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Bringing Zen Home

The Healing Heart of Japanese Women’s Rituals

Paula Arai

Publication Year: 2011

Healing lies at the heart of Zen in the home, as Paula Arai discovered in her pioneering research on the ritual lives of Zen Buddhist laywomen. She reveals a vital stream of religious practice that flourishes outside the bounds of formal institutions through sacred rites that women develop and transmit to one another. Everyday objects and common materials are used in inventive ways. For example, polishing cloths, vivified by prayer and mantra recitation, become potent tools. The creation of beauty through the arts of tea ceremony, calligraphy, poetry, and flower arrangement become rites of healing.

Bringing Zen Home brings a fresh perspective to Zen scholarship by uncovering a previously unrecognized but nonetheless vibrant strand of lay practice. The creativity of domestic Zen is evident in the ritual activities that women fashion, weaving tradition and innovation, to gain a sense of wholeness and balance in the midst of illness, loss, and anguish. Their rituals include chanting, ingesting elixirs and consecrated substances, and contemplative approaches that elevate cleaning, cooking, child-rearing, and caring for the sick and dying into spiritual disciplines. Creating beauty is central to domestic Zen and figures prominently in Arai’s analyses. She also discovers a novel application of the concept of Buddha nature as the women honor deceased loved ones as “personal Buddhas.”

One of the hallmarks of the study is its longitudinal nature, spanning fourteen years of fieldwork. Arai developed a “second-person,” or relational, approach to ethnographic research prompted by recent trends in psychobiology. This allowed her to cultivate relationships of trust and mutual vulnerability over many years to inquire into not only the practices but also their ongoing and changing roles. The women in her study entrusted her with their life stories, personal reflections, and religious insights, yielding an ethnography rich in descriptive and narrative detail as well as nuanced explorations of the experiential dimensions and effects of rituals.

In Bringing Zen Home, the first study of the ritual lives of Zen laywomen, Arai applies a cutting-edge ethnographic method to reveal a thriving domain of religious practice. Her work represents an important contribution on a number of fronts—to Zen studies, ritual studies, scholarship on women and religion, and the cross-cultural study of healing.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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Foreword, by Nara Komyo Yasuaki

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pp. ix-x

I first met Paula Arai in the winter of 1988 upon the introduction of Aoyama Shundō, a former student of mine who has now become a re-nowned abbess of the Zen nuns’ training monastery, Aichi Senmon Nisōdō. At that time, Ms. Arai was a young rising scholar doing research for her first book on Zen nuns. She has kept me apprised of her work...

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pp. xi-xii

It is a joy to express my deep gratitude for the large circle of people involved in this book. First, to the twelve women whose wisdom and spiritual practices fill these pages, I offer my work as tribute and thanks. Although I cannot mention them by name, each one is written on my heart. I owe infinite...

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pp. xiii-xiv

When I was beginning the field research for this book, I had the tremendous good fortune to listen once again to one of Sōtō Zen’s greatly respected scholar-Zen masters, Suzuki Kakuzen Rōshi. He had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer; although he was in the advanced stages of progression of the disease, he kept up a rigorous teaching schedule. Everyone...

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Chapter 1: Mapping the Terrain

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pp. 1-28

This book took root on December 18, 1996, the day my mother died. After months of listening to the whir of the oxygen machine, a vacuum of silence filled her bedroom. Even though I had known she would die soon, when I stood looking at the threshold of life and death I felt as if one wrong move would send us off into an abyss of despair. The last...

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Chapter 2: The Way of Healing Yudo 癒道

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pp. 29-64

The healing way of my Japanese Buddhist consociates involves discipline, ritualized practices, and expanding perspectives. Expanding perspectives facilitates a different experience of life for these women and transforms their relationships with events, circumstances, and people, including themselves. As I searched for the source of their practices and understanding...

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Chapter 3: Personal Buddhas Living with Loss and Grief

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pp. 65-107

Yamaguchi-san was raised on preparing to die. Not in a dark way, but in a realistic way. “My dad [a Buddhist priest] said we are designed to die. These words stick with me.” Death is not feared because it is understood in resonance with Kishi Iban Zenji’s poetic illustration given at a funeral...

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Chapter 4: Domestic Zen Living Esoteric Wisdom

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pp. 108-166

Zen in the daily life of a family is creative and flexible. Unlike its monastic counterpart, which thrives on control, discipline, and impeccable cleanliness, domestic Zen is at home with the chaotic, emotional, and messy lives of people struggling with their families, health, and jobs. This sphere of Zen has not received much scholarly attention...

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Chapter 5: The Healing Power of Beauty

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pp. 167-203

Beauty is the center of the Japanese women’s practices and locus of their healing. Indeed, the highly ritualized and aestheticized dimensions of Japanese culture are brought together in their way of healing. All ritualized activities the women engage in as part of their healing have an aesthetic dimension. The ones I highlight in this chapter focus on the explicit...

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Chapter 6: Revealing the Healing Realm of Zen

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pp. 204-216

Healing courses through the lives of contemporary Japanese Zen women, revealing a realm of Zen that thrives in the painful dramas and quietly heroic triumphs of the domestic sphere. Mapping new territory in Zen, this study demonstrates how ritualized activities transform emotionally intense moments—charged with fear, pain, and untamed anger—into healing...


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pp. 217-240

Kanji Glossary

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pp. 241-244

Bibliography of Sources Cited

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pp. 245-254


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pp. 255-262

E-ISBN-13: 9780824860134
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824835354

Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 794700714
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Bringing Zen Home

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Subject Headings

  • Zen Buddhism -- Japan -- Rituals.
  • Buddhist women -- Religious life -- Japan.
  • Healing -- Religious aspects -- Zen Buddhism.
  • Zen funeral rites and ceremonies.
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