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Chasing Śākyamuni - Part 1 of 4

In the beginning…

To: Dr. Paula K Arai, PhD ・ Associate Professor and Section Head of Religious Studies. Louisiana State University.
Subject: Inquiry

Dear Dr. Arai: Please excuse me for taking the liberty of contacting you without having been formally introduced. I’ve read with delight your recent book Bringing Zen Home, which impressed me enormously, since you deal with the issue of Zen from many brand-new and exciting angles. Your findings about Zen-at-home seem an ideal topic for a column; I’d like to respectfully request your permission to quote in it from both Bringing Zen Home and Women Living Zen, with due acknowledgment to the sources…

* * * * *

To: Edward Moreno
Subject: Re: Inquiry

Dear Mr. Moreno: Thank you for your kind missive and the honor of your request. Yes, of course, please use the materials in the books to whatever advantage they may serve. I will enjoy looking at some of your pieces…

This is how a learning adventure started last year…one of sharing intimate experiences, learning new paths in the area of Compassion, and reflecting on what each of us can do right when our world seems unable to stop tumbling into all kinds of antagonistic directions.

I first came across Dr. Arai’s writings while helping a friend do her research for a paper on the praxis of religion, where, rather than just speculating, you choose that here-and-now to practice what you claim to believe…and jump right into doing it.

In her first book, Women Living Zen (Oxford U. Press, 1999), Dr. Arai mapped the fascinating trail women have created in the world of Sōtō Zen Buddhism in which many old writers brushed off women into invisibility. However, Dr. Arai shows us how women have helped formulate Soto Zen into a method of daily living.1

It took me a couple of days of non-stop reading to savor her explorations into that new reality…and several more to transact the exquisite and copious footnotes that enrich that work.

Immediately after, I was hungry for the second opus, Bringing Zen Home, (U. Hawaii, 2011) which details how lay women have found and practiced the beauty of Sōtō Zen through the commonest chores of their daily lives. But that is jumping way ahead, so let’s start where we’re supposed to.

* * * * *

(Photo courtesy of Dr. Paul K. Arai)

Besides allowing me to use her printed materials to help with the details about her work, Dr. Arai also granted me two, long, Skype interviews. She was born in Detroit in the ’60s, the daughter of an “Anglo-American father and an especially dark-skinned Japanese mother.” Among the strongest memories of her childhood surges that of a vibrant address that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave at her Methodist Church in the center of her hometown.

Holding my Mom’s hand that morning, I felt her excitement as I peered over the balcony to see every inch of every pew filled with people I did not recognize. I sensed that something momentous was happening. My mother walked with a proud gait I had not seen before.2

Summer of 1967 turned into the “Summer of Riots” in Detroit, and life in Paula’s stately old neighborhood became rather violent.

I vividly remember several occasions when I was jumped on the way home from school or on the way to the public library two blocks away. I never got more than scratches and bruises, and the wind kicked or pushed out of me. Since I came from a supportive family, it was easy to see that the groups of kids who would pursue an elementary school girl were not as fortunate.

In 1972, the family moved to a safer neighborhood in Dearborn, only to find, soon after the move, that “mother’s dark skin was not welcome”3 there.

Racial animosity infused our daily lives, giving us a chance to see the dynamics of ethnic prejudice from the other side. No matter how many cherries, apples, or ears of fresh corn my mom delivered to the neighbors’ doorstep, the tension continued. Sometimes we returned home to find weeds strewn across the property line and onto our driveway… I did not see any buddhas living in that neighborhood. However, I’m grateful I had to experience all that, I could just have grown up as an insensitive middle-class girl.4

On the other hand:

Educationally, Dearborn, the world headquarters of the Ford Motor Company was heaven; the city had the best public school system that money could buy, and there was plenty of that.5

She attended Edsell Ford High School in Dearborn, and graduated in 1978. She began studying music with a violin teacher who recommended her to attend the small, private, Liberal Arts institute, where he taught. She won a scholarship and went to Kalamazoo College, where she chose two majors: Music, and Religion. Kalamazoo College had a unique requirement for the junior year student: to spend it abroad, a total of nine months learning a different culture, and then writing a paper about her experiences there. She selected Japan.

