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Chasing Śākyamuni - Part 2 of 4

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Arai’s circuitous route to find the Buddha began at Kalamazoo, a “Christian-centered college,” where her major interest became Ethics. Coming from a church “very culturally activist, very concerned about social issues,” college was wonderful for the friendships, but disquieting for the practice of “Christianity” among those in the “Christian Fellowship” group on campus. In a world so complex and diverse as the current, holding to a “this is rightthat is wrong,” position was unsettling. Arai began asking a lot of questions, which made people quite uncomfortable;

“…they wanted to insure that I didn’t lose my faith…wouldn’t go astrayor end up in hell. So I said to myself: “Well, if this is a God not strong enough to handle the questions of a mere college girl, maybe it isn’t the God for me.”

Initially, she went to a Christian mystic trying to find comfort; then she encountered Whitehead’s writings1 and found his views on spirituality, religion, and process metaphysics enlightening. But, as reported before, she had become greatly interested in Buddhism when she entered Waseda University in Tokyo, during her mandatory year of oversea studies.

The connection with her Mom started to change; Arai began speaking Japanese to her, which made her Mom initially uncomfortable about the increased intimacy; but in time, Arai’s tactic greatly improved their bonding.

—I just wanted to be closer to Mom, and I’ve always felt that I was a much better daughter to my mother in the Japanese, than in the American culture.

Perhaps, that decision also affected Arai’s interest in her maternal “religion.” Then, “casual observances” of life in modern Japan left her feeling that Buddhism didn’t really exist there; and she became somewhat cynical about it.

Passage to India

In 1987, Paula, now a budding Buddhist scholar, was looking for significant opportunities to deepen her studies. Through a friend, she learned about a job as translator for the Japanese Temple in Bodh Gayawhere Śākyamuni attained enlightenment. Since kindergarten, Arai had always attended “summer school”; now she felt the need for some time to rest for: “at least a full semester.” Accepting the job would let her explore the culture reigning when the Buddha was enlightened; spend some four months in India and get a two-month rest in Japan. Little she suspected that an unplanned encounter under the Bodhi Tree with a 62-year old Japanese Sōtō Zen Nun, 鬼頭春光 Kito Shunko, would radically alter her life.2 She and Kito Sensei became good friends.

I was deeply moved at having encountered a person who genuinely lived according to the Buddhist teachings. At that time, Kito Sensei introduced to me the book written by the Abbess of her community in Nagoya, On Becoming a Beautiful Person;3 these experiences and events drove me to come to Kito Sensei’s Zen monastery in Nagoya, Japan.

After completing her period in Bodh Gaya, Arai sped to Nagoya.

For centuriesand tainted by the misogynistic shibboleth (purported by some men and furthered uncritically by male scholars) that women can’t ever attain nirvanaBuddhist Zen writers brushed off their works the charisma of women. So, despite her ample research, Arai had never learnt that a monastic order of Buddhist Zen nuns had been alive in Japan, or that women had been active in Buddhism throughout its 2,500 long years.4 In that revelation, Dr. Arai saw the tempting opportunity to conduct “a study of Japanese women who had chosen Buddhist monastic practices in pursuit of wisdom and compassion.” In January of 1988, Arai met Aoyama Shundō, the Abbess of the main Sōtō Zen nunnery, where she underwent a long meditation retreat. Armed with what she felt was the result of her meditation, she decided to convince the Abbess to let her do field research on what it means to be a Buddhist nun. The Abbess was not much open to the idea; other “researchers” have tried that and failed miserably; but if Arai really wanted to conduct her research, it would be under the Abbess’ terms. Arai had to agree to live an entire semester within the monastery,5 with no privileges or exceptions from any rule; no quitting would permitted before the end of that period, however challenging it might turn.

Ego Extermination, Inc.

Towards the end of the 1989 summer, Arai spent four months in the convent, behaving like any other novicealthough she was allowed to retain her long hair.6 After that initial period she had to live for nine additional months in a nearby temple. Arai’s “trip” became an unforgettable chapter of her life, intensely lived in a most challenging, stark, and rigorous milieu where “now was NOW,” and where every second reminded one of the imperative to annihilate all ego manifestations. One would think that the Sōtō Zen novitiate would render a totally inept, subservient being, incapable of any personal effort. However, Arai found the complete opposite: the training produced a formidably compassionate new woman, profoundly grateful, after consecration, that she had become a nun.

They do not leave the same as they entered. Their hearts have been polished like stones in a tumbler, becoming rounder, smoother, and brighter with each motion of interaction with the other nuns, teachers, and laity affiliated with the nunnery.7

Next, she conducted a nationwide survey to gain broader insights into the self perceptions, motivations, and attitudes of nuns from different regions, ages, and backgrounds, and additional research among Japanese scholars at various institutes and universities; and finally she also joined the research group “Japanese Women and Buddhism.” The process led her to discover a veritable treasure of “books, journals, and other publications by nuns, which are not catalogued in any library or in the Soto Zen Sect’s headquarters.” Additionally, she was constantly encouraged to search for something new, somewhere else.

Her dual ethnic background, her actual biculturalism, which included mastery of the Japanese language, and her American training, all were of superb value during the entire project, during which she had to teach while she was learning. Her Academic international background in Buddhist studies helped her interpret the western views of Buddhism to her Japanese friends; and the enormous learning she acquired in her research with the nuns, allowed her to inform the Japanese scholars, totally ignorant about that aspect of their religion. Incessantly, Abbess Aoyama continued questioning the purpose of each move in her work; in the end, expressing her approval “with a twinkle in her eye,” the Abbess sent Arai back to academia with her trove of findings. Evaluating the entire process Arai states:

I consider my work one possible interpretation of the dynamics of Sōtō Zen monastic women in modern Japan. I base my work on people with faces and names familiar to me, writings of monastic women and men, and the frustration, insight, and acceptance that I have experienced.

* * * * *

In time, Dr. Arai married the grandnephew of one of the Premieres of China before the country adopted Communism. By then she had expanded her credits as a valuable teacher at Brown University, Vanderbilt University, and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology; the marriage produced a lovely boy, Kenji. When delivery time arrived:

My mother came to Nashville to share this idyllic time treasuring the special joys of three generations under one roof. After three months, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. (But) she had five more sublime months with her beloved grandson. She lived to see him sit up on her bed. She died in 1996.

Part 3 >>



1. Alfred North Whitehead. 1861-1947. For an excellent overview of his works, please see:
2. Instrumental to the construction of the Japanese Temple in Bodh Gaya, Kito Sensei had spent long years there since the early seventies. She had now returned for her “last visit” to her beloved site.
3. This book has been translated into English. See: Aoyama, Shundo. Zen Seeds. Reflections of a Female Priest. Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Company. 1991.
4. Buddhism has been practiced in Japan since about 552 BCE.
5. That meant experiencing life at the nunnery as a novice, obeying all the rules, and strictly following their pattern of living with no exception, an ordeal Arai recounts with exquisite detail in her work. See: Arai, Paula Kane Robinson. Women Living Zen. New York: Oxford University Press. 1999.26
6. Aichi Senmon Nisōdō has a program Josei Kyoshitsu designed for lay women who want to explore monastic life.
7. Nanzan Bulletin 14. 1980. 38-51


© 2015 Edward Moreno

buddhism hapa Japan nuns Paula Arai religion women zen