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Chasing Śākyamuni - Part 4 of 4

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Writing on the Heart 

Thanks to the interviews with her consociates, Dr. Arai found numerous rituals, used by the interviewees, on their own interpretations of the Fourth Noble Truth that there is a path that leads to the end of suffering. Consociate Ms. Honda’s preferred the ritual of 写経 shakyo1, or sutra copying.

In the Nihongi, we find the Buddhist practice of shakyo early in the long history of Japan. It started officially during Emperor Shomu’s era (701-756). At the behest of Komyo, his pious and devoted Empress, Shomu created the Office for Copying Sutras. It operated with 736 specialists to transcribe the sutras, and store or distribute them. By the end of the Heian Period (794-1192) people began copying sutras as devotion—a prayer for healing, or for consoling the departed souls. For its conciseness and its beauty, The Heart Sutra2 became the most often copied.

In the previous chapter, we noted how Dr. Arai also came in contact with Mrs. Nagai, a woman whose life had been seriously affected by a succession of tragedies. An avid painter, Nagai-san had done much sutra copying, and Buddhist-image-painting, without attaining much relief. One day, out of curiosity she visited an exhibit by artist-scientist Iwasaki Tsuneo,3 Seeing the Heart Sutra. She was surprised to feel that Iwasaki’s art had helped her attain spiritual peace.4

* * * * *

On Saturday evening, March 6, 1999, Nagai-san called Dr. Arai quite excitedly, peace had finally found her. What triggered her epiphany was Iwasaki’s creative way of sutra-copying. Using the traditional Chinese characters to copy the text, instead of separating the verses into vertical blocks, he had re-configured them into ducklings swimming in their mothers’ wake; lightning bolts; waterfalls; bubbles, atoms, and ants; the image of Kannon, Goddess of Compassion; the DNA chain and other non traditional forms, “all interconnected and independent from static existence.”

Perhaps, Nagai’s long experiences with painting and with sutra copying had influenced her illumination; however, Dr. Arai could also sense that Nagai-san had found “the key to loosening the hold desperate loneliness and unrest had had on her.” Since the exhibit would close the following day, Dr. Arai rushed to attend it, hoping to find what made it so powerful.

“The art was breathtaking in its boldness and penetrating insight. It had humor and tenderness, sadness and delight,” says Arai. The artist’s reconfigurations of the sutra text grabbed one into experiencing something unique and profoundly impressive; something to be further scrutinized for the possibility of healing content. Certainly, Iwasaki is not the only artist who has attempted to “get out the box” in re-configuring the sutras’ appearance; but, his way was the most creative. Dr. Arai convinced Mr. Iwasaki to let her interview him, and that was the start of a strong friendship between them. The better she knew him the more she became impressed with his art and his spirituality. And that helped her decide to write a book about the significance of his creative work.

* * * * *

Arai began researching aspects of the role of ritual in healing, and its impact on the performer’s life. She chose to explore from cultural, psychological, and neurobiological viewpoints sutra-copying, painting; poetry; chanting and music; flower arranging; contemplating nature; chado—the way of tea; incense burning, and even simply bowing. “Engaging in ritualized activities that embody wisdom and compassion are the keys to Zen healing… Understanding the women’s way of healing through an analysis of its characteristic elements will enable us to more clearly see the nature of this realm of Zen,” Dr. Arai writes. To assist the process of such understanding, she followed the model developed by Religion and Medical Anthropology scholar Dr. Linda Barnes: “An Integrated Model of Healing and Illness,” which she describes amply in her second book.

—It gives a basis from which comparative studies and integrative methods can be pursued, and which does not necessarily have to be limited strictly to Zen healing.5

As we noted before, Dr. Arai’s lengthy study of the dynamics of Zen healing resulted in the creation of her ten-principle paradigm for Buddhist women.6

She provides us an interesting caveat to consider in any effort to find healing through rituals, which leads one to consider what works consistently and can be termed reliable.

—If it helps, it helps. If not, do something else. For example, bowing might be a “staple” to weave into a ritual if the aim is to activate respect, gratitude, and awareness that you are supported by a myriad of things. This could be tested by individuals, communities, and scientists.7

How? To provide a good example, Dr. Arai “recruited” Dr. Sascha du Lac, a Neuroscientist and Medical Investigator with John Hopkins Medical Institutions, to partner with her in a study “exploring the potential in focusing on ritualized gestures, especially bowing.” A paper authored by Arai is the first result from that effort.8

* * * * *

In 2007, Dr. Arai joined the Religious Studies faculty at Louisiana State University, where from 2010 to 2013 she served as the section head for Religious Studies. A theologian in her own right, she current teaches Asian Religions, Religion and Healing, Woman and Buddhism; Theories of Religion; Comparative Religion and Buddhism. She took a Sabbatical absence from 2014 to 2015 years, during which she accelerated the work for her coming book: Liberating Compassion Experiencing the Heart Sutra through Art and Science, and which she intends to complete by summer 2016, which means a publication date in 2017.

