and death themselves are the mystery—intellect and reason can go only so far toward where, in the end, only love can penetrate. Maura “Soshin” O’Halloran was no more saintly than the rocks, trees, and clouds that she loved, and no more or less than we all are, and this is the indiscriminate beauty that reveals itself to us through her.
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