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Paula Arai - Published Work

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The Little Book of Zen Healing

How do we make and sustain meaning amidst the messy conditions of daily life? Personalized rituals can help us blossom like lotuses right in the mud of the present. On a pilgrimage she began after her mother’s death, author Paula Arai encountered numerous Japanese Buddhists who taught her the remarkable power of ritual to heal—practices you can adapt to your own cultural and personal circumstances. Applying principles of Zen practice, she offers stories and insights that illuminate how to nourish and reap a healing bounty of connection, joy, and compassion.


Examples include how to:

  • Relate to a late loved one as a “personal Buddha” who supports you.

  • Create a home altar to serve as a safe space to be vulnerable, face intense emotions, and experience a depth of warm gratitude that melts fear and anger.

  • Engage in daily tasks with attentiveness, intention, and creativity such that they become opportunities for body- mind integration.

  • Develop family rituals to celebrate relationship and mark transition.

  • Approach illness and grief with a purposeful sense of connection to life-and-death in its wholeness.

    Like Marie Kondo's Shinto principles for decluttering, Paula Arai uses rituals influenced by Japanese Zen for personal and relation nourishment and spiritual healing.

Where Fear and Love Meet

How healing rituals can help us navigate the unpredictability of grief

By Paula Arai

AUG 22, 2023

 AUG 22, 202

Excerpt from The Little Book of Zen Healing

The Little Book of Zen Healing is a gift. In it, Paula Arai distills the wisdom, kindness, and care of our women ancestors into small yet empowering rituals we can practice in our lives to heal ourselves and those we love

Ruth Ozeki, author of The Book of Form and Emptiness

Paula Arai offers a tenfold Zen path to healing. A map to appreciating life and death just as it is. Enduring and timely rituals to alleviate our suffering..

Duncan Ryūken Williams author
of American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War

This exquisite book is medicine for our time. It is a book that you will return to, again and again, for the profundity of its wisdom and practicality of its path

Joan Halifax, author of Being with Dying and Standing at the Edge

Intimate, honest, revealing, caring—listening and learning to heal. This is a book of revolutionary wisdom

Kazuaki Tanahashi, author of Zen Chants

This book is warming rays and quenching rain, fragrant tea and wholesome meal, shimmering brocade and hardworking tenugui cloth. Crafted with utmost care, it perfects the art of giving all that is beautiful, practical, and protective. ‘Daily life is brimming with possibilities to enact healing rituals,’ Dr. Arai writes. The dancing words in these pages show us how, inviting us into a lineage of time-hewn wisdom and limitless love.

Chenxing Han, author of Be the Refuge and one long listening

After decades of important ethnographic study and spiritual practice in Japan, Paula Arai here presents us with a beautiful expression of the path of healing that has been the through-line of her life. To many, Zen means austere meditation and paradoxical sayings, but in this lovely book, full of brilliant stories and simple practices, Arai shows us that, more than this, Zen is a way of profound healing, and of beauty and harmony. I have long valued the ritual side of Zen practice, which Arai beautifully extends and develops. The Little Book of Zen Healing is an important book for Zen students . . . and everyone else.

Norman Fischer, author of When You Greet Me I Bow: Notes and Reflections from a Life in Zen

Paula Arai has spent years, actually lifetimes, learning attentively from a generation of elderly Japanese women whose daily, hourly Zen practices infuse their lives and the lives of their families with quiet, invisible beauty, prayer, and awareness, imbuing small gestures with peace, equilibrium, and subtle, penetrating healing power. This book is alive with deep understanding, light, transformation, and secret joy

Peter Sellars, opera, theater, film and festival director

Paula Arai has spent years, actually lifetimes, learning attentively from a generation of elderly Japanese women whose daily, hourly Zen practices infuse their lives and the lives of their families with quiet, invisible beauty, prayer, and awareness, imbuing small gestures with peace, equilibrium, and subtle, penetrating healing power. This book is alive with deep understanding, light, transformation, and secret joy

Peter Sellars, opera, theater, film and festival director

Paula Arai on The Little Book of Zen Healing by Tova Green

Zen in Ten: "A Luminous Dancing Flux"

The Power of Japanese Rituals to Heal


AUG 30, 2023



Spoons, flowers, face masks…

Cosmic tools of compassion.

Nursing moves the mud.


Garden Heart

Ancient waves move

Eons of light through our hearts,

Illuminating love.



Reaching for the sky,

Growing quietly in strength,

A redwood weathers.



Invisible threads

Weave together with love.

Touch, see, taste, hear, smell.



