Ruth Fuller Everett at home in Chicago, Illinois, c. 1920.
Ruth Fuller Everett at home in Chicago, Illinois, c. 1920.

As the wife of a prominent Chicago attorney she had had a great deal of experience at entertaining,” wrote Mary Farkas in a 1967 obituary of Ruth Fuller Sasaki that appeared in the monthly newsletter Zen Notes. Sasaki, who during her first marriage to a corporate lawyer had been Ruth Fullcr Everett, had joined the Buddhist Society of America in 1938 on the same night as her friend Mary Farkas. In the obituary, Farkas seemed to speak with genuine admiration of this early incarnation of Mrs. Sasaki and of virtues that sound quaint today but were not in the 1920s, when Everett was a young woman. “There was no dish she wouldn’t try to make, no problem of gardening, decorating, or construction she wouldn’t undertake to solve,” wrote Farkas. “Servants in her employ left trained professionals.” You’d have thought Farkas had been speaking of Mrs. Sasaki’s finest achievements.

Actually, she was speaking of a woman who in 1956 was the first foreigner to be ordained as a Zen priest in Japan, and who, by the time of her death in 1967, had overseen important translations of classic Zen texts.

Mrs. Everett took an early interest in Buddhism. In her twenties she read everything she could find about the Theravada tradition; there was virtually nothing available at that time in English about Zen. She apparently first learned about Zen from a man named Pierre Bernard, who had an ashram in Nyack, New York, where he taught hatha yoga and “tantra.” But it was only on a world tour in 1930 that Mrs. Everett stopped in Japan and met D.T. Suzuki, the man largely responsible for introducing Zen to the West. He gave her a book of his essays, and she asked him for meditation instruction, which she had apparently been unable to find anywhere else. She wanted to see, she said, if the practice could be of any value to a foreigner.

In 1932 she returned to Japan, and with a female boldness that must have been startling—but which somehow doesn’t sound surprising for a society matron from Chicago—asked to study with the Zen master Nanshinken Roshi, who had a reputation as one of the severest Rinzai masters and did not permit women in his zendo.

Mrs. Everett was kneeling in wait for her first interview with Nanshinken Roshi when she noticed a large Morris chair in the far corner of the reception room. “Upholstered in bright green velour,” she later said, “its red mahogany arms were dotted with pearl buttons which if pushed…sent the back down with horrifying speed, and caused arm and footrests to spring out suddenly from least expected places.” Nanshinken Roshi apparently believed American women incapable of sitting in cross-legged posture and told her she could sit in this chair in his house, because her apartment would be too noisy. He told her he wished she could occupy the zendo, but the monks would not have the chair. Tactfully, Everett seems not to have questioned these restrictions at first, bur within three weeks the chair was gone and she was sitting in the zendo where, for the first time, she felt she had finally come home. She was forty years old.

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