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The women are connected with Aichi Senmon Nisodo in Nagoya, the major Japanese training center for Soto Zen nuns. A few are monastics, while most are laywomen who come to the convent to receive teachings, take part in ceremonies, and practice various arts. For these laywomen, however, most of their religious life occurs at home, and is what Arai calls domestic Zen, or “healing in the midst of a mess.” The head of the convent, Aoyama Shundo Roshi, emphasizes the importance of supporting laywomen because each one supports so many other people. Most of the women lived through World War II, and most have experienced significant trauma and illness. Before Arai spoke with them, few other people had ever listened to them recount their painful experiences.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the focus of their religious lives is healing—but healing in a very particular sense, grounded in their understanding of Buddhist teachings. As Arai explains it, suffering comes from the mistaken sense that a person is unrelated—separate, alone, and unsupported. This leads to loneliness, accompanied by fear and craving for things that cannot be. Healing is experienced as a peace that doesn’t shatter in the presence of difficult events or delusional thoughts, and which is the result of a heartfelt experience of interrelatedness: each of us is integral to an all-encompassing network in which compassionate support is constantly being given and received.

Prayer, for example, is less a matter of a petition to a specific figure than a request sent out through the net of interconnectedness. At the same time, there’s a strong awareness of listening for and receiving the prayers of others. In this way each woman becomes Kanzeon, whose name means “Perceive the Sounds of the World,” or as it is frequently translated “She Who Hears the Cries of the World.” The aim is to have Kanzeon’s heart, the heart of compassion that accepts everything. You help your heart grow bigger so that everything will fit—even the things you don’t like or agree with. According to Gyokko Sensei, one of the women featured in Bringing Zen Home, “With Kanzeon you see the world not through the eyes, but through your heart-mind. Then, everything will appear differently. Look deep from the heart-mind… All things in the universe communicate through the heart-mind.”

In contrast, rejection of outer circumstances or inner states creates negativity, which enslaves a tremendous amount of energy and calcifies into bitterness in the heart. If painful emotions and illnesses are seen as buddhas, too, it becomes possible to “forgive” them and even develop an intimacy with them. “Healing from grief does not mean that grief will stop,” Arai says. “On the contrary, healing involves expecting and preparing for the changing seasons of grief.”

Healing is a way of “holding your heart,” an orientation toward life rather than a rigid program of belief and behavior. It’s a constant improvisation aimed at retraining the self toward harmony with the way things are, which is interrelated and impermanent. It’s a point of view that “expects change and encourages you to see yourself as part of something big.” These women are perfectly comfortable both adopting traditions and adapting them to their needs. For example, it’s customary for married women to tend a family altar for their husband’s ancestors, but they’ve enlarged tradition by setting up second altars for their own ancestors. Meditation isn’t an important part of their practice, but rituals are. Arai says that “the types of practices found in domestic Zen are done amidst the sound of water running for the laundry, dishes, and baths. Adding [sacred] water to the rice the family will eat for dinner is seen as much of a key ingredient in nurturing the family as are soy sauce and seasoning.”

In addition to tending their family altars, the women chant, copy sutras and images of figures like Kannon, ingest sacred symbols and sacred water for healing, join in communal ceremonies at the temple, meet together in small groups for rituals, go on pilgrimage, and participate in arts like calligraphy, flower arranging, and the way of tea. In times of crisis they chant Nenpi Kannon Riki (“I call on the power of Kannon”). On many different levels, they find the refuge of the guest in these practices. For example, everything in the universe is seen as a buddha, but the ancestors on their family altars are “personal buddhas” to whom they can bring their whole selves. Gyokko Sensei explains, “I don’t feel that they will just take care of my problems. I feel that they will look with warm affection. I do pray they help things go in a good direction.” In Japan it’s customary when someone returns home to call out “I’m home!” and whoever is in the house replies, “Your return home is welcomed!” Honda-san always calls out in this way when she returns home, even though she lives alone. She’s speaking to the personal buddhas on her altar, and she hears their welcoming reply in her heart.

It’s glorious to hear all the voices in Bringing Zen Home and Searching for Guan Yin—to feel the common yearnings, the different responses to them, and the ways that host and guest can blend into each other. These women’s prayers, their outer and inner pilgrimages, and their understandings have entered the vast net of interconnectedness, and we have the pleasure of receiving their communications, heart-mind to heart-mind.

From the March 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

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