It’s a damp, wind-whipped Tuesday evening in central Toronto. Shaking off the chill, 20 people arrive punctually, remove coats and shoes, quietly line the room’s perimeter, and begin meditating. They sit facing the cement wall, some using cushions, others small wooden benches, with hands and legs in various positions. The only sound in the semi-darkness is the ticking of a wall clock.
In Zen practice, this is zazenkai, or a “group sitting,” offered in this place weekly to support those who meditate, or “sit,” at home. It also provides occasion for a teacher to give public instruction and private interviews to the participants. After 30 minutes of silent zazen (sitting meditation), the jikijitsu (bell ringer) sounds his gong and participants arise to walk a few laps around the room, still with heads bowed.
Returning to the floor, and after a short prayer, they then settle in for the teisho, a talk by a Zen master. Tonight’s sermon, to borrow a Christian term, is about Zen’s oldest poem, the 1,500-year-old Shin Jin Mei, attributed to the Third Patriarch of Chan Buddhism, Seng-ts’an. It is the closest thing Zen has to a statement of faith. The master reads the first few lines:
The Supreme Way is without difficulty.
It just dislikes picking and choosing.
If there is neither hating nor loving, everything is open and clear.
“The roshi [master or “old teacher”] says we are endowed with feelings such as hate and love,” gently explains the teacher, who sits in a chair at the front of the room. “But as long as we cling to such emotions, we cannot grasp the world where everything is open and clear… Loving and hating are ways of picking and choosing, are they not?”
There follows another 30-minute sit, and the master then holds private, one-on-one talks with fellow practitioners in an adjacent office for work on koans.
This is not an atypical scene in Toronto. But what gives this session a twist is that it takes place in the basement of Holy Rosary Church, a Roman Catholic congregation founded by the conservative Basilian Fathers, and that the master is an 85-year-old Catholic nun.
Sister Elaine MacInnes doesn’t see herself as a maverick or a free spirit—or even as a practicing Buddhist. “I don’t know very much about Buddhism,” she says, almost defensively. “Really.” We are sitting in the drawing room of the large, nondescript house on a quiet street in East End Toronto she shares with 10 other sisters of Our Lady’s Missionaries, a community of Roman Catholic nuns founded in 1949.
Especially to the uninitiated, MacInnes offers an apparent religious paradox. She projects the image of the grandmother from central casting, exuding warmth, armed with a hearty chuckle, and offering hugs freely—not remote, not male, and not inscrutable. She does not present as a stereotypical Zen master in the least.
Sister Elaine is in rare company: As a roshi, she’s the first Canadian, one of a few select Westerners (especially women), and, in her own estimation, among just three other Roman Catholic nuns in the world invested into the highest stratum of the stream of Zen she practices, Sanbo Kyodan.
As one writer described her, there are “no spiritual trappings here, no pretensions, no stink of Zen or Catholicism or anything I can put a finger on.” Dressed all in black with a plain cross around her neck, Sister Elaine seems quite ordinary. But, as she writes in the forward to Light Sitting in Light, one of six books she has authored, she is “extraordinarily ordinary.”
This morning, as on many days, she’s been on the phone with the Prison Phoenix Trust in England, which she directed for seven high-profile years, teaching basic yoga and rudimentary meditation techniques to thousands of hardened prison inmates. Although now officially retired, since her return to her native Canada in 2003 she has headed Freeing the Human Spirit, an organization that has won access to 20 Canadian penitentiaries—15 of them in Ontario—to impart the benefits of sitting in silence. Sister Elaine is no fan of prisons—they are “horrible and loud”—but she sees a silver lining in the limitations they impose on prisoners.
Launched in 1989, the Prison Phoenix Trust was an outgrowth of the Prison-Ashram Project, which was co-founded in 1973 by the American psychologist Ram Dass and prison advocate Bo Lozoff, who came up with the idea of helping inmates see their cells as mini-ashrams. In Britain, where the techniques are taught at some 90 jails (Sister Elaine herself once led a session at Northern Ireland’s notorious Maze prison with 18 high-ranking members of the Irish Republican Army), the program has won plaudits for effecting noticeable drops in prisoners’ tension levels, improvements in their concentration, sociability, and self-esteem, and ultimately, reduced prison violence.
Initially, the transplanting of the British program to Canada met with some resistance. Sister Elaine tells of one Canadian prison official who cited the Bible’s warning that if you get rid of one devil, seven others will take its place. “I’m not a trained theologian or biblical scholar,” she explains patiently, “but I know from my own experience that’s not what happens.” (My seven-month-long efforts to enter a prison in Toronto in order to witness the sessions firsthand proved unsuccessful. Despite my pledge not to identify prisoners, even generically, correctional services officials cited privacy and concerns for the program’s efficacy. Not even Sister Elaine could help; she bluntly but refreshingly called my request “quite hopeless.”)
In the Canadian program, prison classes are offered once a week for 5 to 20 inmates. Ideally, the program’s 52 instructors teach simple yoga postures (asanas) for 30 minutes and a meditation method called shikantaza, or “just sitting,” for another 30 minutes, paying special attention to breathing and posture.
At a meeting I had with Sister Elaine in 1999, while she was visiting family in Canada, she quoted from memory one of many letters she got from program participants in Britain, this one from a 20-year-old man who used to sit in his cell and burn and cut himself just to externalize his pain. After meditating for 20 minutes in the morning and another 20 at night, “not only is the pain better, but for the first time in my life,” he wrote, “I see a tiny spark of something within myself that I can like.”
