The Irish-American woman who became a Zen Buddhist monk
Maura Eileen O’Halloran died at the age of 27, and was given the posthumous name of 'Great Enlightened Lady'
Kannonji Temple in Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in Kyoto, Japan, where Maura O’Halloran trained to be a Buddhist priest and where a statue was erected in her honour. Photograph: iStock
Many people struggle to find spiritual meaning for their entire lives. Maura O’Halloran became a Zen master in her 20s and planned to return to open her own training centre in Ireland. But it wasn’t to be.
Born in Boston on May 24th 1955, O’Halloran was the eldest among one son and five daughters of engineer Fionán O’Halloran, originally from Tralee, Co Kerry, and his wife Ruth O’Halloran, a teacher from Maine.
Her father was killed in an accident when she was 14. She was educated at Loreto Convent in Dublin, and the Sacred Heart Schools in both Dublin and Boston, and won scholarships to Trinity College Dublin, from where she graduated in 1977 with an honours degree in mathematical economics, statistics, and sociology.
Her interest in meditation began during her teenage years, and as she grew up she became interested in Buddhism. In 1979, after travelling and working in various places, she went to Japan to study Buddhism. “The usual job as an English teacher didn’t interest me,” she later wrote.
She joined Tóshóji, a Zen temple of the Sótó sect, in Shinagawa-ku in Tokyo, and in December 1979 she had her Tokudo, a ceremony of entrance to the Buddhist priesthood. At this point she received her Buddhist name, “Daigo Soshin Bikuni”. “The monks are not at all sexist. I’m one of the lads,” she wrote.
The following three years were spent in training, mainly at the Kannonji temple in Yahabacho in northern Japan, and Tóshóji. Within six months of her enrolment at Tóshóji she had achieved kenshó (enlightenment). She was known to her fellow priests for taking the strictest way in her training, and was highly regarded by her master, who began to consider her as one of his successors.
There was some disagreement between O’Halloran and her master, as she had started to think about opening her own dojo (training centre) back in Ireland, while her master planned to make her his successor at Kannonji temple. In June 1982 she underwent the Denbóshiki ceremony which qualified her as a priest in charge of a temple, and her graduation was held on August 7th, 1982.
Although O’Halloran planned to continue her studies in Japan, she left on October 9th for a trip to Maine and Dublin, en route travelling in Southeast Asia: Hong Kong, Macao, and Thailand. On October 22nd 1982, she was killed in a bus accident on her way to Chiang Mai from Bangkok in Thailand. She was 27.
She was given the posthumous name of “Great Enlightened Lady, of the same heart and mind as the Great Teacher Buddha”.
In 1983 the “Maura Kannon” statue was built in Kannonji temple, and her mother and brother travelled to Japan for its unveiling. Her letters and journals were published as Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind (New York, 1994), and were translated into several languages.
An RTÉ radio documentary, Soshin Goddess of Mercy, was aired on the 15th anniversary of her death, containing interviews with her mother, sister and friends. It also featured thought-provoking extracts of her writing.
“At times I’m so happy, other times so vexed with my trivial mind,” she said. She also mentioned her intention to work for “a society that fosters more spiritual, more human values … they should work for each other, not for personal gain, and they shouldn’t have to worry about economic muck.”
It was a short life, but she felt fulfilled.
Based on Keiko Inoue’s biography of Maura O’Halloran (edited for this Extraordinary Emigrants series for Irish Times Abroad by Clare McCarthy) in the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.