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Chasing Śākyamuni - Part 3 of 4

Read Part 2 >> 

Bringing Zen Home 

—This book took root, Arai says, on December 18, 1996, the day my mother died. After months of listening to the whir of the oxygen machine, a vacuum of silence filled her bedroom. Even though I had known she would die, when I stood looking at the threshold of life and death, I felt as if any wrong move would send us off into an abyss of despair… How was I to insure my mother’s passage through this perilous transition?

Frantic for some clues about what to do, what would be the proper ritual for her mother’s passing, Arai called her Soto Zen nun friend Kito Sensei—whom we met before and with whom Dr. Arai and her mother had maintained a bonding relationship of trust and confidence. It was 1:45 p.m. in Nashville—3:45 a.m. in Nagoya.

—It was Kito Sensei, in her unheated worship hall ten-thousand miles away who guided me through those terrifying, disorienting moments… I was not alone. I was united with everyone who had lost a loved one… Trusting her to know what to do, I followed her instructions for treating our new Buddha properly—(conducting) the ritual of safely sending off the deceased on her journey to death… As I offered a stick of incense in her honor, I saw my mother’s face take on the peace that I have seen so often on images of the Buddhas. Our relationship was transforming before my very eyes… At that moment, the healing power of ritual became a visceral reality.1

One can easily deduce that Arai felt that experiencing interrelatedness—sharing suffering with someone else was a key to experiencing healing; and that a meaningful ritual for her mother, “my personal Buddha” was a form of expressing her own compassion. Because in Buddhism one is encouraged to see that “all of life can be lived as healing activity”—and that death isn’t the end but the starting landmark of living—she decided to enrich her life exploring her “visceral reality.”

She had maintained a “solid relationship” with Abbess, Aoyama Shundo Roshi, head of the nunnery where nine years before Dr. Arai had conducted her research on the Zen nuns. Now 1998, Arai submitted to the Abbess a plan for the study on Buddhist rituals among laypeople;2 then in June of that year, at one of the nunnery’s events for lay women, the Abbess introduced Dr. Arai and her project to a group of dedicated women Zen followers. Arai encouraged the ladies to contact her if any of them became interested in becoming a consociate3 for her scrutiny. Twelve of the ladies volunteered. Of the group, nine were WWII survivors and three were born shortly after the war; eight were either married or widowed and had experience in dealing with children; four had neither been married nor had had any experience with children. The volunteers’ ages ran between the mid-forties and mid-seventies. Each woman had a butsudan—a family altar at home; and all, except one, participated in public Buddhist rituals; “all the consociates deliberately sought out Zen practices and teachings for special reasons.”

In the opening chapter of her second book, Dr. Arai justifies her choice of ritual as theme for the studies, as follows: “Ritual is a key prism through which to view Japanese religiosity, because the category ‘religion’ is foreign and relatively new to Japanese culture.” And: “The view afforded by ritual is less cluttered and distorted than the view afforded by trying to see directly through the lens of religion.” With those perceptions in mind she embarked on a project that was to last more than a decade, and to which she refers as the study of “domestic Zen.”

The book is subtitled The Healing Heart of Japanese Women’s Rituals; small wonder then, that the first goal of the research would be to find a point of contact—a medical analogy—between the basics of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths,4 and healing. She began her research at the earliest Buddhist writings, and found the missing analogy in the BCE fifth century’s Buddhist texts, with no precedents identified in other literature. That discovery evidenced that “healing is at the center of Buddhist teachings;” that there is a “distinctly Buddhist creative development in framing its religious orientation;” that it is “a pragmatic experience;” and that “embodying compassion is the ultimate healing.”5 Since going to temple is more sporadic than practicing Zen at home, and since women in Japan are the center of the home, viewing the issue “through the lens of women’s practices and rituals” strongly appeared as the most correct route for the analysis.

