There’s a koan from the Book of Rinzai that Zen master MyoOn Chiko Maurine Stuart loved. “Which is the true eye of Avalokitesvara, or in Japanese, Kanzeon—the hearer of all cries?” The Bodhisattva of Compassion is said to have a thousand arms, and on each of her thousand hands is an eye. One thousand—it means innumerable; a quantity beyond measure. To hear; to see; to lend a hand—to save all beings!
Having taken this rare and precious human form, having encountered the dharma, each of us can offer the hand of compassion, the wisdom eye to everyone. We are not chanting to Kanzeon; we are one with Kanzeon when we dedicate our lives to this true eye, this true hand, in any and all circumstances. Maurine did exactly that throughout her life. Born on March 3, 1922, she would be 100 this year.
In one of her talks, she said,
The Bodhisattva Kannon grows arms and heads in abundance to be able to respond wherever there is a need.This bodhisattva spirit in each of us bows down in humble gratitude as we become freer, more awake and aware of what it means to be a true friend. Nobody is forcing us to do something; we spontaneously do what needs to be done. This one treasure is found within ourselves. This untaught wisdom is found in all the subtle actions of our lives.
During my 79 years I’ve been extremely fortunate to have many women teachers, among family and friends, educators and dharma guides. Foremost was Maurine. She and I both started sitting at the Zen Studies Society’s small zendo in an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the late 1960s, but we didn’t really meet until a weekend sesshin in 1970 at the Society’s new home in a restored carriage house at 223 East 67th Street, where New York Zendo Shobo-ji formally opened in 1968.
So we began as dharma sisters, inspired by the visiting Zen masters Haku’un Yasutani Roshi and Soen Nakagawa Roshi. They were both teachers of the dynamic young monk Eido Tai Shimano, who established New York Zendo and, a few years afterward, Dai Bosatsu Zendo.
In 1965, after two beginners’ workshops at the West Side zendo, Maurine signed up for a weeklong sesshin led by Yasutani Roshi held at Pumpkin Hollow, a retreat center run by the Theosophical Society in upstate New York. She continued attending nearly every sesshin offered from then on. She met Soen Roshi during the summer of 1968, and that fall he conducted Jukai for her and several other students, giving her the name MyoOn, “Subtle Sound.”
Even after moving to Boston with her husband, Ozzie Freedgood, and their daughters, Maurine continued going to sesshin. At Dai Bosatsu Zendo, on the last day of Rohatsu [Bodhi Day, which commemorates the Buddha’s enlightenment], on December 8, 1977, Maurine was ordained at DBZ by Eido Roshi. The ordination name he gave her was Chiko: Wisdom Light. Although I had moved to Syracuse by then, we stayed in close contact.
Maurine was one of the teachers we invited to a conference that my first husband, Lou Nordstrom, and I organized in 1977 at Syracuse University, where he was teaching. We intrepidly called it “The Flowering of Buddhism in America.” I recently came upon a mention of it in an article by one of the few academics we invited, Charles Prebish, now Professor Emeritus at Pennsylvania State University.
He wrote that it was, “An exciting conference that had a real impact on the development of American Buddhism, and on my career. Although the title of the conference was overly ambitious and inaccurate, it was great fun. With the exception of me, and one or two others, the presenters were all practitioners rather than scholars . . . and their enthusiasm had all the uncritical abandon that one might expect from such a congregation.”
Those were wonderful years of enthusiasm and, yes, uncritical abandon—perhaps not quite the flowering we envisioned, but certainly sprouts were everywhere. And as Nyogen Senzaki said some decades earlier, “America has Zen all the time. Why should I meddle?”
In 1982, Soen Roshi made his last visit to the US and asked Maurine to meet him at Dai Bosatsu Zendo—not in the monastery but in Joraku-an, the present Beecher House, where we originally lived and practiced while the monastery was being built. In that private meeting, he said, “You are a true Zen master. Tell your students to call you Roshi.” There was no ceremony, no formal authentication. It was a formless transmission.
Maurine told her students about it but said, “Please just call me Maurine.” As I wrote in my introduction to Subtle Sound: The Zen Teachings of Maurine Stuart,
It was not in her nature to seek credentials or titles; she simply went on as she had before, wearing the same robes, keeping the same busy schedule of sesshin, daily zazen, piano recitals and lessons, spending time with her children, traveling. Yet increasingly one could sense a redoubtable power within this elegant lady with the leonine hair (now white) and strong, dark, arching eyebrows, who wore lipstick and foundation, who offered Bach instead of calligraphy.
