dhamma musings: An Australian Buddhist Pioneer



book has recently been published about an almost forgotten pioneer of Buddhism
in Australia, Marie Beuzeville Byles (1900-1979). Little-known until this first
biography of her, I learned  a lot about
her way back. My early mentor of Buddhism, Natasha Jackson, knew Marie Byles well
in the late 1940s and early 50s and used to tell me about her. She used to
attend the  meditation group Byles ran in
the 1950s. Most western Buddhists at that time were either “the Lobsang Rampa
crowd” (as Jackson used to call them),  forerunners
 of today’s New Agers, or  staunch  rationalists, Kalama Sutta types. Byles and
Jackson definitely fitted into this second category. Both were strong, rather blunt
and opinionated women, probably the reason why they did not get on well with
each other. Byles was also a dedicated feminist.

She was the first woman
allowed to practise law in New South Wales. As legal advisor to various women’s
organisations in the 1930s she helped change legislation that discriminated
against women’s rights in marriage and divorce. Instead of the fame and fortune
she could have earned through law Byles devoted herself to the nature conservation.
An early member of the elite Sydney Bush Walkers club, she and her friends
spent their weekends exploring unmapped terrain in the bush within reach of
Sydney. As they grew to know and respect the landscape, these bushwalkers
developed a commitment to protect the most beautiful and ecologically sensitive
areas and became leaders of the conservation movement.  But it  was
mountains vastness that held the greatest fascination for  Byles. After reaching the summit of Mt. Cook
in 1928, she twice returned to New Zealand’s South Island to climb virgin peaks
and map unexplored areas, and in 1938 she led an international mountain
climbing expedition to Yunnan in south China.    

Carl Jung psychology gave  Byles a taste
of eastern thought and this eventually led her to Buddhism, which had no  groups or 
societies in Australia at the time. 
She brought her own rationalist and
feminist perspective to this ancient tradition. For her, the Buddha  was not a man to be worshipped, but a person
whose teachings were reasonable, practical and humane. In the 1950s  she made several trips to Burma where she
studies with Mohnyin Sayadaw,
greatest disciple of Ledi Sayadaw, and spent extended periods in  meditation retreats. Her meditation practice
and study of the Dhamma resulted in several books; The Footsteps of Gotama the Buddha (1957),
Journey into Burmese Silence (1962) and Paths to Inner
Calm (1965). The first two of these books are  still well worth reading. She also wrote
several travel books and one on  Gandhi
and spirituality, The  Lotus and the Spinning Wheel (1963).

The new biography of Byles is
called  The Summit of Her Ambitions: The Spirited Life of Marie Byles by
Anna McLeod.  Purchasing details are available


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