* * * * *

Once one starts reading the experiences that Dr. Arai’s consociates shared with her, it is difficult to put the book away; each story seems the right one to justify her choice of the subtitle; however, for me, Mrs. Nagai’s odyssey is the most moving. It is also the story which most closely analyzes one specific ritual’s value—sutra copying6—in the process of healing. Nagai-san is portrayed as a very devout woman, “the epitome of refined grace and aesthetic movement” who has had to bear the burden of several tragedies in her life, including a meager and rough life as a child as results of the Pacific War; the early loss of her parents; the suicide of her “mentally unstable sister;” the strangling of her younger sister by a gambling husband only interested in her money; a year long trial that produced a short term imprisonment for the criminal; a failed experience at Catholic conversion, and an eventual round-about-return to Soto Zen, through the same nunnery where Kito Sensei teaches.

—The ritualized activities Nagai-san has done all along have given her enough breathing room to continue her pursuit of peace. This is notable, given all the trauma and loss she has experienced. Significantly, her ritualized practices have helped keep her resilient and open to seeing from different perspectives.

She even volunteered to serve, answering calls in the suicide prevention line. “Yet the deep peace she was seeking was elusive.” In her case, the final attainment of “emptiness” and finding relief came by an unplanned visit to a single-artist exhibit, Iwasaki Tsuneo’s Seeing the Heart Sutra at the Nagoya City Museum.

Only the researcher herself can tell you about the richness of her findings: the joy and frustrations experienced during more than ten years following twelve different lives; learning about traditional rituals; observing how human creativity produces compassionate acts that transform into rituals; studying, participating in, and logging the multitude of celebrations, and special events, which, enrich the lives of the Japanese from birth to death; and conferring with experts and colleagues for exploration, analysis, additional clues. It took Arai long months to condense her vast findings, and to design Yudo, The Way of Healing, a ten-step paradigm,7 which could be followed at home or in an institution.8 Because of the dynamics involved in these revelatory experiences, both Nagai’s healing, and Dr. Arai’s follow up work, I’ll discuss both more fully in the next chapter of this essay.

* * * * *

Let me go back and forth a little to review Arai’s years between the time she discussed the idea of her new book with Abbess Aoyama and that when the book was printed, 2011. In 1998, she received the Vanderbilt University Research Council Direct Research Grant, which was followed by a 1998 Fullbright Senior Scholar Grant—her second Fullbright award—which in turn was followed by a second Vandelbilt University Research Council’s grant of 2000. Then, the Carleton College Targeted Opportunity Grant in 2003; the American Academy of Religion Grant 2004, and a Mellon Faculty Fellowship of 2005.

Part 4 >>



1. Arai, Paula. Bringing Zen Home: The Healing Heart of Japanese Women’s Rituals. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 2011
2. Her own experience was that of a lay person, not a monk or a nun, conducting one of the most important rituals in Japanese life. Moreover, almost all the Soto Zen literature reflected the male viewpoint.
3. Dr. Arai wanted to decrease the traditional distance between researchers and researched since both were doing the project together; hence her preference for the term consociate.
4. The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are: that life brings suffering, that suffering is part of living, that suffering can be ended, and that there is a path that leads to the end of suffering.
5. Dr. Arai cites some of the current analyses in the field of “Neuroscience” about the relationship between the brain and the body’s healing processes.
6. Sutra copying as devotion originated in China; it was imported to Korea in the Third century, and most possibly from there it made it to Japan, where since the Nara Era (710-94) it became rather popular first in the Japanese upper crust and later, particularly among women, in the rest of the population. See: Stevens, John, Sacred calligraphy of the East. Boulder, Colo. 1981. London: Shambhala. 101–2.
7. See kanji on page 241 of Bringing Zen Home.
8. In 2015, the San Francisco Institute for Buddhist Studies adopted that paradigm as central to the curriculum for Buddhist Chaplains. How I wish every theologian, and every pastor, whatever their denomination, were able to read and profit from Dr. Arai’s experiences, and try to apply, at least some of her findings, to help those members of their congregations needing relief from suffering!


© 2015 Edward Moreno

buddhism Japan nuns Paula Arai religion women zen