Elaine MacInnes

Sister Elaine MacInnes – who was born in  Moncton, New Brunswick – begins her autobiography on the beach at Shediac, a place significant to 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, we returned there annually during the school break. A film on Sister Elaine, produced by Vision TV, begins with her on that beach, telling the story of the salt doll who discovers 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, “you are the first transmitted Zen teacher to come from Canada.”

“For a while, I would have been the only one.” She isn’t bragging. One can tell from her tone of voice that she remains amazed by the events of her life.

My only meeting with her took place in 2013 at the Mother House of Our Lady’s Missionaries, the order of Roman Catholic nuns to which Sister Elaine belongs. One of her Dharma heirs, Patrick Gallagher, arranged the meeting and joins us. He tells me that when Sister Elaine returned to Canada after years abroad, 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 wondered, half seriously, “She must be worried about the Vatican if she was interviewing all those wanting to attend a public talk she was giving on Zen!” 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 did.

Sister Elaine became a nun after her fiancé was killed during the Second World War. After her training, 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.”

“And I said, ‘Whoa!’ I thought she had made quite a jump. So I said, ‘There are some things you’re going to have to trust me for.’ And I don’t know whether she liked that or not.”

Later, Father Lassalle introduced her to Yamada Koun 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 went on to complete the koan curriculum of the Sanbo Kyodan School of Zen. “Philip Kapleau didn’t, you know,” she reminds me.

After twenty years in Japan, her order reassigned 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.

“They had a lot of charismatic people going in—you know—for charismatic prayer. But Boy was only interested in Zen. So between his and my pull, we got a room. Some of the guards were nasty. I was told more than once, ‘We know what you’re coming in here for. You’ve got full access to Boy Morales, and time alone with him, too.’ They said, ‘You’re not fooling any of us.’ I said, ‘That’s not true. But,’ I said, ‘I’m not here to talk you into that.’ It came to be a very successful time. And then, towards the end of Marcos’s time, the others were released, one by one. And in the end, there was only Boy left. He was there all alone. The night of the big revolution, he was all alone.”

When Morales was released from prison by Corazon Aquino, he talked openly about Sister Elaine and his Zen practice. Suddenly she became an international celebrity.

“I got phone calls from all over the world. I mean, the revolution itself was worldwide news. And he gave me full credit for going in. ‘It was a risk for her to come in, given the conditions at the time. Because we were the “bad guys” in prison.’”

She was invited to Britain by the Phoenix Trust, an agency that worked for prisoners’ rights, and she was soon 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.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 133-40, 141-42, 174, 304, 309

Catholicism and Zen: 14, 38, 87-97, 145, 168, 182, 187

Zen Conversations: 73

Other Links:


Published by Rick McDaniel

Author of "Zen Conversations" and "Cypress Trees in the Garden."

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