Sister Elaine MacInnes of Moncton begins her autobiography on the beach at Shediac, New Brunswick—a place with a great deal of significance for my family. My wife spent her summers there as a child, and it was one of the places she was most eager to introduce me to after we’d met. When our children were young, our family and the friends I’m currently staying with outside of Toronto spent two weeks every summer there.
A film on Sister Elaine produced by Vision TV begins with her on a beach which, if not actually Shediac, is supposed to represent it. She uses the setting to tell the story of the little salt doll who discovered her true nature by allowing herself to dissolve in the ocean. It’s as apt an analogy of kensho as I know.
“I suspect,” I tell her, “that you are the only transmitted Zen teacher to come from Atlantic Canada.”
“Oh, yes. For a while, I would have been the only one from Canada.” She isn’t bragging. One can tell from her tone of voice that she remains amazed by the events of her life.
The full import of what she said doesn’t hit for a moment. I’ve been hugged by the first Canadian to receive authorization to teach Zen. That’s pretty cool.
Our meeting takes place in the Mother House of Our Lady’s Missionaries, the order of Roman Catholic nuns to which Sister Elaine belongs. A friend of hers, Patrick Gallagher, arranged the meeting and joins us. He tells me that when Sister Elaine returned to Canada after years abroad as a missionary sister, a friend of his told him—“This is what I thought he said!”—that he was going to attend a “talk on Zen.” That sounded interesting, so Patrick expressed an interest in attending as well. “I’ll check to see if it’s okay,” the friend said. Patrick thought, “This must be a very shy woman if she vets her audience!” Eventually he was called in for an interview, and it became clear that a discernment was being made about whether he was a suitable candidate to take up Zen practice. “The first time we sat was on chairs, facing the wall. We were told to keep physically and mentally still for eleven minutes. I thought, ‘That’s impossible!’” The friend didn’t come back; Patrick kept returning.
Sister Elaine became a nun after her fiancé was killed during the Second World War, and the order sent her to Japan. There she met the Jesuit, Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle who was studying and practicing Zen. Sister Elaine had some curiosity about Zen and decided if Father Lassalle was practicing, “It had to be okay.”
She decided she wanted the person who introduced her to Zen to be a woman, so she was put in contact with a Japanese Abbess, who at their first meeting said, “If you believe God is in Heaven, then you have no place in Buddhism.”
Later, Father Lassalle introduced her to Yamada Kuon Roshi—“Who must surely be one of the great Zen teachers of the 20th century.” He was more welcoming. Although he did not understand the concept of a God external and responsible for creation, he respected the Christian practitioners he had met and was happy to work with them. Sister Elaine achieved kensho during her second sesshin with him, and then went on to complete the koan curriculum of the Sanbo Kyodan School of Zen. “Philip Kapleau didn’t, you know,” she reminds me—as others have as well.
After twenty years in Japan, her order sent her to the Philippines and supported her when she set up a zendo there.It was during the Marcos regime. One of Marcos’s staunchest critics was Horatio “Boy” Morales—who was arrested in 1982 and confined for four years, during which time he was subjected to torture and other indignities. He decided that he wanted to use his time in prison to learn Zen; after all, there is not a great deal of difference between a monk’s and a prisoner’s cell. He requested that Sister Elaine visit him to provide instruction. There were only fifteen prisoners in the facility, and fourteen of them practiced with her.
When Morales was released from prison by Corazon Aquino, he talked openly about Sister Elaine and his Zen practice. Suddenly she was an international celebrity. This led to an invitation to come to Britain to work with the Phoenix Trust, an agency that worked for prisoners’ rights. Soon she was teaching meditation in English prisons.
Things were a little tougher when she came home to Canada; the prison system was suspicious and couldn’t categorize the work she was doing so it took a while for her to gain access. But eventually she made inroads and was eventually awarded the Order of Canada for her work.
So I also got a hug from an Officer in the Order of Canada—that’s kind of cool. But not as cool as hugging the first Zen Master in Canada.
Cypress Trees in the Garden:
MacInnes, Sister Elaine – 133-40, 141-42, 174, 304, 309