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Bringing Zen Home: The Healing Spirit of Japanese Women’s Rituals by Paula Arai (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 435-438 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0065

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Bringing Zen Home, Paula Arai’s latest book, builds on her previous work on Buddhist nuns in Japan by turning her focus to female lay practitioners and, in particular, the ways in which they embody the teachings of Zen as a part of their healing regime. The close attention to the details of her subjects’ lives and their approaches to life and practice shed light on this understudied aspect of contemporary Japanese temple Buddhism. The book, however, is not without its flaws.

Chapter 1 opens with a personal story about the death of the author’s mother. This story, and the author’s journey in search of healing found within it, both set the tone for all that follows and help us to understand the research methods used and conclusions reached by Arai. It is also in this chapter that the author sets out her definition of healing and ritual. “In a worldview where the interrelatedness of all things is the primary point of reference, healing means to be in harmony with this impermanent web of relationships that constitutes the dynamic universe” (p. 3). And, “Rituals . . . can be a conduit to an intuitive experience of interrelatedness, based on the body, precisely because rituals can induce modes of being that transcend linear and rational logic and facilitate contact with the ineffable” (p. 3). Regarding ritual, Arai goes on to clarify that, for the purpose of this book, ritual concerns the ritualization of daily behavior. This is one of the strong points of the book—its intentional turn away from institutionalized practices and its at times insightful look at the more fluid and personal daily practices of the laity. In subsequent chapters, Arai introduces the lives and actions of her subjects using these definitions of ritual and healing.

Chapter 2 traces “the way of healing” within Buddhism. Following her definition of healing above, this chapter is not about overcoming specific physical or psychological illnesses (though they are not excluded) but about “the transformation of habitually deluded ways of looking at the world through the lenses of attachment and aversion” (p. 30). Arai lays out ten principles of healing that she identifies as the core of the healing practices of her subjects: experiencing interrelatedness, living body-mind, engaging in rituals, nurturing the self, enjoying life, creating beauty, cultivating gratitude, accepting reality as it is, expanding perspective, and embodying compassion. These principles become the hermeneutical touchstones for the chapters that follow. However, one problem that becomes clear in this chapter is the conflict within the book between Arai’s stated aim of understanding her object of study on its own terms and her obvious desire to show that the healing methods employed by her subjects are scientifically legitimate. Arai makes sure to note in the first chapter that her goal is to understand the lives of her subjects and not to explain the “truth” of their healing practices. Be that as it may, in her explanation of nearly all of the ten principles, she cites medical research to prove the effectiveness of the practice. The effort to prove the efficaciousness of the practices continues throughout the book, is distracting, and leads the reader to the conclusion that this is in many ways less a scholarly analysis and more a personal healing journey. If read as such a journey, the book holds many insightful points.

Chapter 3 looks at funeral and memorial rituals as a form of healing. One positive outcome of this approach is Arai’s observation that memorials and prayers before the family Buddhist altar must be understood as healing rituals. This serves to expand the more staid view of ancestor veneration as a form of social obligation or solely as a means to aid the dead. On the other hand, Arai’s term “Personal Buddhas,” which she uses as the central theme for the chapter, is highly problematic. Her basic assertion is that the dead should be understood as something far different than only ancestors—they become the personal Buddhas of the living. Her evidence for this does not appear to be drawn from her small interview sample but from one of the common terms for the dead, hotoke, and from the...



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