Sister Elaine was born in Moncton, in the maritime province of New Brunswick, one of four children immersed in music, and was 10 years old when she experienced the first of several pivotal moments: she picked up a book about Saint Thomas Aquinas, the great Christian thinker who demonstrated how God is the Prime Mover. “That startled me,” she recalls. “I had grandiose ideas about God. The very fact that God was action—so close, so alive all the time—was something that startled me when I was 10. And now that I’m 85, it’s still startling me.”
She joined Our Lady’s Missionaries at the relatively advanced age of 30 because “I felt called,” she relates in her autobiography. “Just like that. No fireworks.” In 1961, she was assigned to Japan to teach music and English and, she hoped, to baptize as many Japanese as she could. Spurred by a vow she had made as a Junior Sister after reading about Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier’s unfulfilled desire to climb Mount Hiei and encounter the monks there, she scaled the peak and met the now-famous Tendai Buddhist monk Horisawa Somon, who asked her how she prayed. “I said, ‘What do you mean how do I pray?’ And he said, ‘Well, do you do it with your body?’ I told him in Christianity that’s not important. He said, ‘But it is. It’s very important.’”
Emboldened by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, she began studying Zen to know the Japanese people better, continued it as a personal discipline in the development of her own spirituality, “and finally chose it as my service to others.” She even lived with Rinzai Buddhist nuns in Kyoto for a time, engaging in a samurai-like regimen of 10 hours of zazen a day, beginning at precisely 3:05 a.m.
It was in the Philippines, where she was dispatched in 1976 to pursue an apostolate in animal husbandry, where Sister Elaine was asked to impart Zen’s calming influence to prisoners. To condition her for what jails are like in the country, officials sent her to the Muntinlupa prison outside Manila, a “hellhole,” she recalls, where 10,000 nearly naked inmates squatted on fanned out newspapers in filthy individual animal cages. Later, at the Bago Bantay detention centre in Quezon City, she worked with political prisoners who had been tortured under the Ferdinand Marcos regime and were in the grips of flashbacks.
Finally, in the Japanese city of Kamakura in 1980, Yamada Koun Roshi, impressed by his pupil’s knowledge of koans, the maturity of her teachings and the depth of her meditation, conferred on her the title of roshi. She was given the Zen name “Ko Un Ang”—roughly, “Little Hermitage of a Cloud of Light.” At age 69, her reputation drew her to Oxford, England to take over the Prison Phoenix Trust.
Sister Elaine no longer goes into Canadian prisons herself, and is occupied these days mainly with paperwork, discussions with penal officials, and fundraising. She still meditates for about an hour a day. As one of her editors noted, her life seems to be a continuum of present participles. In her vocabulary, it’s always “be-ing,” “do-ing” and “no-thing.” She speaks of Zen as a direct experience. “They say whatever you do, if you’re doing it, that’s perfect Zen.”
She is often asked pesky questions, mainly by reporters, about religious conflict. Is she both a Catholic nun and a Zen Buddhist? Can that be? She chuckles. “I would say no, but that’s because of the decision I made in Japan. I admired the Buddhists there; I had reason to. And of course, I had a loyalty to my own religion. I didn’t want to be a scandal in Japan either to Christians or Buddhists, both of whom guarded their own territory.”
Zen meditation has enriched her Christian spirituality without compromising it. Though she would never say that the two traditions have the same spiritual ideal, there are fundamental similarities. “It boils down to an inner power in both paths. “The word ‘spirit’ means in Buddhism, as far as I can tell, pretty much what it means in Christianity: the presence of the potential sacred within,” she explains. “And that presence expresses itself in power. You can call it chi or qi, but it’s power.”
She hastens to add that “I’m not studying a philosophy. I’m just doing something that requires no thought. It just takes time—and silence. The inner garbage gradually just disappears. There’s no philosophy there at all. There’s no philosophy in peace.” Besides, her teacher Koun Roshi would never allow such talk. “He said, ‘I’m not teaching a philosophy and I’m not teaching a religion.’ It’s a convenient classification to say ‘Buddhist.’”
Others have expressed less nuanced views. The Catholic author and blogger Carl Olson once groused on the blog Insight Scoop that “if you have taken vows as a Catholic nun and are supported by a community of nuns, it’s disconcerting and scandalous to spend your time spreading and practicing Buddhism, not to mention saying things that aren’t in keeping with Catholic doctrine and practice.”
Sister Elaine shrugs off the barbs from fellow Catholics, which have been more than a few. “I forget about it. I’m not very good at arguing anyway. I’ve never won an argument in my life.” On the other hand, she’s never tangled with Catholic higher-ups locally. Asked to comment on her activities and whether she has ever been disciplined or told to quit her Zen practice, a spokesman for Toronto archdiocese sent the following email: “Our records show that Sister Elaine is in good standing with the Archdiocese of Toronto, involved in important prison ministry, as well as using Oriental meditation methods for her outreach. We have nothing ‘in the files’ to reflect any concerns with her work.” Sister Elaine proudly notes that Freeing the Human Spirit once received a $5,000 donation from the Archbishop of Toronto.
Even so, I can’t help but ask how she would regard herself if she were a hidebound Catholic bishop. She pauses, drums her fingers, and offers: “Yes, she does this Zen stuff and Buddhist stuff. But she keeps her nose clean.”
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.