photos by patricio davila
I have been reading about freedom in confined spaces. How a prison cell can become a practice ground. I have never been to a prison and somewhere in my mind I have an image of a cell as a stark, empty place, a place of isolation and silence. It does not seem a far leap to link the word “cell” with a monk’s quarters.
Paradoxically, the most vivid the world has ever been to me was during a sesshin, a week-long Zen meditation retreat. No television, no books, no writing, no eye contact, no radio, a strict schedule and limitations everywhere.
All of a sudden the empty world around me was alive – a teacup filled with magenta, a colour my eyes had never witnessed, the syllables in the chant book leaping off the page, each one distinct and embodied with life. I wonder what this space of silence is, where what seems to be empty is in fact very full and what feels like a prison can be a vast open space? With this in mind, I go to meet Sister Elaine MacInnes.
Sister Elaine lives in a modest house on a crescent in a residential, east-end Toronto neighbourhood. This is the main house belonging to Our Lady’s Missionaries, a community of Roman Catholic nuns founded in 1949. It looks as if it could be an old people’s home or a retirement community; nothing spectacular here. On the inside there isn’t anything obviously religious about the space – just a communal kitchen with a long counter, a living room with large windows looking out onto a ravine, violets growing in the windows, a sofa and some modest chairs, a coffee table with a doily, a calendar on the wall. Not a cross or icon in sight.
Sister Elaine MacInnes has been on the phone all morning. At eighty-two, things are not really slowing down for this Roman Catholic nun who is also a Zen Roshi. She was talking to the Prison Phoenix Trust in England, where she was director for seven years. Next she had to handle an incident involving sex offenders in one of the Canadian prisons where she sends yoga and meditation teachers now. It seems that some of the teachers are uneasy working with pedophiles. Sister Elaine does not distinguish between sex offenders, murderers, political prisoners, young offenders or lifers – they are all people she can offer help to and bring a little more freedom into their trapped places. “We hold out a little hope for people in doing meditation when they are in that state,” she says confidently.
Sister Elaine has led a truly extraordinary life. When you look back, it appears to have been guided. Originally from a musical family in Moncton, New Brunswick, she joined Our Lady’s Missionaries in 1953 after studying violin at Julliard in New York. While training to become a nun, she read the writings of St. Francis Xavier and was struck by his experience of attempting to encounter a monk on Mt. Hiei near Kyoto in Japan. She made a secret vow that where he had not succeeded she would.
As fate had it, in 1961 Sister Elaine’s first missionary assignment was to Japan. Not only did she climb Mt. Hiei and meet a monk, she went on to join an order of Rinzai Buddhist nuns at Enkoji in Kyoto, where she lived for eight years. She then practised zazen (sitting meditation) and koan study in the Sanbo Kyodan order in Kamakura under the tutelage of Yamada Koun Roshi, from whom she received transmission in 1980 as a Roshi or “old teacher.”
In 1976, Sister Elaine was transferred to the Philippines during the worst years of the Marcos regime. It was through her work opening a Zen centre for the Catholic Church in Manila that she ended up teaching meditation to political prisoners. Her work in prisons would become her vocation.
Wearing all black clothes, the only splash of colour a cloth flower in vivid hues of orange and red attached to her lapel with a clothespin, her eyes shining as bright as the day she was born, she does not look like a monk or a nun, a Buddhist or a Catholic. Her voice has its Maritime lilt still intact despite the forty-three years she spent abroad, testimony to how vivid and true her personality is.
She may have had “the bottom fall out in a most spectacular way” when she experienced satori, but the “no-self” or “extinguishing of the self” that Zen points to has led to the much more vivid human being. No spiritual trappings here, no pretensions, no stink of Zen or Catholicism or anything I can put a finger on. And perhaps that is her greatest majesty and greatest mystery. Sister Elaine seems ordinary, someone you might encounter on the street in a small town, a warm-hearted neighbour, and yet it is quite clear that she is the real thing, one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met: a true mystic.
Surprisingly, Sister Elaine does not consider herself to be a Buddhist. In Kamakura, she studied with a unique teacher from the Sanbo Kyodan order, a mixture of the two dominant schools of Zen (Soto and Rinzai). He was a teacher who did not draw lines of division between lay people and monks, men and women, or even between religions. “You know, there is no separation. We make separation.” She describes the Sunday talks that her teacher Yamada Roshi would give, and said they were filled with Buddhist references.
“I was never moved to be a Buddhist,” she says. When people in Japan asked her about it, she would say, “Look, I was just brought up in Moncton, New Brunswick. I can’t all of a sudden say I have had a hundred lives beforehand. I was born on March 7th in 1924 and I was fresh and clean and I have my own personality. I’m not another hundred thousand people behind me.” When her teacher noticed her first breakthroughs in Zen practice, he simply said, “Now you go out and be a better Christian and a better Sister.”
Sister Elaine speaks of Zen as being about direct experience, not words or objects. “There was never anything but the right now, right here.” Even the Buddha requested that his words not be recorded. He taught from experience and it was these practices that were later to be the basis for Zen teachings, but the terms themselves and the religious elements of Buddhism were recorded later. “Scholars say the Buddha grew up in a Hindu country so that he just went back to the religious matrix of his time.”
Of her own teaching Sister Elaine says, “I have Jewish people and I have Muslims and I have people with no religion and it doesn’t bother me at all. I just try to use quite a few different terms so that people won’t get stuck on one. We don’t find it necessary to impose a god on you, we just ask you to sit down and keep quiet.” She laughs heartily at this.
