- Bringing Zen Home: The Healing Art of Japanese Women’s Rituals by Paula Arai
Based on more than a dozen years of intensive interactions with a small group of Japanese Buddhist laywomen who identify mainly with Sōtō Zen, Paula Arai delves into aspects of Zen Buddhism that have not been described previously, namely laywomen’s domestic rituals. As her subtitle indicates, she is especially interested in how their domestic rituals help these women heal from myriad difficult circumstances—family dysfunction, loneliness, terminal illness, and death of beloved relatives, among others. Arai emphasizes that her “consociates,” as she calls them, do not belong to any kind of Buddhist elite but are ordinary people with ordinary levels of education. They are not versed in textual Buddhism, nor are they meditators, though many of them regularly participate in rituals such as chanting or sutra copying. Domestic rituals, learned from family members, from trusted religious advisors, or discovered by trial and error, are their main realms of expertise. Arai emphasizes throughout the book that, despite their ordinariness and lack of credentials, these women consistently exhibit profound practical wisdom, especially evident in their ability to cope well with difficult circumstances.
Though Dōgen did not explicitly write about any of the rituals these women focus on, and though the women actually combine practices from several Japanese Buddhist sects, at least in some cases, Arai insists that their practices and sensibilities place them primarily within the arena of Sōtō Zen. She consistently interprets their ritualized ordinary activities as methods of manifesting Buddha-nature, which is a primary concern of Mahāyāna Buddhism in general and Sōtō Zen in particular. These women can also be identified primarily as Zen Buddhists because of the importance of a female Zen roshi, Aoyoma Shundo Roshi in the lives of many of these women. Arai takes great care to show her readers how simple domestic daily activities undertaken by her consociates actually express the most profound levels of Buddhist insight, even though these women would usually be unable to articulate those insights verbally.
Early in her study, Arai enumerates ten principles that she claims constitute Japanese laywomen’s “Way of Healing” (12). Much of the book is an expansion on these ten principles, which are experiencing interrelatedness, living body-mind, engaging [End Page 217] in ritual, nurturing the self, enjoying life, creating beauty, cultivating gratitude, experiencing reality as it is, expanding perspective, and embodying compassion. Anyone familiar with Buddhism and with Japanese culture will immediately recognize that many of these principles are commonplaces of Buddhist thought and of Japanese culture.
Those ten principles take effect mainly in three arenas that Arai discusses in detail. The first of them is a lengthy description of how a deceased loved one becomes a “personal Buddha” through rituals that help these women live with grief and loss. Arai explains well that Japanese Buddhist ways of dealing with death would not be about “closure,” because the deceased are not lost, not dead and gone. Rather, the dead are still present, albeit in a radically changed form—each as a “personal Buddha.” The home shrine provides an arena in which the living and the dead continue to interact. The dead are still present in some way and are interacted with on a regular basis. One touching incident narrates how a woman who has lived alone for many years enters her apartment each evening and says, “I’m home.” She is addressing her deceased parents, whose photographs are on her home shrine. Arai says that in her heart, the woman hears her parents return her greeting with the traditional Japanese response phrase and knows that she is not alone. Her personal Buddhas are with her and continue to provide support for her. This daily ritual was not taught to this woman, nor did she consciously think it up. It simply became part of her daily ritual life.
The second major arena in which these ten principles are put into effect involves domestic Zen rituals. This is...