Maurine was the first person I called when I learned of Soen Roshi’s passing on March 11, 1984. I invited her to Syracuse to lead a weekend sesshin honoring him. That began a shift in our relationship, in which I became her student.
In my journals focusing on our time together from that year through her death in 1990, I wrote, “We talked today in dokusan, [the private exchange between master and disciple], about my forthcoming ordination. What does it mean to me, Maurine has been asking me. I’m beginning to understand what’s at the core, what must be: “Shujo muhen seigan do,” as the Bodhisattva vow begins—and not an abstract salvation but starting right here, at home. . . The endless whirl of ego begetting suffering begetting ego.
“In our evening dokusan, Maurine said ordination was like Nansen’s koan “Ordinary Mind is the Way,” and as I was bowing, she said she was reminded of Soen Roshi saying so frequently, “ordinary mind is extraordinary mind.” And that reminded me of the dokusan I had with Soen Roshi at DBZ just after the monastery was built—he and I chanting “Shujo muhen seigan do” together in the candlelight in the front entryway.
My ordination took place at Cambridge Buddhist Association on the last day of Rohatsu, 1985. Maurine gave me the ordination name Myochi—Subtle Wisdom—both kanji from her own names, MyoOn and Chiko.
Attending sesshin with her in Cambridge and here in Syracuse, I was deeply affected by her talks, and asked her if she would agree to my editing them into a book. With typical modesty, she said, “Oh, if you think there is something that might be helpful in any of them, please do so.” Over the years, I listened to hundreds of her teisho (dharma talks) on tapes, which were transcribed by students in Syracuse, Cambridge, and California; I read and reread her journals and little slips of paper, and do so every year at her commemoration.
Maurine was never anything but who she was. She put no head above her own, even though she had great respect for her teachers. She was fiercely independent, yet she devoted herself to the training, both in music and in Zen, with utter conviction and dedication. She was disciplined in every way but had a great sense of joie de vivre; she was just so much fun to be with.
She was passionate about life, music, and all the arts. Going with her to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which has one of the finest collections of Japanese art outside Japan, and spending time among the buddhas and bodhisattvas there, was like being in sesshin, so intense and intimate was our connection with what we were seeing, feeling. It was the same with food, clothes, literature, and even driving—how she loved to speed along in Boston traffic, terrorizing everyone in her path! She gave of herself utterly to everything. Her hugs were completely enveloping.
Maurine and my husband, Andy, enjoyed each other greatly, and she was very encouraging to him as he was beginning his Tibetan practice with his teacher, the late Domo Geshe Rinpoche. She and our son, Jesse, were completely in love. She came here for sesshin on weekends twice a year from 1984 through 1989, thoroughly in sesshin mind and observing sesshin protocol up in our attic zendo. But afterward she and Jesse would do special things together: sitting on our porch swing, then walking down to the now defunct store Seven Rays to pick out some object, maybe a crystal, a book, or a tiny carving.
In 1987, Maurine was diagnosed with cancer. That didn’t dissuade her, however, from taking a small group of students to India. She continued teaching with as much intensity as ever. At a weekend sesshin with us in Syracuse in October 1988, Maurine said, “The small self is what gets stuck in positive versus negative, health versus. illness. Living in health with good cells, bad cells: it’s all impermanence.” That was the last time she was able to come to Syracuse.
I went to Rohatsu Sesshin at Cambridge Buddhist Association (CBA) that year, and on the last day, instead of giving teisho herself, Maurine played a recording of Yo Yo Ma performing Bach’s “Fourth Suite for Unaccompanied Cello,” the prelude to which I often play for her commemoration.
The next day, as we sat at her kitchen table, I asked if she felt she could lead sesshin in Syracuse in the spring, or if she’d rather some of us came to CBA. She responded, “No, it’s time for you to lead your own sesshins and give talks yourself.” The sangha here was growing; she encouraged me to look for a larger place for the Syracuse zendo, outside the family home.
At what turned out to be her last Rohatsu Sesshin in 1989, it was clear that she was in a lot of pain, yet she managed to present talks on the ten oxherding pictures. She emphasized that we take this form for a brief period, and after our death, our energy continues as it had before our birth.
She managed to lead a January 1990 weekend sesshin at CBA but was hospitalized in February. She passed away at 4 a.m. on February 26. Her last words were, “Wonderful peace. Nobody there.”
Not long afterward, several of us here in Syracuse started to look at possible sites for the larger and more permanent home for our zendo that Maurine had suggested. Nothing was quite right. Then we saw a beautiful property in the spring of 1996. It was the rundown carriage house in the back that clinched the deal for me, even though no one else at the time could imagine that such a place could become a zendo. But I knew Maurine would have nodded and smiled. A carriage house!
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