The more mud,

The bigger the heart.

Healing blossoms in the mud.







Waterfall of tears

Flowing with marrow of life.

Hearts gather below.



Holding an old broom,

My troubled heart awakens.

Cosmic dust glitters.



Sun dances in the sky.

Rain dances to the earth.

Love dances through our hearts.



Hungry hearts gather.

Feast on sunshine, rain, and soil.

Eggplant wisdom fills.



Not too big or small

Vessel of warm welcoming

Room for all to be.

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Bringing Zen Home

Healing pulses at the heart of Zen in the home, as Arai discovered in her pioneering research on the ritual lives of Zen Buddhist laywomen.  She reveals a vital stream of religious practice that flourishes outside the bounds of formal institutions, though sacred rites that women develop and transmit to one another.  They use everyday objects and common materials in inventive ways.  Cleaning cloths, vivified by prayer and mantra recitation, become potent tools of healing in their hands.  The creation of beauty through the arts of tea ceremony, calligraphy, poetry, and flower-arrangement becomes for them rites of healing.  

This study of contemporary women’s ritual practices brings a fresh perspective to Zen scholarship by uncovering a previously unrecognized but nonetheless vibrant strand of lay practice.  The creativity of domestic Zen is evident in the ritual activities that women fashion, weaving tradition and innovation, to gain a sense of wholeness and balance in the midst of illness, loss, and heartrending anguish.  Their rituals include chanting, ingesting elixirs and consecrated substances, and contemplative approaches that elevate cleaning, cooking, childrearing, and caring for sick and deceased family members into spiritual disciplines.  Creating beauty is central to domestic Zen and figures prominently in Arai’s analyses.  Arai also discovered a novel application of the concept of Buddha nature as the women honor deceased loved ones as “Personal Buddhas.”

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Painting Enlightenment

A stunningly beautiful, full-color book of Buddhist paintings by twentieth-century Japanese artist Iwasaki Tsuneo, interpreted by Buddhist scholar Paula Arai.

Little known during his lifetime, the Japanese biologist and artist Iwasaki Tsuneo (1917-2002) created a strikingly original and exquisitely intricate body of modern Buddhist artwork. His paintings depict themes ranging from classical Buddhist iconography to majestic views of our universe as revealed by science--all created with the use of painstakingly rendered miniature calligraphies of the Heart Sutra, one of the most important scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism. In this groundbreaking book, Paula Arai presents over fifty of Iwasaki's paintings, elucidating their Buddhist contexts and meanings as well as their intimate connections to Iwasaki's life as a war survivor, teacher, scientist, and devout Buddhist practitioner. Having been posthumously recognized by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Iwasaki's paintings are sure to be regarded as an innovative and heartfelt contribution to the artistic legacy of twentieth-century Buddhism.

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Women Living Zen

In this study, based on both historical evidence and ethnographic data, Paula Arai shows that nuns were central agents in the foundation of Buddhism in Japan in the sixth century. They were active participants in the Soto Zen sect, and have continued to contribute to the advancement of the sect to the present day. Drawing on her fieldwork among the Soto nuns, Arai demonstrates that the lives of many of these women embody classical Buddhist ideals. They have chosen to lead a strictly disciplined monastic life over against successful careers and the unconstrained contemporary secular lifestyle. In this, and other respects, they can be shown to stand in stark contrast to their male counterparts.

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The Oxford Handbook of Buddhist Practice (edited by Paula Arai and Kevin Trainor)

Popular representation of Buddhism often depict it as spiritual, disembodied, and largely devoid of ritual. Yet embodiment, materiality, emotion, and gender shape the way most Buddhists engage with their traditions. The essays in The Oxford Handbook of Buddhist Practice push beyond traditional representations of Buddhism as divided into static schools and traditions, highlighting instead the contested and negotiated character of individual and group identities.


This volume will serve as a corrective to the common misconception that Buddhist practice is limited to seated meditation and that ritualized activities are not an integral dimension of authoritative Buddhist practice. Essays in this handbook explore the transformational aims of practices that require practitioners to move, gesture, and emote in prescribed ways, including the ways that scholars’ own embodied practices are integral to their research methodology. Authors foreground the role of the body, examining how the senses, gender, specific emotions, and material engagements impact religious experience. They highlight, as well, the multiplicity of methods and theoretical perspectives that scholars of Buddhism use in their research and writing, including field-based, textual, and historical approaches. Given the fluidity and diversity of Buddhist practices, the question that animates this volume is: What makes a given practice Buddhist?

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