It’s no secret that tens of thousands of books have been written about happiness.
The number of self-help gurus and Oprah-style lessons on meditation and paths to enlightenment are exhaustive. Like most people, I live merrily until there is some unrest or tragedy: a marriage ends, someone dies, a cancer diagnosis, or a life-altering events reminds us of our mortality.
Enter the history of the world and Marian Broderick’s Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives From History. The wealth of lessons from remarkable lives lived is an attractive proposition. I stumbled upon this gem of a book in Dublin’s oldest and arguably most radical bookstore near Trinity Square, Connolly’s .
The proposition of learning from wild women who broke the rules in unapologetic and pioneering ways is promising. Like Broderick, I “limp with an Irish background” with my muddied ancestral roots. But within the covers of this seventy-plus list of short biographies, I am moved by the story of Maura “Soshin” O’Halloran. She was a young woman who moved to Japan and achieved a Zen state of enlightenment at the ripe old age of only twenty-six.
But serious questions came to mind: how does an Irish Catholic move to Japan and master enlightenment in one year and, better yet, why? Broderick takes us through a brief history of Maura’s roots: born in Boston to the O’Hallorans, moved with the family to Dublin where Maura is educated in Loretto convent schools, academic scholarship to Trinity College and graduates college with a degree in mathematical statistics and sociology. (The photo above is taken in a special meeting of two rivers, north of Dublin in County Wicklow. St. Patrick said that a dream had brought him to this sacred place.)
This seems an unlikely path to Buddha, but Maura’s desire to help others and a love of travel take her to volunteer posts in parts of the United States, Canada and Peru after graduation. Naturally a spiritual person, Maura decides to travel to the Toshoji Temple in Tokyo. There she asks to train as a monk and becomes the only woman and the only foreigner to be accepted.
The training is extreme and involves daily observances like meditation, chanting, menial work and begging with minimal sleep and food. Broderick notes that Maura is given the name Soshin, meaning enlightened, warm heart; which makes Maura very happy since Soshin rhymes with Oisin, the Gaelic word meaning “little dear” and the namesake of an Irish poet and warrior legend.
Maura’s deep love for her fellow Japanese monks and her disciplined study impress the Dogen Zen Master so much that she graduates in only a year as a Tenzo monk and named second in command. While this achievement might be a prescription for finding Zen, it goes completely awry when Maura is suddenly killed in a bus accident. At 27 years of age, she intended to do a short tour of Southeast Asia but died in Bangkok, Thailand.
Maura’s journals came to be called Of Pure Heart and Enlightened Mind , with many people believing she had become a sort of Zen saint. Her words provide a fascinating insight into her path towards enlightenment, and the joy she hoped to bring to Ireland by founding a temple and teaching Zen.
In 1994, Lion’s Roar – a Buddhist magazine – shared some of Maura’s reflections about life behind temple walls. What surprised me was her candid thoughts about gender (which were never an issue) and the unconditional acceptance she felt among her fellow monks. But when I think about her quest to attain “mu” (to embody a completely blank mind and to erase all worldly concerns), I can’t imagine anyone ever achieving this kind of detachment from our beautiful world.
Having visited Bangkok several years ago, I remember sensing something greater than myself. Entering several Buddhist temples and traveling into the countryside, I saw dozens of golden statues. Each was unique and massive in scale – whether it was a lying Buddha, reclining Buddha, or sitting Buddha. To my surprise, each seemed to elicit a strange spiritual calm even though my mind wrestled with the Catholic doctrines also initially shared by Maura.
Traveling through the streets and touring along the Chao Phraya River, I considered two worlds: the modern conveniences of cars and a luxurious shopping mall commingled with the solemn but industrious movement of brightly clad monks and their young charges. I wondered what it must be like to live behind tall iron gates and if I could ever relinquish all worldly possessions.
Bangkok is filled with incredible architecture and royal lifestyles, like my stay at the Lebua Tower. The hotel service was exceptional and super affordable, with rooms costing the same as those of two or three star hotel in America. The vanishing edge pool and Lebua sky-bar, perched some 820 feet above the city, boosts one of the best views in the world.
No wonder one of the scenes from the movie Hangover-part 2 was filmed there. It could easily be mistaken for a Las Vegas hotel. The photo taken from the balcony of my room shows how developed Bangkok is despite the massive poverty and simple vehicles used to get around; tuk-tuk mini-buses and rickshaw bikes were a popular sight.
Only now, looking back at this experience and the roads that I have traveled throughout my life, do I realize that enlightenment is not found in books, temples or churches. While these can provide valuable knowledge and guidance for living a contemplative life, they are not enough.
The inter-religious dialogue that Maura Soshin O’Halloran pursued was personal and purpose-driven but incomplete. There is no one way to happiness and enlightenment except through the convergent paths we share with one another and the awareness that comes from the everlasting pursuit of being more conscious.
It’s simple to say we need to understand our interconnections. This is particularly challenging if we see it as a burden. What I do know is that the more open I am to the world and the more I reflect without judgment on those who come into my life, the more happiness and understanding seem to follow.
While researching this article, I found a startling journal entry by Maura. The source looks like a Buddhist blog – if such a thing can exist – and the entry is written by someone named Terebess . Maura is preparing to leave the temple
and tour Southeast Asia. She knows her life has been purposeful and satisfied, and eerily portends her death. The challenge for each of us is to ask ourselves how satisfied we are with life as we know it.
“I’m twenty-six and I feel as If I’ve 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. Of course I want to get deeper, see clearer, but even if I could only have this paltry, shallow awakening, I’d be quite satisfied…. So in a sense I feel I’ve died. For myself there is nothing else to strive after, nothing more to make my life worthwhile or to justify it. At twenty-six, a living corpse and such a life! … If I have another fifty or sixty years (who knows?) of time, I want to live it for other people. What else is there to do with it? … So I must go deeper and deeper and work hard, no longer for me, but for everyone I can help.”