—In the other books, it’s clearly the scholar trying to understand her material, but this book is not based on research scholarship; what I’m doing is writing a commentary on Iwasaki’s paintings. It’s a vision of what comes to mind as you are viewing them, whether it’s the DNA, a lightning bolt, a candle, a planet, or a mythical figure; and likewise the changing flow of reality which is what Mrs. Nagai, of Bringing Zen Home experienced. I’m commenting on them not because they have an answer, but because they have a song to sing; a metaphor of harmony, which can entice people to change from being so divisive whether in life, religion, or science.9

Meanwhile, in early May 2015 she’ll be attending a very special event, a dance-choreography premiere on Iwasaki’s paintings at Brown University, and later will present a paper at a Conference on Meditation and Healing, between scientists and Buddhist scholars which will take place in Korea, later in the same month. She’ll also attend a Conference on Mindfulness and Compassion in San Francisco, an engagement between scientists, medical practitioners, and Buddhist scholars, in early June.

Remember Kenji, her little boy born during the final days on earth of her mother? He is accompanying her to the San Francisco conference.


* My deepest gratitude to Dr. Arai for the time spent with me for the interviews, despite her hectic schedule; for her permission to use liberally from her written works; for reviewing the entire series for accuracy, and most importantly for her delightful attitude of cooperation and sharing.


1. See: JAPAN—An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tokyo: Kodansha. 1993. Vol. 2-1355.
2. The Heart Sutra aka Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra is the “classic” of Mahayana Buddhism. It is conceived as the wisdom beyond-wisdom Invocation of Avalokiteshvara, himself the personification of loving-kindness. Hence it’s perhaps the most “formidable” combination for the expression of detachment and compassion, and the most significant ‘principle of liberation from the hold of detachment. Without any doubt its most remembered sentence is: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” See: Tanahashi, Kazuaki. The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Boston: Shambhala Publications. 2014.
3. Iwasaki Tsuneo (1917-2002) was a research biologist who, on retiring from a successful career as a scientist, found an extraordinary creative way to do sutra “copying.” In it, the insights from his scientific expertise meld with the insights he derived from his Buddhist tradition, in a challenging artistic, calligraphic genre, through which he expressed the relationship between science, art, and Buddhism. Arai 154,N113.
4. Ibid
5. The field of psycho-neuro-biology is, where analyses of the kind Dr. Arai describes seem to fit perfectly, is now being enriched with the work of specialists who devote all their efforts to such explorations. One example which immediately comes to mind because of its resulting volume of literature is the vast work of Zen practitioner, Dr. James H. Austin, (1925) (U. Missouri, School of Medicine), begun with Zen and The Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness. (MIT Press, 1998) Another distinguished researcher in that field is Dr. Richard J. Davidson, (1951) professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as well as founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, whom Dr. Arai recognizes in her work.
6. However, from our personal conversations, I did not derive the impression that she intended to restrict the use of her paradigm to Buddhist women. The fact that it is an integral part of the curriculum for Buddhist chaplains, who by the nature of our society may have to serve more than purely Buddhist patients, reinforces my belief.
7. Copying Buddhist sutras by hand has been shown to be effective in preventing dementia, according to a recent study by Tohoku University Professor Ryuta Kawashima, Japan’s top brain expert, who measured the cerebral activity of a sample of senior citizens in Sendai. In some 1,000 tests of participants, the study found that when the subjects were writing out sutras by hand, their brains became more active in certain areas than when they were performing any of 160 other tasks. Otake Tomoko, “Sutra-writing by hand to boost the brain.” Japan Times; December 24, 2006.
8. Arai, Paula K. R. Healing Zen: Exploring the Brain on Bowing. Disease, Religion and Healing in Asia. Convergence and Collisions. Ivette M. Vargas-O’Brien & Zhou Xun, eds. New York: Routledge, 2015. Chapter 10. pp. 156-69.
9. Verbatim from our interview of April 2015.


© 2015 Edward Moreno

buddhism Japan Paula Arai religion women zen