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Volume 10 Issue 6
March/April 2005

Mandalas
Universal Symbols of Potential and Transformation

Cranberries: Food and Medicine

Wildcrafting
Harvesting Plants From a Native Wild Environment

Seeds of Zen in the Prairies
Introducing Maurine Stuart

The Healing Power of Zhong Guo Hui Gong Therapy
Chinese Wisdom Qi Gong

Editorial

Seeds of Zen in the Prairies
Introducing Maurine Stuart

by Martin Krátky
Martin Krátky


One week after moving to Saskatoon, in the fall of 2004, I randomly opened a book that I had owned for several years – Subtle Sound: The Zen Teachings of Maurine Stuart (Shambhala, 1996). As I read the following words of Maurine Stuart: "Is it all right for this piano player from Saskatchewan, Canada, to be up here giving a talk on the Rinzai Roku?" [a Zen text] I was startled to learn something more about this remarkable woman, gifted concert pianist, and influential and well-loved Zen teacher. Quickly flipping to the book's introduction I found out that she was born and raised in the town of Keeler, just north of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

After graduating from the music faculty at the University of Manitoba, Maurine Stuart moved to France in the 1940s, studying piano with the “greats” of the day: Robert and Gaby Casadesus, Nadia Boulanger, and Alfred Cortot. Then, settling in New York City, she discovered Zen and committed herself to it with vigour. She came finally to teach at the Cambridge Buddhist Association in Massachusetts; her death of cancer in 1990 was quite a blow not only to the Buddhist community but also to her large circle of friends and students (both in piano and Zen).

What can Stuart-Roshi offer us, here, abiding on these vast plains that she left behind? How can she help us in our own practice and life, while walking, sitting, working, or listening to a friend on the phone? I give you her own words:

“ The word meditation comes from the Latin meditare, which is the passive form of the verb, meaning ‘being moved to the center.’ It is not the active form, which is ‘moving to the center’. We are being moved to the center. This center is our own essence. Sitting after sitting, letting everything go, we become more aware of our own personal center. We become more rooted in it. This simple act of sitting absolutely still, letting everything drop off, has far-reaching effects.

“ Sitting still is not what some of us may have imagined spiritual practice to be. We may think that it involves something more impressive. But those of us who do it, those of us who are present at this moment, know that this is it. Sitting absolutely still, body and mind are not separate. Our state of mind at any given moment becomes clearer in this condition of being present, completely present. And there is great healing power in this.” (Subtle Sound, pp. 62–63)

This wonderfully ordinary practice, almost idiotically simple—sitting still and being with the breath—is something any one can do. It is not unique to Zen; indeed, in Stuart-Roshi’s own words, “This practice does not impose any creeds or dogmas upon us. It demands no blind faith, no submission to any separate deity or person or thing. This is an essential matter.” (Subtle Sound, p. 1)

Through meditation practice, we gradually grow in trust and confidence; a trust, not in our small, petty self that wants and complains, but in the infinite abundance of this universe, of this very moment. This universe may not always give us what we want, but it always—always—gives us just what we need.

This simple practice is profound, and difficult at times (didn’t the poet Rainer Maria Rilke urge us to “trust in what is difficult”?). Yet its fruits—equanimity, large-heartedness, a confidence resting in humility—may well be crucial ingredients for the health of our world at large. One could also cite dozens of scientific studies—meditation helps to reduce blood pressure; meditation increases the body’s metabolic and respiratory efficiency; in the brain, meditation tends to cultivate high-frequency beta waves (associated with intense pleasure), frontally dominant theta waves, and the synchronization of brain-wave activity in each hemisphere—but these are just bonuses.

Let us be honest to ourselves and to each other. In this, too, meditation can help us: it is pretty difficult to be dishonest when we sit still, and breathe, simply breathe. Then, as Maurine Stuart asked, let us ask:
“ Why are we here? Are we here for some self-improvement? Zen is not psychotherapy. Are we here, warming and purifying our minds, for the sake of all sentient beings? D. T. Suzuki once said, ‘Buddhists have almost nothing to do with Buddha, but very much to do with their fellow beings.’ And the great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, a true Zen man, said, ‘If a person were in such a rapturous state as St. Paul once entered, and he knew of a sick man who needed a cup of soup, it would be better to withdraw from the rapture for love’s sake to serve him who is in need.’ That is true Zen spirit, true Bodhisattva spirit. We are not here to grab something, to get something. Zen insight is not our awareness, but the Buddha-mind’s awareness in us.” (Subtle Sound, pp. 75–76)

By remembering Maurine Stuart-Roshi on her native soil we pay tribute not only to a remarkable woman, and a clear-sighted spiritual teacher in the Zen Buddhist lineage, but also to our own contemplative roots, our own deepest longings.

We are all Bodhisattvas, beings that, in the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, are dedicated not only to our own personal liberation but to that of all beings (recognizing these, slowly, to be the same thing!). Like a robust wheat berry, Maurine Stuart was transplanted to the south and offered the fruits of her practice, the resonance of her spirit, to those who had the ears to hear it. We don’t need to leave home—it only remains for us to till the soil of our own still selves, so that come harvest time, we are ready to give.

Martin Krátky is a Zen student, as well as the principal cellist of the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra. He maintains the Saskatoon Zen Centre in the City Park area. The Centre will be hosting several events in commemoration of Maurine Stuart-Roshi: Thursday, April 7, 7:30 pm, a public lecture at the Frances Morrison Library in Saskatoon; Sunday, April 17, a concert featuring the music of Arvo Pärt at Christ Church, 515-28th Street West; and Saturday, April 30, 9:30 am, a recorded talk of Maurine Stuart at the Zen Centre, with a small reception afterwards and sales of the book, Subtle Sound: The Zen Teachings of Maurine Stuart. See the Centre’s Web site www.saskatoonzencentre.org for more information or phone (306) 384-5968.

 

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