Sister Elaine MacInnes died yesterday, November 29, 2022. She was 98 years old. She was a member of the order of Our Lady’s Missionaries and a recipient of the Order of Canada. She was also the first Canadian to be authorized to teach Zen, in fact she was one of the very first North Americans authorized to do so.
James Ford told me this anecdote about Sister Elaine. “When she decided she should join the American Zen Teachers Association, one of our more famous Zen teachers was assigned to interview her because she was having difficulty filling out the forms. And he said he’d never been more nervous than when having to ask her if she was qualified.”
Recognized as a peer by Zen teachers in Japan and America, Sister Elaine did not always sound like them. For example, she defined Zen (“depending on the occasion,” she was careful to qualify) as “responding to God’s presence at all times, in all circumstances.”
She was closer to Buddhist orthodoxy when she stated that “Zen practice does not start and end on our cushions. Each day should be twenty-four hours of harmonious practice.” Or that “Being one with our present activity is central to Zen practice.”
“The secret in Zen,” she adds, “is not to think, not to assume, but to be.”
When I met her in June 2013, Sister Elaine did not introduce herself to me as a Zen teacher or even as a Catholic nun. “I’m a musician,” she told me. And I wondered if that were a factor in the sensitivity with which she responded to Zen training.
She was born in 1924 in Moncton, New Brunswick – in the Canadian Maritimes, less than 200 km from where I now live and write – on the 7th of March which is the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, something her devoutly Catholic family made note of.
Her mother was a musician and took care that her children were all introduced to music. Elaine was taught violin. The state of mind a performing musician needs is close to the meditative state. One cannot think while playing, Sister Elaine points out; one “is no longer conscious of the left-hand fingering and the right-hand bowing. The artist could not possibly consciously control all these as rapidly as the composition demands.” Her Zen teacher, Yamada Roshi, once said, “Everyone has two hands. When we are absorbed in doing something with both hands, we are not aware of them. My two hands are in fact living my life, which is not two. From life’s point of view, there are not two hands.”
When she was ten years old, she happened upon a book in which she found a reference to Thomas Aquinas’s argument for a Prime Mover. It was one of the arguments the 16th Century Jesuits had used to explain the necessity of a Supreme Being to their non-theistic Japanese hosts. The Japanese had not been convinced, but the idea struck the young Elaine forcefully. “I remember being deeply affected and impressed. Incredibly, I seemed to understand. God the Prime Mover! I closed the volume quickly and believed it with my whole heart.”
When she was in her teens, the Second World War broke out. A number of training fields were established around Moncton for British pilots, and local residents made an effort to welcome the young men into their homes. Romances were common, and both Elaine and an older sister formed attachments to English airmen who later died in action. That was no doubt a factor in her decision to enter the convent, but it was not a step she took immediately. First, she completed a degree in music at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, and then did further studies at Julliard, after which she went to Alberta and performed for a while in the string section of the Calgary Symphony.
She entered religious life somewhat later than usual and was 30 before she completed her postulancy. While in the novitiate, she came to reflect upon the passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians that (although she would not have known it) Thomas Merton believed expressed the spirit of Zen: “I live, now not I but Christ lives within me.” Later she wrote, “I do not know or remember how I came to be attracted by that phrase and can only say that it seemed to be given as gift. Of course I desired earnestly to know it experientially, and at the same time I was equally determined to discover how I was going to practice it.”
Then she happened upon the book One with Jesus by a Belgian Jesuit, Paul de Jaegher, in which he writes about the significance of that passage in his own life. He also said that he experienced the Divine Indwelling not as intimacy but as identification. “Identification!” Sister Elaine wrote, “When I read that, my head-world and heart-world exploded from two to one, or – as Zen masters say – ‘not even one.’ The joy of the raindrop is to enter the ocean. Total identification. Now how to practice that?”
Although attracted by what she read, she was unclear what to do about it. De Jaegher did not provide directions on how to proceed, although the book was, as she put it, full of encouragement. She attempted a few experiments on her own, “but they all went through the thinking process, which I soon discovered was creating an objective twosome. I did, however, have my own inspired insight, that the secret or core of that teaching lay in the two words ‘not I.’”
