By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — A U.S.-born Irishwoman who was educated at one of Dublin’s most exclusive convents and was later killed in a traffic accident is now revered in Japan as a Buddhist saint.
Maura O’Halloran, who left Ireland in 1979, is commemorated by a statue in Japan and is venerated as a reincarnation of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. Her story was told in an RTE One “True Lives” documentary on Tuesday, using her letters and journals, home movies, family photographs and Japanese TV footage of her time in the monastery.
In Buddhist terms, O’Halloran has been compared to St. Therese of Lisieux, the Carmelite nun known as the “Little Flower,” whose relics attracted huge crowds when they toured Ireland last year. Both died in their 20s after living lives of purity, devotion and religious study.
O’Halloran was killed on her way home to Ireland for a vacation. The bus she was traveling in plunged off a road in Thailand.
Her extraordinary path to sainthood began after she graduated from Trinity College. She became keenly interested in meditation and spirituality and also developed a fascination with Japan.
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To pursue both passions, she set off for Tokyo and then moved to a remote temple in Northern Japan and started formal Zen training. Three years later, she was a Buddhist monk.
What singled her out as exceptional was that she achieved Enlightenment in 1,000 days, a short time for a Buddhist to reach this state.
The head of her Japanese monastery wrote to O’Halloran’s mother that she had “achieved what took the Buddha 80 years in 27.”
O’Halloran was born in 1955 in Boston. Her Kerry-born father, Fionnan, had met her mother, Ruth, at University College-Dublin.
At the age of 4, she moved back to Ireland with her parents but returned to Boston in 1966 while her father did graduate study at MIT. Three years later, he died in a freak traffic accident and the family returned to Ireland.
After being educated at the Mount Anville Convent of the Sacred Heart in
Goatstown, O’Halloran then studied Mathematical Economics and Sociology at
Trinity College, where she became a Scholar, the university’s highest undergraduate academic attainment.
With a strong sense of social justice, she became involved in many social-work projects, but she also socialized and had boyfriends during her student days.
Friends recall her as charismatic, a born leader, with an infectious sense of humor.
After university, O’Halloran traveled extensively and studied photography, before she was drawn to go to Tokyo.
“At first I was horrified by what I saw,” she said in her first letter home to her mother. “Seas of people in gray and navy surged around me like so many uniformed ants. Their faces were expressionless, seemingly choked by their tight skinny ties. . . . In my best Japanese accent I could only think ‘Yuck’! I contemplated a speedy packing and exit.”
But she persevered and began the grueling physical and mental training to become a Buddhist monk that would test her to the limit.
For food, she had to go begging on the streets of Tokyo. In the mornings she would have to take a blunt instrument to crack the ice on her wash-basin.
Doubts surfaced in her journal. She wrote: “Christmas Eve. I was cold and sick of soji [cleaning], afraid that Tenno thought I wasn’t doing enough, so from guilt I was working more. Hating the guilt. Thinking of home and family and how long I’d be stuck doing stupid, menial cleaning, and with no enlightenment.
“Tears prick my eyes . . . Christmas Day, like any other day. Even the post office is open. I decide monastery life is not for me. I love life too much to lock myself away . . . but Roshi buys a cake and some champagne and they give me a party.”
She moved to the more remote Kannonji monastery and her Zen training intensified. But a new sense of tranquillity and joy came to her.
“Of late I feel ridiculously happy,” she wrote. “No reason. Just bursting with joy. I remember when I was young, deciding to commit suicide at 26. Once one hit 31 was over the hill, so 26 was far enough to live. I reckoned that if I hadn’t got done by then whatever there was to be done, I never would, so I might as well end it. Now I’m 26, and I feel as if I’ve lived my life. Strange sensation. Almost as if I’m close to death.
“Any desires, ambitions or hopes I may have had have either been fulfilled or spontaneously dissipated. I’m totally content.”
A year later, O’Halloran was dead. Her journals were found in the wreckage of the bus.
Her remains were cremated at Lapsang in Thailand and her ashes were interred beside her father’s in Lewiston, Maine.
The following year, O’Halloran’s mother and her brother Scott flew to Japan to attend an emotional unveiling of her statue. Part of the inscription reads: “She is given the posthumous name of Great Enlightened Lady, of the same heart and mind as the great Teacher Buddha.”
O’Halloran’s early death vindicated the Buddhist belief that she had reached her earthly perfection. The head of the monastery said that she had left this life to “start the salvation of the masses in the next one.”