Missed Treasures: Summer Spirituality Book Club, Part 2
Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind: The Life and Letters of an Irish Zen Saint by Maura “Soshin” O’Halloran
Creaking to the post office
On my rusty bike
I saw one purple iris
Wild in the wet green
Of the rice field.
I wanted to send it to you.
I can only tell you it was there.
Much like that simple, untitled poem, Maura O’ Halloran’s journal entries about monastic life in Japan communicate an aliveness, determination, and curiosity that are deeply moving to those of us who are stumbling along our own spiritual paths. That the young acolyte writing the entries also manages to fall in and out of love as her enlightenment unfolds both keeps her real and shows how interpenetration of the extraordinary and ordinary in genuine spiritual effort happens.
When Maura describes her room—basically consisting of a desk, a cushion, and a mattress—you can feel the ordinary and extraordinary starting their tango. When her teacher asks her if she is willing to have her head shaved, you can watch the different parts of her lining up to say yes. This is a young woman who makes mistake after mistake and keeps going anyway. Some of her fellow monks encourage her. Others drive her batty. The greatest gift of this little book is that it somehow manages to communicate the energy she throws into her effort—not just the determination to keep going, but to keep going on three hours of sleep in the middle of the hardest retreats and days filled with ceaseless manual work. Throughout, she offers up insights, almost as markers, of how her experience of life is changing. Maura eventually understands that practice itself is enlightenment all the while offering up a genuine taste of how enlightened consciousness never, ever prevents us from being completely human. Life is messy, awake or not.
Be warned: You might cry at the end.
Maura O’Halloran left a waitressing job in Boston in 1979 to study Zen in Japan, ending up in a small monastery tucked away in an ancient Tokyo neighborhood. The oldest of six children, Maura had lived in Ireland for much of her young life. She attended Trinity College in Dublin from 1973 until 1977, when she completed a joint degree in mathematical economics and statistics. During her university years she volunteered a lot, especially with drug addicts and the very poor. Following almost two years of serious adventure travel (Mexico, Central America, Peru) she landed in Boston, where she worked part-time jobs until she saved enough money to go to Japan. There she undertook three years of hard Zen training. Her teacher gave her dharma transmission in 1982. Six months later she was killed in a bus accident on her way home. Local Japanese people continue to pray to her as a saint of compassion.
Questions to consider:
- Now that I have read Maura’s writings, what one thing do I want to give my full effort?
- Why this?
- How will I do it?
- Who will help me?
- What do I need to let go of for this to work?
In 1999, Geri Larkin founded Still Point Buddhist Temple in Detroit. Her most recent book is Close to the Gound: Reflections on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, reviewed here.