We all have met at least one young woman like Maura O'Halloran. She's frighteningly bright (Maura, from Boston, won Ireland's highest academic award in 1973 and graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1977 with a joint degree in economics and sociology). She's passionate about helping people (during college, Maura worked with Irish drug addicts and the poor). She doesn't care at all about "female" issues (Maura wore shabby clothes and doubted she'd ever marry). And then, just when everyone else is getting sane and making some accommodation with the Real World, she goes off on a great adventure.
For Maura O'Halloran, that adventure was Zen training in Japan . She went to the Toshoji Temple in Tokyo in 1979 for training under its distinguished teacher, Go Roshi. It's an impossible discipline: 20 hours of sitting at a time, begging in freezing weather, endless chores . She loved it. By 1982, she was enlightened. Maura was the last person on earth to brag about her accomplishments, but it's quite clear --- she reached a level of feeling and thinking that a great many of us would give a lot to have.
"Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind" is a collection of Maura's journals and letters. They give an amazing insight into the process of Zen training. But that's not the reason to read this book.
The real attraction is that it speaks to the most essential spiritual concerns --- it slices a layer of dullness from your brain and helps you see clearly.
"The begging isn't bad at all. I wear literally ten layers of clothes and once the fingers and toes are numb, you don't feel a thing. It's nice walking through the streets singing at the top of your lungs. It's like Christmas caroling every day...."
"In the afternoon, I was very aware. Without an effort, I was just doing whatever I was doing, without distraction or forcing. Occasionally the thought would pop into my head, 'Hey, your mind is still.' Then even that vanished."
"I look at the clock. It is two o'clock . A long time later I look at the clock and it is only two o'clock. It is always two o'clock. I feel a great peace."
"Suddenly I understand why we must take care of things just because they exist; we are of no greater and no lesser value."
"I'd be embarrassed to tell anyone, it sounds so wishy-washy, but now I have maybe 50 or 60 years (who knows?) of time, of a life, open, blank, ready to offer. I want to live it for other people. What else is there to do with it? Not that I expect to change the world...but it's all I can do, as if the flowers have no choice but to blossom."
Now Butler must tell you something he has been holding back. Maura O'Halloran is dead. What an irony --- having achieved a level of enlightenment in just a few years that the Buddha took 80 years to reach, her light went out. She left the monastery for a brief trip to Thailand in 1982, the bus driver fell asleep, the bus went off the road --- and that was that. Dead at 27. Enlightened, and nowhere to go.
But is that really an irony? Or a Zen ha-ha? I can't tell. I do know that I read this book every few years. And I think of Maura from time to time and feel....oh, warm. Not because I sense that she's somewhere else, looking out for my family and me (I wish!), but because she represents the highest level of the possible: a person with pure dreams who made them all come true. No matter how many years you have on the planet, it's pretty hard to top that, isn't it?
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