“My teacher in Japan used to say ‘we are all born to be mystics.’ And I say that goes for each of us. There were twenty-four lifers who had all committed murder in Wormwood Scrubs Prison in England and I went around to each one and I said, ‘that means you’ and there wasn’t one snicker.” When Sister Elaine talks about the prisoners she works with, it is with a great deal of love and an incredible dose of optimism. “There is no guile there, you know, and they’re lovely, lovely to work with.”
In 1992, Sister Elaine was invited to become the director of the Prison Phoenix Trust in Oxford, UK, whose patron is the English actor Jeremy Irons. She set up a network of yoga and meditation teachers who go into penitentiaries across the UK and Eire, teaching simple yoga postures and breath-centred meditation to prisoners who voluntarily come to the classes. The idea behind the Prison Trust is that the space of a prison cell can become a practice ground, not unlike a monk’s cell.
My first image of a prison cell was perhaps a little off. Sister Elaine tells me that most of them are filled to the brim with “fifteen or twenty pictures of all kinds of different girls, a teapot, cups, all sorts of mementos…My experience working with people is that the more they go into Zen the less they need accoutrements.” So an empty cell only comes later, with an empty mind. It is also a constant struggle to find silence in a prison; they are noisy, bustling places “full of society.”
The yoga and meditation taught are a practice of “silent body, silent mind,” and apparently it works. By the time she retired from the Trust, Sister Elaine had set up eighty-six teachers in prisons across the UK and they receive thousands of letters each month from the inmates. “I would say our discipline is therapeutic and that is why it is so important for prisoners.”
The kind of zazen they teach is Shikantaza. “‘Shika’ means ‘only’ and ‘ta’ means ‘to hit’ and the ‘za’ is squatting on the floor. It is something that will hit the mark.” Simple counting of breath is emphasized, as well as correct posture. “The bottom line of meditation for a teacher is that you’re bringing people to a deeper state of consciousness and that involves something very, very touchy. There is something in practising silence the way we teach that is very safe, and to my knowledge it has never been known for anyone to crack up.”
In her prison programs, Sister Elaine felt it necessary to balance meditation practices with yoga instruction. Yoga Outreach, a charity organization based in Surrey, BC, was asked to implement a yoga program for the correctional institutions in Canada. The yoga postures taught are breath-centred to facilitate a link between body and mind.
The practice of yoga and meditation brings a space of silence to the prisoners, and with this seems to follow discipline, productivity, a sense of purpose, an alleviation of depression, a reduction in violence, and in the long run, a reduced rate of recidivism. This approach fits in with a paradigm shift slowly being introduced into the judicial system called Restorative Justice.
One of the most moving letters Sister Elaine ever received was from a nineteen-year-old prisoner: “As long as I can remember I have had a pain in my chest. When I got to prison it got worse. For one month I have been doing just what you say and I want you to know that not only is the pain better now, but for the first time in my life, I can see a tiny spark within myself that I can like.”
Initially, it was her experience in the Philippines that convinced Sister Elaine of the effectiveness of yoga and meditation as tools for working with prisoners. When sent to the Philippines during the Marcos regime to open a zendo (Zen meditation hall), she unwittingly attracted many dissidents into the practice.
“Boy” Morales, a renowned rebel who headed the New People’s Army against the dictatorship, asked her to come and teach meditation at the Bago Bantay detention centre, where he and nine other political prisoners were being held and tortured. It took the protection of the Canadian Embassy to ensure her safety – General Verr, the head of Marcos’ army and Intelligence, happened to owe them a favour. And so, in spite of her fears, Sister Elaine went to teach meditation to political prisoners. “I couldn’t have said no. And it was an eye opener for me how a person can change from an angry, enervated, depressed person into … I saw them come out of all their jerkings (from the shock treatment) and they became productive. But you need a lot of sitting if you want real results. In some ways you can say there are no miracles in Zen.”
Because of that work, Sister Elaine became director of the Prison Phoenix Trust. When she returned to Canada she decided to set up a similar organization here. It is called Freeing the Human Spirit and in spite of initial resistance from the Canadian prison authorities, she has managed to place yoga and meditation instructors in prisons across Canada. “You don’t find much openness toward anyone in prison in Canada, do you? There is no death sentence here, so a lot of them are going to be back on the streets again, so it is to our advantage to rehabilitate them. Prisons don’t work, that’s the first thing we have to remember.”
Even though Sister Elaine sees the flaws in our penal system, she continues to run Freeing the Human Spirit with a great deal of optimism and enthusiasm, and she does it because it works for the prisoners. “I suppose everybody in a position like mine goes through a time when they try and get more justice in the system.” Sister Elaine recognizes that the work she does is separate from a political struggle for change. She says that if she were to take that up, it would only build a dichotomy between the officers and the prisoners. “I am staying on the prisoners’ side,” she tells me. “Other people will try and get a better idea going. I don’t know what that idea is, but Restorative Justice is a very good step.” In 2001, Sister Elaine was awarded the Order of Canada for her humanitarian work.
When thinking about Sister Elaine, the image I am left with is from a documentary film made about her life and work called The Fires that Burn. The image of an inmate – shaved head and tattooed arms, his muscled body suddenly looking very fragile as he holds himself in Plank pose. I have never seen anyone do yoga with such tenderness and fear before. This is clearly fertile ground – the space for things that are broken to mend in silence.
Web Exclusive: Watch an excerpt of Vision TV’s The Fires That Burn: The Life and Work of Sister Elaine MacInnes…
|Talya Rubin practises in the Rinzai tradition of Zen Buddhism. Her writing has appeared in Grain, Matrix and Macleans Onlineand won the national Bronwen Wallace Award for poetry. After seven years in Australia, Talya recently returned to Montréal, where she teaches theatre and creates solo work for the stage.|