After taking final vows in 1961, she was assigned to Japan where she taught music to school children. She felt an immediate respect for the culture and immersed herself in it. During her time in Japan, she studied several traditional arts including flower arrangement, calligraphy, and the tea ceremony. She first encountered Buddhist spiritual practice when a friend introduced her to the Tendai monk, Somon Horisawa. He served tea to Sister Elaine and her companion, then turned to her and inquired, “How do you pray?” When she asked what he meant, he said, “For example, what about your body position?”
“I hastily assured him that body position is not important in prayer, and he heartily disagreed. ‘Body position is very important in prayer.’”
Her introduction to Zen came a little later. She was studying Japanese music terminology at the Jesuit University in Hiroshima where she met a Jesuit practitioner of Zen, Father Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle. “As far as I can remember,” she tells me, “that’s the first time I heard anything about Zen. And I’m so glad I heard about it from him. The rest of my time in Japan, I met so many people who admired Lassalle. I was reading everything on spirituality then because that was my first mission abroad. And I liked what I read about Zen, but it was when I got all of this from Father Lassalle that I had a deep inner conviction that this is okay, that this is the legitimate stuff.”
But when she asked him to teach her, he demurred, telling her he wasn’t qualified. “And I thought, ‘Well, gracious! What’s this? Here he is, a Jesuit priest, and he says he’s not qualified!’ And he said, ‘I’ll find somebody to teach you.’ And I said – and I’m not sure why I said this – I said, ‘I think I’d rather go to a Buddhist nun than a Buddhist priest to learn my Zen.’”
Lassalle arranged for her to attend a Zen temple in Kyoto for women, Enkoji. “So on my own, I went there and met the old roshi.” This was Fukagai Gichu. “And at first she wasn’t too keen on me. She looked at me. She had almost no English. Well, my Japanese wasn’t too bad, but it was pretty primary.” The roshi quoted the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer in Japanese, then she said, “‘If you think your father’s in heaven, if you think that’s God’ – she said – ‘there’s no place for you in Zen.’ 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.
“They were an ascetic group, and it was terribly difficult. They said, ‘Well, you’ll have to come and make this sesshin, and we’ll get someone to give you your orientation at that.’ The rising bell for the nuns at that time was 3:00 a.m., and you had to be in the zendo, all dressed, and doing zazen at 3:05. And it was really tough going. And I didn’t have the opportunity for a real dokusan because we had no translator, and the roshi was still pretty convinced that there wasn’t much hope for me because of my Christianity and my sense of God. I think I probably thought at that time that her conception of what I thought of God was wrong. I sensed that. But I had limited Japanese, and the fact is that you can’t speak very much to most teachers. I never had interviews with her. I’d go in for dokusan, and she might say something. She might not. She might ask me to say something. And then I’d leave. The dokusan was less than a minute. Which was fine. Sometimes dokusans are like that. But I must have got nourishment from somewhere because I kept going back. To the end, I never got very far with her, but she kept me at this thing.”
Sister Elaine sat with the Buddhist nuns of Enkoji for eight years and under Fukagai Gichu’s guidance came to learn, as Somon Horisawa had told her, that the way in which one sits is indeed important. Meditation engages one’s whole being, body, mind, and breath.
By this time, Lassalle had been authorized to open a Zen Center, Shinmeikutsu, in Hiroshima, and Sister Elaine assisted him there. She told me that during one of the retreats he facilitated, “I had some kind of a little experience. And he said, ‘Well, I don’t know enough about that experience. I’ve got to get you with a real teacher.’ So he took me to Yamada Roshi on the way home from the retreat.”
Sister Elaine would come to refer to Koun Yamada as her “father in Zen.” He was more at ease with Christians than Fukagai Gichu had been and was pleased to learn that Sister Elaine was a musician. Musicians, he told her, tended to be less “head bound.”
