of Zen in the Prairies
Introducing Maurine Stuart
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
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
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
Sound, p. 1)
Through meditation practice, we gradually grow in trust
and confidence; a trust, not in our small, petty self
and complains, but in the infinite abundance of this
universe, of this very moment. This universe may not
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,
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
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
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.