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

From: Monumenta Nipponica
Volume 67, Number 2, 2012
pp. 361-364 | 10.1353/mni.2012.0029

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Paula Arai's most recent study, Bringing Zen Home: The Healing Heart of Japanese Women's Rituals, explores the ritual-focused Buddhist practice of contemporary lay women-a practice Arai calls "domestic Zen." This book is based on her work with twelve women for more than a decade, during which she interviewed them extensively, participated in their rituals, accompanied them on pilgrimages and temple visits, and took their advice on how to cure her own illnesses, among other things. The author forged close ties with each of the women whose stories she tells, leading her to refer to them not as subjects but as "consociates," partners in the work of the book. In her previous study, the groundbreaking Women Living Zen, Arai brought to life the Zen of the nuns of the Aichi Senmon Nisōdō in Nagoya, and she applies the same fieldwork methods to depicting the ritual lives of the women in the cur­rent book, supplementing these accounts with detailed discussions of the role ritual plays in healing and domestic Zen. She describes the bond these women have with their beloved dead, their domestic rituals and practices, and their practice and appreciation of art and beauty, concluding with a chapter summarizing her findings and pointing toward future research on Zen ritual and healing.

Arai paints a fascinating picture of the lives of her consociates. The close relationships she developed with these women enable her to describe in detail not only their ritual practices, but their everyday lives, their struggles, and their creative pursuits, making this work an important contribution to the growing body of literature on contemporary Zen. Arai uses her research to develop a theory of the connection between Buddhism and healing. Her work differs from previous treatments of women and healing in Japanese religion in two important respects: first, she argues that the performance of rituals, even ones that are not overtly classified as being for the purpose of healing, cure these women of both physical ailments and psychic and emotional wounds. Second, she uses the idea that these women practice a way of healing, or yūdō, as a framework that can explain domestic Zen in a holistic way. Bringing Zen Home thereby contributes not only to our understanding of lay Zen but to our understanding of the place of healing in Japanese Buddhism as a whole.

This approach highlights the positive role ritual and other Buddhist activities such as copy­ing sutras play in these women's lives. For example, a woman named Honda-san was able to endure her chronic leg pain by engaging in sutra-copying. Chapter 3, "Personal Buddhas: Liv­ing with Loss and Grief," tells stories that make the specifics of the lives of Arai's consociates more vivid and immediate to the reader, inspiring sympathy. This chapter showcases one of the many strengths of Arai's method: by interviewing mature women, whose losses took place long before, the author is able to get at the effects of years, if not decades, of practice on one's relationship with the dead. Honda-san engages in ritual practice not only to cure her physical ailments. She says memorial rituals have brought her closer to her deceased mother because her mother is now able to be with her at all times as a guardian and companion, something that was logistically impossible when she was alive. Arai's explication of women's ritual cre­ativity as well as her use of healing as a category of analysis place this book in dialogue with studies on lived religion by scholars such as Manuel Vásquez, David Hall, and especially Rob­ert Orsi, whose work on American women's devotion to Saint Jude in the early and mid-twentieth century has particularly strong resonances with the volume under review.

The religious authority of these women and the responsibilities they hold become even clearer in the fourth chapter, "Domestic Zen: Living Esoteric Wisdom." Arai reveals a fasci­nating world of Buddhist practice, centered in the kitchen of women's homes, capturing its flexible, trans-sectarian qualities. These qualities, the author argues, do not make this kind of Zen any less authoritative than the Zen of...


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