Buddhist modernism

After a failed mountaineering expedition to China and a foot injury that ended her outdoor adventures, Sydney lawyer Marie Byles embarked on a spiritual journey.

 

From the early 1940s, at her Cheltenham home, Ahimsa, Marie began a serious study of the Buddhist texts. Ahimsa, named after the precept of non-harm, was a modest structure, built to minimise damage to the local flora and fauna. It was a place where Marie practised her Buddhist ethics and developed interpretations that would influence later generations of Buddhists.

The State Library has the most comprehensive collection of Marie Byles’ writings, among them her unpublished autobiography, four books, and over 100 articles on Buddhism, other religions and matters of ethics. Marie’s books were published in England, with Footprints of Gautama the Buddha also released in the United States, and her articles appeared around the world. Marie’s writings reveal a knowledge of Buddhism gained not only from sacred texts but also from extensive travel and practice.

From the mid-1940s onwards, Marie practised meditation at home, inviting others to join her. To gather information for Footprints, she travelled to India where she visited the Buddha’s sacred places and practised meditation alone in a hut in the Himalayas. An admirer of Gandhi, she visited his ashram, and also travelled to an ashram for girls organised by his disciple Sarala Behn in Uttarakhand. In 1957, she went to Mandalay where she trained in insight meditation under lay master U Thein. She then returned to Burma for additional instruction from the Mohnyin Sayadaw at Monywa, which she chronicled in Journey into Burmese Silence.

 

After a third visit to Burma, Marie made two visits to Japan in the 1960s to study Zen Buddhism and the new religion of Ittoen. She met the celebrated Zen scholar D T Suzuki outside Tokyo, and practised Zen sitting meditation, zazen, at American Ruth Fuller Sasaki’s meditation centre in the Daitoku-ji compound in Kyoto. On her second visit, Marie learned about Pure Land Buddhism from a Shinshu priest, and about the associated practice of nembutsu — the repetition of gratitude to the Buddha Amida. Before the ‘60s were over, two more of her books had been published. The Lotus and the Spinning Wheel compares the lives and teachings of Gautama Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi, and Paths to Inner Calm looks at three different paths to finding inner peace: insight meditation, Zen meditation, and Ittoen’s practice of selfless service to others.

Marie had also been writing articles for well-regarded journals, developing many of the ideas that would help shape Buddhism today. She promoted an approach that was compatible with modern science and inter-faith understanding, arguing that a belief in rebirth, for example, was not necessary to appreciate the basic truths at the heart of the religion. She believed that Buddhist ethics and practices could help people to minimise the difficulties in their lives, and emphasised the day-to-day benefits of harmless and kind thoughts, speech and actions, and of mindfulness and meditation. She also developed Buddhist approaches to a range of modern issues, including environmental problems, changing roles of women, and methods of peaceful reform.

Marie argued that the Buddha’s teachings could help to address the global spread of environmental damage in modern industrial times. She drew upon simple examples from the Buddhist texts, such as the steps that were taken to avoid disturbing nesting birds. She thought the Buddha’s advice to avoid ‘onslaught on creatures’ should be understood as applying to all aspects of the environment. She argued that the precept of ahimsa now meant that harm to the entire living natural environment should be minimised, and compensation should be given for unavoidable damage. From as early as the 1940s, Marie used this argument to press for full protection of the state’s new wilderness areas.

With relations between men and women becoming more equal in the West, Marie was disturbed by the inferior status of Theravada Buddhist nuns in Burma, and particularly the nuns’ exclusion from ordination. She recalled the Buddha’s teaching that no one should be considered inferior or superior to another, and drew attention to the sometimes forgotten stories of the ordained nuns in the original Order in the Buddha’s day. She promoted the ordination of nuns among those she met on her travels in Burma and in her writings, using her legal training to challenge a traditional view that the texts supported the subordination of women.

Marie rejected an interpretation of Buddhism as a passive religion focused only on personal enlightenment. She urged Buddhists to embrace both spiritual practice and peaceful engagement in the world. While the Buddha was not a social reformer, he advocated taking compassionate and kindly action, and took such action himself. Seeing Gandhi’s non-violent and practical methods as consistent with Buddhist ethics, she provided financial support for Sarala Behn’s Gandhian work with young women in India.
 

In Australia, Marie’s Buddhist ideas were communicated not only through her writings, but through the media and her network of contacts. She was featured in People magazine, in frequent stories in the Sydney Morning Herald, and in several radio broadcasts. She helped to establish the Buddhist Society of NSW in the early 1950s, hosting Buddhist events, meditation sessions and meetings at her home. She also discussed Buddhist ideas with her many bushwalking, pacifist and feminist friends. Her ideas and example influenced people such as Sydney Buddhist Gillian Coote, who, after learning about Marie through a mutual friend, made a film about her life, took up bush regeneration, and became a Zen priest.

Before her death in 1979, Marie donated Ahimsa to the National Trust. She had lived simply there, growing her own vegetables, consuming little and practising bush regeneration. She had helped to establish a local community group, used her legal skills to help charitable causes, and funded meditation huts for Buddhist nuns in Burma. Today, Ahimsa is listed on the State Heritage Register for its historical, aesthetic and social significance, and seen as a testimony to Marie’s life as a conservationist and feminist. Ahimsa is also an expression of Marie’s Buddhism, and a significant site in the history of what has become the nation’s second largest religion.

 

Dr Peggy James was the Library’s 2014 Australian Religious History Fellow.

This article was first published in SL magazine, Spring 2015.

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