It is strange that sometimes books come into your life quite unbidden, books that support or inspire you or maybe help answer problems that you are wrestling with. Such a book is ‘Pure Heart Enlightened Mind’. For different reasons over many months I have been struggling with maintaining my practice, bedevilled by unanswered questions and longing for an extended retreat with my teacher and Dancing Mountains sangha. After a recent Zen talk I attended at a local Buddhist centre I fell into conversation with a stranger, a fellow Soto Zen practitioner. After a short time he handed me a well-thumbed book.
“Perhaps this might interest you. Just leave it here when you are finished and I’ll pick it up sometime.”
He left soon after and I realize I still don’t know his name!
‘Pure Heart Enlightened Mind,’ is apparently something of a ‘cult’ text in Zen but it had passed me by. Maura’s journals and letters are for me the most inspiring and nurturing account of one woman’s commitment and what may be attained in practice even in these modern times.
Maura O’Halloran grew up in an American Irish family spending extended periods of time in both countries. After matriculating from Trinity College Dublin in the early 1970’s and completing degrees in mathematics and economics she travelled extensively and in 1979 was looking for work in Tokyo, Japan when she was offered a room in a small back street temple of Toshoji whose master was the great Zen teacher Ban Tetsugyu Roshi ‘Go-Roshi’.
‘When I was told that I could stay there, I felt as if I had come home, very settled and bursting with happiness. There are no other foreigners.’
Indeed there were no other foreigners and no other women for a long time!
She is given the koan ‘Mu’ (Ban Tetsugyu had been also rigorously trained in the Rinzai tradition.)
‘The days went on full of mu…….. Mu rose vibrating up my spine, exploded in my head.’
By January 1980 she has been asked to go to the remote Kannoji temple. Situated in the far northern prefecture of Iwateken she undergoes the harsh challenges of extreme cold whilst undertaking ‘takuhatsu’ (begging) around the local town to the astonishment of the local population who had never seen a woman engaged in this practice .
Her comments about life are at times so earthy, so honest, and so full of humour and then there is an arresting phrase that leaves the reader
pondering its depth, its beauty:
‘ 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.’
Maura works endlessly, cleaning the temple, cooking as Tenzo, gardening, sometimes without a care ‘just doing,’ sometimes raging at the perceived laziness of some of the monks who are supposed to be helping her. At other times she sees their deep compassion for her, a small gift unexpected, a gesture or remark that sustains her, wisdom arising from hidden sources.
‘Of late I feel ridiculously happy. No reason. Just bursting with joy………Now I am 26, and I feel I have lived my life. Strange sensation. Almost as if I’m close to death. Any desires, ambitions, hopes I may have had have either been fulfilled or spontaneously dissipated. I’m totally content.’
Maura received the dharma transmission of her roshi after 1000 days of practice.
‘ I begin Denpo-shiki (transmission ceremony). Three thousand full bows. Have one week to do it.’ I finished 3036 on the second day.’
Soshin’s wonderful account ( I’ve bought my own copy) of her practice is placed on my shelf next to ‘Zen Mind Beginners Mind,’ the book that inspired me to begin Zen practice.
Who was that stranger? How will I get his book back to him? Such generosity. A true bodhisattva? Manjushri? Even Avalokiteshvara?
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