By Tova Green
Paula Arai is the Eshinni and Kakushinni Professor of Women and Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley. She has just published her fourth book, The Little Book of Zen Healing: Japanese Rituals for Beauty, Harmony, and Love.
During the pandemic, Paula says that she wanted to do something to alleviate the suffering she was seeing. She thought of her second book, Bringing Zen Home, The Healing Heart of Japanese Women’s Rituals. This book, a research study, focuses on the healing rituals of Japanese lay women. She realized that their stories might benefit many people who were experiencing isolation and loss during the pandemic.
As she was considering this, Paula received a specific request from Peter Sellars, an American theater and opera director. A professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), he teaches Art as Social Action and Art as Moral Action. He told her Bringing Zen Home had gotten him through the first summer of the pandemic. He wanted to give the book to others and asked Paula to “write the version I can give to people,” a less scholarly version.
When Peter Sellars said, “You can do this. It’s needed,” her enthusiasm for writing the book was sparked. “These words were rocket fuel, coming from someone who lives in a different world from me, someone who knows how to reach people and transform them.”
In writing The Little Book of Zen Healing, Paula wanted to reach a wide audience. To do so, she broadened the range of stories, including many from her own life and from the lives of some of her family members and friends. For example, in the chapter “Grieve,” Paula included a ritual she did at the time of her mother’s death, a ritual friends turned to when their baby died soon after birth, and her own response to the sudden loss of her beloved dog. She thought readers might transpose the story about the loss of her dog to losses they had experienced: “[A story like this] cracks the door to experiences of loss without being overwhelming.”
Paula felt a little vulnerable sharing her own stories. “I’ve always tried to be sincere, to be honest about what I’m going through. I saw the reader of the book as a friend I could trust and share my life with. That made it safer to be vulnerable. Everyone has fears, insecurities, and doubts. Some people might experience reading the book as similar to the support you get from a friend or from a guided meditation.” She likens the book to a conversation with old friends—and with friends she doesn’t yet know. “From this perspective you hear the stories differently.”
Each of the thirteen chapters begins with a single word title, such as “Cook,” “Flow,” “Grow,” and “Harmonize,” depicted in strong, elegant calligraphy by Paula’s Japanese Zen teacher, Kito Shunko Sensei, followed by a question. For example, the question for “Flow” is: “What rituals might help me suffer less through the uncertainties and fears that accompany difficult life passages?” Each chapter ends gently, with a watercolor painting and a poem by Paula.
Paula’s first public presentation of the book was with a group of hospice volunteers trained by Alistair Shanks through the Zen Caregiving Project. She chose some stories from the book with the intention of providing a safe space for the volunteers to speak of their own experiences of sitting by the bedsides of those who were dying.
Two of Paula’s earlier books, as well as her new book, are available through the San Francisco Zen Center Store: Painting Enlightenment: Healing Visions Of The Heart Sutra and Bringing Zen Home: The Healing Heart of Japanese Women’s Rituals.
On Saturday, November 18, 2 – 3:30 pm, Paula Arai and Kanshin Ruth Ozeki will engage in an online conversation titled and based on Paula’s new book: The Little Book of Zen Healing: Japanese Rituals for Beauty, Harmony, and Love.