Shifu’s comment to the World Economic Forum (above) that “in order to save humanity from the danger of conflict and even annihilation, we must not only preserve the values of our own groups, but also respect the values of others..." establishes the importance of finding diplomatic means to bridge differences between faiths. It can also be applied to differences between political positions. The immediate situation in Burma is horrific and concerns us unusually directly in that Buddhist monks are being beaten, murdered and monasteries vandalised. World opinion is clear in its condemnation of a brutal and irrational regime but some states benefiting from access to Burmese commodities of economic importance are refraining from exercising a potentially powerful influence. A key case in point appears to be China. Is it possible to influence China towards a more active policy?
The answer is ‘Yes’ because China is very sensitive to any criticism that might damage its presentation of the Olympic Games in Beijing next year. If Buddhists worldwide were to encourage a boycott of the Beijing games unless China takes a more constructive role in Burma the effect could well be considerable. Of course, time will tell and by the time these words appear the situation may well have changed. The point to make is that the Chinese authorities are sensitive to world opinion regarding human rights and the Games are a rare opportunity to exercise leverage. Respect for the values of others certainly means values that sustain or restore the wellbeing of oppressed people whether Buddhist, monastic or of other faiths.
never came this way
the beds no doubt too damp the track too steep
and too much laughter. No doubt the kyosoku not long enough -
yet the gaunt pine stands sentinel. No nonsense cooking here
these hearts as empty bowls lined up for washing.
Doing their own practice in their own way -
mist laden groves,
cloud valley, village invisible. The bell rings a rainwet hand collecting sitters in still rows
tap -tap - precipitating silences.
Monks in mufti
adorn this quiet refectory
lifting spoons to silenced tongues dim light at noon requiring candles serving an extraordinary soup
bowl by bowl
the measured ladle.
In the library books
stand motionless in their places. Outside the Welsh monsoon greys the valley drab.
The sound of scribbling copies some ancient words.
Few farmers come up this hill
the sheep take care of themselves, scan the empty valley
hear the tumbling stream returning cloud waters seeking again a distant sea.
Too high for Kingfishers too wet for skylark flight
Wrens like mice run below the ferns mushrooms fairy circling scant grass thinking of soup.
Today silence hangs around these yards of meditation,
rain drops purl from the old roof. No wind - heavy leaves
breathe - sheep stand still
in their wet wool, water keeps the flies grounded.
The above poem is not a criticism of the venerable Rinzai teacher, the nun Myokyo-ni – it is actually an endearment. Even so, it contains a friendly riposte to her long held scepticism concerning our efforts at The Maenllwyd.
Myokyo-ni came into the world in Leitersdorf, Austria, as Irmgard Schloegl. Highly educated, she took a PhD in physical sciences at Graz University and came to Britain in 1950 as a lecturer in mineralogy at Imperial College, London. Once here, she soon enrolled in Zen classes at the Buddhist Society led by the well-known judge, Christmas Humphreys QC, who had founded the Society in 1924. Christmas Humphreys taught discursively and enthusiastically but with little focus on actual meditation and with some intrusion of theosophical ideas. Even so, Irmgard became his strong supporter and soon assisted in teaching.
In 1960, Irmgard went to Japan to begin intensive training at the headquarters of the Rinzai sect at Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto. Together with Peggy Kennet she was thus one of the two outstanding women Zen teachers who went from Britain to Japan for training in those years. Their paths were very different however and I don’t think they met. Peggy Kennet eventually became Roshi Jiyu Kennet in the Soto tradition founding Shasta Abbey in California and Throssel Hole Priory in Northumberland.
Irmgard spent twelve years training in an exceptionally demanding Japanese monastic Zen environment and always remained reticent about her experiences there. This may be in part because her life was eased by training with the American Buddhist, Ruth Sasaki, who led Zen study groups at the monastery. In 1966, Irmgard returned to the UK setting up full residence in London finally in 1972. She started a Zen group at the Buddhist Society focusing on serious meditational practice and lived with the Humphreys in St John’s Wood where she also led classes. Her lay teaching became more structured in 1979 when she founded the Zen Centre to which institution Christmas Humphreys bequeathed his house when he died in 1983. This address subsequently became Shobo-an, Hermitage of the True Dharma, functioning as the centre's main administrative location and training temple. Irmgard also took control of all Zen activities at the London Buddhist Society and a group of her students assumed a dominant role in the society's affairs.
It was around this time that I met Irmgard, travelling up to town from Bristol several times for an interview at the Buddhist Society to discuss and seek guidance on my early work at The Maenllwyd, where I was setting up the first Western Zen Retreats based on Charles Berner’s “Enlightenment Intensives”. Irmgard was informative and helpful but would not commit herself on my activities. One of these interviews forms the basis for a training koan (See NCF 32).