In Japan I found my mixed ethnic background helped the gathering of information and gaining insight. I could intuitively highlight my “insider” persona when appropriate and draw out my “outsider” persona when prudent. Instead of the required nine months, I ended up spending two years in Japan, and found myself having to fill one after another “deviation” forms, so I could retain my place in school…6

In 1980, in Japan, Dr. Arai entered Waseda University’s International Student Program, and she began to formally study Japanese Buddhism. She also joined the University’s Orchestra. She was astonished at the Japanese musician’s behavior at an orchestra, where each performer lives togetherness to a T, and must exercise cooperation to its fullest.7

Since Kalamazoo College required the completion of specific projects, she satisfied one with a thesis on Alfred North Whitehead’s Ethics, and the other with two music concerts: one recital on koto, and a violin recital.

For graduation, she had to write a paper on her own interpretation of “Religion;” no text or concept assigned. The student had to express clearly what she saw as “religion.” After having spent years learning, commenting, and experiencing Christianity—the Old and the New Testament; seminars; retreats, Bible studies; lecture, she jumped at the assignment with total confidence.

One of her professors found the results very curious. Arai had processed Religion through the scope of human interrelations; how people hurt each other by being unkind and aggressive; how to stop the drift towards violence; but no God; no Jesus; and neither salvation nor resurrection.

Paula, said the instructor, this isn’t Christianity; this is Buddhism.8

Then her violin teacher gently encouraged her to concentrate her efforts at excelling in Religion, rather than on becoming a professional musician.9

With that in mind, she looked for a suitable institution where to pursue her aim. Both the University of Chicago and Harvard seemed attractive. U. Chicago especially attracted her because the Dean of the Divinity School was the distinguished religious educator Joseph Kitagawa.10

…and who could ask for a better personal mentor!

Harvard loomed more as hubris than tough learning, so she set her hopes on U. Chicago.

Nonetheless, her father convinced her to, at least, attend the Prospective Students’ Day at Harvard. She was stirred by that institution’s program and environment; it could be, precisely, the milieu where she could benefit the most by addressing religion as a human experience. Then, Dr. Kitagawa died, and that erased any doubts about Harvard as her choice. Being only in her early twenties, she was able to invest some ten years pursuing her PhD through Harvard.

—I chose the study of Comparative Religion, because I was born betwixt and between a Japanese Buddhist mother and an American Christian father… I started learning about the vast spectrum of idealistic aims and horrific events throughout world history. I was drawn to the Buddhist vision of interrelatedness. I studied, among other things, salient moments in Buddhist history, different styles of Buddhist art, and a range of philosophical trajectories. I became especially fond of the teachings of Dogen (1200-1253), the founder of Soto Zen…

And yet…

I didn’t see any buddhas at Harvard either, so I began to wonder if people actualized their Buddha-nature anymore.11

In our next section we’ll encounter Dr. Arai’s first Buddha, an aging Zen nun from Nagoya.

Part 2 >>


1. ;Dōgen Zenji (道元禅師; (1200-1253) founded the Sōtō school of Zen in Japan after travelling to China where he trained under the most illustrious monks of his days. Dōgen is known for his extensive writing on Buddhist enlightenment, in which he stresses the total absence of discrimination against women in the original teachings of the Buddha.
2. Arai, Paula. “Seeing the Buddha in our Midst”. Dharma World Magazine. July-September, 2013. Vol.40. 15-17. Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co.
3. Ibid.
4. Interview with the author; April 2015.
5. Ibid.
6. Arai; Seeing the Buddha.
7. “Having played with several American orchestras at various levels taught me that the Japanese individual behavior in an orchestra is totally unique,” says Arai. “It’s part of the cultural trait of subduing the ego to help attain group success.”
8. Interview with Dr. Arai.
9. However, she had won in 1982 and 1983 the Fan E Sherwood Memorial Prize in Music.
10. Dr. Joseph Mitsuo Kitagawa (1915-1992) was born in Japan, and came to this country in 1941 to enter a seminary. During the bitter days of WWII, he was forced into a detention camp, as a potential enemy alien, and spent 3½ years there as a prisoner. However, he was able to finish his theological work; became an Episcopal priest, and was able to serve among the detainees. In 1951, he became a Professor of Religion at U. Chicago, where he rose to Dean. He wrote and translated extensively, and became one of the most trusted experts in Religions of the World, particularly the Asian world.
11. Interview.


© 2015 Edward Moreno

buddhism Dearborn Detroit discrimination hapa Japan Joseph Kitagawa Michigan Paula Arai racism religion zen