Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc.: Boston, 1994.
311 pp., $18.00 (cloth).

 Maura "Soshin" O'Halloran.
Maura “Soshin” O’Halloran.

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 rend i”tions 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.

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