Remembering “Irish Zen Saint” Maura O’Halloran

Maura O’Halloran was a young Irish-American woman who took to Zen practice. Since her passing, O’Halloran’s story has captured imaginations everywhere.

Lion’s Roar
17 March 2017
Maura O’Halloran as depicted on the cover of the most recent edition of Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind.

Since her passing, Maura O’Halloran’s story — and the unflinching way in which she told it — has captured imaginations everywhere. She is even considered a saint of sorts by some.

In 2005, the team at Wisdom Publications got an offer to meet with O’Halloran’s family about an expanded volume of Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind. We jumped at the chance. A handful of us drove North to Maine, to talk about Maura and the future of her one-of-a-kind book, with her mother Ruth O’Halloran and her sisters Beth and Kate. Ruth was very close to her death, yet she insisted on meeting the prospective publishers of the new edition, and securing its release as a last, dying wish.

Our three hosts clearly understood what the book could be. But most notable was their loving appreciation for each other, which seemed almost tangible. Ruth had raised up an impressive group of strong, artistic, charismatic women, and had served as role model for them too. But had they all become even more close-knit in response to the loss of Maura?

There’s no way to answer such questions, of course, but Maura’s words — her very life — had a unique way of touching people.

Maura was regarded as a kind of saint in Japan, and has since achieved a sort of casual, honorary (albeit wholly unofficial) sainthood by some Westerners as well. As Robert Ellsberg writes in his book, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses From Our Time:

In a Buddhist monastery in northern Japan there is a statue of a young Irish-American woman whose memory is revered by many pilgrims. How a Catholic woman came to be honored as a Buddhist saint is an interesting story of “interreligious dialogue.” But it also says something about the convergent paths of holiness and their capacity to meet in a spirit of compassionate awareness. […] Her short road to holiness in a Zen monastery has been compared to the compressed career of Therese of Lisieux, the French nun who set out as a child to become a saint. Both young women, having accomplished their spiritual business in this world, promptly departed.

Writer Garth Stanton furthered the idea of Maura as religious inspiration to Buddhists and Christians alike to his peers in the publication Monastic Interreligious Dialogue:

Can we not say, in truth, that Maura O’Halloran, formed by the Word, brought that Word, the essence of God, which is Love (1 John 4:8) in silence to the People of the Silence so that they could comprehend it? And comprehend it they did — the statue at Kannonji Temple honoring Maura as a Bodhisattva (a Buddhist saint) attests to that!

If some readers (Christian, Buddhist, or otherwise) are given to thinking of Maura as a saintly guide, it’s no doubt because she had — has? — such humanity; we can see in her life our best selves, and the way we struggle to let our best selves flourish, in them.

As Sumi Loundon Kim wrote in her appreciation of Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind in the premiere issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly:

Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned from Buddhism haven’t come from His Holiness the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh. Rather, they came through reading the personal reflections of the late Maura O’Halloran. […] Maura’s experience spoke to me not only as a woman but as a Westerner. In her simple, down-to-earth way, she describes the lived Zen experience that is much more human than it is Eastern or Western. […] For me, Maura’s book is a gift, offering guidance and inspiration. Reading about her life, I’m able to reflect more clearly on my own experience, and to glimpse what I do not yet know or understand.

While Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind would come to be published in several languages, O’Halloran’s legacy would stretch beyond the confines of the printed word. In 2002, director Alan Gilsenan, in association with Yellow Asylum films, released Maura’s Story (“the story of a young Irish-American woman who became a Buddhist saint”), a well-received documentary for Ireland’s national television station, RTE.

Perhaps the most evocative and succinct tribute to Maura comes to us from the world of popular music. In “Soshin” [O’Halloran’s given Buddhist name], from his 2001 album Between the Mountain and the Moon, singer-songwriter Luka Bloom shares not just Maura’s story, but also the way it has moved him, and each person he’s told it to:

The snow begins across the mountains
Covers the rice fields
Down below a woman awakens
Her breath is frozen in the early morning
Out on the freezing streets
With bell and bowl she goes

People come to see the face
People come to feel the light
Of an Irish Girl

Everything in the world is new
Everybody I tell wants to know you
Soshin… Soshin…

She washes noodles by the open window
Wet and soft between her fingers
The air of spring blows on her face
And the moment is eternal
Maura sits in the dark womb-like stillness
She’s thinking ‘How can I die or cease to be?
I am eternal, I am Roshi!’

Everything in the world is new
Everybody I tell wants to know you
Soshin… Soshin…

She may not change a blade of grass
Nor light the flame for souls to see
But in this silent Easter morning
She has found a friend in me

An Irish girl

Adapted from from the expanded edition of Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind (Wisdom Publications), with permission.

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