Commonweal readers already know of Maura O'Halloran, whose mother, Ruth O'Halloran, wrote about her daughter's life in an essay published here in 1992 (February 28). A scholarship student at Trinity College, Dublin who "early gave promise of a rare spirituality," Maura O'Halloran left a waitressing job in Harvard Square at age twenty-three to begin an apprenticeship as a Buddhist monk at a zendo in Japan. There too she showed uncommon gifts early on: she glimpsed enlightenment almost immediately and solved koans with the aplomb of a veteran Zen master. She stayed at the zendo for most of two years, resolved to "not stop until I reach complete enlightenment." In 1982, intending to return to her family in Dublin, she had set out on a trip through Asia when she was killed in a bus accident in Thailand. Since then "Maura-san," or "Soshin"--celebrated during her lifetime in the Japanese media as an anomaly of anomalies, a female Irish Zen monk--has come to be regarded as a Buddhist bodhisattva or saint of compassion.
Now, prompted by the Commonweal article, Tuttle & Co. has published the journal Maura O'Halloran kept while at the monastery, along with letters she wrote to her family and a series of delicate, lovely drawings by her younger sister, Elizabeth. Together they form a remarkable record of a life fully lived, a unique and inspiring and even heartbreaking book.
On one level Maura's journal is an account of her determined progress toward Zen enlightenment. In an afterword, the American Zen monk Patricia Dai-En Bennage sees it as a "record of a pure heart" (soshin) and a summary of her way, or teaching: "intense meditation, known as zazen, for long hours in natural temperatures, full-voice chanting, sustaining oneself on the minimum necessary sleep and food, and working single-mindedly under the guidance of a master, or Roshi." Maura vividly tells of the familiar aspects of life of prayer and asceticism in a monastic community: her early ardor; her friendships and conflicts with the other monks (one proposed marriage); her efforts to reconcile the small defeats of cooking and begging with her deepening experience of the sublime in prayer; and her passionate relationship with her master, Go Roshi, who was ill with cancer and hoped that Maura, his "jewel," would stay in Japan and succeed him as the zendo's spiritual leader.
Read straight through, the book can be hard going. It is a journal, after all, and its author instinctively avoids the facile devices typically used to present Zen to Western readers. Maura doesn't hold our hands as an anthropological observer, set herself up as a spiritual guide, or offer her experience as a lesson in what the West must learn from the East.
That is why the journal is so remarkable. Like Virginia Woolf in her diaries or Elizabeth Bishop in her letters, Maura O'Halloran appears on the page singular and whole. So this is a person! She is a Zen monk, yes, but she is also a splendidly educated Irish-American from a large and loving family, intellectually ambitious, attractive and attracted to men of all sorts, hungry for the world's goods. These aspects of herself fulfill one another rather than cancel each other out.
While it is called Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind, the book is full of Maura's soul. From her first letter to her family, it is clear that hers is no pious, edifying story: "Well, the luck of the Irish stayed intact across the international dateline, and I'm doing great. Sure and begorra, let me tell you the tricks." Maura's wit and social observation remain sharp as she plunges into the monastic experience. Upon her arrival, she is puzzled by the way she is welcomed like a relative: "At one luncheon it was decided that I had a Japanese face. Of course my face is as Irish as turf but it's all part of their acceptance of me. Several people have said that I don't seem Western. [In South America] they said I seemed Latin. Quien sabe?" Traveling to Seoul, she feels oddly indulged: "The customs inspectors, of course, only bowed and waved me on, delighted with the gaijin [foreign] monk. The money-changers, too, were charming. With robes and a shaved head is the only way to travel." Given an exotic carved chin-rest full of Buddhist symbolism, she reflects: "Holding it in my hands, I feel a sort of reverence for all the hard training that has gone before. However, that didn't do me much good last night. It's hard to sleep on the bloody thing."
Naturally enough, she applies her wit and insight to her spiritual life as well. "I'm blowing through the koans these days," she writes in a late letter to her mother. "Phew! My head is spinning a bit." Frustrated after a twenty-hour day of work and prayer, she tells herself, "Keep at it, m'dear."
The journal itself is personal, sometimes abstruse, but rarely myopic; as a writer, Maura O'Halloran can't help but communicate. It is complemented perfectly by the letters to her family interspersed throughout. In them she is unusually confident and clear-headed about her search for enlightenment. She makes no apologies, gives no defenses. In going East she seems not to have been in flight from home and family; no, she is zealous to share her experience as fully as possible with her mother, her grandmother, her five brothers and sisters. In William James's terms, she seems to have been not twice-born but once-born, her mature religious life continuous with the early life and culture that gave rise to it.
When she died in Thailand, Maura had just traveled to Hong Kong and Macao with her brother Scott. She intended to return to Dublin, to undertake plans that had taken shape during her time in the zendo. She might have earned a Ph.D. in linguistics at the Sorbonne, or founded a zendo in Dublin, or completed a novel she had begun in the monastery. She might have married.
Without denying the Zen character of her experience and the way it was fostered in Japan, one can't help but regret that a person so conversant in the Western culture of her upbringing had to leave it in order to seek enlightenment. Sure, we have our monasteries and convents--but the mystical way is in abeyance in Christianity today, and the impulse to follow a regimen of prayer as a stage on life's way runs counter to the lifetime commitments required of "professed religious." In this way perhaps Maura and the East have something to teach the West after all. How sad I felt as I finished this book, which I will read again: sad that Maura O'Halloran didn't survive to return and enrich our culture, and sad that she had to go away from us in the first place.