“He never pretended to understand Christianity or just what we meant by ‘God,’ but he was very positive. He said, ‘I don’t understand it, but the church has gone on for centuries.’ And he said, ‘Zen belongs in the Church.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Well, we’re losing it in Japan. It’s falling apart. Buddhism is failing terribly. Buddhism has failed my family,’ he said. ‘Not me. But my children.’”
She tells me that he expressed the hope that Zen might eventually become a “stream” within Catholicism, then added wryly that she didn’t expect to see that happen in her lifetime.
The Rohatsu sesshin of 1972 was her second sesshin with Yamada, and, during the first few days, she was uncomfortable about some of the things said during his Dharma talks. She spoke to Father Lassalle, who was also participating in the retreat, about her concerns, and he told her to trust Yamada. She was, he suggested, on the edge of overcoming the sense of being “separate” that is so strong in Westerners.
“That evening,” she writes in her autobiography, Zen Contemplation: A Bridge of Living Water, “dokusan with the roshi was uneventful, but he brought me into the concrete-me more fully. I returned to my place in the zendo, looked at the ‘me’ that seemed to be ensconced in a hard shell. Suddenly, the very core of that shell burst open. Its lovely contents shot out into every part of my being. I was inundated until there was no me left. No boundaries anywhere. How beautiful and clean and pure . . . born into this world of the Infinite . . . belonging and fitting and home-ing! How utterly perfect.”
Her kensho reminded her of a time when, as a child, she had been playing with globules of mercury from a couple of broken thermometers and noticed the way they were drawn to one another. “When the raindrop enters the ocean there are no boundaries,” she wrote. “There is just the ocean.”
“I’d been sitting for years,” she told me, “so it wasn’t too remarkable. When you have a real teacher, they use their Zen techniques that work. And I think I was primed for that too. I came out very, very much believing in Yamada Roshi. So much so that I just spoke to the sisters and went up to Kamakura to be where I could be close to the Roshi.”
In 1976, the OLM closed its missions in Japan, and Sister Elaine was sent to the Philippines, although she made regular trips back to Japan to continue her koan work with Yamada. She also received Dharma transmission from him that year.
In the Philippines, she met Father Catalino Arevalo. “He was the outstanding Jesuit in the Philippines at the time. And he knew that Zen is an Oriental type of prayer. And when he heard I was there – this is before he even met me – he said, ‘Good. We’re Orientals here, you know.’ And the Jesuits – the foreign Jesuits – were getting old, and they were turning over their community bit by bit to Filipinos, and Father Arevalo was certainly one of the most outstanding.” With his encouragement, she opened her first zendo in Manila.
In her autobiography, she wrote: “By November, we had about 30 sitters and a chapel in which to sit, so we organized a formal installation of the Manila Zen Center on November 21, 1976. Father Arevalo spoke at the mass, and his opening words were: ‘Today is the Feast of Christ the King. Every particle of creation is filled with the beauty of Christ, the love of Christ, the truth of Christ, and the goodness of Christ.’ I couldn’t help but think most Buddhists would feel at home with that statement.”
They may have, although it is unlikely their understanding of “Christ” would have been precisely the same as hers. But as she had told the abbess at Enkoji, there were things the Buddhists would have to trust her for.
It was a tense period in Philippine history. The authoritarian regime of Ferdinand Marcos had established martial law in response to the rise of the New People’s Army that sought the overthrow of the government and the expulsion of US influences in the Philippines. In spite of the NPA’s affiliation with the Communist Party, many priests and nuns supported the rebel cause, and as a result Government forces in Manila tended to be suspicious of the Church.
“The vast majority of people who came to me in the Philippines were anti-Marcos,” she tells me. “And I had to be careful where I went because I didn’t want to be put in prison too. And I learned that the government had sent somebody to join my zendo to hear what I was talking about because we sat on the floor. ‘There’s something wrong with those people. They sit on the floor!’”
“So you were known to the authorities?” I say.
“Oh, yes. Yes. Well, every foreigner was. We had to be careful at that time.”
