Maria Reis Habito

During my conversation with Ruben Habito, he mentioned that his wife, Maria, was now the principal teacher at a Zen center in Indiana. “Where in Indiana?” I asked.

“South Bend, near the campus of Notre Dame.”

“I grew up in LaPorte, about 25 miles west of South Bend,” I told him. “It’s been a while.” (Well, fifty years; however, childhood memories linger.) “But certainly, when I was living there, there was no Zen anything in Northern Indiana.”

“Well, you never know where these Zen communities will mushroom up,” Ruben said.    

It is a basic principle of Buddhism and Zen that all things change – even, it appears, Indiana.

Maria grew up in Germany, and like many Europeans is multi-lingual. When I ask how many languages she speaks, she tells me,  “I think about six maybe. Five or six.”

“So many you can’t remember!”

“Well, of course, you don’t speak Latin as such. We start out with German and then, of course, French and English. Chinese. Japanese. And now I’m learning modern Hebrew.”

I ask how she came to learn Chinese and Japanese, and thereby hangs a tale:

“After I graduated from high school, my mother knew a Chinese Catholic priest in Taiwan. And he had invited her and my aunt to visit, and so she said as my high school graduation present she would bring me along. So I went, and I fell in love with the country and the language, and it was very easy for me to pick up everything. I had already been involved in the university in Saarbrücken to study sociology and philosophy, but I had always been interested in Chinese philosophy, so I decided to go back to Taiwan and learn the language. And that’s what happened.”

She enrolled in the Taiwan Normal University in Taipei and resided in the international students’ dormitory. When she had been there a few months, one of the other residents asked if she would like to meet a Buddhist hermit. “And I said yes, and that’s when I met my Buddhist master, Hsin Tao. Now he’s well-known, but then nobody knew him. He was meditating in graveyards and lived in this little tiny tucked-away hermitage near a lake in the middle of Taiwan.”

Hsin Tao was still a young man of about 30 at the time, although he was already being addressed as Shih-fu, or Master. “He grew up in Myanmar,” Maria tells me. “He was born of Chinese parents in Myanmar in  ’48, and there was still some struggle going on between the Communists and the Taiwan Kuomintang. He got caught up in this. So he lost his mother when he was three, lost his home, and his father died when he was about four, and so he was an orphan and became a child soldier.”

“Really!”

“Yes. At age eight. So he saw so much wars, suffering, death. And as a child he had all these questions on his mind, ‘What is life all about?’ So when he came to Taiwan, he continued being in the army school, and actually it was not easy for him to leave. But he finally decided to become a Buddhist monk to explore these questions of ‘What’s the truth of life?’ And ‘What’s suffering?’ And he found that the traditional training that he received as a monk wasn’t enough for him. So he decided to go on and practice on his own in the wilderness.”

There were several other people at the event to which Maria had been brought. “I didn’t speak Chinese then. I had just been in Taiwan for three months, and I knew a little bit but not too much. And Shih-fu was sitting on the terrace, serving tea to a handful of people. I was just contemplating the lake until I realized that they were talking about me. And then I asked the gentleman who’d brought me, ‘What’s going on?’ And he said, ‘They are all excited because the master has said there’s a very deep karma between him and you.’ And I said, ‘Karma? What does that mean?’ I wasn’t even familiar with that expression. And then the Dharma Master said, ‘It’s a connection from a previous life.’ And I thought to myself, ‘What connection can there be between a Buddhist master and a German Catholic?’”

At the end of this visit, Hsin Tao told her, “You are a tree that can bring rich fruit. Therefore I want to plant your roots in fertile ground.” He invited her to come see him as often as she wished, and, although she felt her roots were firmly planted in Christianity, she did feel drawn back to the hermitage and returned frequently.

In 1983, he told her that because she understood him better than many of his other visitors, he would like her to formally become his disciple. He was planning to undertake a world tour, and he would value her assistance as a translator.  When Maria explained that she felt her German-Christian heritage made her an unlikely disciple of a Buddhist master, he said that in order to open up “to truth completely, you need to learn not to make an image of yourself. Don’t cling to your German ‘I’ and to your Christian notions. Don’t make them into hindrances on your path but let them help you instead.” She took refuge vows and was given the Dharma name Hui-yueh (meaning “Wisdom Moon”). With that, she said, she became a “freshly hatched Buddhist Christian.”

Catholicism and Zen: 68, 107-119, 145

Published by Rick McDaniel

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

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