Dilatato Corde 1:2
July - December, 2011
Sister Mary John Marshall and<br> Maylie Scott (Kushin Seisho)
Sister Mary John Marshall and
Maylie Scott (Kushin Seisho)


My personal experience of interfaith exchange was, up until ten years ago, slight, but intimate and almost wholly confined to a deepening relationship with my natural sister, Maylie Scott, a Zen Buddhist priest. We are the offspring of firmly non-religious parents who had accommodated my adolescent and enthusiastic adherence to Christianity in the American Episcopal Church. Maylie’s commitment to Zen Buddhism followed after some years of exploration. My path drew me into Malling Abbey as a Benedictine nun in the Church of England; hers into the Zen Community in Berkeley, California where she lived for most of her adult life. This is one of several off-shoots of the San Francisco Zen Center, founded by Shunryu Suzuki (1903 – 1971). He was Japanese, the son of a Soto Zen priest and was himself in charge of a temple by the age of thirty. During World War II he led a pacifist group in Japan and in 1959 was invited for a year or so to lead the Japanese Soto Buddhist community in San Francisco. Soto Zen is known as the school of “silent illumination”, based on the devoted practice of shikantaza or “just sitting”, a way of gradual practice in contrast to Rinzai which employs koan study (riddles designed to thwart the thinking process in order to arrive at a more sudden understanding). A number of Americans who encountered Suzuki were attracted by his quiet authenticity and requested his training. In response his method was simply to invite them to sit with him. He found them receptive to Zen and remained in the United States until the end of his life. By the time of his death a monastery and two large residential practice centers were established in the San Francisco Bay area.

Despite the divergence in fundamental respects between Buddhism and Christianity, there are remarkable areas of convergence, perhaps especially for monastics and those who practise Zen. Both adhere to a radically simple and searching discipline of meditation with the intention of informing and transforming the whole of life and thus to nurture awareness of union with all sentient beings, with Being itself. Christians following the Benedictine tradition with its stress upon a focused attention to the Word of God as it finds us in Scripture, sacraments and personal interaction with others may discover an affinity with the followers of Soto Zen with its stress upon frequent practice and gradual illumination. For both it is the work of developing a concentrated attentiveness upon reality as it is perceived in our respective traditions.

Over the forty–odd years of my monastic life physical contacts with Maylie were infrequent due to geographical separation and a slow exchange of letters, yet we became keenly conscious of deepening bonds, or maybe we were awakening to bonds that had always been in place and were awaiting recognition. When meetings were possible we experienced an eagerness to sit zazen together, each according to her respective tradition and understanding (though I have to confess to less enthusiasm about sitting on my own). By sharing in this way we discovered a wider opening into the path each of us had set out upon. For myself, formed in the Benedictine way, I found a stronger appreciation of the unity of mind, body and spirit realized in the physical posture of the half-lotus posture ( the most my elderly limbs can achieve) where the whole person is gathered in stillness and attention. Such an awareness shouldn’t come as a major revelation to the adherent of an incarnational religion, but it has exposed my share in the inveterate tendency of Christians to compartmentalize the things of body and spirit to the detriment of the religion we follow with its clear reverence for the material, to wholeness and social and environmental involvement.

During a rare visit to Berkeley Maylie took me to a gathering at the Zen Center where one of the members gave a talk in which she spoke with disarming honesty of her struggles with her practice and the constant temptation to give up. She told of a dream in which she saw across a vast expanse a shining mountain of glass to which she struggled to make her way, but at last at the foot felt crushed by the impossibility of ascent and equally the impossibility of giving up. The poignancy of such a conflict was not unfamiliar to those of us who long and struggle for a total self-giving to God in prayer. Those who share a Christian monastic calling will know the drawing of the love of God as revealed in the Paschal Mystery of Christ and the terror of losing life, losing the ego, to allow God’s love to find its home in us. We are not unacquainted with the image of a glass mountain of impossibility, yet the commitment to monastic stability holds us from abandonment of the quest through faith that the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ realizes the hope of eternal life in the vision of God.

On Good Friday of 2001 Maylie was diagnosed with inoperable bowel and liver cancer. By this time she had received priestly ordination and led a group of very committed Zen practitioners in Arcata, California. As she had always appeared indestructible, the diagnosis struck her sangha, family and many friends with complete disbelief. Her condition deteriorated rapidly and within a month she had died. I was privileged to be with her during the last fortnight of her life, sharing her very human fears and griefs as well as witnessing the resolution and dignity of her practice as she grew into her death, desiring to be fully conscious to the process taking place in her body. During the last days and while she was conscious, she insisted upon meeting with anyone and everyone who wanted to see her. The Heart Sutra was often chanted by members of the sangha and there was a vast stillness about her until death came in the afternoon of May 10th. Her funeral in the Japanese Zen tradition followed throughout that night and then her body was taken for cremation. Her memory and spirit remain vital for many who knew and loved her.

What now follows is an account written by Maylie in 1998.