One of the most significant figures in the revolutionary movement was Horatio “Boy” Morales, who had served for a time as a senior economist in the Marcos government. He was arrested in 1982 and held at the Bago Bantay detention center where he and nine other political prisoners were regularly subjected to intensive interrogation and torture. While Morales was imprisoned, a visitor brought him a pamphlet put out by the Manila Zen Center. He read it with interest, then send a note to Sister Elaine asking her to visit him.
“And the authorities allowed this?” I ask.
“Yes, although some of the guards were nasty, of course. I was told more than once, ‘We know what you’re coming in here for. You’ve got full access to Boy Morales, and now you’ve got time alone with him, too. You’re not fooling any of us.’
“He sat many hours a day,” Sister Elaine tells me. “At least four hours a day. So, that’s going to work, eh? But he had a lot to get over; his torture had gone on and on.” He achieved kensho and was halfway through the Sanbo Kyodan koan curriculum when the revolution finally ousted Marcos. After his release when Morales was asked how he had survived his time in detention he credited Sister Elaine and Zen practice.
“Oh, yes,” she laughs. “I got phone calls from all over the world because the revolution itself was worldwide news, and he was the last person left in that particular prison. And he gave me full credit for going in. He said what a risk it was for me to go in given the prevailing conditions at the time. ‘Because we were the bad guys in prison,’ he said.”
One of the phone calls came from Ann Wetherall of the Prison Phoenix Trust in England. “She was a judge’s daughter born in India when he was on circuit there, and then back in England living in Oxford. Quite an accent! And very sincere. Lovely person. Not well. She’d been having cancer bouts for some time when I met her.
Ann was looking for someone to continue the work of the Trust when her disease would prevent her from doing so. “The Prison Phoenix Trust was a staff of two people who wrote letters to inmates and that’s all they did. They didn’t go into prisons. Ann asked me if I would go to England, and I was on my way to a meeting in Europe—you know how they have these international Zen meetings—so I went via England to visit her. And she told me about her cancer and about her group.”
Ann asked Sister Elaine whether meditation could be taught to prisoners. Sister Elaine agreed that it could. “‘But,’ I said, ‘you can’t just do that through the written word. Teaching meditation was a face-to-face thing.’ She said, ‘My bouts of cancer are getting more and more problematic. And I’ve just got to do something about getting this better organized.’ She asked if I was interested. I told her I wasn’t interested in letter writing. I said, ‘To me, the prison is where I want to be. It’s got to be face-to-face.’” After Ann died, the board contacted Sister Elaine again and invited her to offer a meditation program in the prison system. She accepted the opportunity. The first prison they worked in was “a therapeutic prison just outside of Oxford. And the warden was Tim Newell who is a Quaker. And we became very good friends. Most of the prisoners had been in for some years and were in therapy. Almost all the staff were trained in therapy.”
Newell appreciated her work, and gradually she was able to establish a network of volunteers who taught yoga and basic meditation practice in eighty-six prisons throughout Britain.
After she retired from the Phoenix Trust, Sister Elaine returned to Canada, where she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2001 in recognition of her humanitarian work. Ironically, when she tried to duplicate the work she had done for the British prison system in Canada, she ran into resistance.
“I suspect because the people I was talking to didn’t appreciate meditation and didn’t know what it could do for human beings,” she suggests.
One of her students, Patrick Gallagher, was with us during this meeting, and he added, “One of the problems in the early days was that Zen didn’t fit into any of the slots that they were used to. It wasn’t a chaplaincy. It wasn’t a specifically religious thing. It didn’t fit. So they didn’t know what to do with it. I think that your Order of Canada helped. You’d been honored by the country, so you weren’t” – he searches a moment for the proper word – “flakey.”
We all laugh.
In addition to founding the Three Treasures Zendo in Toronto and establishing Sanbo Zen practice in that city, Sister Elaine’s legacy includes the “Freeing the Human Spirit” program in which now currently thirty-six volunteers provide yoga and meditation instruction to incarcerated people in ten Canadian prisons.
She was a remarkable woman, and I cherish the memory of the day I spent with her.
[This post is a reworking of the profile of Sister Elaine I published in Catholicism and Zen.]