I’m reading excerpts from the diary of Maura O’Halloran, an Irish woman who lived in a zen monastery in Japan in the eighties.
“Respect life,” she says. “Not because it’s right or good or moral but because it is.”
This thought came to her when she was sweeping the floor and she felt compelled to save the dying wasps that were collected together with the dust. She could have used a vacuum cleaner and finished work earlier, but she didn’t.Maura died, aged 27. Because she practised zen so sincerely, people called her a saint.
Is it good to die before middle age?
Her diary is interesting. She comes alive in an honest, unadorned way. I can easily imagine her making her observations, walking around with her bald head and robes. Saying:
“Women are really repressed here, forced into a mold of a giggling innocent.”
She herself is what’s been called an honorary male: she chops wood, keeps the same hours as the monks and goes begging without socks:
“All the while there was the build-up to going begging this month. A couple of days before we were to leave for the north, one of the monks came to my room with an armful of bandages. I asked what they were for. “Your wounds,” he replied solemnly. We both consulted our dictionaries to make sure bandages and wounds were the right words. They were. I closed the door and wondered just what I’d let myself in for this time.”
Is it good to be brave?
I know a zen nun who told me people get up to offer her a seat on public transport. Not because she is a nun, but because they think she has cancer. This embarrasses her, although she holds no power over other people’s imagination. A bald head can mean many things to many people.When I was thinking of shaving mine, another nun said:
“Let me just give you a number one crew cut. It’s the shortest you can cut your hair but it is still a haircut.”
She meant the haircut would be seen as a fashion statement, not as proof that I had joined a cult and gone mad.
Is it good to go all the way?
A commentator on David Yerle’s blog said: “I believe in goodness.” That made me stop and think. What does he believe in? What’s good?
When Maura came to Japan, the floating world and the austerity of the monastery appealed to her with equal force. In her own words:
“Either way was a search for liberation – freedom from inhibition, from other people’s values, from their suffocating puritan ethic born from the delusion of a retributory hereafter.”
Respect life because it is. Not because it’s good. Don’t waste time thinking about the dying wasp’s place in the whole of the earth’s ecology. How could we judge that? Tonguesandwich claims he’s a vegetarian because he hates plants. He makes an important point: should we be vegetarians for moral reasons? And would that make us good people?Darwin commented on the lengths plants go to for survival. Is that unimportant because they don’t seem to have a brain? Should I starve myself out of empathy? To save peas?
What do you think?