A Zen Perspective

When my sister entered Saint Mary’s Abbey in 1960, she was nearly 21 and I was 25. I was married and the first of my three children was a baby. I felt moved, confused and a little jealous of her courageous commitment. While I identified as a Christian I had never had a significant relation with a church and missed that. More sadly, while I said the Lord’s Prayer each night, I didn’t feel I knew how to pray; I knew there was more. Behind all this was the worrying possibility of living my whole life while “missing the most important thing.” The worry didn’t make much sense, as having a family did seem appropriate and important, but as Sister Mary John proceeded on with her vows, the need to find my own spiritual connection deepened. Two more children were born and our family located in Berkeley which, as I discovered, was a remarkably fertile ground for exploration.

In 1971, just after Suzuki Roshi died, I went, on the recommendation of a friend, to the San Francisco Zen Center to get Zazen instruction. The instructions, as laid out by Dogen Zenji, founding Soto ancestor of the thirteenth century, are radically simple. Sit with legs folded, put attention on posture and breath and remaining in the present, watch what happens. As soon as I began to do this, it was clear that the only limits on the experience were mine; the present is essentially unlimited. It was a great relief that I didn’t have to “believe” anything; I could just experience direct release and then its obscuration – the fall into thoughts, into the thickets of my own “self habit”. And yet at every moment, the present was available. It was immediately apparent that this would be a lifetime endeavor; that the process of watching, falling, returning was profoundly satisfying and I continue it to this day. This was my prayer.

Suzuki Roshi said of his American students that they “are neither monks nor lay people”. Over the years I came to discover this. Longer sittings, or sesshins, helped develop concentration. Twelve forty minute periods in a silent day offer one’s mind great opportunity to display itself. Small and large attachments, aversions and obsessions come and go. What remains is stable and radically free, independent of views. This zazen process is rooted in mind-body mindfulness. Knees and back protest and one tries not to move, but to accept the difficulty as a friend, as a helpful reminder to remain in the present. Where is the center of the pain? Can one go beneath it? Who does the pain belong to? While pain is inevitable, one constructs one’s suffering (“I hate this. I must be crazy to do this. When will the period end?” etc.) Amazingly, the suffering converts into deeper, concentrated energy. And then it returns. Gradually the visceral process of acknowledging whatever comes up, letting go and discovering the resulting intimacy and freedom with whatever arises, begins to clarify one’s life. Gratitude arises and one naturally orients increasingly to the practice, moving from personal attachments to the vow of awakening with all beings.

The training and functions of an American Soto Zen priest are gradually being worked out. In Japan a priest was usually the son of a priest and inherited the temple after some years of study at a teaching monastery. I was ordained priest in 1989, at a time when the abbot was taken up by responsibilities outside the temple. Roughly speaking, the Abbot’s criterion was that I was “already functioning as a priest”. That is, I knew the forms of practice – chants and rituals, had a steady commitment to zazen and to the community, could teach classes and offer practice discussion (pastoral counselling). While this definition worked at the time for me, it does not fit everyone who becomes a priest. There is a great deal of lively discussion of this topic. In our tradition there are three ordination ceremonies. The first is Jukai or lay ordination. After a person has practiced regularly for a year or more, he/she sews an abbreviated robe (that looks like a bib) called a rokusu. Each tiny stitch is a prayer “Namu kyai Butsu” “I take refuge in Buddha.” He/she is then given the precepts, a new dharma name, and a lineage paper that traces the line back to Shakyamuni Buddha. Priest’s ordination, Tokudo, requires extensive sewing of a robe, bowing cloth and another rokusu. Again the precepts are given, but this time the head is shaved and the new priest vows to “leave home”; to commit his/her life primarily to the dharma. The third ordination, called Shiho, is a transmission ceremony that allows the priest to become an independent teacher. Another robe, bowing cloth and rokusu are sewn. This ceremony takes one to three weeks and is done with just the abbot and ordinand very privately at night within a monastery. Training for it, including the study of certain traditional documents, goes on for at least a year. [Maylie received this ordination in 1998, the year this article was written.]

Sister Mary John describes the “appreciation of unity of mind, body and spirit” within the Benedictine tradition. Such appreciation of “incarnational awareness” is palpable upon entering the gate of Saint Mary’s Abbey. You cannot say what it is, but its presence asserts in the buildings and grounds and liturgy. The deep-seated joy, stillness and responsiveness of the sisters is its manifestation. My spiritual root connection with Sister Mary John has always felt present. When we were little girls, working out the beginnings of our lives in a playroom attic, I played doll’s corner and she, using a piano bench and various objects and drapings, played altar. As the elder, I discovered Sunday schools for us to go to as our parents were definitely not interested in religion. When she entered the abbey the spiritual root connection we had became powerful for me. I missed her, but knew she and the sisters were praying for me and felt helped and protected in my own search.

Although we have worked it out so differently, we share a contemplative insight. Reading The Cloud of Unknowing as well as Meister Eckhart some years ago made this apparent to me; the root of prayer. “The most powerful prayer, one well-nigh omnipotent to gain all things, and the noblest work of all is that which proceeds from a bare mind. The more bare it is, the more powerful, worthy, useful, praiseworthy and perfect the prayer and the work. A bare mind can do all things . . .” (The Talks of Instruction, translated and edited by Maurice Walshe, Vol III, p.12)


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