The proposition of learning from wild women who broke the rules in unapologetic and pioneering ways sounds like the perfect recipe for 2019.
More than a year ago, I discovered Marian Broderick’s Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives From History, a seventy-plus list of short biographies. I shared the article below on WomanScape about Maura “Soshin” O’Halloran” that feels particularly relevant as we usher in 2019.
It speaks to how many of us get in the way of our own happiness and set goals that fail because fear or pressure to follow conventional thinking and action holds us back. It’s not revolutionary to want to think for ourselves and find our own truths but we live in an age where taking chances, being honest and staying true to who you are is difficult.
Maura exemplifies was it means to do all of the above as a young woman who moved to Japan and achieved a Zen state of enlightenment at the ripe old age of only twenty-six.
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. It details her search to purify her thoughts and the unconditional acceptance she felt among her fellow monks.
Maura was amazed that her gender was not an issue. Thinking about her quest to attain “mu” (to embody a completely blank mind and to erase all worldly concerns), I admit this idea is completely foreign to me. I want to live in the world and fill my mind.
But having visited Bangkok several years ago, I sensed a spiritual feeling of something greater than myself. I visited Buddhist temples and traveled to the countryside seeing dozens of golden statues. Whether it was a lying Buddha, reclining Buddha, or sitting Buddha, all conveyed a strange spiritual calm that wrestled with my Catholic beliefs – those 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 luxury shopping malls 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.
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.
Looking back at this experience and the roads that I have traveled throughout my life, I know enlightenment is not found in books, temples or churches. These can provide valuable knowledge and guidance for living a contemplative life, but they are not enough. Enlightenment will also come from within – from reflection and shaping of self.
Maura Soshin O’Halloran’s life was purpose-driven and reflective. But her happiness and enlightenment also came from the convergent paths we share with one another – that is, being true to our own conscious state within the world and those who share it with us.
It’s simple to say we need to understand our interconnectedness. But it’s challenging to be open to the world but committed to helping others while defining our own path and staying true to self.
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.”