“Layman John went up to London to see the nun Myokyo-ni. As they sat together, he told her of his new retreat centre, the retreats he was running and his hopes for its development. He had come to ask for any advice she might have. As time went on Layman John found that Myokyo-ni was saying very little. She made no comment nor did she give any advice. So he spoke some more – and then, somewhat hurriedly, again some more. Still no comment. So he stopped and said, “I am wondering what response you have to what I am telling you”. Myokyo-ni looked at Layman John and said, “I have no response.” Layman John suddenly understood.
What I understood was that in seeking her approval I revealed my own uncertainty and lack of trust in myself. Irmgard’s response taught me an important lesson. Some years later, I met her at a gathering in London and told her this story. She beamed at me remarking, “Oh – did I really say that!”
As the Western Zen Retreat took shape and became functional, John Snelling, then editor of the Buddhist Society’s journal ‘The Middle Way’, asked me to write a short article about it. I did so and John accepted it. Yet, when Irmgard heard of this she took forceful exception to it and forbad its publication. John apologised to me profusely but the dominating presence of Irmgard’s Rinzai-coloured followers at the Society of that time prevailed.
I was, needless to say, irritated by this summary, literary castration but it had one highly beneficial effect. I decided to make sure of my own training in orthodox Zen and soon set off for my first retreat with Chan Master Sheng-yen in New York, thereby developing my acquaintance with Chan begun many years before. It seems Irmgard was never very tolerant of approaches to Zen that differed from her preferred school – Rinzai.
Irmgard’s Zen teaching was as rigorous as her own training in the Rinzai approach must have been. There were those who found it too tough and several such deserters turned up at The Maenllwyd seeking shelter. They are still coming.
Morinaga Roshi had been Head Monk at Daitokuji when Irmgard trained there and in 1984, during a visit to London, he ordained Irmgard as the nun Myokyo-ni; Myokyo meaning “mirror of the subtle’, a name he had given her previously, and ni meaning nun. She continued her teaching strictly, telling her students “The hardships are there to quell the fires within us." Many of her students became monks or nuns who admired her strength of character, which, although it could be overbearing, was also often fiercely insightful and deeply compassionate. She was said to embody an ‘uncannily powerful presence during dokusan. One of her most influential students has been Professor James Austin whose exceptionally clear ‘kensho’ experience was the stimulus for his extensive work on the plausible neurology of Zen described in his book ‘Zen and the Brain’. Irmgard had undergone a Jungian analysis before she went to Japan and would refer to Zen as a means of transformation of the psyche towards wholeness and compassion without neglecting the ‘shadow’.
Myokyo-ni died aged 83 on March 27th 2007. British Buddhism has lost a formidable teacher and a powerful personality in the teaching of the Zen Dharma. Those of us in the Soto School and in Chan working to present a comprehensive Zen in the West may however perhaps now hope for greater communication with our Rinzai colleagues in the UK.
This spring many of us enjoyed a Chan Retreat at the newly re-constructed international centre on Holy Island, Scotland, now owned by the Samye-ling Tibetan Centre. The island gets its name from the residence in a cave there of the sixth century Irish, Celtic saint and missionary Molaise (died 639 CE).1 His cave is a roomy shelter near the shore and we visited it several times. His saint’s day arrived while we were there and, as no Christians came over from the mainland to celebrate it, we did so with chants of many sorts and origins, incense and music. The following poem celebrates the life of this ancient holy man.
A hard landing he had of it
Through the baying waves
Coracle smashed on grey boulders
The red cliffs rugged before.
Scratching a cross on a slab of rock
Thrice he prostrated his thanks to the wind.
Tell me what the Cross is…
West wind from Ireland brought him to this shore
Riding the high and rushing clouds
Cresting the black waves
Shearwater craft alone among wild waters
Arriving in the primrose time of catkins
Brown beech buds opening on fitful sun-showers
Tell me what the Cross is…
Between cliff and water
Boulders break the force of wind and rain
An empty shore roaring with an empty sea
Liturgical voices blowing through his head
And lone heart rejoicing in the fear of solitude
The bent and sombre musing trees.
Tell me what the Cross is…
Arrival without departure,
Bird boned coracle dead upon the strand
Rain washed rock already wet with waterfalls
Sunbreak at sunset, lowtide at dawn
Clawing sweet shellfish
From the fish-jawed stones.
Tell me what the Cross is…
Cliff climbing slowly
Gazing back at the sun-patched sea
Joy of journeying ripe in mind
Turning inland to the distant hills
The bee humming woods
Looking for people
Tell me where the Cross is…
Revised 2007 after Holy Island retreat. JHC
1 See: Mclaughlin, W. J. 1999. Molaise of Arran. A Saint of the Celtic Church. ISBN 0-9535437-1-4. Privately published.