Recalling the Catholic Nun & Zen Master Sister Elaine MacInnis

Recalling the Catholic Nun & Zen Master Sister Elaine MacInnis November 30, 2022




I’ve just learned that Sister Elaine MacInnis, Catholic nun and Zen master died yesterday, November 29th, 2022. If I did the calculations correctly, she was 98 years old.

A number of years ago I served on the membership committee of the American Zen Teachers Association. It had been formed largely out of a list of names compiled by some of that second generation of Zen teachers including Bernie Glassman and Mel Weitsman.

As the organization grew, we found it important to explore whether a candidates fit the definition of “peer.” As a peer support group that seemed very important. We also found it important to try and clean up that original membership list, which really was a mess.

And so it came to pass that one of our Zen teachers was assigned to check in with a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Elaine MacInnes. She was one of the more legendary figures on our contemporary Zen scene. While she lived much of her life in Japan, the Philippines, and England, she was a Canadian. And in her retirement was home in Toronto.

The interviewer is one of the more respected among our contemporary Zen teachers. Many would use the word Zen master to describe him. And not just because of a formal title. He went to visit. When he reported back, he said when he asked if she were really a Zen person, she turned the meeting into a Zen encounter and, well, she won.

A couple of years later I had the honor of blurbing one of her books, The Flowing Bridge: Guidance on Beginning Zen Koans. I wrote “Who would have thought one of the most formidable Zen masters in the West would be a retired Roman Catholic nun living in Toronto?” In the blurb I go on to briefly describe why this study of hers of the beginning koans of the Harada-Yasutani Zen lineage are an important subject to reflect upon, and how she has done a wonderful job of addressing this arcane subject.

Elaine MacInnis was born on the 7th of March, 1924 and raised in Moncton, New Brunswick.

After graduating from Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, she attended Juilliard for two years, honing her skills as a violinist. Then she joined the Calgary Symphony Orchestra while also teaching at the Mount Royal Conservatory of Music.

In 1953 she joined Our Lady’s Missionaries, a Roman Catholic Order. In 1961 she was sent to Japan. Shortly after her arrival she began to sit Zen meditation with the nuns at Enkoji Rinzai temple in Kyoto. She spent eight years living with and practicing with the nuns and attending the monthly sesshin, intensive Zen meditation retreats. Later she began studying with the renowned lay Zen master in the hybrid Soto and Rinzai lineage, Sanbo Zen, Roshi Koun Yamada. She completed formal koan training with him, and in 1980 twenty years after beginning Zen practice was given Dharma transmission, acknowledgement of her mastery of the Zen way.

She never repudiated her Christian tradition, instead becoming an exemplar of a spiritual way between.

Sister Elaine’s work for justice and the downtrodden is worthy of books. I’ll pass over her years in the Philippines, beyond noting she was up to her eyeballs in the cross currents of revolution. And you might dig around a bit. Google her name. The stories of her work may be typical of her, but astonishing to most of the rest of us.

She was the founder of the Prison Phoenix Trust in England, which brought meditation and yoga to many thousands of prisoners, and in her “retirement” she helped with the foundation of a Canadian equivalent organization, Freeing the Human Spirit. (She also continued to guide the Toronto Zendo for many more years.)

The list of Sister Elaine’s work for justice and compassion is, as I said, long. I’ll just add that in recognition of this, in 2001 she received the Order of Canada.

We spent nearly four hours together. And I came away in awe. Her religion has no room for separation. It is all about love – a love at the deepest possible place.

She manifests it moment by moment.

She was, she is a North American spiritual treasure. And an exemplar of the intimate way.

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