“Happiness is the choice I make today. It does not rest on my circumstances but on my frame of mind. In cultivating the habits of happiness, I attract the people and situations that match its frequency.”
This quote by Marianne Williamson, an American author, activist and spiritual leader, makes happiness sound so easy. When tragedy occurs or things like a marriage breakup or death happen, we are quickly reminded that happiness can feel very elusive.
That’s why I love this story about young Maura O’Halloran. Her unlikely path to enlightenment as a Zen Buddhist offers some provocative thought. I stumbled upon Maura’s story while wandering through Dublin a few years ago when I discovered Marian Broderick’s Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives From History. It was one of a number of gems I’ve found at the old Connolly bookstore by Trinity Square.
Maura’s story begins in Boston, where she was born in 1955 but it changes quickly when her family moves back to Dublin in 1970 after her father is killed in a roadside accident. Knowing her father had been pursuing a doctorate in civil engineering at Harvard, it was no surprise to discover Maura earned Ireland’s highest academic scholarship when she entered into Trinity College. There, she completed an undergraduate degree in mathematical statistics and linguistics.
But Maura’s thirst for social justice and helping others was as keen as her intellect.
As a young girl, her father’s sudden death made her acutely aware of life and the need to help her mother and five siblings. As a university student, Maura was always involved in humanitarian causes and carried a special respect for the work of Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India.
Maura planned to continue her studies but decided to travel the United States, Canada, Peru and Tokyo to explore a casual interest in the Buddhist faith. Nothing could have prepared her for what happened next after she entered the Toshoji Temple in Tokyo.
Overcome by a sudden and overwhelming feeling that she had come home, she decided to stay at the temple. A monk agreed to tutor her in daily practices and observances in the Buddhist faith that included meditation, chanting, menial work and begging in public with minimal sleep and food.
Maura was so devoted that the monks called her ‘Soshin-san’ for her generous heart and open mind. The Dogen Zen Master of the temple was equally impressed by Maura’s faith and decided to promote her after only three years of study to a Tenzo monk. As a woman and a foreigner to Tokyo, Maura was the first to be accepted in 1982.
Now known as Soshin, her high rank put her second in line to become the Dogen despite her being a woman and so young (26 years).
Typically, disciples of Buddhism spend a lifetime pursuing this level of enlightenment so this was a highly unusual and a great honor but Maura’s wisdom and compassion were developed well beyond her age.
Knowing it might be her last chance to tour Southeast Asia before fully committing herself to the monastery, Maura decided to take a short break. But this decision would be Maura’s last and she would die only six months after completing her program. Maura was killed in a horrific crash while traveling on a bus in Bangkok shortly after leaving the monastery.
Her family was overcome with grief and collected Maura’s journals, the only worldly possessions she owned. They decided to publish them posthumously under the title, Of Pure Heart and Enlightened Mind. In another strange twist, they discovered Maura had a strange premonition about her death but wrote about how she was completely at peace with it.
Maura’s journals described her path to enlightenment in what can only be called a Zen-like saintliness.
She had hoped to build a Buddhist temple in Ireland to unite different faiths under one roof. What she found in the Buddhist faith was an unconditional acceptance of her gender among her fellow monks. They admired her desire to attain “mu”, a completely blank mind free from worldly concerns. As in the past, Maura had achieved this goal in its most extreme form by moving beyond all worldly concerns.
While inspired, I’m not sure I could ever imagine achieving this kind of total detachment from our beautiful world and the ones I love. But I do understand the emotional impact that sacred places like churches and temples can create.
Having visited Bangkok several years ago, I was mesmerized by the thick smell of burning incense and storied histories they vessels hold. A calm serenity exists through Thailand’s countryside too, especially when you stand next to massive golden statues like the Reclining Buddha.
I remember thinking of Maura as I glimpsed the activities of industrious monks and their young charges, who follow behind them in monasteries and throughout Bangkok. This life seemed so distant from our modern world that I couldn’t imagine living such a solemn life.
Perspective is everything, of course, and I realized my stay at the Lebua Hotel (renowned for its exceptional service and vanishing edge pool next to a sky-bar 820 feet above the city) was certainly unlike anything Maura had ever experienced in her travels. The Lebua provides the best views and the tuk-tuk mini-vehicles and rickshaw bikes weaving among street traffic are more typical experiences for people living in Thailand.
Maura’s joys were obviously far greater than anything buried in the books or places that most of enjoy. However, her spirit of adventure, travel and experiencing other cultures is certainly a good place for exploring happiness and a contemplative life.
Maura’s life is a testament to the many roads for finding happiness and enlightenment, and I do believe each of us must discover our own path. As a writer, I’ve found the more open I am to the world and others in it, the more the world seems open and accessible to me. People are certainly the foundational building blocks for helping us to achieve happiness and peace.
As you chart your course, Maura’s journal entry may inspire you to seek this truth:
“I’m twenty-six and 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. … 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?”
For more about Maura’s journey to enlightenment and her collected writings, click HERE.